Chucky Sanders… Unplugged!
Back in 2014, a 19-year-old Victorian called Daniel “Chucky” Sanders burst onto the off-road scene and won the Australian Off-Road Championship’s (AORC) inaugural Transmoto EJ-class (19 & Under) title. Within a year, the likeable larrikin had topped the E3 class at the ISDE in Slovakia, where he also spearheaded Australia’s winning Junior Trophy team. And a year after that, Sanders had dominated the 2016 AORC series (winning both the Outright and E3-class titles) before another stellar performance at the Spanish ISDE, where he won the E3 class and ran second Outright! While that sort of meteoric rise for a young rider is not uncommon in motocross circles, it’s highly unusual in the enduro scene, where success tends to come later in a rider’s career.
When Sanders moved to Europe last year to take up a plumb ride with the KTM Red Bull Factory Team, however, his incredible career trajectory came to an abrupt halt. The 23-year-old struggled to adapt to the factory team’s culture and bike set-up, and to the World Championship’s super-tech terrain. He lost focus, put on weight, and his results were way below what was expected of him.
But now that Daniel Sanders is back in Australia and has signed on with the Husqvarna Off-Road Racing Team, the knockabout, self-assured Chucky seems to be back. He sounds re-focused and intent on getting back into the winner’s circle, and he’s relishing the prospect of taking on the AORC’s reigning Outright champ, Daniel Milner, when the 11-round national series gets underway in early March.
After an afternoon’s track building on his family’s apple orchard, Sanders sat down with Transmoto to reflect on the challenges and lessons of his past 12 months, and share his aspirations for 2018 back in Oz.
TM: Let’s not sugarcoat it, Chucky; your results in Europe last year fell way short of everyone’s expectations. It must have been tough going from your dominant form in the 2016 AORC and ISDE to average results in the 2017 EnduroGP World Championship.
DS: It was tough. I guess there were a few factors. First up, KTM made a really big change to their bikes for 2017 – the frame, engine, suspension and bodywork – and I struggled to adapt to the 250EXC I raced last year in the EnduroGP World Championship. I also struggled to form a good working relationship with the team, and to get the bike set up in a way that suited me. Looking back, it wasn’t about the new bike being bad; it was just the fact that I’d become so attuned to KTM’s 2016 300EXC two-stroke, I struggled to adapt. I mean, there were rounds of that 2016 AORC series where I knew I could put 10 to 15 seconds on everyone in a special test, and even though I didn’t have a rear brake for the final hour of the cross-country round at Dungog, I still put time on everyone. As Wattsy [fellow Victorian and former World Enduro and GNCC champ, Shane Watts] would say, ‘They were the glory days’; the days you feel like Superman; like you’re invincible!
But you’d ridden KTM’s 2017-model 300EXC at the final few rounds of the 2016 AORC in Australia, and won aboard it.
That’s true. But that race bike in Australia was set up to suit me. When I went over to race the ISDE in Spain at the end of 2016, I was on a bike we hired from the KTM factory, and I started feeling really weird on it, especially in grasstrack tests. I just couldn’t get my head around how I wasn’t gelling with the bike, and I didn’t know how to adapt my style to suit it.
What made working with the KTM Red Bull Factory Team so difficult?
It’s hard for me to say anything too negative because KTM has been so good to me for so long. I mean, I guess I’d expected that being on a factory team meant I’d have the opportunity to test a bunch of different set-up options, but that didn’t end up happening for one reason or another. In Australia in 2016, if there was anything I thought could make me faster, we’d at least try it. With the team in Europe, they had certain parts and set-ups that they ‘recommended’, and that was pretty much it
You’re not the first non-European rider to say that about how the powerhouse race teams in Europe operate. In fact, it was the primary reason behind Matt Phillips’ move from KTM to Sherco for 2016.
Yep, Matt’s experience is a perfect example. When you’re winning, you’re their best friend. When you’re not, you’re a nobody and may as well be a Clubman rider. That’s how it felt to me, anyway. The fact that Phillips won the titles over there in Europe, despite those challenges, goes to show you just how clever the guy is – on and off the bike. I think people really underestimate what Matt Phillips did to win those three world titles.
Bike and team issues aside, it’s a very different style of racing at the EnduroGP too, right?
Totally! And it’s totally different to the Six-Day too. The EnduroGP World Championship’s tracks are so much more technical. People back home have no idea how tough they are. Even on some transport sections, spectators have to help riders get up hills. And most of the special tests use terrain that’s more like a full-on Hard Enduro event. It was pretty much like racing a Wildwood Enduro each weekend. That’s just everyday life over at the EnduroGP in Europe.
What positives did you take out of the season in Europe?
Well, I was exposed to a lot of different cultures and made a lot of friends from all over the world. As an Aussie, everyone wants to be your friend. And from a riding point of view, I definitely learned how to deal with technical terrain better.
Last year at the ISDE in France, you couldn’t repeat your 2015 and 2016 Six-Day success. Was that a lack of confidence thing?
In France, I finished third in the E3 class and 15th Outright. That was okay, but nowhere near what I’d done those previous two years. I just wasn’t feeling it. I think I was detuned after what had happened all year and wasn’t really on the pace.
What sort of toll did the whole experience take on you mentally?
I was not in a happy place mentally towards the end of last year. I was so disappointed about how things played out in Europe, I didn’t jump on a bike for months. In my head, I was nearly done with racing. My riding style and confidence had gone out the window. I had no confidence in myself or in the bike. I put on a lot of weight. Nothing came naturally, and I was crashing all the time because I was over-thinking things.
Tell us how the deal with the Husqvarna Off-Road Racing Team back here in Australia came about? Wasn’t your contract in Europe a two-year deal?
It was a two-year deal with the KTM team in Europe, but there were clauses in the contract that allowed both parties to get out of it for various reasons. There were no hard feelings and we left on good terms. With things not going so well in Europe, I spoke with Glenn Kearney [the KTM Enduro Racing Team Manager in Australia] midway through the year and explained that I had the option of heading home or continuing in the World EnduroGP series for 2018. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve bled orange for years, so I thought I owed the KTM team in Australia that courtesy. I think loyalty is very important. KTM has been very good to me for many years and I wanted to do the right thing by them. Unfortunately, KTM already had Daniel Milner and Lyndon Snodgrass signed here in Australia, so that’s when the opportunity to race on the Husqvarna team came up. I’ll be teamed up with Lachlan Stanford for 2018.
Aside from the Hattah Desert Race a couple of years ago, you’ve always raced two-strokes. Why the change to the Husky FE450 four-stroke and E2 class for the 2018 AORC?
The short answer is that E2 is the class the team asked me to ride. Originally, I had planned to race the E3 class, but when Daniel Milner changed his mind and decided he wanted to race E3, the KTM/Husqvarna group didn’t want to stack us both in the same AORC class.
Is the class or Outright win your primary focus for the AORC?
The Outright is where it’s at for the Pro riders in the AORC. It always has been, and always will be. And as far as I know, contingency and bonus payments are based mainly off our Outright results. I understand what the organisers are trying to do by focusing more on the classes and less on the Outright, because it means more riders and sponsors appear on the E1, E2 and E3 podiums. But it seems to me that having so many number-one plates on the track at the same time – even if they have different-coloured backgrounds – is a bit complicated and confusing. As I’ve come from Europe and didn’t place in the top-five of the AORC last season, I’ll just be running my number-11 plates.
It promises to be an interesting year too, because this’ll be the first time you and Daniel Milner go head-to-head in the AORC.
Yeah, that’s right. When I won the AORC in 2016, Milner was in America. And last year, when he won it, I was in Europe. To be honest, my priority is to start riding well again. If that means I win, and beat Milner in the process, that’s great. Plus, there’s a lot of depth in the AORC’s talent, so I don’t want to just focus on beating the guy who happens to be carrying the number-one plate from 2017.
How has your pre-season testing and bike development with the Husky team been going?
Really well. Each ride, I’ve felt better and more comfortable on the bike. My confidence is coming back, I’ve lost weight, and I’m way more motivated. I’m looking forward to the opening round.
With the KTM/Husqvarna group now distributing WP Suspension components in Australia, it’s meant a change in the fork you’re racing on too, right?
Yep. We’ve moved from WP’s factory 52mm fork to their 48mm cone-value fork, and I think it’s been a really positive change. The 48mm fork works a fair bit better for enduro, and I believe the motocross guys have been really impressed with it too. KTM and Husky are all about marketing bikes that are ‘ready to race’, so it makes sense we race bikes that use parts that are readily available to the public. I’m not sure what they cost, but anyone can buy these 48mm cone-valve forks over the counter. I actually ran this fork back in 2015, so it’s nice to come back to it.
You’ve also come back to Fox gear, as they’ve extended their sponsorship of the Husqvarna Enduro Team for 2018.
That’s right. Years ago, I first met Fox’s Brand Manager, Scott Runciman from Monza Imports, at a Victorian off-road presentation night, and we got on really well. Coming through the ranks as a kid, it’s very hard to get sponsorship, and most people look for help with riding gear, oil and tyres. I got some help with Fox gear through Bolton Motorcycles in Kyneton for a few years, and then Monza starting me hooking me up with Fox gear directly. Whether I’ve been in Australia or overseas, I’ve stayed in touch with the Monza crew, and they’ve taken a real interest in my career. So for the 2018 season, it worked out really well that Fox was already sponsoring the Husqvarna team in Australia. Fox has really stepped up what they’re doing in the off-road scene around the world and their product is amazing. Having functional gear that’s comfortable for a long race is much more important for enduro racing than it is for a 30-minute moto.
Back on the number-11 bike and back in Fox gear, eh? Just like old times, Chucky.
That’s it, mate. Back in business!
Husqvarna images courtesy of Kane O’Rourke Photography.