Daniel Sanders: Apple Of His Father’s Eye
Two years ago, Daniel Sanders was about to call it quits and return to his family-owned apple orchard. Even though he’d just become the inaugural winner of the Transmoto 19 & Under class at the Australian Off-Road Championship (AORC), he was out of money and didn’t have a deal for the 2015 season. Then came a call from KTM Enduro Racing Team boss, Ben Grabham, and within a couple of weeks, Sanders had signed on for two years. In his first season with the new-look team, he finished second to teammate Toby Price in the AORC’s E3 class and fourth Outright. A month later, he put the enduro world on notice at the ISDE by winning the E3 class. He also ran an incredible fourth Outright at that Slovakian event and was a key part of Australia’s winning Junior Trophy team. And now, at just 22 years of age, Daniel Sanders has become the AORC’s youngest ever Outright champion, having won 10 of the series’ 12 rounds. Talk about fast-tracked success!
In the immediate wake of his 2016 title win in south-western Victoria, we sat down with the bloke they call “Chucky” to talk about the 2016 title win, the team behind him, the desire to follow in his father’s footsteps, and his burning ambition to win a world championship…
TM: What does this Outright win in the AORC mean to you?
DS: When I wrapped it up with one round to spare, it didn’t really hit home. But now that the racing’s done – and I capped it off with another win – the significance of what I’ve achieved has started to sink in. All I could think about was my dad’s enduro trophies and how far I’d come since my time as a Junior. I’ve always wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps and hopefully do even better, and he’s put so much into helping me achieve my goals. It’s been one hell of a ride. It’s always been a dream of mine to win an Australian title, but I don’t want to stop here; I want to go over to Europe to race the Enduro World Championship. That’s the next goal; to get a foot in the door with a European team and do what Matty Phillips has just done.
Did it also make you reflect on how far you’ve come in just the past two years?
Y’know, it really did. When Grabbo [KTM Enduro Racing Team Manager, Ben Grabham] picked me up a couple of years ago, I didn’t get any other phone calls ahead of the 2015 season. I was actually going to hang up the boots after the 2014 AORC.
Really? But you’d just won the inaugural Transmoto 19s class and shown you could be a top-five Outright guy.
I know. I think I’d just said to myself that, if I wasn’t picked up by a team, then I wouldn’t keep racing. I couldn’t afford to spend any more money. So I was lucky that Grabbo rang me up two days after the end of the season and make me an offer for a two-year deal. Two weeks later, I signed with KTM. It’s so nice to be involved with a team where I can be backed by the experience of a guy like Ben Grabham, as well as my Dad, who’s been such a big part of my racing. It’s been such a fun two years with the KTM team and I wouldn’t want to live my life any other way.
Tell us a bit more about the team.
The atmosphere in some other race teams can be very serious if their rider’s had a bad day. With our team, I just know they’ve all got my back, no matter what happens. If I’m a bit down for one reason or another, they know how to get me in a positive frame of mind and laughing. For me, it’s all about enjoying the racing. Because when I’m having fun, I always ride well. It’s really handy to have a guy like Tim Cole on board with the team too, because he helps keep my training and nutrition programs on track, and he’s really smart when it comes to managing injuries.
Cast your mind back to the AORC’s final two rounds at Monkerai last year. You’d been entertaining a young lady on the Saturday night, but that left you in a rush to get ready to race on Sunday morning. And, long story short, it cost you third place Outright in the series. How big a part did that disappointment play in motivating you for this season?
It played a huge role. It stung me so hard because running top-three was a real goal for my first year on the team, and it slipped through my fingers at the very last moment. I was so filthy on myself for that, so it really put the fire in the belly to crank my speed, consistency and entire act up. Around the same time, I’d learned to let go a bit and take the team’s advice on board when it came to bike set-up and my approach to racing. In fact, that AORC disappointment also played a huge motivating role for me at the Six-Day over in Slovakia. That event was only three weeks after that AORC final round, and winning the E3 class there was a huge confidence booster. It also confirmed that the changes I’d made were the right ones.
Aside from that newfound focus and getting your bike’s settings dialled, how else have improved your game for the 2016 season?
Last year, my results were really up and down, so I think that learning to be consistent was the key for me this year. This series is raced across so many different sorts of terrain, tracks and race formats, so you need to be able to adapt to all of that really quickly. Looking back on why I was weak at certain rounds last year really helped me work on the weaknesses and find that consistency this season. Plus, I busted my arse training over the summer. Right from that disappointment at the final round last year, I’ve been totally focused on getting that number one plate. And I didn’t have one drink between the November last year and the Finke Desert Race in June. I was at Finke as a spectator, but I told my KTM teammates that if they went 1-2-3, I’d have a few drinks with them to celebrate. Of course, Toby [Price], Tye [Simmonds] and Washy [David Walsh] went 1-2-3, so I had no choice.
Your AORC scorecard was pretty damn impressive this season.
Yeah, aside from the couple of mid-season fifths I had in South Australia when I was carrying an ankle injury, I won the Outright at the other 10 rounds. I might not have done that if Josh Green wasn’t injured early in the season, but I was still really happy with how I’d improved from last year. Last season, I had a shocker at the opening rounds in Queensland, so once I got through those with a narrow win over Green and Lachy Stanford, I liked my chances for the rest of the series. I just needed to stay fit and healthy.
The mid-season ankle injury didn’t go away though. The team tells me you still can’t run on it.
Torn ligaments can take a while to heal up. I used to like doing long-distance running to train. Actually, that was my main thing. I used to play basketball, footy and cricket, too. So I just do a heap more cycling now instead. It turns out that cycling’s been beneficial to my racing. Having those few weeks off the bike with the bung ankle also reinforced how much I loved riding and racing.
Your family tells me you could have been a success at any sport you chose.
I’ve always been determined and had a strong mindset, so I could have succeeded at those other sports. I reckon I’ve stayed with racing bikes because dad didn’t let me race them until I was about 14. We’d run events on our property, but he’d always have me on the sidelines helping out. All those young guys who were bragging about winning when I was back at school have dropped out of the sport now and gone partying. So I reckon it was smart of my old man to hold me back; to make sure I didn’t get burned out from racing too much as really young.
Your team manager, Ben Grabham is an astute judge of riding talent, and he says that both you and your former teammate, Toby Price, have one major weapon in common: corner speed. Where’s that come from?
I’ve always been good in wet, slippery conditions, and I reckon I learned that from my old man from a really early age, when I just used to follow him around in the mud and watch how he did it. When I was in Europe last year, a lot of people made mention of how I stood up a lot and rode really smooth in slippery conditions. So with bike set-up, I tend to focus a lot on how it gets its power to the ground. If you can get that right, you can get on the power early and keep your corner speed up. And that’s where Ben Grabham has been a huge help. I also learned a lot from Toby Price last season. He was the king of being able to adapt to different tracks and terrain – whether it’s tight bush or fast, open deserts.
How special was it for you to have your extended family at the final round when you wrapped up the title?
My mum, dad, sister, brother and two uncles were there to witness what I’d been chasing since I was a little tacker, so that was an incredible feeling. When I was 18 years old and working at the family’s apple orchard while I raced as a privateer, dad and my uncles let me take time off work to go racing. My family has always been into bikes and racing, and they know how it all works. I’ve also really appreciated the support of my mates from home, who’ve travelled around Oz to watch me race over the years. And for the past couple of years, it feels like the guys at KTM are all part of my family too. So it was really nice for both me and Tye to be able to win these titles – in the E3 and E2 classes, and to go 1-2 Outright – for our ‘orange family’. We both won on 2017 year-model bikes, which made it extra cool.
Two years ago, when you wrapped up the 19 & Under class, you’d had a few sherberts at the end-of-season preso and ended up sporting some carpet burns on your forehead after performing ‘The Worm’. What advice would you offer that 2014 version of you?
Well, it got me to where I am, so not a lot [laughs]. No, seriously, I needed to grow up a bit and represent my sponsors more professionally. It’s still really important to me to not take things too seriously – to have fun with my racing – but I’d tell the 20-year-old me that there’s a time and a place for letting your hair down.
Is there any truth in the rumours you’ll be racing in Europe next season with the Factory KTM team?
After winning the E3 class at the ISDE late last year, I did speak to a few teams, and I raced a round on the Enduro World Championship on the Factory KTM team’s 250EXC-F. My KTM deal here in Australia is for 2017 as well, but there’s a clause in there that let’s me out if I were to land a ride in Europe. Having Shane Watts and Matt Phillips to bounce things off has been really helpful for me, as those two guys have been there and done that.
^ The 2016 AORC’s Outright top ten: 1) Daniel Sanders, 2) Tye Simmonds, 3) Chris Hollis, 4) Lachy Stanford, 5) Beau Ralston, 6) Jack Simpson, 7) Broc Grabham, 8) Glenn Kearney, 9) Riley Graham, 10) Tom McCormack (not pictured)…
You’re now on a pretty good wicket here in Oz, so would you take a pay cut to get to Europe?
If they guaranteed me a bike I thought I could win on, absolutely I would. I’d do it for free – to begin with anyway [laughs]. Winning a world championship is my next big goal. It’s all about getting a foot in the door and proving yourself. I only wish I got onto the KTM team a year or two earlier here in Australia. The KTM family is a worldwide thing, so if I was to get a deal in Europe, I’d like to think I could continue my career with the brand who’s supported me so much. Dad raced KTMs in the mid 1980s, and ever since he stopped racing, he’s had a KTM. I got my first KTM in 2009; a 2006 125. Dad’s got a 2017 Kato ordered, so it’ll be cool to get out and do some trailriding with him later this year.
Thanks, Chucky. No go get ’em at the ISDE in Spain.
All good. Yep, that’s the plan.