[KTM]

DEAN FERRIS: UNFINISHED BUSINESS!

5 days ago | Words: Andy Wigan | Photos: Andy Wigan, Matty Mac

After three consecutive premier-class title wins – in the 2016, 2017 and 2018 MX Nationals – Dean Ferris could have virtually called his price with any team here in Australia for the 2019 season. But the notoriously headstrong ‘kid’ from Kyogle had other ideas. Instead of cashing in on his domestic success, he intentionally stepped out of his comfort zone and threw himself into the deep end of the international race scene.

Sadly, untimely injuries and dubious race team dealings derailed Ferris’ efforts in both Europe and America in 2019, and prompted a return to Oz. Which is when things got weird. Six months into a pandemic-affected world, a gnarly crash at Conondale’s iconic Green Park left Dean Ferris with four fused vertebrae and a newfound appreciation for life outside racing. It prompted a complete rethink of his life and an official announcement about retiring from the sport.

But has the 31-year-old Dean Ferris now had a change of heart? Why is he racing a few Queensland state MX events again? What about the rider coaching gig he’s taken on, and how did he get involved with a Netflix TV series being filmed in Alice Springs? We recently caught up a more philosophical, but still very driven, Dean Ferris to ask him these questions and more…

TM: Take us back to that topsy-turvy year in 2019. After three Aussie titles in succession, where was your had at?
DF: Well, I kept myself open for a deal in the USA. At that time, I was just ready for a change of scenery. I’d hit up Yamaha about the opportunity for a couple of years, but they couldn’t help me out. With the injury rates for AMA Supercross, there’s often a bunch of seats available for the Outdoors, so I kind of banked on the idea that I would be able to pick up a ride. I knew that I could race at a high level, so even if I didn’t get a sign-on, I thought I’d be able to get some bonus money. Incredibly, no one got hurt that supercross season, meaning there were almost no rides available. I know it sounds a bit desperate to be banking on someone getting hurt, but it’s a straight-up fact of the matter that a bunch guys typically get side lined in Supercross – in most seasons anyway. So I just hung here at home, kept my training up and hoped that something would open up.

Gotta say … that sounds pretty vague. Surely you had several deals on the table after three back-to-back titles here in Oz.
Of course I did. But at that stage in my life and career, I wanted to spread my wings; to see how good I could actually be.

In 2017, at High Point, you rocked up and ran second in an AMA 450MX-class moto. Did that not turn heads and open doors?

Well, it wasn’t enough for me to get a deal there in 2018, which is why really wanted to make something happen in America in 2019. And it turned out to be a really weird experience. According to my agent, there was a Suzuki waiting there for me. That’s why I flew over there with my family for a couple of weeks, but no bike or ride ever eventuated.

At which time, Yamaha Europe just happened to put an offer in front of you, right?
Yep, I’d flown home to Australia and then Yamaha Europe gave me the opportunity to ride Romain Febvre’s MXGP bike for four rounds of the MXGP championship. It was an amazing bike, but unfortunately I injured myself at the first round and flew back home again. Raceline, who was the official KTM factory team here in Australia at that time, told me that if I ever needed anything, I should let them know. Yamaha Australia wasn’t in a position to do anything for me – which I understood, as we were already pretty deep into the season. So Raceline built me a bike and I went a raced a national round on it down in South Australia.

Which you won, right?
I won the Saturday, not the Sunday. But I like to think I did enough to demonstrate I could cut it on the orange bikes. It was a steep learning curve because the bike was so different to what I was used to. And looking back now, I could have had a way better set-up. But I rode around the set-up issues and did alright.

And then your phone rings. Again!
Yeah. I got a call from the US to fill in for Factory Yamaha because Aaron Plessinger had been injured. I got there about a week before Round 1 of the Outdoors, which gave me minimal time on the race bike and wasn’t ideal. I did six rounds for the team. But honestly, it was horrendous. The equipment wasn’t great.

Did that surprise you?
No, but I thought I’d be able to use my knowledge to ride around the issues and fix the bike. But it was more complex than that. And it wasn’t just me. [Cooper] Webb, [Justin] Barcia and Plessinger all struggled on that bike. I was still running top 10s and got a few sixth- and eighth-place finishes. But the team wasn’t willing to make progress, so I wasn’t hanging around any longer than six rounds because, after that, they’d take my bike to the rounds, but I had to start paying my way. So I decided to fly home. And that pretty much spelled the end of my year. I’d done two flights to America and one to Europe and didn’t have much to show for my efforts. And at that point, I was totally over being overseas. I had a family with two little girls, and I was done with trying to make it happen overseas. Pus, I liked the idea of becoming Australian champion again. So I let the 2019 season go, and focused my energies on the 2020 season. And for obvious reasons, things got even weirder.

Prior to the pandemic arriving in March, you were looking pretty good for that 2020 season, right?
Absolutely. I’d signed with Raceline KTM. I was training hard and riding quick and everything was progressing nicely.

Aside from the abrupt realisation that racing was on ice for the foreseeable future, how did the pandemic’s arrival hit you?
I’d say I didn’t deal with it that well. I mean, obviously it created chaos for everybody, but it was a blunt reminder to me that I really didn’t have anything else behind me besides racing. I’d been doing pretty well as a professional motocross rider for a few years, and then all of a sudden … boom! There’s no salary, no income. We did hit the road doing our rider coaching, but they were weird and tough times for sure.

“At that time, in my head, I was totally done with racing. All I really wanted to do was disappear for a while.”

And then in August, life got much more complex for you, when you broke your back and underwent surgery!
Yeah. I’d gone to Conondale for a practice day and crashed. I fractured T4 through T7 and broken 10 ribs. I’m really thankful about where I crashed, as the Sunshine Coast club is really organised and had really good medics at the track that day. A serious spinal injury that’s very unstable is a complex procedure for the medics. But it all went very smoothly, so I can’t express how grateful I am for that.

“They fused four vertebrae and put in two rods down either side of my spine. I did initially suffer from some numbness across my chest.”

Aside from a social media post or two about the injury, it was all pretty hush-hush. Which can often leave people thinking things are not good.
I hear what you’re saying, and looking back, you’re right; I didn’t really say much about the injury. But that was just a result of me not being around the moto industry. At that time, in my head, I was done with racing. And so all I really wanted to do was disappear for a while. That’s when we decided to kick off the coaching business to focus on helping the next generation instead, and do a bunch of travelling in our caravan.

Tell us about the surgery and its immediate aftermath for you – physically and psychologically.
My surgery all went well. They fused four vertebrae and put in two rods down either side of my spine. I did initially suffer from some numbness across my chest, but that all subsided reasonably quickly after the surgery. As anyone who’s had a back injury knows, it’s a long healing process. I knew what I was in for. As far as I was concerned, I was totally done with racing. And I found that time pretty tough because it meant a lot of major life changes.

“The weirdest thing is that the morning after my very first ride was the first morning I’d woken up without pain. It was like the universe was telling me something.”

I heard you joking earlier that the injury has affected your golf swing and ability to look behind you in the tractor, but is otherwise not giving you too much grief.
It’s been a long, long recovery process. But by May or June this year –10 months after the injury – I felt that I started to make a lot of progress with my mobility. In fact, I’ve progressed so far that I’m feeling really robust and strong now. I’m back in the gym and feel like there’s not a lot I can’t do. Besides the golf swing and tractor twist, that is [laughs].

In March this year, you announced via Instagram that you’d officially decided to retire from racing. How long did it take for you to start doubting that decision?
Well, in late March, I got myself a KTM 300EXC enduro bike and did a few cruisy rides. And it was weird because when I got on the thing, it felt like nothing had changed. I was surprised that my back didn’t inhibit me at all and the riding actually helped get it stronger. But the weirdest thing is that the morning after my very first ride was the first morning I’d woken up without pain. Which didn’t make sense. It was bizarre. It turns out the best rehab exercise was riding!

Wow! Did you see that as a ‘sign’?
Y’know, I did; you get this little voice in the back of your head. And the more riding I did, the better I felt. It was like the universe was telling me something.

Tell us about how you got involved with that Netflix TV series.
In late March, we’d already decided to pack up the family, buy a Cruiser and caravan and travel Australia. Literally, when I was driving home after picking up the Cruiser and caravan, the phone rings. It’s a production company, asking whether I can come to Alice Springs to be involved with a TV series they were about to shoot out there, and whether I knew a size-6 female. It just so happens that my wife, Renae, is a size 6. So instead of going to north Queensland, we hung a left and went straight out to Alice Springs because they needed us both immediately.

“Honestly, our time at Alice was amazing. Y’know, just exploring and hanging out with good people and reconnecting with the moto industry.”

Give us the Hollywood scoop, mate. What’s the production all about?
A TV series drama called Mavericks. It’s about a training facility that helps get young kids back on the rails, and me and Renae were stunt riders for a couple of months. Spoiler alert: I’m the stunt double for the guy who wins [laughs]. Anyway, it was a good opportunity that could lead anywhere. Or nowhere. It was an interesting experience, and I’m glad I got to do something cool like that with my wife.

Did you get much downtime to check out Alice Springs?
We did. Honestly, our time at Alice was amazing. Y’know, just exploring and hanging out with good people and reconnecting with the moto industry. I did a couple of tours with the Outback Motorcycle Adventures guys. I grew up riding the bush, so I had a great time. In fact, I’m sure I wouldn’t be riding so much now if we did have that time in Alice Springs.

“My body has made a lot of progress since earlier this year, and the idea of racing is now what gets me out of bed in the morning.

The gypsy lifestyle obviously suits you and your family because you guys are still on the road here in Queensland, a few months down the track.
Covid restrictions certainly has something to do with the decision to still be on the road. But, yeah, we love it. And there’s some sense behind it because we’re travelling from town to town and coaching on the weekends – usually at the local club’s track – and then exploring during the week. I’ve always had a bit of gypsy in me, so I’m right at home with this lifestyle. I’ve done so much travelling overseas, but seeing my own country has been something special.

“I feel like I’ve left some things on the table with my racing. I feel like I can be a better rider and a better athlete.”

Being in lockdown-free Queensland also gave you the opportunity to hook up with us and throw a leg over KTM’s 2022 bikes. And the fact you rocked up with a new 450SX-F is sure added fuel to rumours that you’re not only out of retirement, but plan to return to elite-level competition. What can you say about that?
Well, I started posting a few vids on Instagram and got a heap of comments to the effect that, ‘For a retired guy, you seem to be riding a hell of a lot’. I’m not going to keep it a secret that I’ve got an interest in coming back. I definitely do. And I’ve learned never to say never. Admittedly, that’s a huge turnaround from where I was back in March, when I was 100 percent sure that I was done with racing. But my body has made a lot of progress since then, and the idea of racing is now what gets me out of bed in the morning. Plus, I raced a Queensland MX titles round at Mackay and, even though my bike set-up was a fair way off the mark, I still managed to mix it with Todd Waters and Kirk Gibbs and score a few podium finishes.

What’s driving you most – the idea of a fourth national title, or claiming a tittle with a second manufacturer? Or simply being competitive again after a career-threatening injury?
Most of all, it’s about me believing I can be better than I was. I feel like I’ve left some things on the table with my racing. I feel like I can be a better rider and a better athlete. And hopefully, that would lead to more championships.

And then there’s always the fact you get to resume your rivalry with Todd Waters, who’s now the reigning champ!
I’m stoked Toddy won the title in 2019. It was a long time coming for him and long overdue. But our rivalry doesn’t have anything to do with my decision to come back. If I can make it work, it would be really cool to put my name next to Jay Marmont, Stephen Gall and Craig Dack as four-time winners. If I could win another two, five titles would put me on the top of that list.

I didn’t realise you were a bit of a ‘record books’ kind of guy…
Look, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I’ve got a lot of pieces to put in place first before any of that can become a reality. If it makes sense and I feel like I’m in a good position to challenge for a title again, I’m interested!

Well, I’m sure there are a lot of race fans who are also very interested in seeing you back on a start line of a national. Good luck with it, mate.
Many thanks, Andy.

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