The 2017 AORC – In Perspective

1 year ago | Words: Andy Wigan | Photos: John Pearson Media, Andy Wigan

As we often like to do in the weeks leading up to a season’s opening round, we decided to reflect on the pivotal moments and standout achievers of the 2016 Yamaha Australian Off-Road Championship (AORC). Why? Cos taking stock of last year’s racing always helps put the new series in perspective, and it sure served as a stark reminder of just how many changes have taken place for the AORC’s 12-round 2017 season.

Sanders’ Dominance

Having won five AORC Outright titles in seven years since his 2009 debut, KTM’s Toby Price would have come into 2016 as the red-hot favourite. But the reigning champ’s departure left a hole that a number of top riders were intent on filling, and that completely changed the series’ dynamic when it kicked off in March. Once Daniel “Chucky” Sanders had shown his hand at the season opener in Queensland, however, it was as if Sanders simply took up where his former KTM teammate had left off. Sanders found a new level of controlled aggression at the dusty curtain raiser in Queensland and claimed his first ever 1-1 Outright result. And when he repeated the 1-1 Chucky show at Portland in NSW a few weeks later, Sanders was widely regarded as the man to beat; his happy-go-lucky race-day demeanour spookily reminiscent of Price.

The Victorian youngster took great confidence from those opening round wins and – despite an ankle injury that caused him to limp through the next weekend’s racing with a measured 5-5 scorecard – he strung together another six Outright wins to close out the title. With 10 round-wins and 282 out of a possible 300 points, Sanders’ Outright win was one of the most emphatic in the AORC series’ 12-year history. At just 22, he became the AORC’s youngest ever Outright champ, and the first rider to claim the trophy aboard a two-stroke since AJ Roberts in 2005. Let’s hope Sanders fires again at the upcoming ISDE in Spain and uses that result to ink a deal with one of the EnduroGP paddock’s major teams. He sure deserves it.

Series Support

When Dirt Bike Promotions stepped down at the end of the 2009 season, after promoting the AORC for five years, there was a genuine concern for the future of the national series. And to be honest, the notion that the AORC could successfully piggyback on a handful of state rounds – overseen by a caretaker series coordinator – sounded a bit fanciful. But here we are, seven seasons later, and the Yamaha Australian Off-Road Championship is more robust than ever. Thanks to the cooperation of MA’s State Controlling Bodies and their Enduro Committees, 12 rounds were staged across four states in 2016. Commercially, the AORC hasn’t lured private promoters back into the fray, but both Motorcycling Australia and Yamaha have tipped enough into the AORC’s coffers to underwrite its future, during which time Australia has evolved from international mid-packers to one of the enduro world’s powerhouse nations. The AORC has now spawned riders who’ve gone on to win Enduro World Championships and the Dakar Rally, and the Holy Grail of enduro: the ISDE.

And so it was very encouraging to see MA ratchet up its investment into the AORC this year – by way of an MA-appointed series coordinator and publicist, a rider liaison to ensure consistency with the courses, and RaceSafe medical support. All of which highlighted the fact that the AORC’s series coordinator up until 2016, Denise Hore, juggled those roles herself on a tighter budget. And for that, the entire off-road fraternity owes Denise a huge debt of gratitude. Without MA, Yamaha, Denise and her core group of helpers, the opportunities that Aussies riders are now enjoying on the world stage would never have materialised.

Green’s Injury

For years, Active8 Yamaha’s Josh Green has almost made an art form of racing with injuries that would sideline riders with conventional pain thresholds. So when Greeny came into the 2016 season fit, healthy, focused and injury-free, it was somewhat of a novelty. And with the reigning E1 champ stepping up to Yamaha’s all-new WR450F and the E2 class for 2016, many believed he was poised to go one better and finally etch his name on the AORC’s Outright trophy. Ironically, Green came unstuck in the very first special test at Round 1, obliterating the ligaments in his left knee. Kidding himself that he could race through the pain, Green soldiered on for a few more rounds, clearly not at his best.

But when he aggravated the injury in South Oz, he and his team succumbed to the inevitability of reconstructive surgery, meaning Green sat out the rest of the season. While the Yami rider’s disappearance certainly made life easier for KTM’s Daniel Sanders – who sportingly conceded that Green would have probably won a few Outrights if he’d stayed healthy – even the cocksure Green wasn’t making any bold claims about his ability to upstage the rampaging Sanders in the back half of the season.

The Orangewash

Yamaha might have won two of the three major classes last season, but 2016 was the year of the Austrians. Yep, KTM claimed 11 of the series’ 12 Outright round-wins. They won the E1 class title with Jack Simpson, the E2 with Tye Simmonds and the E3 with Daniel Sanders. And Sanders and Simmonds ran 1-2 in the Outright standings. What made the achievement even more notable was how little experience all three riders had had in the AORC. It was Simpson’s debut season, Simmonds’ second season and Sanders’ third. And the whole shebang was overseen by former enduro and desert racing legend, Ben Grabham, in just his second season in the Team Manager hot seat.

By fostering a team culture that prizes both fun and professionalism, Grabham managed to bring out the best in Sanders and Simmonds. And the scary thing for their rivals is that Grabbo has signed both riders again for 2017 – subject to Chucky scoring a factory ride in Europe, that is. When you combine this dominance with the KTM team’s 1-2-3 and 1-2 finishes at the Finke and Hattah desert races, respectively, there’s not a lot else the boys in orange could have achieved this year. Then again, the Australian 4-Day Enduro is coming up…

Hollis’ Swansong?

When you look back over the AORC’s record books, just six guys have won the Outright title – AJ Roberts (three times), Toby Price (five times), Chris Hollis (twice), Daniel Milner (once) and now Daniel Sanders. But only one of them has raced since the maiden series in 2005: Chris Hollis. In 12 seasons, Hollis racked up two Outright AORC wins (2008, 2011) and seven class wins and is widely regarded by his peers as one of the paddock’s most talented and likeable characters. Hollis’ uncharacteristic inconsistency in 2016 – by his standards, anyway – led pundits to say he’d lost some of his drive and focus this year, and that he was about to call it quits.

When pressed about the prospect of retirement after a very respectable third Outright in the series, Hollis remained circumspect but did confirm he’d be racing the A4DE in November. If this season was, in fact, the 32-year-old’s final AORC appearance, all we can say is thanks for the memories, buddy. That and a sneaky request for some inside information about any steals in the Port Macquarie property market.

The Two-Stroke Strikes Back

When Daniel Sanders and his beloved 300EXC went 1-1 at the season opener in Queensland, it prompted us to go back through the AORC’s stats to identify the last time a two-stroke had gone unbeaten over an AORC race weekend. The answer? AJ Roberts and his Husky WR250, way back in 2005. And if anyone thought the two-stroke’s win was an aberration back in March, they had another thing coming. While the 450cc four-stroke machines of KTM’s Tye Simmonds and Yamaha’s Chris Hollis managed to nab one Outright round-win apiece this year, Sanders scooped up the rest of them. And to ram the two-stroke point home, Sanders and his training partner, Husky TE300-mounted Lyndon Snodgrass (pictured above), went 1-2 Outright on the slick grasstrack at the final two rounds; in conditions where you expect the four-strokes’ tractability to be unbeatable. Yep, these new-generation two-strokes have become much more versatile and rideable, and we’d expect to see a lot more of them on entry lists – for trail and race events – next year.

E1’s Young Punk vs Old Master

One of the beauties of motorcycle racing is that it’s more about the size of the fight in the dog than the size of the dog in the fight. Which is just as well, because the variation in the physiques of the E1 class’ frontrunners was almost comical. With the pint-sized Jack Simpson and Glenn Kearney often sharing a podium with big blokes such as Riley Graham, Scott Keegan and Stefan Granquist, it looked like an under 13s footie team lined up against a fence.

But the class’ most intriguing battle took place between the 20-year-old Jack Simpson in his debut off-road season, and the 35-year-old Glenn Kearney, who in his 17th season racing enduro somehow juggles the dual role of manager/racer for the Husqvarna Enduro Racing Team. It was a classic showdown of the reckless young punk and wily old master, with plenty of mutual respect. Aboard their 250F machines, Simmo and GK both carded Outright podiums during the year, but it was the young Victorian who, against the odds, held his nerve and brought the title home. Magnanimous in defeat, Kearney sung Simpson’s praises and forecast a big future in the sport for the young KTM rider.

19s-Class Tussle

Motocross riders tend to hit their prime in their early 20s. But in off-road circles, title-winning riders are more likely to be in their mid to late 20s, or even older – for the simple reason that enduro requires more measured aggression and race smarts, which is something that generally only comes with experience. And that’s exactly why Transmoto got behind the idea of introducing a ‘19 & Under’ class to the series in 2014; to help riders make that often demoralising transition from Junior hero to Senior zero, and to keep them involved in the sport. And hasn’t the initiative worked a treat! The inaugural winner of the Transmoto 19 & Under class (now referred to as Enduro Junior, or “EJ”, in line with international naming protocol) was Daniel Sanders – a bloke who, in the space of just two years, has gone from Transmoto EJ champ to an E3-class winner at the ISDE to Outright winner at the AORC. But Chucky Sanders is by no means the EJ class’ only flag waver. This year’s E1-class winner, Jack Simpson first sampled the AORC via the EJ class just last season. Broc Grabham finished a very impressive third place in this year’s hotly contested E2 class, posting a few Outright podium finishes along the way aboard a near-stock Husqvarna. Season 2016 was also a breakout year for another Husky rider, last year’s EJ-class runner-up, Lyndon Snodgrass. Clearly benefitting from training with Daniel Sanders, the 18-year-old Snodgrass notched up four Outright podiums (and a few Outright test wins) over the series’ final round rounds, and promises to be a bloke to watch next year. Then there are guys such as Tom Mason and Tom
Kite, who have already shown they’ve got what it takes to mix it with the AORC elite.

This year’s crop of EJ talent, spearheaded by Sherco’s likeable young ripper, Wil Ruprecht, also augers well for the sport’s future. Besides one bad result when he busted a chain, Ruprecht was consistently on the box, holding at bay the raw speed of guys like Nic Tomlinson (pictured left), Fraser Higlett, Ben Kearns, Andrew Wilksch, Dalton Johnston, Jai Wedlock, Jesse Lawton, Stuart Holt, Jake McGlashan and Tasmania’s Jonty Reynders, who really put the cat among the pigeons over the final six rounds.

Jemma’s Midas Touch

Over the past few years, the AORC Women’s class has felt like Groundhog Day as the Yamaha-mounted quartet of Jemma Wilson, Jess Gardiner, Emelie Karlsson and Tayla Jones all traded class- and title-wins. But season 2016 was all about Jemma Wilson. Admittedly, reigning champ Jones had disappeared to do battle against the blokes in the E1 class, and three-time AORC champ Jess Gardiner was beset with a few injury woes.

But Wilson rode on an entirely different level this season, crediting the great Stephen Gall as the catalyst for her turnaround in self-belief and speed. It was Wilson’s third EW-class title, but her first since 2011. Demonstrating how much she wanted it, Wilson withdrew from the EnduroGP’s final round in France, which clashed with the AORC’s finale. Now she’s got her heart set on the win that’s always eluded her – the Australian 4-Day Enduro. That and her fourth consecutive ISDE title!

Sherco’s Breakout Year

With podium finishes in E1 (Glenn Kearney), E2 (Broc Grabham), E3 (Lachy Stanford) and EJ (Fraser Higlett), it’s fair to say that, after the dominant KTM squad, Husqvarna was the most successful manufacturer in this year’s AORC. But it wouldn’t be fair to overlook the Sherco crew in just their second year in the AORC.
In spite of a workshop fire that destroyed their fully prepped race bikes just days before Rounds 3 and 4, the Motul Pirelli Sherco Factory Racing Team managed to claim class-wins in the Transmoto 19 & Under (Wil Ruprecht) and the Over 35 Vets (Bjorn Osborne), plus podiums in both the Vets (Kurt Broomhall) and Over 45s Masters (Derek Grundy).

Given that Australia’s Matt Phillips has just won the coveted EnduroGP (Outright title) at the 2016 Enduro World Championship aboard a Sherco, we’d expect to see even more of an investment into the Australian-based Sherco team for season 2017.

Two Biblical Wets

Victorian off-road racers are a tough breed. At least, that’s what they like to tell everyone. And by refusing to cancel two of the wettest races the series has ever seen, Victorian organising clubs pretty much proved the point. In spite of a social media chorus of precious young motocrossers saying there’s no way they’d race in the rain, hail and fallen trees that greeted AORC riders at the Hedley round, racing went ahead.

And at the series finale at Penshurst, in the state’s south-west, the sheer volume of water meant organisers had to hurriedly alter both the track and race format to ensure riders weren’t swept away. But the point is – aside from the fact it would have made Shane Watts proud – these rounds gave the AORC’s riders valuable experience in the sort of extreme conditions that riders regularly come up against in Europe. And if we want to continue to groom our off-road racers to be competitive on the world stage, we need this can-do attitude from both the organisers and riders; people who are prepared to take on the elements, no matter what.

Outright Battles

Coming into the final weekend’s racing, it looked fairly certain that Daniel Sanders, Tye Simmonds and Chris Hollis would occupy the top-three Outright positions. For more than half the season, though, Husqvarna’s Lachy Stanford had looked like he had second or third Outright in the bag, but after busting his hand at Round 8, the back-end of his season was more about survival and damage minimisation.

Having been passed by CDR Yamaha’s Chris Hollis for third, Stanford came in the series finale with what looked like a stranglehold on fourth Outright. But when he knocked himself senseless in Saturday’s super-slick conditions and finished outside the top-20, he suddenly had a battle on his hands, with just 6 points separating him, Beau Ralston and Jack Simpson for fourth, fifth and sixth Outright. In the end, that’s the order they finished the series in, but when organisers triple-checked the math at the end-of-year presentation, they confirmed the trio’s Outright scores were separated by just 2 points. There was a fair gap back to Broc Grabham and Glenn Kearney in seventh and eighth. But behind them, just 9 points separated ninth through 13th Outright.

The WA Posse’s Appearance

With former and existing AORC racers now performing so well on the world stage, it’s easy to focus too heavily on the elite riders in our national off-road series. But as any host club will tell you, it simply wouldn’t be viable for them to stage an AORC round without all the other riders underwriting its revenue base. And at the series finale, there was a feel-good story about a group of 10 young enduro riders from WA who’d raised enough money to make the 35-hour roadtrip across the Nullarbour to be part of the AORC. The initiative was the brainchild of WA-based off-road enthusiast Winton Lawton – a bloke who, over the past 15 years, has helped Junior Enduro in WA evolve into a thriving scene that regularly attracts 200 riders. “To help fund this development initiative and exposure WA riders to the AORC, the Off-Road Riding Club of WA chipped in,” Lawton explained. “But it was the young riders themselves – who ranged from age 14 to 18, and whose parents weren’t in a position to fully fund the trip – who raised some $2000 each for their trip to the AORC finale in Victoria. It would be my dream to see more WA riders venturing over East as part of the development program to test out new terrain and develop their skills, so it’s something I would like to arrange annually,” Lawton went on to say.

This content was originally published in Transmoto’s digital flipmag in the September-October issue (#58).

Check out this snapshot of the changes that’ll greet competitors when the 2017 AORC gets underway in three weeks’ time at Dungog in the NSW Hunter Valley.

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