In The Champ’s Corner, Part 1: The Champ
From the outside, motocross might appear to be an individual sport. But any motocross rider who’s won at the elite level will tell you that having the right people in their corner is an absolute prerequisite for success. We spoke with the key people in Todd Waters’ corner; those who proudly witnessed the likeable 28-year-old clinch his long-overdue maiden Australian MX1 Championship title.
TODD WATERS, 2019 MX NATS MX1-CLASS CHAMPION
TM: We couldn’t force a beer into you at the Transmoto 6-Hour at Nabiac a few weeks back. But, word on the street, you partied pretty hard on Sunday night after wrapping up the MX1 title, eh?
TW: We sure did [laughs]. But you know me, mate: I’m not a drinker and it doesn’t take me many. We didn’t go too hard though, because me and Gill [Todd’s girlfriend] were in the surf at 7am Monday morning. We took our time to get back to the Gold Coast and had a BBQ back here with some friends on the Monday night. And then I got some more waves Tuesday morning with a heap of my mates. It’s been the perfect way to relax and celebrate after winning the championship.
Before we talk about this year’s title win – which, incredibly, is your first – can we reflect on how many times you’ve run second? I’ve lost count.
Me too [laughs]. Okay, let me think. In the MX1 class, I’ve actually only run second twice – to Josh Coppins in 2012, and to Matt Moss in 2013. After that, I went to Europe for a couple of seasons. When I came back to Oz, in 2016, I ran third behind Dean Ferris and Kirk Gibbs, and then fourth the next year behind Ferris, Gibbs and Kade Mosig.
It’s a cliché, but has the title win sunk in yet?
I think so. I’m stoked. The team is stoked. All the people around me are stoked. I’ve worked so hard to win this MX1 title for so many years, it feels like I’ve been chasing it forever. The first year I got second, Josh Coppins and I battled right to the end. It was a sick battle, and he beat me. Simple. The next year, in 2013 with KTM, I won every single race at the first three rounds and had something like a 40-point lead, and then I broke my collarbone. Then I came back from that and knocked myself out pretty badly. I missed a few races and still finished second to Mossy in the title. But he was taking drugs, so I didn’t care. Actually, I did care. That pissed me off and it gave me the motivation to go racing in Europe in 2014.
All things considered, you did bloody well in Europe. But when you came back to Oz, it felt like your heart wasn’t in it. Not for the 2016 and 2017 seasons in Oz anyway.
Yeah, I had this thing in my head that I had unfinished business in Europe and felt sort of cut off because I should have still been racing the World Championship. I found it hard to focus because racing back in Australia wasn’t what I really wanted to be doing at that time, y’know. I was racing hard with both the Wilsons Suzuki and Crankt Honda teams, but in my heart, I wasn’t here to win a championship. Mentally, I was down; I wasn’t fully in the game. And that’s why I had to take myself to America last season. Otherwise, I probably would have given up racing altogether. I needed to go have some fun again and tick some goals off.
But your plans to race in the USA last year took a sharp about-turn, right?
Yep. Last year, I went over to America to race off my own back. Honda heard I was in town, and because Ken Roczen was injured, they asked me to test their factory bike. It was Honda’s first major test for the motocross bike and they had one of their major Japanese guys on hand. I was quicker than Christian Craig pretty much straight away, and the next thing you know, I had a contact with factory Honda to race in Europe [laughs]. Unfortunately, the bike didn’t suit me. I tried to ride too fast on a bike I wasn’t comfortable with and, kind of predictably, I injured myself. The same thing happened to Ferris this year when he went to Europe. Just because these things are factory bikes doesn’t mean they’re good. My race bike this year was way better than that factory Honda. Getting injured wasn’t good, but the whole experience helped me reset my goals and focus myself on winning the championship back in Australia.
Can you elaborate on the low mental state you refer to?
Well, there was a time when I’d go to the track and didn’t want to ride my bike. Which is weird for me because I love riding my bike. I’ll ride all week if I can, and I love nothing more than wearing bikes out. In 2017, I found myself having to convince myself that racing dirt bikes was a sick job. But that kind of thinking told me that I didn’t want to be there. I know that depression is a word used a bit too easily these days, but I sure felt a bit depressed back then. I had this constant bad feeling in my gut.
What were you most anxious about?
Just processing what had happened in Europe, I guess. In my tenth ever GP, I stood on the podium in the MX1 class. I got ninth in the World Championship, in spite of some DNFs. In my first complete year, I was running sixth in the points. After that experience, I actually knew all the tracks and could have run top-five. But even though I had a year remaining on my contract, I got sent home. I couldn’t work out why that had happened. None of it sat comfortably with me. It made me angry and emotional, and I found it difficult to focus on something else while that shit was in my head.
How did you turn it around?
By going back to Europe last year and getting my arse kicked. Y’know, Tommy Searle and I were battling for top-five positions and podiums a few years prior. But last year, me and Tommy and guys like Evgeny Bobreshev were battling each other for 15th place [laughs]. Rightly or wrongly, I kind of conceded to myself that I wasn’t good enough any more for the World Championship, and that allowed me to turn the page. It allowed me to make the decision to come back to Australia; to enjoy the life and the surf, and to win the Aussie title I’d never won. I started focusing on the fact I had unfinished business in Australia. When I was dominating that 2013 season and got injured with a massive points lead, I felt like I’d let Jeff Leisk and the entire team down; everyone who’d supported me during my Junior racing career. So when I got back from Europe at the end of 2015, I went over to WA – which is where KTM and Husky was based at the time – to meet Jeff. We had lunch and talked about Europe, and at that time I told him that I’d win him an MX1 championship. So it was a good feeling to get the opportunity to hook up with Husqvarna back in Oz and honour that promise. At least, it felt like a promise to me. Jeff supported me so much as a Junior and through the early days of my Pro career that I really felt like I owed him.
Mental state aside, what else changed in 2019? You entire approach seemed different. More relaxed, more enthusiastic, more up for the challenge.
Aside from being present and hungry again, the bike has played a big part, simply because I love riding the thing so much. The latest Husqvarna is that good, I’m burning through practice bikes because I’m constantly on the thing. Seriously, I dropped my bike in a SuperPole at the Gympie round early in the year, and that was my error. Other than that, I didn’t crash all season. The bike just suits me, and I’ve ridden KTM or Husqvarna most of my career, especially while I was growing up. When I’m pushing the thing really hard and almost have a crash, I’m saying to myself that if I was on one of those other bikes I used to ride, I’d be on the ground. That’s how confident I am in the bike.
But the change in 2019 was about more than just the bike, right?
For sure. It was a bunch of things. Even though there’s a bit of negativity around the MX Nats, I enjoyed being there at the races again this season. Also, my girlfriend, Gill, is a physio and she stepped up her involvement with my preparation, training and routine this year. She put a structure in place to help me avoid getting sidetracked, which is so easy to do with all the travel I do. I didn’t miss one training session this year because it was written down on my whiteboard. So it’s a combination of all those things that put me in a happy place; in a good position to win the title.
Watching you operate on the weekend, it struck me that the relaxed atmosphere of the DPH Motorsport team really suits you, too.
It does. And there’s no doubt the team is a major part of the equation. The great thing with the DPH team and Dale Hocking is that it allows me to focus on myself. They supply a bike and what I need to win races. When I turn up on race day, there’s no manager telling me what I should be eating or thinking or how I should be riding the track, and no one filling my head full of bullshit on the starting line. There’s an awesome bike and a lunch container with my name on it (DPH’s Tash Hocking makes me amazing lunches!), but nothing distracting or unnecessary. What more could you ask for? They know I’m doing the work during the week and will turn up on the weekend ready to win, and they create a really positive, fun environment. That works for me. For me, the weekend is just to prove how hard I’ve been working the rest of the time. The DPH team understands that, during my whole life, my best results have come when it’s just been me and my old man racing bikes.
But you almost didn’t sign on with DPH, right?
Right. Late last year, the plan was that I would sign with Honda’s Yarrive Konsky. The deal would allow me to race the first five rounds here and then head to America. Then in December, Yarrive told me there was no budget and tried to low-ball me. I was pretty frustrated with the way that played out because I’d already turned Dale Hocking from DPH down because, as far as I knew, I was racing in America with Honda. When the Honda deal ‘changed’, I phoned Dale back, and fortunately he hadn’t signed anyone else. So we made it happen.
How cool was it to have your old man there with you as your mechanic when you finally won that elusive title?
It was awesome. It doesn’t get any better. I remember winning one of my first races as a seven-year-old at Coolum, and my old man was tearing up. And here we are more than 20 years later, and nothing’s changed [laughs]. I’m so lucky that both my parents have been so supportive my whole racing career. Literally, I reckon there are only 10 races that they missed when I went to Europe. The rest of the time, they’ve been there. The special thing about motocross for me is that it connects our family. My cousin, Jason, now works for the Honda team, so it’s great to have him in the MX Nats paddock too.
Every time you got the red plate this year, you seemed to lose it. What was with that?
Yeah [laughs], that was super-weird. But it wasn’t because I tightened up or choked when I had the red plate; it’s just that the points gap between the top few riders was really close. It wasn’t just me either; when Luke [Clout] got the red plate, he lost it pretty much straight away as well. The big hit I took was at the Wonthaggi round [Round 2], where my subframe broke after I came down in the first turn and someone ran over my bike. I actually got going again, but with the whole subframe busted, the throttle body pulled out, meaning my engine didn’t get much fuel [laughs]. So I lost 35 points there, and was playing a game of catch-up after that.
Speaking of your engine not getting fuel, did it strike you that you almost ran out of juice in that final moto at Coolum? Your bike had, what, 45 seconds worth of burnout fuel in it after you took the final chequers and then it stops dead in its tracks. Tank empty!
I know! I was stressing, man, because I’ve had some bad luck in previous years. Things like that seem to happen a lot. Jeff Leisk ran out of fuel and it cost him a World Championship. I had no doubt in my ability at Coolum – I felt like I could crash in the first corner and still come back to the front of the pack – but I was worried something was going to happen with bike. In 2016, I came third in the title because I derailed a chain. The next year, with Honda, I DNF’ed with a broken hub and that cost me dearly. Those memories were with me for those last few laps at Coolum, so thank God I brought her home.
There was some damn good, clean racing in the MX1 class this year – with you, Clout, Gibbs, Mellross, Long and Metcalfe. From the outside, it didn’t look like there was much dirty riding.
It was good, clean racing. I mean, obviously the boys run it down the inside of you, but I like that, y’know. We all want to win, so aggressive riding is fine with me. I had a ball racing all those guys this year, especially Kirk as we’ve been racing together for many years. Kirk and I always seem to be battling with each other. I was teammates with Luke Clout at Honda in 2017, and he got a couple of podiums that year. He’s young and hungry, and you could literally see him grow in confidence early this season after he got a few wins. I enjoyed racing Luke this year too. He’s a talent. He’s a good starter, and you could see how good his sprint speed was in the back-to-back 15-minute motos. I mean, I regard all those top guys you mentioned as a threat. You can never count any of them out.
You only had 2 points on Clout coming into the series’ final weekend in Coolum, but it’s like you thrived on that extra pressure.
I honestly wasn’t bothered about the points situation and the championship. I was there purely and simply to get good starts and win races. I know my ability and I’m not going to ride over my head to keep up with someone who’s got the holeshot and checking out. But I felt really confident going into that race because it’s a physically demanding track. And that’s my strength.
Coming into the season, did you have a strategy?
Kind of. My goal was just to start the season off slowly and consistently, so I hadn’t worked on my sprint speed back then. I was just doing 40-minute motos and working on my fitness. The plan was to get the first five rounds out of the way, then go to America and work on my sprint speed so I could come back and win the last five rounds. And we nearly did that. I had one bad round at Maitland – I just wasn’t there with my mental preparation and rode shit that weekend – but I won the other four.
And you wrapped up the title with two SuperPole wins and five-from-five moto wins. A clinic, as they say. It looked like you were so composed and confident on the bike. It’s not like you were doing only what you needed to do, especially after Clout crashed on Saturday arvo and lost a bunch of points.
That’s my point. Everyone else was focused on the championship, and when you do that, your whole act turns to shit. At the final round, when you’re doing only what you need to do, you get tight and you don’t ride fast. And that’s when bad things happen. Why would you not want to go out there and win the race? The easiest way to win a championship is by winning the moto because no one’s going to crash in front of you or take you out. I remember back in 2012, when I came second to Josh Coppins in the championship, I won the final moto by 20 seconds and he rode around doing all he needed to do and got sixth. And I thought to myself, ‘I want to go across the finish line in first when I win my championship’.
Even if you’ve only got a splash of fuel left in the bike!
Exactly right [laughs].
Did you realise it’s been 40 years since Husqvarna won an Australian Motocross Championship; since Pelle Granquist in 1979?
No way! No, I didn’t. That’s cool. That makes me even more stoked to win it for Jeff and the whole Husqvarna crew. That history is what’s cool about Husqvarna. I learned a lot about the brand when I went to Europe in 2014, because that was the first year that KTM Austria took over Husqvarna. It’s nice to be part of a company with so much heritage in the sport.
It was nice to see both Kirk Gibbs and reigning champ, Dean Ferris, come up to you at the Coolum preso and congratulate you.
Yeah, that was cool. They’re both good guys and great rivals. I mean, Dean and I just want to beat each other. We hate being beaten by each other. And we’ve had that relationship for what feels like forever. But when things didn’t work out for him in America this year, I was disappointed for him. Just like when a rider moves to Europe, racing in America takes a bit of adjustment time. So it was a shame because I would have liked to see Dean get some good results over there. When we’re not on the same track at the same time, we stoked for each other to do well. And it seemed like he was genuinely happy that I finally won the title here. We’ve got a good rivalry. It’s not a bad thing. We don’t hate each other. We just hate losing to each other [laughs].
Well, it sounds like you and Dean Ferris will be on the same track at the same time next year, meaning the rivalry will resume.
Yep, that’s what I’m hearing too. I honestly look forward to it. The guy motivates me. For instance, when things get tough in the pre-season, I just think to myself, ‘Ferris would be doing it, so I’m going to do it even harder!’ [laughs]. I don’t sit there thinking about how I’m going to beat him; I use the worry that he’s going to smoke me to drive myself harder.