3 months ago | Words: Andy Wigan | Photos: Foremost Media

Modest. Understated. Down to earth… They’re three words not often used to describe young motorcycle racers. But after getting off the phone with 20-year-old GASAGAS Racing Team rider, Mason Semmens, I can’t think of three more fitting adjectives for the bloke. Traditionally, off-road and desert racers don’t hit their straps until their mid to late twenties. But just two Covid-affected seasons into Semmens’ professional off-road racing career, this young Victorian is already trading stopwatch times – and banging bars – with the world-class talent that spearheads Australia’s off-road and desert racing scenes.

So, how has Mason Semmens managed to get on the pace so quickly? How much of his success does he attribute to Daniel Milner’s mentoring role? What’s it feel like to hand the reanimated GASGAS their first off-road and desert-racing wins in Australia? And what are his future career plans? I sat down with the humble kid from the Yarra Valley to find out a little more about what makes him tick…

Podium at Round 2 AORC Championship

TM: You’ve only become a household name in off-road circles in the past two years – first, after scoring the Factory KTM seat as Daniel Milner’s teammate last year, and then moving to GASGAS for 2021. But you’ve actually been connected with KTM’s ‘group’ of brands for quite a while now, right?
MS: I have. Back in 2013, I was racing a TM 85. I was always near the pointy end at state-level motocross racing, but never won any nationals between the ages of eight and 13. And then in 2014, I was fortunate enough to get a ride with KTM’s Junior factory team. That was a really big thing for me as a 13-year-old, and I managed to win the state MX title that year on KTM’s 85SX big-wheel. So, yeah, I have been together with the same group of people for quite a few years now, and it’s great to be able to build on that relationship over the years.

And you went on to win a few Junior national titles with KTM.
Yep. In 2016, I won two Australian titles – on the 125cc two-stroke and 250cc four-stroke – and then the 125cc title in 2017. The top guys I was battling in those seasons were Bailey Malkiewicz, Rhys Budd and Regan Duffy. We all had a pretty good rivalry going on.

“I wasn’t enjoying myself that much in the first two years of racing motocross in the Seniors. But racing off-road has really brought the joy back into the sport for me.”

So, explain the move from motocross to enduro. When was off-road racing first in your sights?
Well, my dad used to ride off-road, so I pretty much started riding in the bush. In 2019 – with the help of Tam Paul, who had been my KTM Team Manager as a Junior – I signed on with Davey Motorsports, which was KTM’s Under 19 team for the MX Nationals. That deal was only to race motocross, but I’d always like the idea of racing off-road. As a Junior, I’d done a round or two of the AORC [Australian Off-Road Championship] when it came to Victoria. So, after copping a few injuries that 2019 season, two good mates who were doing well in the AORC – Lyndon Snodgrass and Daniel Milner – started suggesting I try off-road racing. We all come from the same area, southeast of Melbourne, and after riding with those guys in the bush a bit, they seemed to think I could do alright in the AORC. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say they talked me into it [laughs]. Honestly, I think it’s the best move I’ve ever made. With a few injuries, I wasn’t enjoying myself that much in the first two years of racing motocross in the Seniors. But racing off-road has really brought the joy back into the sport for me.

Milner and Snodgrass had to talk you into it? Surely, when you smoked everyone in the AORC’s EJ (Under 19) class at the end of 2019 in that end-of-season cameo appearance at Hedley, you could have talked yourself into it.
Yeah, maybe [laughs]. I did alright there at Hedley.

“I’m so glad I listened to Lyndon Snodgrass and got off to couch to give the AORC a crack because I think my results that weekend is what got me the factory ride with KTM in 2020.”

Alright? I was just revisiting the results from that round. Mate, you won Saturday’s cross-country, beating the next guy in the class – Kyron Bacon, who went on to win the title – by three minutes! Then on Sunday, you won again, bettering second place by 50 seconds. And you ran 10th and 7th Outright that weekend! That’s not doing ‘alright’; that’s announcing your ‘arrival’!
Hedley was my first win at the AORC, and my one and only AORC appearance in 2019. I did do a round in 2018, but Michael Driscoll beat me that weekend. I actually wasn’t going to race Hedley because I’d only been back on the bike for about three weeks after busting my wrist at the MX Nationals, and Hedley was a three-hour cross-country. But, thankfully, Lyndon [Snodgrass] talked me into it. It was the hardest race I’d ever done. I was cooked and nearly passed out cos I was so dehydrated. I’m so glad I listened to Snoddy and got off to couch to give it a crack because I think my performance that weekend is what got me the factory ride with KTM in 2020. Basically, I filled Lyndon’s seat in 2020, when he went over to America to race the GNCC.

Winning the EJ class so convincingly is one thing, but going 7-10 Outright there at Hedley is phenomenal for your second ever Senior race in the AORC.
I went into that weekend with no expectations, but… Yeah, those Outright results were what really surprised me and they made me think I could make something of racing the AORC. As a young EJ rider not in the E1, E2 or E3 Pro classes, it was so good to see how I measured up against the top guys in the series through the Outright results. So, I’m not sure why they keep the Outright on the downlow so much these days. Looking back, I think that weekend really set the tone for my racing career.

You also did bloody well at the Hattah Desert Race in the 2019 season. You won the Under 19 class and ran top 10 Outright!
Yep, I’d just turned 18 and won the Under 19s class that year on a KTM 450EXC-F and got fifth Outright. I prologued 15th, which I was disappointed about because I’d put in a fair bit of work in the sand with Lyndon and [Daniel] Milner leading up to Hattah. But I got off to a good start and at my first fuel stop, I was surprised to hear the boys telling me I was in fifth or sixth Outright! I was hooting at the spectators on the side of the track and having an absolute ball.

“I’d say I enjoy the cross-country races more than Sprints because I feel it gives me the opportunity to do something with it. But I wouldn’t say I favour one or the other.”

You’re obviously not short on stamina, but would you see yourself as more of a Cross-Country or Sprint format guy?
I’d say I enjoy the cross-country races more because I feel it gives me the opportunity to do something with it. With the Sprint format, you’ve got to be super-sharp and on your game or you won’t be winning. But I wouldn’t say I favour one or the other.

“Daniel Milner has helped me with everything. Not just racing speed and strategy, but training and preparation and travel. There’s rarely a day when we’re not riding or training together, or both – on tracks, bicycles or at the gym.”

Tell us about scoring that factory seat alongside Daniel Milner on the Factory KTM team in 2020. Not bad for an 18-year-old!
At the end of 2019, I remember asking Glenn Kearney [KTM’s Motorsport Manager at the time] whether there was a possibility of getting some sort of support for me to go off-road racing in 2020. I was looking at a bike and contingency program, rather than any sign-on. At the same time, Lyndon decided to go race in America, so I guess I was lucky enough that that opportunity opened up for me. Actually, the initial plan was for me to be Chucky’s [Daniel Sanders] teammate on a Husqvarna, but Lyndon’s departure left that KTM seat open. And seeing as I as already good mates with Milner, the KTM option made a lot of sense. Andy Wilksch then joined Chucky on the Husky team.

At that first round in 2020, you’re straight into battle with Luke Styke, the E1 class reigning champ.
Yep, I ran a close second to Styke on the Saturday, and then got the win on Sunday. He did have a little crash that helped my cause, but being that close to him at the opening weekend’s racing surprised me a bit. I’d put in a lot of pre-season preparation with Milner, but I was still surprised that I was right there on the pace at Round 1. Looking back, I think I was I little more nervous than I normally am simply because I was on factory team and because expectations come with that. But after the first Sprint loop, where I was third Outright, I felt like I belonged near the front of the time sheets and relaxed a bit. From there, I got through the rest of the weekend pretty clean, and it was a great start to my season.

But then that 2020 season was cut short when Covid hit. You guys only raced one more round at Dungog before the curtain came down.
Yeah, I ran second in E1 on the Saturday at Dungog and seventh Outright, but then Sunday got rained out and we didn’t race. And that was the end of the season. Apparently, three rounds is enough to decide the championship, so I lost that 2020 E1 title by just 1 point to Stykey.

“Milner knows how to get to the top, and he’s prepared to share that with me, so I do my best to just take it all in. I’m grateful to have a guy like that in my corner.”

Tell us more about your relationship with Daniel Milner. Even though you guys are rivals, it sounds like he’s taken on a real mentor-type role with you.
I first met Daniel in 2017 at Ross Beaton’s Pro Formula training camp, when he first joined KTM. I’d been real good mates with Lyndon Snodgrass since we were young, and got to know Daniel through Lyndon when they were teammates in 2017. The three of us started riding and training together, and then we travelled to Hattah together. It all just built off that. Milner has so much experience in off-road racing. In the past 12 years, he’s become a multiple national champ and a world champ, so I feel privileged that he took me under his wing.

How and where has Milner helped you the most?
With everything. Not just racing speed and strategy, but training and preparation and travel. Everything! I’m grateful to have a guy like that in my corner. He’s more than happy to help me. And when we went to Hattah this year and ran 1-2, that was pretty cool. It showed that all our hard work paid off. There’s rarely a day when we’re not riding or training together, or both – on tracks, bicycles or at the gym. He knows how to get to the top, and he’s prepared to share that with me, so I do my best to just take it all in.

Did you ever experience the same sort of mentoring in motocross circles?
Nah. There’s a lot more tension and secrecy in the motocross scene. People do their own thing. That’s what I love about the off-road scene. Every gets along. Everyone helps each other. Everyone is working towards the same goal. I mean, obviously people have their rivalries, but it’s cool to see that so many guys are training partners who race against each other on the weekend. That sort of rivalry makes you both push harder.

Righto, so let’s turn our attention to this season. Not a bad way to start it for both Milner and you at the AORC’s Rounds 1 and 2 at Golden Beach!
I went 1-1 in the E1 class and 4-3 Outright. Which is really good, especially when you consider that 250s generally aren’t the bike of choice for sand. That third Outright on Sunday was a personal best for me, so it confirmed that I’d been doing the right things in the off-season. It was a great weekend, so it’s just a bummer that we haven’t been able to race any more rounds and showcase what we’re capable of.

How did it feel to give the ‘rebooted’ GASGAS their first national-level win here in Australia?
It was definitely cool to bring a fresh team and fresh bike into the scene. It’s a bit of history that no one can take away from us. A few people told me the GASGAS was the best-looking bike in the pits too, so you can thank my mechanic, Jordan Yeo, for that. He did a ripper job. It was really gratifying for me to give something back to all the GASGAS crew and to the KTM group as a whole because I’ve been with them since 2014. With Milner, Todd Waters and me going 1-2-3 Outright on Sunday at Golden Beach aboard KTM, Husky and GASGAS machinery, it says a lot about the bikes’ capabilities.

At 20, you’re still young – especially in off-road racing terms – but you’ve already proved you can be competitive on a 450. So why the repeat year on a 250 this season?
In a way, it wasn’t my choice. As the top guy, Milner gets to choose what he gets to ride. His preference was the 500cc in the E3 class this year. As Todd races the 450 in MX, that was the obviously choice for him. So that left me with the 250. Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy riding it. As I’ve been racing that same 250cc motor since 2015, I’m familiar with the package and how to get the most out of it. And from the KTM group’s point of view, the three of us are covering the E1, E2 and E3 classes. I’ve got to say hats off to our Team Manager, Kyle Blunden, who’s done an awesome job managing all three brands’ racing efforts in what’s been a really difficult environment with Covid.

Speaking of a KTM group 1-2-3, it happened again at this year’s Hattah Desert Race in July with Milner, you and Husky-mounted Callum Norton locking out the Outright podium?
We had a great time at Hattah this year. And it was a really good weekend for me. I got the second-quickest time in Saturday’s top-10 shootout and the fastest lap of Sunday’s race. I learned a lot from battling with Milner during the race, and even led a for a bit over a lap after he overshot a corner on the opening lap. After four hours of racing, I ended up finishing second Outright to Milner by about 40 seconds. And I won the 450cc class.

As we speak, the ISDE has just taken palce in Italy. Is being part of an Aussie team tilt at the ISDE on your radar?
For sure. Big-time! I really want to be part of a national team at an international event like that, but I haven’t even been part of a 4-Day enduro back here in Australia yet. It’s all ahead of me. Unfortunately, Australia didn’t have a team entered this year at the ISDE, but the second I get the chance I’ll be doing my best to be part of it. Right now, though, I’d be happy to race anyone, anywhere.

Good to speak, Mason. I can’t help thinking that you’ll be big part of the future of both GASGAS and the off-road racing scene for many years.
I hope so. My pleasure. Thanks, Andy.

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