What is it like to be a British mechanic abroad? Ben Griffith is currently working his way through the Australian Supercross Championship with Empire Kawasaki’s Bradley Taft and chucked this piece together to give some insight into his journey. What does being a professional mechanic actually entail? How does the Australian scene differ to the European racing? Read on to learn more about Griffith’s experience on the other side of the world.
After the flag fell at the final round of the Australian Motocross Championship, it was time to load the truck up and head back to Empire Kawasaki’s race team headquarters in Melbourne, Victoria. When we got back to the factory to finish up, the team talk quickly turned to 2019 supercross.
This year I was approached by the manager about taking on young American Bradley Taft for the supercross season and asked what I thought about building his bikes and working with him. My first port of call was to phone my friends in America, Cari and Brian Schehr. They had Bradley live and train at their MX facility in Southern California, Gristone Compound. I fired off several questions at them, asking if Brad’s been riding much and for their thoughts on him.
Brian got straight to the point and said, “Benny get him there, he’s been training with Gareth Swanepoel and the kid just wants to prove his worth.” The Schehr family’s been in the moto world for more than a decade and have both worked with – and trained – some of the top professional riders. I don’t hesitate to take Brian’s advice before Cari backs him up and says, “Taft looks fit and healthy, every time I’ve seen him at the tracks he’s always been happy and very appreciative of what he gets.” Cari is also a fitness trainer for the riders at Grindstone Compound as well as being a riding coach, so she deals with a lot of pro riders every day.
It’s all the reassurance I needed before saying to the Empire manager, “Let’s get him here if the figures work for the team.” Two weeks later, Taft landed on Aussie shores and I was deep into building him a competitive 2020 KXF250 race bike. I started him out with a bit of motocross to get him into riding the Kawasaki: We rode at the team owner’s private track. After a few days riding and a few engine modifications, Taft caught up on rest and I cracked on with getting his bike ready for supercross as well as arranging supercross suspension with SPMX.
It’d been a while since Taft had rode supercross, so we broke into it slowly and used two tracks to test on. One was Daniel Sanders’ track, a top enduro rider here in Australia. The other belongs to a local vegetable farmer Craig Heppel. Heppel happens to loves the sport as much his spuds and has a full-size track with a full watering system at his property, which we were lucky enough to access. Over the next couple of weeks, a lot of our work together was about testing the bike. We covered everything from suspension work with Steve Powell from SPMX to engine and different gear ratios.
In the last fortnight leading up to round one, Taft and I concentrated on doing race day schedules and sprint work. There were a few starts but not too many, just so he didn’t overthink the whole process. My main goal was to keep it fun. A couple of days before we were scheduled to leave, the race bikes were built and the entire team headed out for Empire’s team photos. Taft broke his race bike in with two of our other Empire riders who are on 450s, Dylan Long and Lawson Bopping.
Once the boys have finished the shoot, Daniel Sanders wanted to leave us all with a smile. He pulled out his Husqvarna 501, did a few laps on his motocross track and cut a few more on his endurocross track. Seeing Sanders ride around there with all the obstacles, we all have a newfound respect for the enduro side of our sport – it’s gnarly. Back at the factory, I stripped and cleaned Taft’s bikes and built them back up. Those were the final few touches, so there was then one last truck check for all the correct parts and we loaded the bikes up.
Along with getting Taft’s bike in order, I also co-drive the race truck with another gent. It was a little over 20 hours of driving up to Brisbane Entertainment Centre, so we set off three nights before race day. Pulling into the stadium, the promoters directed us to our parking spot and we got our position. It’s the behind-the-scenes stuff that most people don’t see like unloading the truck, then setting up the awning and our mobile workshop for race day. The two of us now have it down pat – we were set up in just over two hours.
It’s only then that the riders and the rest of the team have flown in, arriving at the stadium before we all call it a day and head back to the hotel to get ready for a team dinner. The next morning, we have a bit of a later start time. First up at the stadium, we have rider sign-in then track walk and a riders briefing. Taft and I both commented on how small the track was as we walked it – it was sure to produce close, one-lined racing. We then walked back to the truck together and made a plan for the day.
Taft got ready whilst I had one last check over the bike before warming the green machine up. Taft was slotted into A-practice, which is what we wanted. He starts a little slow but quickly gets up to speed and finds a flow – practice is only six minutes and that isn’t long at all to work out a new track. After practice, we debrief about how it went. Taft is candid and admits he rode tight and didn’t ride like he knows he can. I made some small changes to the bike and then, before we knew it, it was time to head back out to staging for qualifying.
It only took half a lap for me to see he was feeling better. Taft got in some excellent clean laps and qualified sixth, just one-tenth off of second place. Heading into the night show, Taft is put into heat two. Being a small indoor arenacross-style track, only ten riders are taken through to the main events (four out of the heat races and two out of the last chance qualifier). Taft knew a good start and clean laps were key.
In his heat he had reigning champ Australian Jay Wilson and two American riders, Mitchell Oldenberg and Josh Osby. Taft got a good jump out the gate but clipped another rider and had to shut off before being boxed out. He got around the first turn cleanly in fifth and put in some clean laps to take fourth in his heat – that was enough to progress straight through to the mains. He told me he was happy with how his bike felt and didn’t want to make any changes.
Taft had eighth gate pick for the first main event, which saw him sent to the outside – not the best position. Taft started with a pretty good jump out of the gate and came around the first turn in sixth. Within two laps, he was into fourth and all over Kyle Webster in third. I could see Taft was eagerly searching for a place to pass Webster and then as the two riders came up to the finish line, they collided and both went down. Taft’s fork guard was ripped off, he had snapped the front brake lever and the triple clamps were all bent. He still finished up in sixth place though.
Knowing there were only about five minutes until the next main event, I ran back to the pit area and got parts ready to put on his bike. When Taft got back to the pits he was clearly frustrated, but I just concentrate on getting the bike ready. That was a scramble given the turnaround time. Taft has already headed back to the staging area to wait for me.
The card went up and with the same start gate as main event one, he got a horrible jump and came out of the first turn in tenth. He didn’t lose focus though and kept his head down before making some passes to finish in sixth at the flag. That put him in sixth-place overall for the night. It was not the night he or I wanted to achieve, but Taft told me he was healthy and hungry to show what he has at round two in Adelaide.
Just as the night comes to an end, we all spend time reflecting on round one while we pack the truck up. Before we know it, we are all loaded up and my co-driver and I are heading back down south to do it all again next weekend. I hope you’ve enjoyed a little insight into the first round of what happens down here in Australian racing.
Words: Ben Griffith | Lead Image: Supplied