A MOTOCROSSER ON STRANGE TERRAIN WITH DARYL ECKLUND

The KTM RC390 road bike on the street is comparable to a KTM 125SX on the dirt.

When I hung up my boots and quit AMA Professional racing in 2008, I knew I couldn’t quit the 20-year adrenaline high cold turkey. I wanted to find something that would be easier on my bad knees and my already empty wallet. I watched a lot of road racing at the time, as I felt there was a lot of carry-over from motocross with how they carried their momentum. It was like watching a dance from corner to corner. So, after the 2007 financial crisis, there were a lot of things on sale. I found a 2005 Kawasaki 636 track bike for $5000. I thought it was a steal to go racing to feed my addiction. I soon realized I had jumped the gate and went over the bars when I found out tires alone would cost me five times what I just paid for my track bike within the year. I was still recovering from the financial burden of trying to keep my racing career alive while trying to start a business at the same time. It was the first time I felt like I had to make a big-boy decision. I shelved the track bike and put all my money into my business instead of fresh rubber. That’s right. I bought a track bike and never got to bring it to the track. It was a dream that I never got to turn into reality.

Fast-forward 15 years. I finally got to scratch an itch I was never able to reach. Working at Motocross Action Magazine we get to do lots of cool things. And every once in a while, we veer off the beaten path of motocross and head into the world of other motorsports. These are some of the most exciting adventures we get to go on. The daily grind of riding motocross gets redundant from time to time (yes, we are spoiled, we know), and when something new that involves speed and adrenaline comes along, we can never resist.

“WILL HITTING THE PAVEMENT HURT MORE THAN THE DIRT?” “WILL I COME IN TOO HOT AND GO OFF THE TRACK?” “WILL I GET ARM PUMP?” “AM I GOING TO BE THE SLOWEST ONE ON THE TRACK SINCE I AM A PAVEMENT NEWBIE?”

KTM called Jody to ask if one of the wrecking crew wanted to come to the 2023 KTM RC390 intro at Willow Springs Raceway. Since I was the only one in the crew that lived in the High Desert, I was the lucky one that Jody called. I was elated. Something I had dreamed about for so long was coming to fruition. All I had to do was bring a helmet (luckily, Arai gave me a street helmet when I was in Japan a few years back) and Alpinestars would handle the rest of the gear.

The only thing was, when I had bought that Kawasaki 636 with the dream of going track racing, I was a lot younger, a lot slimmer and had a lot more courage. True, I had said “yes” to the assignment with no hesitation, but then weird thoughts started to creep into my cranium: “Will hitting the pavement hurt more than the dirt?” “Will I come in too hot and go off the track?” “Will I get arm pump?” “Am I going to be the slowest one on the track since I am a pavement newbie?” “Will I stick my leg out in a corner out of habit and get laughed at?” 

Alpinestars Heath Cofran followed Daryl around to teach him the proper technique.

When I was a pimple-faced teenager, my brain never had these kinds of strange thoughts of embarrassment or injury. I remember loving the feeling of pushing the limits on everything I did. It was the best feeling in the world for an adrenaline junkie.

When I got to the track, I was relieved to see the familiar faces of Tom Moen and Andy Jefferson. These are the go-to moto guys over at KTM; however, they weren’t riding, as they had the same trepidations that I did (thanks, guys, for the pep talk). 

AFTER ALL MY COMPLAINING, HEATH GRABBED THE SUIT THAT WAS ONE SIZE UP SO I WOULD STOP WHINING. IN RETROSPECT, I SHOULD HAVE JUST DEALT WITH THE TIGHTER SUIT, AS YOU DON’T EVEN NOTICE IT ONCE UP TO SPEED.

Heath Cofran is the media relations guy from Alpinestars, as well as an expert sport bike racer. He dialed me in with a leather suit, boots and gloves. The setup, including a helmet, runs about $2500, which is about the same as the price of full moto gear (helmet, boots, pants, jersey, goggles, chest protector), especially if you include knee braces. The Alpinestars leather suit was heavy! I was used to minimal, lightweight gear for moto. The suit was around 10 pounds and extremely tight. Heath knew I was a newbie and brought me two suits. The first one was the correct sizing for me, but I felt too claustrophobic in it, as it was hard for me to breathe. After all my complaining, Heath grabbed the suit that was one size up so I would stop whining. In retrospect, I should have just dealt with the tighter suit, as you don’t even notice it once up to speed.  

For a price point of under $6000 the RC390 is cheap fun.

THE RC390 IS A 373CC POWERPLANT WITH A SIX-SPEED TRANNY. YOU MAY THINK THAT IT WOULD OFFER POWER SIMILAR TO A 350 OR 450 FOUR-STROKE; HOWEVER, ALL THE STREET-LEGAL MUMBO JUMBO THAT THE RC390 HAS TO ABIDE BY STEALS ABOUT 10 TO 15 PERCENT OF THE POWER.

KTM makes two Supersport street bike models—the RC8C and RC390. I’m glad I got my feet wet with the smaller-displacement model. The 2022 KTM RC390 is a single-cylinder, dual-overhead-cam engine with a design similar to that of the KTM 450SXF dual-overhead-cam engine from a few years ago. The RC390 is a 373cc powerplant with a six-speed tranny. You may think that it would offer power similar to a 350 or 450 four-stroke; however, all the street-legal mumbo jumbo that the RC390 has to abide by steals about 10 to 15 percent of the power. On the dyno, it produced 45 horsepower and 27 pound-feet of torque. These numbers compare with those of a KTM 250SXF four-stroke. The street bike guys told me this was the “125cc of the Sportbike world.” You could do things on these small bikes that you couldn’t get away with on the bigger displacement bikes. I have always been in love with tiddlers, so this was going to be a great fit.

A majority of the tech that motocross bikes get comes from street bikes. This goes for all the major manufacturers. Think about the last time you saw someone try to kickstart a sportbike? After riding the KTM RC390, I knew what was coming in the future for moto by looking at what the street side was coming out with.

One of the interesting tech things was the Ride by Wire. The throttle is connected electronically instead of by a cable. I thought it was going to feel weird, but it was similar to a cable and had a very smooth feel. Ride by Wire technology allows KTM to include features like Corner ABS and Traction Control into the ECU. Ride by Wire is something I can see coming to motocross in a few years (although, the FIM has banned it for MXGP).

The clutch was a slipper that monitors engine decel so the rear end doesn’t exhibit wheel hop when downshifting into corners. MXA has tested slipper clutches on moto bikes many times in the past, but now we can tone down engine braking with ECU mapping so there isn’t much of a need for slipper clutches in motocross anymore.

Daryl loved that he could ride for a much longer time frame than on a moto track without fatigue setting in.

One other piece of high-tech was the Quick Shift system that allows you to shift without the clutch as the ECU cuts the spark to take the load off of the shift drum. This technology already comes on the 2023 KTM 250SXF, 350SXF and 450SXF  (plus the companion Husqvarna models). I was excited to see how this felt on pavement.

When I go to motocross bike intros, the first thing I do is set the levers and race sag. I didn’t see anyone with T-handles or a hammer and punch at Willow Springs, so I asked one of the street guys, “Do we set the sag on these things?” It wasn’t obvious at first, but suspension isn’t as vital on a road race bike as it is on a motocross bike. Paved road courses don’t have jumps, whoops or huge braking bumps coming into corners, so free sag is the only measurement that they take, not race sag (but I didn’t see anyone measuring free sag, either).

I WOULD HAVE BEEN A FISH OUT OF WATER WITHOUT THE HELP OF CHRIS AND HEATH. RIDING THESE BIKES EFFECTIVELY IS MORE ABOUT TECHNIQUE THAN ANYTHING ELSE. YOU CAN’T JUST GO OUT AND HAIRBALL IT, NO MATTER HOW WELL THAT HAS WORKED FOR YOU IN MOTOCROSS.

It didn’t seem too smart to just pick a bike and go, so I asked for some insight from Pikes Peak and Supermoto Champion Chris Fillmore. He was nice enough to point me to the proper lines on the Streets of Willow course. That simple primer got me on the right track. Chris showed me the lines, but Heath Cofran drilled me on the correct road race techniques. A few of the techniques were the exact opposite of moto. For example, the inside peg is weighted instead of the outside peg. You don’t ever use the rear brake. All your braking is gradual and done before you enter the corner. You keep your legs and arms tucked in. And, of course, you turn left to go right. When I went out to practice the advice that Heath had given me, I was thinking more than riding. I felt more like a robot than Valentino Rossi; however, I know for certain that I would have been a fish out of water without the help of Chris and Heath. Riding these bikes effectively is more about technique than anything else. You can’t just go out and hairball it, no matter how well that has worked for you in motocross.

My first impression of the 2023 KTM RC390 at speed was that it bored me. I couldn’t flail away at the clutch like I would with a 125cc tiddler to get the rpm into the meat of the powerband. I was unimpressed, to say the least. But, after everyone blew by me on the Willow Springs course like I was standing still, I started to think that maybe the bike was just as unimpressed with me.

Pro racer Chris Fillmore helped Daryl learn the basics about riding on the street.

When I was an AMA Pro, physical fitness was the name of the game. But, on the KTM RC390, I could keep spinning laps for what seemed like hours without getting tired. This was my favorite part of the whole experience. I could ride much longer without the fatigue I would experience on a motocross track. The biggest benefit of this was that lap after lap my technique got better and, by the end of the day, I was barely using the brakes in the corners and was pushing the RC390’s limit down the back straight. The name of this game was momentum. If I hit my lines and kept applying the proper techniques, I was far from bored. My adrenaline drip was in overdrive. It was a rush every time I dragged a footpeg through a corner with nothing but little slivers of rubber to keep me on two wheels.

TURNING A MOTOCROSSER INTO A ROAD RACER?

As my day as a road racer was coming to an end, I rocketed into a tight right-hand corner at the end of a fast, 90-mph, blind, uphill bend. My rear wheel broke loose as I got on the gas. It was the first time this had happened to me all day. Luckily, my moto sense kept me calm (or maybe it was the traction control) and kept the RC390 under control. Thinking I had done something wrong, I focused harder and bore down for the next few laps. Guess what? It happened to me five more times. I brought the RC390 into the pits because I felt like my luck was running low. Low and behold, the rear tire was coming apart.

The RC390 is a street-legal bike, not just one you can only ride at the track.

WHAT DID I REALLY THINK?

I haven’t been able to ride that much at once since I was a kid! It was awesome to just keep going and going without having to come in due to exhaustion. I was told by many of the street guys that motocross riders adapt really quickly to sportbikes, and I think that is true. Within a few hours at Willow Spring, I was able to keep the long-time road racers in sight. And, given that this jewel of a little bike has a price point of $5799, I think it is a steal for the amount of fun I had; although, I would need to find a tire sponsor first.

 

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