THE UNIQUE JOURNEY OF SELVARAJ NARAYANA

BY JIM KIMBALL

MXA and Selvaraj Narayana go back to his days at Maico Motorcycles. You probably never heard of him because beyond the inner workings of the motorcycle industry, Sel is one of the many invisible men working behind the scenes to make things happen. Sometimes, they are small things that never get noticed and sometimes they are big things that change the face of motocross. His life story is inspirational and his accomplishments far overshadow his humble roots. Sel Narayana is living proof that hard work and dedication pay off, thanks to the advice that his father gave him, who told young Selvaraj to “Do more than you make.” Read on because you are going to love this man’s journey.

SEL, GROWING UP IN INDIA, YOU GRADUATED WITH AN AUTOMOTIVE TECHNICAL DEGREE. WHAT DREW YOU TO MOTORCYCLES? It was much more economical than buying cars! We did not have anything like an off-road motorcycle in India in those days. I rode a few road races in India, but motocross was non-existent in India. In 1969, I graduated from the Industrial Training Institute of India and moved to Germany where I studied the German language, completed another technical school, and got a job as an apprentice at Maico Motorcycles, which was one of the world’s top motocross brands. I did not make much money. I barely made enough to live, but I was happy to get the job. I always remember the advice that my father gave me. He said, “Do more than you make.” 

WHAT WAS YOUR NEXT STEP INTO MOTORCYCLE ENGINEERING? Maico was a very small company in Germany and needed workers. I went to Germany in September of 1969. When I landed, it was the biggest cultural shock that I had ever experienced in my 22 years. The language was the biggest problem. There was only one guy who spoke English at the factory. In the production line, no one spoke English, which was my third language. People were suspicious of India it was such a poor country.  

DID THAT INCREASE YOUR INTEREST IN MOTORCYCLES? What motivated me is every little part and every technical concept. I wanted to know what the material was. I wanted to know what it was made out of. I was intrigued by motorcycles. The factory managers saw me putting an engine together in my first week there and they were shocked. They did not know my level of expertise. They would not let me touch the transmission because that was the hardest part. In 1969, there were only five people working in the Maico engine department.  

The shy young man from India had the work ethic to go from race mechanic to industry executive. This is Hans Maisch’s bike.

WHAT TURNED YOUR ATTENTION TO RACING? Borje Jansson, who was racing the World Road Race Championships, walked by and saw me working. He said, “I like the way you work, and I want you to build my race engines. Why don’t you go to the races with me?” So, I was moved to the racing department. I used to ride and test all the bikes. I went to the World Championship rounds with Borje, sleeping in the van and tent.

THEN MOTOCROSS CAME INTO THE PICTURE. Yes, after that, Maico wanted me to move to the motocross department. Hans Maisch said, “You should come to the motocross races.” I was not really thrilled about motocross at first, because road racing was classic motorcycle racing for me. But, I needed a job, and I agreed to go to the races. Soon motocross became my passion. Back then, we were doing everything by hand, trying to make sure everything would last for a moto. I cannot explain to you how much fear we had at the starting line. We were like, “What is going to break next? Is a spoke going to break? Did I tighten the rear axle enough? Is the piston going to last?” Those things happened all the time. The main goal was to get the machine to finish the race, regardless of position.

“AT MANY BORDERS, THEY HAD NEVER SEEN AN ASIAN GUY WORKING WITH A GERMAN MOTOCROSS TEAM.  SOMETIMES IT WAS VERY, VERY INSULTING AND EMBARRASSING RUNNING INTO THE WHITE GUYS. I CAN’T DESCRIBE THE FEAR
THAT I HAD BACK IN THOSE DAYS.”

THE STRESS TURNED TO PASSION. The biggest happiness was, “Wow, this machine finished 40 minutes and two laps.” In the evenings, we talked about everything. We never had any free time; we would talk about how we developed the motorcycles; what we did today; and what we had to do next week. We did not have a team manager. We were living in hotels or sleeping on the floor, getting the groceries and using gas burners to cook eggs in the morning. Everything was done in a tent. We did not have any reluctance about driving 15 hours straight to get to a Championship race. 

AS AN INDIAN, HOW WAS THE INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL BACK THEN? I had to go to each country’s consulate general to get a visa and submit letters from the factory. At many borders, they had never seen an Asian guy working with a German motocross team. They always looked at me suspiciously. Sometimes it was very, very insulting and embarrassing running into the white guys. I can’t describe the fear that I had back in those days.  

A very young Selvaraj Narayana in 1971 with a Maico 125 road racer at the Hockenheim circuit.

THOSE WERE THE DAYS OF THE TRANS-AMA SERIES. DID YOU COME TO AMERICA WITH MAICO? Willi Bauer and Hans Maisch wanted to come to the 1972 Trans-AMA, and they wanted me to come with them. I was thrilled to come to the U.S., because the language would be a lot easier for me. Everybody wanted to come to America in those days! In Europe, people were always fascinated with the U.S. I came over with Hans Maisch, and we bought a van and trailer and traveled all the way across the United States and did all the events. With Ake Jonsson, we won nine out of 11 races with one motorcycle and a spare engine. 

QUITE DIFFERENT FROM TODAY. We carried a welding machine on the back of the van and all the parts that we needed. We only had one frame and one spare engine for the entire 12 races, but we did have two spare cylinders. Now there are “part changers,” but we often had to weld our bikes back together. That was the way it was.

IN THE EARLY DAYS, MAICO HAD THE BEST MOTOCROSS BIKES. Yes, even comparing it to today, it was probably the best-turning motorcycle in the history of motocross. I spent a lot of time in the Maico R&D department when they were developing it. The riders get more credit than the engineers, because the riders had to give a lot of input on how it turned and what it needed, including the rear suspension. This was the beginning of moving the shocks forward. The Maico engine had so much torque. The Maico engineers were geniuses. All the Japanese bikes at the time were so peaky.

Stefan Everts, Sel Narayana, Ricky Carmichael and Pit Beirer.

AFTER THE TRANS-AMA SERIES, DID YOU STAY IN THE STATES? Yes, the American Maico distributor was in Pennsylvania. They asked me to stay and not return to Germany. Germany wanted me to come back to work there but later changed their mind and said, “The U.S. needs a guy like you to develop everything.”

EVENTUALLY YOUR ENGINEERING INTERESTS DEVELOPED INTO BUSINESS INTERESTS, DIDN’T THEY? Our priority in those days was making a motorcycle that did not have any failures. Any breakdown was insulting to all of us. Winning races helped the dealers sell more motorcycles. I took great interest in the inner workings of the motorcycle business. Every weekend, we went to the races, and during the week we worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. At night, I went to night school to learn more about everything else. In those days, there was no such thing as a marketing director, because there was no marketing.  

HOW DID THINGS COME TO AN END WITH MAICO? In 1983, the two sides of the Maisch family had some dispute and decided to shut Maico down. In short, they went bankrupt. I stayed with Maico until 1987 to liquidate everything in the hope that some other company would take it over. I still worked with what was left of the Maico dealers, selling parts and bikes and whatever we had left over. By the end of March in 1987, I said, “That’s it!” and I handed what was left to the lawyer and left Maico. 

“TOM MOEN PUT A LOT OF WORK INTO A SUPERCROSS MOTORCYCLE FOR MIKE FISHER TO TRY. WE ACTUALLY WROTE A CONTRACT FOR MIKE FISHER ON TOP OF A WOODEN MOTORCYCLE CRATE.” 

YOU WERE SUDDENLY UNEMPLOYED. WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? I got a call from Mr. Trunkenpolz to come over to Austria. We went to his house for lunch, and he showed me around the KTM factory. He asked me to take over the KTM Western USA office. At the time, Jack Lehto was the President of KTM USA, and Rod Bush was the Eastern Sales Manager. Mr. Trunkenpolz called California and said, “We are hiring Sel for the western office.” And suddenly, I was at KTM. 

WHEN DID KTM START ITS FIRST AMA MOTOCROSS/SUPERCROSS TEAM? Mike Fisher asked if he could try our bikes out. Tom Moen had been a desert racer, but he wanted KTM to get into Supercross in a serious way. Tom Moen put a lot of work into a 1991 Supercross motorcycle for Mike Fisher to try. We actually wrote a contract for Mike Fisher on top of a wooden motorcycle crate.  

Sel and Ake Jonsson at the 500 GP where Ake’s spark plug fell out, costing him the World Championship.

WAS EVERYONE AT KTM INTERESTED IN RACING SUPERCROSS? No. Rod Bush was suspicious, as he felt that Supercross was more of a circus than real racing. Rod felt that not many customers would buy a bike based on Supercross results because it was not a style of motorcycle riding that showed the durability of the motorcycle like motocross did. He didn’t think that a motorcycle needed to jump big jumps in order to sell motorcycles, because the average buyer wouldn’t want to take that many big risks. The perception was that motocross was a true motorsport; that anyone could ride a motocross track, but there were no Supercross tracks in the country for local riders to race on. 

BUT KTM NAMED ITS LINE OF MOTOCROSS BIKES “SX,” AS IN 125SX, 250SX, 360SX? That’s true. I had to call the AMA’s Roy Jansen to ask if it was okay to name our motorcycles SXs. I told Rod Bush we were going to name our bikes SX, and he hesitated because we were not selling a Supercross machine. Plus, there was some concern that Supercross promoter Mike Goodwin might have registered SX as a trademark. Roy Janson called back and said, “Wow, we would be so thrilled if you called your motorcycles SX.” 

DIDN’T KTM HAVE THE FIRST SEMI? I bought the first semi, and I remember everyone saying, “Semis are stupid.” The KTM mechanics and riders wanted box vans, but I forced them to buy a semi. Without a semi, we do not have as big an impact.

Torsten Hallman with Sel at the Glen Helen USGP.

WHY WAS KTM SO FOCUSED ON THE 125 CLASS INSTEAD OF THE 250 CLASS? In truth, we did not have a good 250 engine, and we did not feel that we could afford to sign a really good 250 rider; therefore, we had to get 125 riders. I was the team’s first manager. Plus, KTM had its best engineer in Austria working on a new 125 engine. The last new 250 engine we had was when Broc Glover raced the 250 Grand Prix series in 1989. After that, it was evident that we would soon be needing a four-stroke.

THE KTM 125 TEAM ALSO BROUGHT RED BULL TO AMERICAN MOTOCROSS AND SUPERCROSS. That was the first energy drink, and many people did not know what an energy drink was. When Grant Langston came from Europe to America to race, Red Bull played a big part in that. Red Bull wanted to have potential winners on the team. 

Sel’s first interest in motorcycles was from road racing in India, so when he got to Germany he worked on Borje Jansson’s bikes. This is a hand-built GP bike with a Kawasaki engine in a Bultaco frame.

THE KTM JUNIOR SUPERCROSS CHALLENGE PROGRAM WAS A BRILLIANT MARKETING IDEA. Initially, everyone was saying Supercross was no good for the kids. It was too difficult. Tom Moen and Scot Harden were marketing manager and vice president of marketing respectively, so Scot, Rod Bush and I decided to pitch the KTM Junior Supercross Challenge idea to the AMA’s Roy Janson. We had to put a lot more effort into it as far as building the clothing and going to Italy, getting the parts and building the motorcycle to be more adaptable. Mike Alessi and Tony were involved in that, too, and Mike was the first Coliseum winner.  The idea was to give kids an experience for one day as KTM factory riders. They would race on the same Supercross track as the pros were riding, in front of a massive crowd, on a KTM 50SX. It was, and still is, an experience of a lifetime.

CAN YOU REMEMBER ALL OF THE TOP PRO RIDERS WHO RACED IN THE PEE-WEE CHALLENGE? Oh yes. The list includes Eli Tomac, Justin Barcia, Zach Osborne and Ryan Dungey. That is where KTM marketing really took off. It was my pride and joy to bring the entire KTM clothing line to the world. By around 2006 to 2008, we sold more clothing than motorcycles and had more profitability. I designed the first graphic for KTM, from the round logo to the conventional logo to the graphic logo. When I took it to the factory bosses, they said, “Oh wow, that is what we need.”  

“IN 2008, KTM CEO STEFAN PIERER CAME TO CALIFORNIA AND SAID, ‘SEL, WE WANT TO BUILD MOTORCYCLES IN INDIA. WE WANT TO GO INTO THE MASSIVE STREET BIKE BUSINESS IN THE SOUTHEAST ASIAN MARKET.’”

Sel was awarded the Motorcycle Industry Council Chairman’s Award, as well as the AMA’s Dud Perkins Award and the Mickey Thompson Award.

BUT AFTER ALL OF THIS SUCCESS IN AMERICA, YOU RETURNED TO INDIA. WHY? In 2008, KTM CEO Stefan Pierer came to California and said, “Sel, we want to build motorcycles in India. We want to go into the massive street bike business in the Southeast Asian market. We have linked with Bajaj Auto, and we would like you to take charge of the project.” I could not refuse, but I was still involved with my American projects, so at first I had to do double duty in India and the USA. I traveled to India, Austria and the United States back and forth as we built the Indian production facilities and worked out the logistics for KTM in India. In 2010, I took over all of Southeast Asia as a managing director to develop a distributor base for the street market. I spent eight years on the project, up until 2018. 

“ROGER AND I GO BACK 48 YEARS, BACK TO MY TIME WITH MAICO ON THE GRAND PRIX CIRCUIT IN EUROPE. EVEN THOUGH WE DID NOT WORK FOR THE SAME BRAND BACK THEN, WE HAD BUILT UP A VERY GOOD MUTUAL FRIENDSHIP.” 

Roger DeCoster and Sel have known each other since Roger’s 500 World Championship days. Sel played a big role in getting Roger to switch to KTM.

ROGER SAYS THAT YOU WERE INSTRUMENTAL IN BRINGING HIM TO KTM. IS THAT TRUE? Yes, I could see something was going on between Roger and Suzuki. I could sense that Roger was uneasy about their relationship. Roger and I go back 48 years, back to my time with Maico on the Grand Prix circuit in Europe. Even though we did not work for the same brand back then, we had built up a very good mutual friendship. 

In 2010, we were looking for a new team manager to make our Supercross program stronger. Casey Lytle was the team manager, but he was also the test rider for the R&D department. It was too much for him, and we wanted Casey to focus on R&D. I spoke to Roger and could tell that he was unhappy at Suzuki. I have never met a man who knows as much about motorsports as Roger. Not just the theory behind it, but he actually loves to make things and work with his hands. I recently saw him build an air shock by hand. His priority is making things work. I knew he was the perfect person to bring our technology to the riders, the bike and the team and to bring KTM the Supercross Championship. I approached Roger about coming to KTM, and the rest is history.

ROGER MADE KTM THE PREMIER TEAM IN THE SPORT ALMOST IMMEDIATELY. It was Mr. Pierer’s mission to bring the best of the best to the company—in machinery and people. KTM prides itself on being motorsport-oriented. We are deeply involved in motorsports, from the Pee-Wee to the two-stroke to the four-stroke to Rally to MotoGP to the X-Bow car. KTM is committed. From North American president John Hinz on down, everyone at KTM rides and races motorcycles. Every one of our Vice Presidents, sales managers, technicians and mechanics rides. That is key, because it means that we understand the motorcycle consumer directly and also understand what KTM dealers have to go through in order to sell a motorcycle. I cannot think of any other motorcycle brand that has as much hands-on experience—from warehouse manager all the way to the front office, with riding and racing the products they work on.   

KTM, Husqvarna, GasGas and WP owner Stefan Peirer has believed in Sel’s capabilties since day one.

YOU ARE NOW A DIRECTOR AT KTM NORTH AMERICA? Yes. In 2018, I came back to the U.S. full-time, and I do everything I can do for motorsports, administration and marketing. I have been assigned to take over part of the Mexico operation.  

WHAT IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SUCCESS OF KTM, HUSQVARNA, AND GASGAS OVER THE LAST DECADE? I think the number-one thing is the product. It was built to fit the needs of the consumer. Number two is the strength of our dealer network in North America. Under John Hinz, all of the group’s executives have aggressively taken a big step towards servicing the dealers.  

 “I THINK THE NUMBER-ONE THING IS THE PRODUCT. IT WAS BUILT TO FIT THE NEEDS OF THE CONSUMER.” 

WHAT’S NEXT FOR KTM? Our electric minis are state of the art, and you can see it at Supercross. We have put solar panels on our KTM Junior Supercross Challenge semis, built special charging stands for the bikes, and the technology is a very successful story. Electric power is what this segment really needed. The parents do not have to work on an electric Pee-Wee. They do not have to worry about jetting, gas and oil. They do not have to kickstart it. There is no gasoline smell. Plus, the TPI fuel-injected two-stroke technology is the invention of a lifetime. One ride on a TPI bike will convince you that the two-stroke is not dead.

Sel has held numerous positions at KTM in Austria, America, India and now Mexico, but he loves race mechanics like Carlos Rivera because that is how he started back in the Maico days.

GIVE US YOUR FINAL THOUGHTS ON DIRT BIKES. In these stressful times, consumers are seeking more outdoor activity. Psychologically, they want to go out and have fun. Dad goes riding, and the son wants to go with him. The son does not want to sit with the computers and play games, he wants the real thing. Innovation comes first at KTM. We are all racing-oriented and want to give the best to our customers. KTM’s mindset is the same as Roger Decoster’s—we both do things one level higher and one step better than our competition.

Adolf WeilAKE JONSSONBorje Janssoncasey lytleHans MaischJack LehtoJohn HinzktmKTM Junior Supercross ChallengeMaicorod bushroger decosterScot Hardensel narayanaselvaraj naryanastefan peirerTom MoenWilli Bauer