WE RIDE TONY CAIROLI’S AMA 450 NATIONAL KTM 450SXF
With the AMA production rule, Antonio can’t race on the same works bike that he would normally race in the MXGP series here in the States.
Tony Cairoli’s 18-year career was revolutionary for the MXGP World Championship and the KTM brand. After winning two MX2 (250 class) titles in 2005 and 2007 and one MXGP (450 class) title in 2009 on Claudio de Carli’s Yamaha team, the same team transitioned into a factory KTM effort for 2010. That year, Tony was able to bring KTM its first-ever premier-class Championship in the Grand Prix series on the newly developed 350SXF. Cairoli continued to win the MXGP title in ’11, ’12, ’13 and ’14. From there, he won it once more in 2017, this time on KTM’s 450SXF. Tony Cairoli amassed an incredible 93 Grand Prix wins and nine World Championships before retiring after the 2021 season at 36 years old.
As with many racers, retirement didn’t last long for the Italian. Two major strings pulled Tony back to the starting line. (1) Tony, like most GP racers, had always dreamed of racing in the U.S., and now that he wasn’t contracted to represent KTM in the MXGP series, he had the opportunity to chase the American dream. (2) Tony won his first-ever Motocross des Nations overall for Team Italy in 2021, and with this year’s MXDN scheduled at Red Bud, Tony relished the idea of racing with the number-one plate at the event. He wanted to race the AMA 450 Nationals over the summer in preparation for it.
A QUICK CALL TO ROGER DECOSTER OPENED THE DOOR FOR MOTOCROSS ACTION TO TEST THE FACTORY KTM 450SXF TONY WAS RACING IN THE AMA NATIONALS—AN OPPORTUNITY OUR TEST RIDERS NEVER TAKE FOR GRANTED.
Q: WHAT’S DIFFERENT ABOUT CAIROLI’S AMA BIKE COMPARED TO HIS MXGP BIKE?
A: The FIM MXGP World Championship is a “works bike” series. The rules state that one can race virtually any bike design that the factories come out with—so long as it meets the displacement, weight and cylinder rules; however, the AMA National Motocross Championship has a production rule that was introduced in 1985 to keep costs down and limit the performance gap between privateer and factory equipment. Under the AMA production rule, no bike can be raced unless 400 units are homologated and made available to the public. The factory teams can’t use different frames or engines. The engines can be modified, but the bore and stroke must remain the same as stock and so on. The AMA also has a minimum four-stroke weight of 220 pounds for the 450 class and 212 pounds for the 250 class.
In Europe, riders can compete on prototype bikes. They can swap out the frames and engines to run practically whatever they’d like. The 450cc displacement limit is still there, but the rules in general are far less strict. Since retiring at the end of the 2021 FIM 450 World Championships, Tony Cairoli has been helping the KTM MXGP team develop its race bikes. As you would expect, the Grand Prix bikes he raced in 2021 and was helping develop for the future are not legal in the AMA Nationals or Supercross series. Thus, Tony has to race the AMA-legal package that KTM North American has developed for its team.
Tony Cairoli’s Red Bull KTM 450 felt both amazing and horrible at the same time. THE GEAR: Jersey: Fly Racing Kinetic Mesh, Pants: Fly Racing Kinetic Mesh, Helmet: Fly Racing Formula, Goggles: Scott Prospect, Boots: Gaerne SG12.
Q: WHICH PARTS DID CAIROLI BRING OVER FROM EUROPE FOR HIS AMERICAN BIKE?
A: Even though he is retired, Tony has a high-paying contract with KTM Europe to be its brand ambassador. When Tony decided to race stateside, he was still bound by his original sponsorship deals and KTM’s corporate sponsors, which meant that he also brought over a few of his sponsors’ products from Europe.
Instead of running Dunlop tires like the American team, Cairoli uses Pirelli tires. Pirelli is unique in that it doesn’t build special tires for its factory riders. Tony races the same Pirellis that you can buy at your local dealership. Tony runs a Pirelli Mid-Soft front and, where feasible, he runs a Pirelli Scorpion Soft scoop tire in the rear. But, when the track gets hard-packed, he uses the Mid-Soft rear tire. Luckily, his mechanic Richard Sterling mounted the Mid-Soft on the rear for MXA, because it wasn’t deep enough for a scoop during our test at Pala. Cairoli also brought over his GET electronic control unit, and he uses a Regina chain instead of a D.I.D.
The Euro team uses Scrub graphics instead of Decal Works. Tony’s graphics had the number 711 in the shrouds as a memorial for Tony’s former teammate, Rene Hofer, who passed away in a skiing accident in 2021 at the young age of 19.
Q: HOW DOES CAIROLI’S SETUP DIFFER FROM THE U.S. RIDERS’?
A: The most notable difference is that Tony’s suspension is stiffer than Ryan Dungey’s and Aaron Plessinger’s setups by leaps and bounds (more on that later). Tony also uses the stock engine mounts and stock axles front and rear. Both Dungey and Plessinger run custom engine mounts, and they use titanium axles. Also, in addition to running Pirelli tires, Cairoli likes to use Pirelli bib mousses on his front and rear tires. Most American factory riders use standard inner tubes in the front with mousses in the rear, but Cairoli prefers the dead feeling and the added durability that the foam mousses provide. Tony also uses the skinnier 110 rear tire.
Q: WHAT MAKES CAIROLI’S KTM 450SXF FACTORY BIKE SPECIAL?
A: Many of the parts on Tony’s Red Bull KTM 450SXF are customized to his liking, and others were either swapped out or modified to enhance durability. Here’s a list:
(1) Head pipe. Tony’s head pipe is longer than the production Akropovic header to create a broader powerband.
(2) Brakes. He has factory Brembo brakes that are stronger than stock. Plus, he has a front brake master cylinder that is sourced from the 2013-and-earlier 450SXF with a bigger piston that creates better modulation. The front brake lever is wider than stock. It, too, is off an older-model KTM 450. Plus, the levers are Cerakoted dark grey with an engraved TC222 logo.
(3) Suspension. The factory 450 team runs 52mm WP cone valve forks and a factory WP Trax shock.
(4) Engine. The 450SXF engine has been massaged by the KTM Factory Services engine department, but they wouldn’t reveal any secrets.
(5) Radiator. The radiators are 25mm larger than stock. Also, instead of the stock plastic cap that KTM added for 2023, the Red Bull KTM team uses a 2022-style 2.0 radiator cap with a pin added for extra protection.
(6) Tranny. The gear ratio for second and third was customized to pull longer so Tony doesn’t have to shift as often.
(7) Protection. Akropovic makes the carbon skid plate, chain guide and front brake rotor guard that aren’t available to the public—at least not yet.
(8) Grip. The Acerbis frame guards have even more grip than production frame guards.
(9) Pegs. The footpegs are 3D printed out of titanium, and they’re in the standard position.
(10) Triple clamps. The triple clamps are similar to the factory clamps that come on the 2022-1/2 KTM 450SXF Factory Edition, but they are bored out to hold the 52mm forks (rather than the 48mm stock forks).
Cairoli’s factory 450SXF engine has a custom gearbox with both 2nd and 3rd gears designed to pull much longer than stock.
Q: WHICH PARTS CAN YOU BUY?
A: Not all the parts on Cairoli’s bike are factory. The MotoMaster brake rotors, Brembo brake pads, Renthal 604 handlebars, Renthal half-waffle soft grips, Renthal sprockets, Hinson clutch, Twin Air radiator screens, Kite clutch slave cylinder, Selle Dalla Valle seat cover (without the pleats) and vented air box cover are all available to the public.
Q: WHAT’S UP WITH THE GET ELECTRONIC BOX ON THE FRONT FENDER?
A: Did you notice the exotic-looking widget on Tony’s front fender? This is a GET box that lights up to indicate which rpm his engine is running to help Tony launch at the correct rpm on the start. With the GET electronic control unit, Tony can set his launch control to a specific rpm range before the start. This way, if Tony does a practice start on his sight lap at 9000 rpm and his wheel spins too much, he can reset his GET ignition launch control module to limit the rpm to 8500 or lower for the next start to ensure he gets the proper jump out of the gate. Many riders on the starting line use launch control, but theirs are programmed by plugging a computer into the ECU. With this GET device, Tony can set the rpm range himself on the line. Additionally, it doesn’t matter how much Tony tries to rev his engine on the line, it will only rev to the rpm he set.
Q: HOW WERE TONY’S CONTROLS?
A: Surprisingly awkward for how small Tony is. At 5-foot-7, you’d expect Tony to run handlebars that are flat and skinny, but that’s not the case. His Renthal 604 handlebars are on the tall end of the spectrum, and he runs his levers fairly level with the handlebars.
Q: HOW DID THE ENGINE WORK ON THE TRACK?
A: Smooth and fast. Many are led to believe that factory 450 four-strokes are shoulder-yankers that come on with authority, but often that is not the case. Cairoli’s factory 450SXF engine was snappy and responsive as soon as you cracked the throttle, but it was smooth all the way through to the top end. With the quiet Akropovic muffler, 14/51 final drive ratio and customized gearbox, the bike was easy to go fast on. With the customized transmission, second and third gears felt like they never ended. Second gear was long enough to easily hit every jump coming out of a corner at Pala without shifting, yet the bike was powerful enough to use third gear, even in the tightest corners, without any hesitation.
We stuck two Pro-level test riders on Tony Cairoli’s bike, and they both claimed it was the best engine they had ever ridden. In their eyes, it can’t get any better than this.
Cairoli usually runs the Pirelli Scoop tire, but he switches to the Pirelli Mid-Soft tire when the track gets hard.
Q: HOW WAS THE SUSPENSION?
A: It was horrible. The shock was okay, but the forks were insanely stiff. Because the forks were so stiff, they worked amazingly well on a handful of sections on the track and horribly on the rest. We tested Cairoli’s bike at Pala, and the track conditions for our test day weren’t at all comparable to how they were for the Pala 450 National that was held just a few weeks prior. For our test, the track was dry and hard-packed. Only a few sections had decent moisture and ruts. Yes, it got hard-packed at the National, too, but the bumps and ruts were still much bigger than they are on a standard practice day.
There were two sections of Pala where our test riders fully appreciated Tony’s Supercross-stiff, 52mm, WP Cone Valve forks. The first was the awkward uphill roller section, which is right after the start. On an average day at Pala, these rollers are the toughest obstacle. With any other bike, it’s a challenge to stay straight and keep the bike driving forward through these rollers, but with Cairoli’s suspension, it was easy to glide right over the bumps in record time.
The second obstacle that favored these forks was on the far side of the track. In this section, you come down the hill, launch over a step-up tunnel jump into a row of small rollers and then land on a single in the middle of the corner. With normal motocross suspension, sprung and valved for an average Pro (not a Cairoli-level pro), this section will challenge your bike. While going through the rollers, you’re on the brakes, which compresses the suspension. Then you slam into the inside single (which was added to slow you down even more) and it upsets your suspension, making it harder to nail the ruts on the other side. With Cairoli’s factory KTM and his ultra-stiff forks, this roller was practically non-existent. The forks soaked up the single with ease and allowed our test riders to hit this corner faster and with more confidence than ever before.
Q: WHAT IS THE DOWNFALL OF HAVING ULTRA-STIFF SUSPENSION?
A: When the conditions are slippery, when traction is low or when you’re not going wide open, the stiff suspension is very difficult to manage. Apart from the two sections above, the forks were too stiff for our test riders on the rest of the track. It takes a ton of force to compress them. With less weight on the front end, our test riders weren’t confident in sweeping corners, tight rutted corners, dry corners or fast straightaways with bumps. When the forks don’t dive going into corners, the front end is prone to pushing.
Q: HOW DOES TONY CAIROLI RIDE A BIKE THAT IS SO STIFF?
A: With the forks being as stiff as they are, Tony has only two options: Hop through the bumps Euro-style, like they are a mini rhythm section, or smash into them with brute force. Tony’s forks don’t work if you simply ride through bumps. These forks were made to hit big bumps at high speeds. We also learned just how committed Tony Cairoli is to steering with his rear wheel. In relation to his forks, Tony’s shock is sprung to a fairly normal setting. This means that the balance of his bike is weighted more on the rear end.
Tony uses stock engine mounts that have been polished to have a shiny finish, just to look factory.
Q:OVERALL, WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO RIDE TONY CAIROLI’S RACE BIKE?
A: When you are suddenly thrust into the saddle of a nine-time World Champion’s personal race bike, you quickly develop a love/hate relationship with it. On one hand, you never want to come off the track because the power is so pleasant and the stiff forks enable the chassis to glide over the toughest spots on the track with ease; however, the test riders’ bones were rattling and their hands were blistering because they couldn’t maintain Tony Cairoli’s raw speed through the rough. No shame in that; there are very few riders on the planet who can go as fast as Tony—and the MXA wrecking crew already knew that we couldn’t run a pace fast enough to make his setup work to its fullest. In one way, it’s evident just how fast Tony can go, because with him in the saddle his forks looked soft. With us behind the bars, they were brutally stiff.
We felt foolish because we expected Tony Cairoli to run softer suspension than most AMA Pros because he is fairly light, and MXGP racers don’t have to deal with the clang-and-bang style of jumps on a Supercross track since they ride outdoor tracks year round in Europe—unlike the American riders who spend 75 percent of the year racing or testing for Supercross; however, our prediction couldn’t have been further from the truth. His mechanic, Richard Sterling, explained that Tony’s outdoor suspension was very similar to what the factory KTM team uses for Supercross. That blew us away.
MXA VIDEO: WE RIDE TONY CAIROLI’S AMA 450 NATIONAL KTM 450SXF