Shane Watts: Small-bore Aussie Battler

Watts (left) and the author during a recent trail ride near Maffra, Victoria.

The original off-road wild child heads home to Australia.

  By Jerry Bernardo  
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By Jerry Bernardo

Former professional off-road motorcycle racer Shane Watts may have a reputation as something of a rebel that overshadows his much more deserved status. Take a few minutes to give the history books a good read and you’ll soon find that they’re loaded with “Wattsy’s” accomplishments, which includes winning on the world’s biggest stages.

Granted, dig a bit further and you’ll find a chapter about behavior that would commonly be considered brash and wild. (Hey, when you’re young and on top of the world, conventional conduct is too confining, right?)

The “Maffra Mauler” has always blazed his own path and during his career gained countless fans from all corners of the globe. From small-town country Victoria to the world’s biggest mud-soaked stage, this ripper who preferred small-bore two-strokes convinced himself he could always get the job done—and he did. No one else can boast having won GNCC races on six different sized KTMs (from 125cc two-strokes to 525cc four-strokes) or winning the ISDE overall on a 125.

Circa 1995 World Enduro with Alfie Cox from South Africa. Photo: Shane Watts.

Shane Watts is a no-frills, no-bullshit kind of guy and happily slept in his car the night before a race when he first began chasing Enduro World Championship titles in Europe with nothing more than his bike, a cheap used car and fierce determination. The next morning, unscathed by his accommodations or the lack of a factory big rig to curl up in, Wattsy would suit up, get on his bike, do a burnout on the starting line and then proceed to go out and smoke everyone in the field. This racer-turned-teacher/father/businessman is not like everybody else and that’s what I like about him.

Now that I live in the same country where Watts grew up, I get it: Rebel or not, Shane Watts is just an Aussie.

Jerry Bernardo: Wattsy, our implanted tracking device has had you criss-crossing all over America for 16 years now. What made you pull the pin and come home to Australia?

Shane Watts: Well, mate, there were several reasons why and they range from having my wife and kids experience a new country, my kids getting to know my side of the family better, but ultimately the catalyst was because one of our kids has some surgeries and significant dental work required in the very near future. With the overall health care system in the U.S. being so ridiculous, we were going to be out of pocket probably close to $100k for this, whereas in Oz we will basically get it all done for free because of the different health care system here. Predominantly then, it was a financial reason we moved here, because we could, and if it wasn't a great move then we could always easily move back to the U.S. I really enjoy the U.S., and my 16 years of living there was a fun time, but Australia is the best place ever, and now that I've been back here for about 10 months, I won't be moving away from here ever again.

JB: Much like Tommy Norton’s legendary win at the Blackwater 100 on a KTM 125, you went down in history as being the only rider to ever win the Six Days overall on a small-bore machine. Did you go into that 1998 event confident you could come away with such an epic result against the world’s best?

SW: For sure, mate! You could argue that I was already one of the world’s best before that event so I was fairly confident in my ability and chances, but there was still that usual amount of uncertainty before the race that we all get. I had won the World 125cc Enduro Championship in 1997, but then at the 1997 ISDE I busted the ACL in my left knee. What followed that was three full ACL reconstructions in the next five months due to me being such a bonehead, thinking I was invincible and superhuman. I thought that I actually didn't have to do any rehab work following each of the first two reco jobs. After the third one I did do the necessary strengthening work and stayed off the bike for four months, which then gave me about two months of riding time before the 1998 ISDE was to start.

A 1998 poster after winning the 1997 125cc World Enduro title. Photo: Shane Watts.

JB: I researched you and stumbled upon this line on Wikipedia: “Watts was noted for his unpredictability and disregard for injury.” Is this true or false?

SW: Definitely TRUE, all capitals (laughs)! So much of that unpredictability, though, came from one of the main motivating factors that I used for my success and that was to prove people wrong. If I heard it couldn't be done, then I'd want to do it that way. I didn't conform to the normal way; I was unique, and a lot of times seemed to need to do things a different way to achieve the same result. My strong self-belief and feeling that I wasn't like normal people in regard to recovering from injury meant I didn't give injuries the respect they deserved.

Nowadays, my main goal is not to get hurt.

JB: We just went on an epic trail ride out of your hometown in country Victoria. When you were young and riding around all of the pristine trails so close to home, did you have any idea what sort of an off-road nirvana you held the key to?

SW: I didn’t. You don't realize those kinds of things until you've travelled the world some and see how closed off and restricted many other places are. We have such a variety of riding and terrain in this area and that makes it very diverse. It certainly is an awesome place to live and grow up.  It's got all of the things that I'm looking for, not just for riding dirt bikes but also for raising kids and living the lifestyle that I enjoy most.

"Politics go on in every form and aspect of life so you just have to resign yourself to the fact that’s the way it is. You’re better off to just focus on yourself and blaze your own path forward within that system without trying to change the politics side of it." – Shane Watts

JB: If you had your way would you choose correcting motorcycle industry politics or adjusting berms saturated with perfect traction?

SW: I'd prefer to be able to go out and adjust moto industry politics to be more in line with the way I think it should run, but unfortunately that is a battle that simply can't be won. Politics go on in every form and aspect of life so you just have to resign yourself to the fact that’s the way it is. You’re better off to just focus on yourself and blaze your own path forward within that system without trying to change the politics side of it. So my answer: I would rather be moving berms. I just wish I had more confidence now when I am riding to lay it over further than I currently do and really smash berms like I want to.

1991 and today (2017). Left Photo: Shane Watts.

JB: Would you care to touch base on the little “fireside chat” you had with an elder statesman while clogged at a bottleneck at the infamous Moose Run one year in Illinois?

SW: (Big laugh) That chat was a classic one! I think you must be talking about the time that I got into it with Dick Burleson. We took off from the start and he actually passed me in the first long cornfield section because his bike had a higher top speed.

When we got into the bush section he was going slow and he wouldn't get out of the way so I was up him, yelling at him to move. We popped out to the next field section and he pulled away again, but then back in the bush he's just holding us all up. I was so pissed, I was screaming every expletive that I could at him to get the fuck out of my way.

I ended up passing him, but then a couple miles later there was some old fencing wire on the ground as the trail went up an embankment. The wire got wrapped in my rear wheel and took me about 30 seconds to try to untangle it. Obviously, then a small bottleneck happened behind me because there was no way around, but old mate Dick tried to skirt around it all regardless.

I got going and down the trail a bit is where he is [now] joining back onto it. At that point he loses his balance a little and stops to gather it back up, partially blocking the trail. By now I'm raging and I see it's him so as I squeeze by [him], I kick his bike down and give him a mouthful of what I think. Out the corner of my eye I see him dive towards me and try to tackle me off my bike. He was just a split second too late and he ended up missing me and nose-diving onto the ground. It was so funny!

Anyway, after the race I hear that he's whining and bitching to [promoter] Bill Gusse that he wants me disqualified and so on, yet DB wouldn't come and talk to me face-to-face about his concerns, even though we were parked only a few trucks away from each other.

When the whole debacle got real shitty though was the following week when he spent several days calling around to all of my current sponsors telling them they needed to drop me right then, mid-season. That guy was so childish and is such a wanker.

JB: So now you’re flip-flopping back and forth between the States and Australia to continue running the Dirt Wise Schools. Will the school locations be divided 50/50 or is it still mostly a U.S.-based program?

SW: The ratio of schools will be about 50/50 split between here and there, but really now, I'm actually trying to not work these days. I'll have to keep doing some schools in the future to help offset some expenditure because we aren't quite where we need to be yet for me to fully retire, but it's certainly at the stage of being able to semi-retire.

Unfortunately, it’s really hard for me to not do heaps of schools because of the huge demand we have worldwide and because of the large amounts of income available. I do still really enjoy seeing students make progress with their skill set improvements. Now that we're fairly financially set, I want to start having a few weekends off doing what I want to do instead of spending all my weekends away from family and friends on the other side of the world like I’ve been doing for so many years.

1992 ISDE in Australia. Photo: Shane Watts.

JB: Given the wide variety of age brackets you have instructed over the years, what would you say is the number one thing the average rider needs to improve on?

SW: Definitely the main thing would be getting seat time on a regular basis, but under that broad general umbrella of more seat time is that the rider needs to knows the correct riding technique they should be utilizing. Once they get comfortable at their current skill level, they then need to push their limits incrementally each time they ride in order to progress to a higher skill level. Too many riders don't believe in themselves and are too scared to push their limits. The easiest and safest way of doing that is to do isolated skills improvement exercises over a period of time.

JB: During our trail ride we stopped on top of a pristine lookout above Maffra and you mentioned some bucket list events you wanted to have a crack at.  Would you care to fill us in?

SW: In a few months time I'm heading over to France to ride the ISDE again, I'm really looking forward to. I'm not going for a result—I'm going because it's such a cool event and the atmosphere there is top notch; I just want to experience it again.

I was meant to do the Hattah desert race in Victoria in early July this year. It looks like such a great race and I've never done it before, but I had to skip it to cover for some planned schools in the U.S. so I'll have to wait until 2018 to have a crack at Hattah.

The Dakar Rally would be a great event to compete in, but I never will be able to because of the costs involved with it. One of these years soon I'll do the Finke desert race in central Australia. I don't really care for racing any of these events; I just want to do them because of the awesome atmosphere each one of them generates and I want to experience it all.

I'm heading over to France to ride the ISDE again, I'm really looking forward to. I'm not going for a result—I'm going because it's such a cool event and the atmosphere there is top notch; I just want to experience it again. – Shane Watts

JB: Give us your take on the best and worst parts of the motorcycle industry in general.

SW: The best part for sure—and you could even say it’s not even in the "industry" part of the sport—is to just get out and go riding. It doesn't have to be on one of the new fandangled bikes–an old clunker will essentially do just as good a job.

The worst part is the lack of noise reduction efforts by the manufacturers, plus the drive by them to have higher tech bikes and that is just pushing the costs up and making it harder for the average guy to be able to easily fix their own bike. There's some other equally important things related to other factors and influences from outside of the industry, but as you asked earlier it's nearly pointless trying to do or say anything about it so instead I think I'll just go out and blow some berms up!

More photos from the Shane Watts archive:

11th birthday. Photo: Shane Watts.

1982 backyard camping with my older brother Darren. Photo: Shane Watts.

1983 CR80 at home. Photo: Shane Watts.

Darren's CR125. Photo: Shane Watts.

1983 ISDE in Wales with his dad. Photo: Shane Watts.

1983 Newry MX track on his CR80. Photo: Shane Watts.

1986 Outrim MX (Leongatha) on a CR80 again. Photo: Shane Watts.

Newry MX 1990. Photo: Shane Watts.

Newry MX 1992. Photo: Shane Watts.

1993 Holland ISDE. Photo: Shane Watts.

Tulsa ISDE 1994. Photo: Shane Watts.

1995 A4DE Traralgon. Photo: Shane Watts.