Inspired by Whibley’s feats in the United States, Draper decided to tackle the cross-country scene in the US and now, one year on, he has already begun to carve out a professional career for himself.
Former New Zealand cross-country champion Whibley was a two-time outright winner of the Grand National Cross-country Championships (GNCC) in the United States (in 2009 and 2012) and a record six-time winner of the parallel Off-Road Motorcycle and ATV (OMA) series as well, and that’s the same environment that Draper now circulates in.
The 22-year-old Draper spent 11 months racing in the US in 2018, entered in the GNCC series and the Full Gas Sprint Enduro series as well, competing in the XC2 (250cc) class on a Husqvarna.
“I signed to race for KTM at the end of 2018 for a satellite team (the Tely Energy KTM Racing Team) that’s helped out by the factory. That was in recognition of the fact that I’d done so well last year.
“I’m based in South Carolina, on the east coast of the US, living with the guy who is the XC1 class (pro 450cc) rider for the team, Steward Baylor.”
Baylor finished third overall in the XC1 class in the GNCC series last year, behind outright winner Kailub Russell and runner-up Thaddeus Duvall.
“They took me in at the start of 2018 and I got lucky enough to have access to a gym and full motocross facility there, with an irrigated track and 200 acres of woods,” said Draper.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into over there. At first I was living in the back of my van, sleeping and going to races and, at round three, I met Steward (Baylor) and he asked me if I wanted to ride with him.
“He said I may as well unpack my van and move in with him, he wanted someone to ride and train with. He said he knew I was doing it rough, so it all sort of worked out for me.”
It was an arrangement made in heaven because Draper would also be able to benefit from training alongside Baylor, one of the sport’s current leading stars.
“I learned a lot about how the sport in the US works. The GNCC is like all of America … it’s like it’s on steroids, it’s so big. They have 2000 quads racing on the track the day before us and it’s so wide, and so rough and so many lines to choose from. It’s all about picking that right line that can save you that extra time.
“It’s super rough. Florida was sand and so beat up it’s stupid really. I was blown away by that. They had 800 amateur riders at 10am and I went out and raced a 1pm and that was all after the quads the day before and kids in the morning.
“I’m fitter and faster than I have ever been. The team has a trainer and I just join in and they support me. The trainer sorts out our food and what we do every day. He pit boards us to. It’s all pretty serious.
“There’s no mucking around like in New Zealand, when you can just rock up and go racing.
“Over in the US it’s a lot of work and a lot of preparation.
“Paul Whibley’s helped a lot with giving the Kiwis a good reputation. His name is huge over in the US in the GNCC scene. It helped a lot that I lived and trained with Paul at Taikorea (in the Manawatu) for two months before going to the USA. It was a tough boot camp with him, but well worth it.
“Having him to call on with advice too has helped a lot. Between him, Ben Townley, Josh Coppins and Sean Clarke, I have had plenty of good advice. I didn’t have too many problems to deal with last season, I just needed help when I had a few team offers coming in and I needed to know which way to go. It was a big decision.
“I’ve gone from Husqvarna to KTM and there is money involved in the deal, but not really good money for me yet. Riders like Baylor will make US$500,000 in a season, so there is money around for the right people. The potential to earn good money is there in the future for me. You’ve got to be on a 450cc bike in XC1 and, if I can win a few races in the XC2 class, then that will be a stepping stone for me to get to that. It’s no more being a plumber for me in the short term anyway.”
The opening round of this year’s GNCC series had been scheduled for February 24, but it was postponed and will be re-scheduled for later in the year. The first official GNCC race for Draper will be what would have been round two, at Palatka, in Florida, this coming weekend (March 10).
Draper finished ninth overall in his GNCC debut last season, despite suffering four DNFs.
“I just need to be consistent,” he acknowledged.
His build-up ahead of the 2019 GNCC season has been going well, with training and testing all going to plan.
“I raced round one of the national enduro series, where I got second in the Pro 2 class. I wanted the win, but it’s a start,” he said.
“I’m happy with my new team and sponsors and can’t wait for GNCC. It’s going to be a tough weekend at Florida. It’s the toughest race of the year, it’s so physically demanding.”
Stay updated and follow Draper on Instagram at liamdraper198
Draper is supported by Kendatire, KTM USA, Ridemps, Seat Concepts, IMS Products, Twin Air, Spectro Oils, Cometic Gasket, G2 Ergonomics, VP Racing fuels, ODI Grips, Senge Graphics, XC Ggear17, Tely Energy Racing, Evans Powersport, Offical Moose Racing, Motionpro, Bell Powersports, Oakley, Eline Accessories, Mojo Motosport, TM Designworks, Forma Boots USA, Live It Extreme, JPD Suspension, Wickflow, BikesportNZ.com, Pod Active, Axle Surgeons.
© Words and main photo by Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com
Action photo by Ken Hill
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