This week’s Greg Primm’s Classic Steel selection is the machine that ended Jeremy McGrath’s career, the 2003 KTM 250SX.
By: Tony Blazier
Although it looked very similar to the 2002 model, the ’03 250SX was an all-new motorcycle. Even with the most powerful engine in the class, it was back of the class. Its atrocious handling was enough to force the King of Supercross into and early retirement.
In the early 2000’s KTM was making a major push for respectability here in the States. They started by bringing over 125 World Champion Grant Langston from Europe to race here in the US. Grant immediately rewarded the Austrian brand with race wins and instant credibility. Grant was so successful, he nearly won the 2001 125 National Motocross title in his first try (he actually should have won but a broken wheel at the final round cost him the title). KTM quickly earned the reputation for having some of the fastest bikes on the track. While the 125 program racked up race wins and trophies, the 250 program continued to languish.
KTM made a lot of promises to McGrath before he signed with the team. They were supposed to deliver an all-new linkage equipped works bike for him and Langston to race during the ’03 season. As it turned out, the promised bike never materialized, and MC would never be able to back up his Transworld cover boast.
For 2003 KTM planned to move Langston up to the big bikes to help promote their 250 machines. At this point, Langston was still very rough around the edges at supercross. The best situation for KTM would be to bring in a more experienced rider to help with the new 250 program and mentor Langston. Amazingly, the greatest supercross rider in history basically fell into their laps. Jeremy McGrath had just endured the worst season of his career in ’02, and after a contract dispute with Yamaha was excited to make a change for 2003. It looked to be a great opportunity for both parties. It would be a fresh start for McGrath and a huge publicity windfall for KTM. Unfortunately, the marriage broke up even before it got started. Jeremy suffered some nasty crashes in preseason testing and decided he just could not race the KTM. What started off looking like a PR dream quickly turned into a public nightmare. In the process, KTM’s ‘03 250SX became the bike that right or wrong, will forever be remembered as the machine that ended the career of the greatest supercross racer of all time.
The case-reed KTM mill pumped out an eye opening 49HP in stock trim. With a Pro Circuit “McGrath” pipe that number climbed into the low 50’s. No other 250 even came close to the KTM’s massive power output in 2003. It was one of the few 250’s that could actually run with the new 450 four-stroke’s strait up.
Despite its reputation, 2003 KTM 250SX was not a completely hopeless motorcycle. In point of fact the KTM 250 was the fastest bike on the track. In 2003 the Austrians had not yet figured out American style handling and suspension, but they had a firm grasp on horsepower. The 125’s and 250’s were by far the fastest bikes in the class year in and year out. It was their “Euro” brand of handling and odd suspension set up that torpedoed their success. The ’03 KTM 250SX was a like an American muscle car, all brute force and little finesse.
The KTM/ McGrath deal was a PR nightmare from start to finish. It made the Austrian brand look terrible and stirred up a lot of hard feelings. Even fellow KTM rider Grant Langston jumped into the fray, taking cheap shots at McGrath over the breakup. Jeremy ended up traveling to several rounds with the team and doing ceremonial farewell laps for the crowd. It was a sad end to an illustrious career.
In stock condition, the ‘03 250SX produced a very broad spread of power. The ’02 model had possessed a violent low to mid hit that was a real handful. For 2003, KTM tried to spread out the explosion of power. They re-tuned the powervalve, added weight to the crankshaft and raised the gearing in an attempt to mellow the Austrian rocket. The ’03 motor was still brutally fast, but the changes resulted in a slower revving, more drawn out delivery. Some riders preferred the ‘02’s barky powerband, but the KTM was still a rocket by any measure On the dyno it pumped out 49 HP, by far the most of any 250.
In 2003 WP (formerly White Power) had a well-earned reputation for subpar performance. The 48mm USD forks on the 250SX certainly lived up to this expectation. They were poorly set up, with too soft springs and heavy damping. The resulting droopy front end hung down in the stroke and pounded the riders hands over rough terrain. The highlight of the front end was definitely the excellent Brembo front brake. Even in 2003 KTM was setting the standards for braking performance.
Perhaps the biggest complaint with KTM’s at the time was with their handing. European machines were traditionally tuned more for Europe’s fast, smooth tracks. As a result, most of the time cornering took a back seat to high speed stability. For ’03 KTM totally revamped the 250SX’s chassis in hopes of better appealing to the American consumer. They steepened the head angle a half-degree, lengthened the swingarm 10mm and changed the fork offset all in the pursuit of sharper turning. To say the result of all this tinkering was not a success would be quite an understatement.
Even today KTM is the only of the “big five” to feature a hydraulic clutch. It gave the bike unparalleled clutch feel and control. If the rest of the bike had been as good as the motor it would have been hard to beat.
When KTM tried to tighten up the 250SX’s handling, they ended up ruining the one thing it had previously done well. The ’02 chassis was no sharp turner, but at least it was stable and sure-footed at speed. When KTM redesigned the chassis for ’03 they ruined the bikes high speed stability while not improving the turning one iota. The new chassis was busy and prone to violent headshake at speed. Even worse, the front end provides no bite and would push and tuck under in turns. The bike’s handling was erratic and an absolute handful (I can’t imagine why MC would not have wanted to ride this thing).
The ’03 250SX was the first bike in KTM’s line to receive this new one piece rear fender/number plate combo. People at the time complained about the small number plates, but it was a sign of things to come. The rear WP shock was too stiff and kicked badly under braking. While the “no-link” rear could be made to work outdoors with proper set up, it was not up to the demands of professional supercross. Without the benefit of a linkage design, KTM would continue to struggle in the stadiums for nearly another decade.
In no small part, adding to the KTM’s handling woes were its poorly set up suspension. As it came from the factory, the KTM had a “stinkbug” stance (low in the front and high in the back). The WP shock was too stiff initially and prone to kicking sideways in braking bumps. It also did not like to “settle” like a linkage design and made the rear feel jacked up in the air. The no-link rear suspension could be made to work with a lot of tinkering, but no amount of tuning was going to turn it into a Supercross ready machine.
Due to the nasty AMA Pro Racing-Jam Motorsports debacle, we ended up with the irrelevant “World Supercross Championship” in the early 2000’s. As a result, for a couple of years in the early part of the decade, we had a few overseas “World” rounds before the AMA series began in January. Jeremy actually raced two of these rounds on the KTM before deciding the bike was too bad to continue. At the first round of the AMA series in Anaheim Jeremy would announce his retirement, and put an end to his career as a full time racer.
The KTM’s 48mm WP forks were equally poor in performance. They were too soft initially and then harsh in the mid-stroke. To get decent performance out of them it was necessary to install stiffer springs and revalve the damping. On top of the mediocre performance they also liked to eat seals and bushings at an alarming rate. The jacked up rear and sagging front only exasperated the bikes terrible handling.
Detailing on modern KTM’s is always first rate. They abound with cool touches like this trick rear silencer, and come from the factory with quality components already installed. Things like quality chains, chrome plated exhaust pipes and Renthal oversize bars were welcome perks when buying the Austrian brand.
Detailing on the KTM was one bright spot on the Austrian rocket. The hydraulic clutch was flawless and offered superb performance. The Brembo brakes were works bike strong and far superior to the units on the competition. A Renthal Fat Bar was standard equipment and worlds better than the pathetic steel bars on other bikes. Fit and finish were typical KTM, with quality parts throughout and careful construction. Even the tank decals were extremely durable and stayed on the bike well past the first pressure washing.
I always loved the looks of these KTM’s. I had a 2005, and much like the 2003, it was a well-built rocket with sketchy handling and less than perfect suspension. These KTM’s were still very rough around the edges and in need of a great deal of fine-tuning to make them work. KTM’s have always been a bit of an acquired taste-either you get them or you don’t.
It is really not hard to see why Jeremy bailed on his KTM contract. The ’03 250SX was an unfinished product. It had the firepower to be competitive, but none of the control to make use of it. When Jeremy’s promised linkage equipped works bike never materialized, he was left with the ill-handling stocker. After years on the excellent Factory Honda and Yamaha works bikes, the not-ready-for-prime-time KTM must have been quite a shock. KTM in ’03 was just not ready to handle one of the world’s best riders on its biggest stage.