MASON KLEIN INTERVIEW: TALKING DAKAR 2024
BY: DALE SPANGLER - PHOTOS: ACTIONGRAPHERS
Mason Klein is a rider on a quest. At only 22 years old, he’s experienced more in his short professional rally career than many nearly twice his age. His impressive rally-raid skills trajectory has been a steep upward trend, and his growth as a rider is eye-opening. After acquiring last-minute support from Chinese manufacturer Kove Moto, Klein headed to Saudi Arabia with his own Klein Off-Road Racing (KORR) Team. With minimal time on the new bike, he started strong with a third-place finish in stage one, only to withdraw due to mechanical issues. After returning from Saudi Arabia, we caught up with the native of Agua Dulce, California to ask about his Dakar experience and find out what’s next for one of rally raid racing’s future American stars.
Upshift: You almost didn’t make it to Dakar in 2024. Thankfully, the Kove team and others stepped up to support your effort. How did it happen? And how did you bring it all together?
Mason Klein (MK): Well, I can tell you the part where I almost didn’t make it, first, that’s pretty important. Normally, when you do the Dakar, you should know at the beginning of the year that you’re going to race because it should take all year to prep and do it the right way. From the beginning to the middle of the year, I was ready, but in a way that didn’t involve paying again. I had a contract with KTM that basically would cover all the expenses of racing the Dakar, so I was ready to go. I was excited not to beg for money again, and everything looked good.
Then, in the middle of the year, I get a call, and I’m told they’re doing some budget cuts, and it’s nothing personal because I don’t even know the guys in Austria—the head guys. But anyway, they decided that Skyler and I were off the team.
So, yeah, I didn’t have a choice, but I’m pretty happy with the situation now, not being with them. I like the rally team, but now there’s more freedom. There’s not so much financial freedom, but anyway, so mid-season, I was looking for a ride. All the teams were full, there were no spots to join a factory team, and budgets were already used up.
So, I started looking for sponsors like crazy. I found a way to go, but it didn’t work out because of the natural disaster in Libya, and the company had this crazy thing happen. There was a big problem with all these units they made. They lost a lot of money. They got fined, like, millions of dollars. And that was also my budget for racing Dakar. It wasn’t a million-dollar budget, but whatever budget was set aside to help me race was now gone.
So now we’re two months from Dakar, and I have no money raised. It was pretty wild. I had pretty much given up, but my mom told me, ‘You’re not allowed to give up.’ I was so done. I was like, ‘It’s a bad idea. I’ve got to try to find a hundred thousand dollars.’ I was pretty sick of begging for money, and to beg is crazy because I can’t offer what I’d normally be able to offer someone who gives you money—like free stuff. But a really big group of people from all over the world came together, and we were able to work together, and somehow—through a miracle—we raised the money.
In the middle of this, I started talking to the Kove guys while trying to find money. The original plan was to race Malle Moto on a KTM. Then my mom said, ‘Well, if you want to win Dakar, it costs the same to race Malle Moto as it does to be on a team—minus the ten grand for your dad to show up.’ We decided it was only ten thousand more, so we had to try harder to find more money.
But then I realized if I don’t race Malle Moto, I need a place to sleep. I could sleep in a tent, but we’re trying to win. So, it was not just about a place to sleep—we had a motorhome—but we also needed a way to carry my eleven gear bags to put together the team parts and tools and all this crazy stuff. So now I’m flying to Dubai with eleven gear bags, and there’s a motorhome being prepped for my dad and two other mechanics. I say mechanics, but really, they’re our friends from racing—people we trust. I put together a team of people that I trusted to make sure my bike was 100% every day.
When we started talking to the Kove guys, I’ll be honest—they offered a lot of money. But I told them I wanted to win, so I said no. It was mid-year, and they said, ‘Here’s a bunch of money. All you have to do is show up, ride our bike—and if it breaks—you go home.’ And me—assuming that the Kove bike was going to break—I said no because I wanted to be there to win. I wanted to try to get some results, and if I’m going to do all this, I want to have a chance to do well.
We raised the money to go. We had a vehicle in Saudi Arabia packed with all the pasta you can ever eat (we didn’t finish it) and eleven gear bags packed to the max. Maximum weight, couldn’t load anymore. I think that was like $700. But I got $500 from my friend Nathan Rafferty from Ski Utah the day before. So that was pretty great with all the unexpected costs when everything is so last minute.
Then, I think two weeks before I got to Dubai, somehow, we came to an agreement with Kove where I wouldn’t be paid anything, and they’d bring me a bike, and they’d carry some parts. They didn’t take the parts—we carried them—and had to pay another ten thousand to another team to carry that for us.
So we’re in Dubai. We showed up, and they gave us a used bike. They said, ‘Make it ready for the Dakar.’ It’s pretty roached, but we’ll make it work. We started building the bike, went through every nut and bolt, and drilled all the titanium bolts because, in the rules, you have to safety tie a lot of things, like the brake pins, brake bolts, brake caliper bolts, engine mounts, and all this other stuff.
Then they’re like, ‘surprise! Here’s another motor and a frame.’ Start building a new one because that frame is going to start cracking at this many hours, which means it’s going to start cracking twice as fast with me on it. Turns out I’m riding the bike pretty hard compared to the other guys. The motor was insanely fast. Sixty-something horsepower, 65 or something, insanely fast but wouldn’t last more than 30 hours with their guys on it. I was like, ‘Good thing you found that out!’
Instead, they made a new motor and gave me that. I have a new frame and get to build the whole thing up—spend another week—and I’ve still never gotten to ride this new Kove. I’d only ridden the old version, the one that everybody has in America. We had two at my house from Gary Goodwin, who helped us make all this happen. He’s the Kove importer in the United States. I wanted to do it my way. Bring my mechanics. And he’s like, ‘Alright, we’ll give you the bike. Don’t worry about it. But you’re not going to get paid.’ It’s a pretty insane story, but it’s true. It happened.
So now we’re building this new bike. I got to ride the bike for maybe 30 minutes, including the ride on the highway to the test spot. I had to come back right away because, surprise, we had to load the bike up to go to Saudi because we were already super late. Then, the bike gets stuck at the Saudi border for a week. Some videos had come out, and some people noticed I didn’t even have gloves on. Everybody was like, ‘Oh, you’re faking the video, saying how fast the bike is, look at him, he’s not even wearing gloves—it’s not real!’ The truth is that was the first time I’d ridden the bike, and that was my actual, genuine impression. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, this bike is insane!’
Upshift: It sounds chaotic. How was the transition to the Kove? Did it take you long to adapt?
MK: Adapt, no. It was super easy. I feel comfortable on the Kove. I will say the bike works amazingly. This guy, Brandon Peterson, who works at AHM Factory Services and does suspension, we begged him and Colton Udall to convince him to let me get some suspension for Dakar because I needed to start using Showa. Kove didn’t want me to use WP, which stinks because we’ve used WP our whole lives. I’ve always been on a KTM, so now I just had to restart completely.
So Brandon took the suspension off his Honda 450 and said, ‘Alright, you can borrow this and bring it back. Don’t worry, I’ll get it perfect first try.’ And it was basically perfect on the first try. But the thing about rally compared to Baja, which he usually does suspension for, and other off-road racing, is we don’t have as many big giant whoops. My bike, the rear fuel tank, there’s a lot of gas—like four gallons or more—and sloshes like crazy.
We figured out the bike doesn’t bounce much if we have stiff springs with almost no rebound and stiff valving compression. It’s almost perfect. We had two weeks to test, and in the end, I just took all the rebound out so the bike didn’t bounce. That’s the main moral of the story. The bike would pack over the bumps, but it meant it would stay straight and was pretty perfect. We put a long swing arm on it, put the Showa forks on it—a Honda front end—and got some brake rotors from Technical Touch because everything is different. We had some wheels made by Dubya USA. That was another unexpected expense—like five thousand bucks in wheels—but worth it. It’s important to have proper, safe wheels. So, thanks to Dubya for helping get them to Dubai. They built and sent them to me in a week. It was pretty crazy.
Upshift: It sounds like you got the bike dialed pretty quickly. That said, give us your overall take on your 2024 Dakar experience. Not being able to finish had to be tough, but it seems you were on the right track.
MK: Yeah, it was pretty awesome. One of my big things was I wanted to open stage one. And to do that, you have to go fast in the prologue, something I never do. Usually, my best finish is worse than 20th in a prologue at the Dakar. Somehow, I got 10th place, the last position to be allowed to pick where to go, and I was like, ‘I’m going first.’ No one will put their name in front of me anyway, so it doesn’t matter where I finished in the prologue as long as it was top 10. So I chose to go first and got to open stage one of the 2024 Dakar Rally. That was pretty epic. I only got a little lost, so that was even better. It was a pretty perfect stage one.
I want to say my favorite stage was probably the stage where I went to bed at 1:00 AM. I got to the finish of the Special at 10-something. Then we had to put a new motor in because of things that happened that day. You’re riding in the freezing cold. Then you get to the bivouac. It’s a marathon stage. You get to the bivouac, and your tent is zip-tied closed. You can’t get tools off your bike because your bike is locked up in Parc fermé, and you’re not allowed in there. So now it’s the coldest night of your life, looking for somewhere to sleep. I try to sleep in a truck. But that was freezing. And now it’s 1:00 AM.
I remember thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, I should probably set my alarm.’ Because if you’re late to your start time—I think by like 20 minutes or something—you’re disqualified from the Dakar. And we’d already gone through all this craziness, so I should probably make sure I wake up and not get kicked out for being late to my start time. I found a fire pit with some local guys. They had a plastic chair, and I just sat down in the chair—like almost in the fire—and these guys were talking but weren’t speaking English, so it wasn’t distracting.
A little while later, Štefan Svitko walks by me in all his gear. Usually, that’s not weird because I’m in my gear. So he’s all dressed to go, and I asked him, ‘Hey man, what time is it?’ And he said, ‘It’s like 4:30 AM.’ Well, my alarm should have gone off by now, but I left it in the truck by everybody else’s tents, and it’s just going off. I should have gotten up at 6:00 AM because I came in so late, but the team—my dad and everybody—went to the organization and got me repositioned.
So now I don’t get the benefit of starting late. I start up at the front again. I don’t get any sleep. I get there after thinking earlier, ‘I’ll start last, so I’ll have a good stage tomorrow,’ but nope, I started like 30th or something. Which meant I didn’t get to sleep in. My dad made me some food while they were doing the motor. We had some freeze-dried stuff. Breakfast was hot dogs.
Upshift: Is it typical for riders at the Dakar to be sleep-deprived and hungry all the time?
MK: Yeah, for sure. Especially when you do it the way I was. I wasn’t making it easy on myself by riding a bike that the testing was in Dubai for two weeks. I didn’t get to ride the bike because I was still building it. The only reason the guy who rode the same bike as me blew up was because I took the oil out of his motor on stage two. He let me have it. I didn’t think he would ride it right away and blow it up, but I guess he did.
My bike was leaking oil the whole time, and later in that stage, I found myself asking people for oil. The last fill-up was some two-stroke premix oil. A guy and his family were sitting in the dunes, and I asked if they had engine oil, and he was like, ‘No, but I have this, and it’s better than nothing.’ I realized that was an excellent way to look at it, so we poured it in, and the bike blew up two kilometers from the finish and got pushed in by a quad. If I had just gotten to ride the bike before the Dakar, I probably would have already had these problems.
Upshift: You still got to go. You made it happen and stuck with it as long as possible.
MK: Yeah, that’s the main thing. You know what you’re signing up for. You know that you’re going to ride a new bike. I wouldn’t have ridden the Kove if I had to ride the Gen 1. I would have figured something out to ride, but they had this new bike, and I decided to go there and do the craziest thing possible: ride a new bike that no one’s ever ridden. And I’m pretty happy with the decision because I got to ride a lot longer than everybody else in those six stages.
And people go to Dakar for the crazy stories. And now I finally have some really crazy stories. Like, my fuel pump went out, and I had to move the fuel and I was going again in 10 minutes. I got to do a top end in the dunes, check the rings, and make sure they’re not stuck. Make sure I have compression. Go through the entire wiring harness. Break three motors, sleep by a fire at 1:00 AM—all this craziness. I did Dakar right, so there’s no reason to do that again. Eventually, we have to figure out how to be there to win the proper way.
Upshift: It’s your fourth year in the rally discipline since Sonora in 2020. Was that event what sparked your passion for rally racing?
MK: No. I was trying to learn how to do roadbooks three or four years before that. I guess the event that sparked my passion would be the KTM adventure ride in Park City, Utah. I saw a MotoMinded KTM 450 with the roadbook holder on it. And I was like, ‘All right, this is what I’m going to do.’ I told my parents the convincing factor was that we would go a lot slower than racing the Hare & Hounds or District 37 races because I get to read a book. So I started making my own roadbooks, and for my birthday one year, my parents got me a real roadbook holder.
I decided it would be much more fun if I weren’t the only one reading the road books, so I called Skyler [Howes] and said, ‘Hey, can I ride with you guys?’ They said, ‘Yes,’ but you must do this initiation thing, and I failed that. I couldn’t have done any worse. My dad was like, ‘Mason, you’re an idiot. We drove four hours to this spot to ride.’ It was fun, but I thought there was no way I’d get invited again. So the whole time, I was making roadbooks—on my own—and learned somehow.
Then Skyler, Ricky Brabec, and Kendall Norman said, ‘Mason, if you make us 400 kilometers of roadbook, you’re invited. But it has to be good!’ So I made it, sent it to them the next day—which is not normal—and they said, ‘You’re in!’ So I got a second chance, totally killed it, and here we are.
Upshift: What a great backstory. Back to the Sonora Rally: You finished 26th on your first try in 2020, then jumped to 5th the following year. That’s a significant improvement in one year. Is that what led to racing Dakar in 2022?
MK: I did a lot of work. But the work I did wasn’t in the gym or anything. I never felt like I was going faster because I was riding with Skyler and Ricky the whole time, and Andrew Short was there a lot of the time, too. You don’t have a choice. You have to be able to keep up. And I was making most of the training roadbooks, so I was learning to read a roadbook faster than most people.
I’m pretty confident that most people who race Dakar don’t know what the symbols mean. It’s kind of wild because the French guys are the ones who decide what the abbreviations are going to be; it’s all abbreviated French language. It’s something you learn if you go to a Scott Bright school because the first thing he teaches you is that you have to learn French because roadbooks are in French.
Upshift: All that studying has paid off because you have a reputation for being an excellent navigator.
MK: I think it’s pretty clear that if Toby Price came to Fox Raceway for the first time in his life—on his KTM rally bike—and I’m on my KTM 350 motocross bike, he would totally smoke me. I’m not the fastest guy out there, so the only way I can keep up is if I go the right way. I’m not the slowest guy there, but I’m definitely not the fastest. When I started learning to read roadbooks, I went in second or third gear with my dad into the mountains on a trail ride and tried to read the roadbook. That’s pretty much how I train. I don’t train going fast. I never go fast. I practice perfect navigation.
Upshift: What does it feel like to win a multi-stage rally like the Rally dos Sertões in Brazil that you won in 2023? Is that what drives you to continue your journey in rally racing?
MK: There were people there—it wasn’t like the world rallies—it was like 500 million spectators [Joking], everybody wanted a picture. And it was like, ‘Wow, you won!’ Probably the best part is going home with the trophies. Everything had to go right, and everything wasn’t going right. I was getting penalties and getting all stressed out, and to somehow make it happen at the end was crazy.
Upshift: What’s on the docket for the rest of 2024?
MK: I plan to go to Brazil. Ride a Honda. Race the Brazilian Rally Championship Series. Do well. Get some more trophies. Maybe find some sponsors and figure out how to race Dakar again while also getting the training in. Compared to the World Rally races, these Brazilian races have difficult navigation. I feel like the World Rallies I never have a chance because they make the navigation so easy. Well, it’s not so easy—I still get lost—but there’s more speed, and it’s much tougher to win. For me, it’s just tougher to get good results at a World Rally than it is at Dakar or in Brazil because the style of racing is so different. It’s more like the Dakar. It’s more difficult than Dakar, in my opinion, because of navigation. In Brazil, everybody can read a roadbook. Everybody’s good at navigating. If these people were at Dakar, they’d do well. But Dakar costs so much money, so it’s difficult for normal people to make it there. In Brazil, it’s a lot different compared to here. You get to be friends with the other teams, like Honda and Yamaha. All of us were hanging out, and everybody was cool there.
Upshift: How many rounds is the Brazilian series? Will you race the entire series?
MK: Yeah, so the series is like six races, which I thought was only going to be like three. So it will definitely be a lot of work, but we’ll love it.
Upshift: One last question: In your mind, are you on the right path to future success at Dakar?
MK: I’m still paying for Dakar, but it was awesome, and I think it’s worth it, no matter how much it costs. I got to be on TV, open the first stage, ride at night, and do a top end in the dunes on a four-stroke. I did that before on a two-stroke at a Best in The Desert, and everybody said, ‘Oh, I thought it was a four-stroke—that’s not as cool.’ So now I can say I did it on a four-stroke and rode another 200 miles. It was pretty epic. I think it [Brazil] is the right thing to do. I get to keep racing. I can earn some results and improve my navigation skills while probably finding a way to Dakar next year—a more straightforward way. I’ll have more prep. We’re already fundraising with racing in Brazil. It’s part of the plan to help pay for everything if I have to, which I hope I don’t. That’s the goal—to find some support. But I’ll try to have the money no matter what. I’m ready to go.
Keep up with Mason Klein on Instagram @mason_klein1