Behind Waters Autobody Racing and their KTM 450 SX-F Flat Trackers

May 13, 2019 / by John Basher

Waters Autobody Racing is a flat track team that has been driven by passion for the sport since day one. Wiseco got the inside scoop on their Racer Elite powered KTM 450s and their race program history.

Why would anyone start a race team, let alone a dirt track program? It all comes down to passion. Dave Waters cut his teeth by racing at his local track, the Crusaders Motorcycle Club in Medina, New York, as a youngster. Dave earned his first win at nine years old. From there, his love for sliding sideways at high speeds grew to the point where he turned pro. A respectable racer, Waters met a lot of great people through his time on the circuit. In his own words, “Dirt track doesn’t have the prima donnas that other sports do. It’s good old-fashioned racing.”

Early in their flat track career, Waters Autobody Racing were the only ones with orange Twins bikes under the tents.

Founded in January 2008, Waters Autobody Racing was born with the goal of toppling the sport’s giants. Funded by Dave’s collision shop in Albion, New York, the team ran 950 KTMs. At that time, KTM had just introduced their V-twin 950 LC8. Waters took one look at the bike and figured it would be a solid platform for dirt track. However, it took Dave a few years to get his hands on one, due to the bike’s scarcity. Instead, Waters picked up a KTM 950 Super Enduro, which was designed for on-and-off-road riding. As a result, the team converted the stock frame into something that was more of a race-specific trim.

Dave and his team spent a lot of time making the KTM 950s competitive platforms in the Twins class when Harleys were dominating.

Waters Autobody Racing gained prominence on the regional level, which naturally progressed to the idea of racing on the American Flat Track (AFT) circuit. The team used the V-twin 950, followed by the larger 990 platform for five years. What was unique about the team, other than their privateer effort, was that they piloted KTM motorcycles. At that time, Waters Autobody Racing was the only team to use the Austrian-built bikes. They were going head-to-head against the venerable Harley-Davidson XR-750 and achieving success. The against the grain approach captured the attention of KTM.

Waters' commitment to running the Austrian brand eventually caught the attention of KTM and earned them some support.

Growth & Hardship

In 2011, Waters Autobody Racing started getting interest from KTM. While other manufacturers had invested heavily in dirt track racing, KTM showed only a passing interest in the sport. Instead, the Austrians put a ton of focus on Supercross, signing superstar Ryan Dungey to a multi-year, high-dollar deal. However, KTM’s president at the time, Jon-Erik Burleson, and VP Brad Hagy, recognized the importance of having a horse in the AFT race, so to speak. KTM provided parts credits and minor support to the Waters Autobody Racing team in 2012 and 2013.

2014 KTM #2In 2014, the KTM 450 SX-F hit center stage in American Flat Track. After years of racing the V-twins, Waters Autobody Racing moved to the Singles class. GE Capital Retail Bank, the consumer finance program for KTM’s dealerships in the U.S., provided funding for the team.

Dave Waters reflects, “We won Daytona in 2014 with Ryan Wells. We came within 20 points of the championship that year. Fast-forward a few years. Jon-Erik Burleson moved on, and John Hinz takes over as president. He wasn’t as enthusiastic about dirt track as the management before. KTM liked what we were doing, but there wasn’t a budget for dirt track. We were pretty much always showcasing KTM the best we could. We had a total of four National wins on a KTM 450 SX-F, and many podiums. We were really hoping that we would be their team if they ever did get into dirt track.”

The Waters Autobody team made the switch to the Singles class with the KTM 450 SX-F in 2014 and ended up winning the Daytona round with Ryan Wells.

On April 21, 2018, news broke that KTM Motorsports was throwing their hat in the ring by racing the AFT Singles class in 2019. KTM had decided to go in-house, rather than farm out their factory efforts to a team like Waters Autobody Racing. In Dave’s words, “It was a hard punch in the gut. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to ride KTM. Granted, we were never promised anything, but we were anticipating that we would be the heir apparent for the dirt track team. Still, it would have been nice to get some support, even in a satellite type of deal. Last year we won a couple of Nationals. KTM just went a different direction than we were hoping.” As a result, Waters Autobody Racing remains a privately-funded program for 2019.

Despite giving KTM a position in flat track for several years, Waters Autobody Racing remains privately funded for 2019 after KTM decided to create their own in-house flat track effort instead of working through Waters.

American Flat Track Changes

Anyone who follows AFT closely will tell you that the sport is undergoing a renaissance. That is undeniably true. Manufacturers are getting involved, sponsors are gaining interest, and fans are starting to fill the seats. Dave Waters recognizes that. In fact, he’s on the advisory board for AFT. Dave explains the changes that he has seen in recent years. “It’s still grassroots racing, but it has gotten a little bit more mainstream. All of the sponsorship helps financially, and the return on investment that sponsors are getting is better than it used to be.”

If you take a walk down memory lane, you’d find that flat track was flush with money from cigarette sponsorship. Waters elaborates, “Cigarette money was big. Camel and Winston fueled everybody’s pockets. It was easy to go racing. The former Grand National Champion, Chris Carr, once told me, ‘The difference between back in the day and now is that you could make a good living on the purses you would win. Now you have to have sponsorship set up ahead of time to go racing.’ I’m happy with the direction of the sport. It has been huge having Indian Motorcycles come in. They were on point from the get-go, and they took a lot of people by surprise. Indian spared no expense. It was all or nothing for them.” That is absolutely correct, given Indian’s quick rise in popularity amongst racers and success in the results column.

Want more AFT content? Check out our interview with Jared Mees here.

Flat track racing has definitely been experiencing a resurgence in popularity, which has been partially fueled by Indian's heavy investments in the sport.

Waters Autobody Racing KTM 450 SX-F

The Waters Autobody Racing team is fielding two young and very hungry riders in Tristan Avery (20 years old) and Morgen Mischler (23 years old) for the 2019 AFT Singles season. Believe it or not, Tristan and Morgen had never ridden a KTM prior to 2019. Moreover, they only had two test sessions on the KTM 450 SX-F before the Daytona opener in March. A lot of teams practice and ride all year in preparation for the upcoming season. Unfortunately, due to a lack of title sponsorship, Waters Autobody is operating on a shoestring budget. Dave’s daughter, Staci Howell, surprised the team by purchasing a KTM 450 SX-F, bringing the operation’s count up to four bikes for the year. Despite the small budget, the privateer effort has been very strong in 2019. Morgen Mischler qualified fastest at the second round in Georgia and finished second place. The young bucks are very competitive, beating KTM’s factory riders at several rounds this season.

Tristan Avery and Morgen Mischler are piloting Waters Autobody KTM 450 SX-Fs for the 2019 season.

The KTM 450 SX-F is a great starting point for dirt track, thanks to a strong powerband and forgiving chromoly steel chassis. Waters Autobody Racing improves their race bikes by running the Wiseco Racer Elite piston kits. Riders noticed a gain in torque with the Wiseco Racer Elite piston. Waters explains, “We do all of our dyno work at Race Tech. The horsepower curve of our engines is awesome. The other thing we like about the Wiseco pistons are that there’s very little valve pocket preparation that we have to do. The pistons are already pre-cut, and they’re set to be in high-lift camshaft motors. There’s plenty of lash for the valves. The people at Wiseco have been great. They jumped on board our program a couple of years ago, and we’ve had great success with their product. We wouldn’t use anything else.”

The Waters Autobody KTMs are powered by Wiseco Racer Elite pistons. Higher compression, asymmetrical skirt design, and a lapped compression ring helps them improve power and torque, reduce blow-by, and retain reliability.

Find Wiseco pistons for your machine here.

The team’s local engine technician from RLJ Racing does all of the head work. In truth, about 80 percent of the engine internals are OEM/stock components. That includes the valves, crank, rod and springs. Waters relies on Crower custom camshafts, along with an aftermarket exhaust system. There’s some attention paid to the stock throttle bodies, but that’s about it. “I don’t want to knock myself on the head for jinxing it, but the engines are reliable,” states Waters. “One of our bikes is a 2014 model. We’re still running the stock rod, crank and bearings. Everything is in spec. That bike has run eight mile-length races and has been on the podium seven times. The power has been very good. The KTM may not have as much top-end power as a built-up Honda CRF450, but overall it’s a better package.”

2018 NY Victory lapA Make or Break Year

Prior to the start of the 2019 AFT season, Dave had a deep discussion with his wife and brother-in-law about a long-range plan for Waters Autobody Racing. They came to the tough decision that this will be their final year of racing. They are all-in for 2019 in the hopes that a sponsor will come along and fund the team. Currently, 90 percent of the program is financed by Dave’s collision facility. Sadly, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the privateer effort to compete against the million-dollar factory race teams. Waters admits that it will take a stroke of good luck, or “A money tree falling out of the sky,” as Dave states, for the team to race in 2020.

If this is, in fact, Waters Autobody Racing’s last season, it will be a blow to a series that needs privateer teams in the paddock and on the track. Without open seats, riders like Tristan Avery and Morgen Mischler won’t get the opportunity to race and become future stars of the sport. When asked how Dave Waters wanted to be remembered, he spoke with heart-breaking sincerity. “I was someone who really gave his heart and soul to dirt track racing. I’m 56 years old. I have owned the collision service shop for 35 years. My wife and I are getting ready for retirement, but there’s still a lot of life left. We would love to continue to go racing and cross the country as our full-time second adventure. If a title sponsor shows up, then it would be a dream come true to continue.”

Dave Waters and his family would love to continue racing, but have had to make the tough decision that 2019 will be their last season for financial reasons. The sport really benefits from dedicated privateer teams like this, so if anyone knows of a company that would be interested in title sponsoring this team, please reach out!

To learn more about Waters Autobody Racing, please visit

Topics: featured, Powersports, BIKE FEATURES, Racer Interviews

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Written by John Basher