Kody Kopp: Full Speed, Straight Ahead
Already a two-time Progressive American Flat Track champion at just 18 years of age, Kody Kopp has thrived under expectations that would have crushed lesser talents.
Both cursed and blessed by unending comparisons to his father, 2000 Grand National Champion Joe Kopp, and his immediate predecessor as the sport’s “Next Big Thing,” Dallas Daniels, Kopp has every bit lived up to the hype.
But now he is set to forge his own path simply by continuing down the one that he is on, diverging by not diverging. Those who cannot wait to see Kopp join Daniels in premier-class action will have no other choice, as Kopp is destined to defend his Parts Unlimited AFT Singles presented by KICKER crown yet again in 2024.
Kopp’s eventual ascension will not be delayed forever – and perhaps not beyond one more go in the class he has dominated for the past two seasons. But for now, his sole mission and focus is to rewrite the record books aboard his Red Bull Factory Racing KTM 450 SX-F.
And coming off an epic eight-win season that compares favorably with any the class has ever witnessed, the Washington native has the benefit of appreciating the inordinate weight of the #1 plate.
Kody explained, “You always go into a season with the goal of a championship, but it wasn't exactly the main goal to come out in our sophomore season and win the championship in 2022. It was in the back of our head as a team, yeah, but the goal was really just to be more competitive than we were in my first year.
“We had three podiums as a rookie and weren't really there as much as we wanted to be. So to jump into it right away in ‘22 and get that first win, that kind of made (a championship run) seem realistic. But this past year, we went in with the #1 plate, and we had a target on our back. It was a totally different season.
“In the offseason before the season started, I felt that target. I didn't think it would affect me, but I struggled quite a bit at the outlaw races in the Florida panhandle. I didn't win a real outlaw race the entire offseason. And even though I really like those Florida short tracks that we race, we straight-up got beat a bunch. That definitely fired me up.”
However, when the lights came on for real, Kopp was better than ever. He came out swinging with three wins and a runner-up in the season’s opening six races. That allowed him to build up a sizeable title advantage, one he would ride comfortably for the remainder of what would prove to be a historic campaign.
“I was almost second guessing myself in the offseason,” Kopp admitted. “So to start the year in Daytona and sweep the doubleheader, that was... I don't know how to explain it. It was a great feeling and reassured me that I was still good.
“Obviously, we clicked off eight wins, which is crazy. For the past two seasons, I had the goal to match Dallas' (record of) eight wins, and to be able to put together that season, that was pretty crazy. There were so many great moments.”
Asked to single out a couple of the highlights from a season loaded with them, Kody said, “I’d say the Orange County Half-Mile was a big one for me. It was huge to fight back from three seconds down. And the Black Hills Half-Mile might have actually been my favorite. We weren't really in it all day – we were a little bit off pace. To find that high line and come from last pick on the second row, that was probably the hardest I had to ride all year. That made it the most rewarding on what was a pretty one-line track.”
The season wasn’t without its challenges, of course. After the star-studded KTM contingent spearheaded by Kopp swept the opening four races and hoarded nine of a possible 12 podium positions, they were blanked from the box completely during the midseason run of three consecutive Miles.
The relative downturn in form was especially apparent for reigning champion Kopp, who strung together uncharacteristic finishes of tenth, sixth, and fifth, while the factory Honda and Yamaha aces took the spoils.
“The Miles were tough – those three back-to-back-to-back weekends. That was not helpful for our championship goals. The way we started off the Miles at Sacramento, that was a bit depressing, honestly. It was like, almost an out of your control sort of deal.”
Ultimately though, that apparent Achilles heel simply set the stage for a dream championship lockup when Kopp won the Springfield Mile I by 0.010 seconds to secure a second straight Parts Unlimited AFT Singles title.
“We were working on it collectively as a team, and it slowly, progressively got better. Round after round we got more competitive on the Miles, coming closer to the front. I definitely wanted to win a Mile – the whole team did really bad.
“For us to win at Springfield and be competitive both days, running there in that lead pack, was huge for us as a team. Huge. Leighton Rice, our motor builder from KTM North America, was there, and that was cool. He puts in a lot of time behind the scenes, specifically on our Mile package. To finally have that pay off like that was huge for everybody.”
If the Springfield Mile was a Hollywood-worthy conclusion to his ‘23 season, the obvious pitch for the sequel would be for Kopp to graduate to Mission SuperTwins. His back-to-back 450cc titles seemingly leave nothing left for him to prove and KTM now has a frontrunning, race-winning Twins platform as proven this past season by Briar Bauman.
Such a move also happens to be the next step in the Dallas Daniels trajectory. It hasn’t escaped notice that Kopp has defied the odds by keeping pace with – and at times surpassing – Daniels’ meteoric rise up through the ranks.
Nicky Hayden AMA Horizon Award winner. Parts Unlimited AFT Singles rookie sensation. Back-to-back Parts Unlimited AFT Singles titles. A record eight victories in a single season.
The preceding paragraph is equally accurate for either rising star, and Kody has already dropped Dallas to third-place in career 450cc victories while joining him as the class’ only two-time king.
And yet this is where their respective paths split. Perhaps surprising to outsiders, the move was never openly contemplated under the Red Bull Factory Racing tent nor especially desired on Kopp’s part.
For the immediate future, KTM is dedicated to putting its factory resources behind its Parts Unlimited AFT Singles efforts. At the same time, Kopp has demonstrated uncommon self-awareness for an up-and-coming hotshot.
He explained, “They didn't really talk about it, and I wasn't really interested either, even if I had the opportunity to move up this upcoming season. I'm still young. I'm 18. I'm still growing, and honestly, I don't think I'm quite ready to move up.
“What Dallas has done is more of a one in a million-type thing, how well he's done on that Yamaha. We've had very similar careers up until this point, and that’s cool. He's obviously one heck of a competitor. And for him to give Jared that much of a fight this early, it gives me hope and confidence for sure.
"But who knows, we could jump up to Twins and be totally different riders on a totally different type of ride. I don't want to move up and pick up the back of the pack. If I'm going to move up, I want to jump right into the front on a competitive bike, and we're still working on getting to that level.”
There’s no rush. Once he does make the move, Kopp will likely have in the neighborhood of two decades to pursue his Grand National Championship ambitions. But for 2024, Kopp will look to claim an unprecedented third Parts Unlimited AFT Singles title and become the category’s all-time winningest rider along the way.
But it’s not as if the 2024 Parts Unlimited AFT Singles class is setting up to be a turkey shoot for its two-time reigning champion. If anything, a graduation to Mission SuperTwins would have provided lowered expectations and a bit of cover as he found his way in a new class on a new mount. Instead, he’ll be expected to reign supreme once again amidst a hugely talented pack of riders set to become that much formidable next season.
A recent influx in talent post-Daniels, which includes the likes of Kopp, Trevor Brunner, Tom Drane, and Chase Saathoff, has even made it difficult for some former champions and multi-time race winners to make the same sort of impression they once did so routinely.
Kody said, “I've got into some heated discussions with people about how competitive it is right now. I truly believe it's harder to win than it's ever been. It was like everyone leveled up this past year. Drane, Max (Whale), Brunner… They were always there. I heard that Brunner didn't finish outside the top six once. That's pretty crazy. Everyone was so fast and so consistent.
It's tough because the young guys want it as bad if not even more than the experienced guys, and it definitely shows. And it’s not like the more established riders are getting any worse. They still work just as hard as. It's just goes to show how competitive the class is nowadays.”
Front and center blocking Kopp’s path is Drane, the Estenson Racing prodigy who lit up the second half of his first full Progressive AFT season. The Australian actually outscored Kopp 248-224 over the season’s final 12 races and expects to make a big leap in his second full season as most young riders do.
“I think he's going to be the fiercest competitor,” Kody said. “The way he's been riding, I've been super impressed. Coming from Australia, they don't have much for clay tracks, and for him to be the top contender on the clay Half-Miles, that was kinda crazy to me. He works hard at it, and I know he wants it. He's able to do some things that surprised me, especially at Peoria. Being a little bit smaller body size and not having much motocross experience in his background and to come out and battle for the lead... That was a pretty big statement about his riding.
Drane is far from Kopp’s only concern, however.
“I haven't really heard how the teams are moving around as far as silly season rumors. So I don't know if Trevor Brunner will stay with Yamaha, but if he does, I think that's a great platform for him. And then we have Chase Saathoff and Trent Lowe, who are always contenders.
“I think Chase is right on the cusp getting that first win, and then I think he's going to be a force to reckoned with. As a racer, I see him in a similar position to the one I was in during my first season in 2021. Obviously, this was his second year, but it's frustrating to come so close to wins and not get one. I had two or three shots in my rookie season, and we just got outsmarted in a way. It wasn't really anything else. But once you learn to run at the front, it becomes a little easier to manage a race.
“Chase was close so many times. He's going to get it here someday soon; we all know it. When he does, it's going to be a little bit scary for everybody else.”
But those are headaches that can be addressed a little later. For now, Kopp is enjoying some much-earned R&R as he recharges for what seems destined to be his most pressure-filled and daunting campaign yet.
“I’m just up in Washington state, doing a little mountain biking here and there and a little bit of trail riding. I'll take a couple weeks off and just hang out with family and friends I haven't seen in all year because I've been so busy. It's cool. I love it up here this time of year when it's a little chilly. It's 50 degrees every day, which is perfect mountain bike weather.
“Then we'll get back to it and start training for 2024.”