Where are they now? LEE & CLAUDIA PALMER | Columns | Gassit Garage
Where are they now? Lee and Claudia Palmer – six years of success and sorrow in the Sahara.
For three years the fledgling KTM team had been attempting to break the dominance of Honda and BMW in the phenomenon that was the Paris-Dakar. Then, in 2001, Fabrizio Meoni broke through for KTM’s maiden win; much to the relief of the 90 strong team. Among the rejoicers were new recruits, Lee Palmer and Claudia Paluzzi. And though they’d never met before, neither was a stranger to top level motorsport. Lee had won many Aussie titles before scoring factory rides with Husaberg in Europe when spannering for the KTM motocross team; whilst Claudia had spent the last two years as Team Co-ordinator for the 1999 and 2000 Dakar Champions BMW Motorrad. Now here they were, the Aussie and the Fräulein celebrating Meoni’s victory.
It was the last occasion the rally would use the customary Paris to Dakar route, however Meoni would win again in 2002. Success followed success as the silver and orange machines dominated the World Cross-Country Championship to the point where the French Gauloises Team, resplendent in blue, fought for line honours with the Spanish Team in their distinctive Repsol livery; whilst satellite KTM teams fought for the crumbs. “We had three T4 race trucks” explains Lee “the first for the Factory Team, the second for the KTM supported riders and the third for customers. The service crews actually took part in the race and so I was race navigator by day and mechanic by night; and without a shower for three weeks straight.”
“They were tough events” adds Claudia, who was Manager for the Gauloises Team in 2005, when almost 700 competitors took on the challenge. “Keeping would be thieves out of the bivouac at night was stressful and going into towns such as Gao in Mali, the aggression was often frightening. Mostly people were very friendly but, should you become separated, armed holdups were commonplace. I can remember back in 1999 when the BMW Motorrad service truck got lost. The crew made it back to the bivouac in their undies; very glad to have made it back at all.”
“But by 2003 KTM were on a roll” continues Lee “Richard Sainct won the Dakar followed by Nani Roma in 2004. It wasn’t unusual for KTM to fill the top ten positions. Then Sainct was killed in the Egyptian Pharaohs Rally and, only months later, Meoni died in Mauritania during the 2005 Dakar. All we could think of were the times when, for no reason, Fabrizio would turn up at the factory with a basket of fresh olives and a vat of vino just for a chat and a few laughs.”
“Meoni’s death meant the end of the bikes for me” says Claudia who, a few years later and now married to Lee, would take on the Team Coordinator roles at, first VW, then BMW. Lee stuck with KTM, spannering for Marc Coma as Chief Mechanic for Team Repsol. “At the same time I took on the responsibility of building bikes for Andy Caldecott and Dave Schwarz. Then when Caldecott was killed in 2006, that was it for me too.”
However Lee continued to compete as a professional navigator in International Cross-Country rallies whilst keeping up his skills on two wheels in the over 35 division of the A4DE and local enduros in the northern rivers. Supported, of course, by his and Claudia’s Husqvarna, Beta and Polaris dealership in Grafton. “I figure it’s now time to cease living like Gypsies” says Lee. “We’ve got 120 acres right on the river, some great dirtbike riding through the catchment area of the Manning and Border Ranges, plus a great beach at Yamba. None of which you can get in Europe.”
KTM have gone on to win 17 consecutive Dakars however Lee and Claudia recall those six wins in Africa as emotionally and physically the toughest time of their lives.
By PETER WHITAKER