By Jody Weisel
Nobody likes to be given a history lesson, so here goes. My father’s side of the family came to America in 1776 to fight in the Revolutionary
War. The catch? They were Hessian mercenaries from
Germany who were imported to fight for the British.
After the war, they decided to stay and settled in
Pennsylvania. My mother’s family were O’Connors from
County Cork, Ireland. They came to America during the
Potato Famine of 1845.
From this stock, I grew up to become a motorcycle
racer. Oh, don’t get me wrong; that isn’t the only
sobriquet attached to my upbringing. I was a pole vaulter
and fullback at my high school. I pitched three no-hit
innings in relief in a round of the Little League World
Series. (We lost to Canada.) I paddled out to face the
only California big-wave spot of the day at Lunada Bay
in the 1960s. I was on my university’s NCAA cycling
team. I flew aerobatics in my free time. I have multiple
But, and this is a big but, I never held a real job. Ever.
That is until I took up motorcycle racing. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, natural-born, original byproduct of motocross.
As a child, the only electric toy I ever owned was a
Lionel train set. There were no Playstations or apps back
then. I didn’t own a BMX bike, because there was no
such thing as BMX. (I aspired to own an English racer,
which later came to be known as a 10-speed.) If I could
visit the bedroom of my 12-year-old self today, I would
find several baseball gloves, a bottle of Neat’s Foot oil,
a couple Sgt. Rock comic books, and a wall with posters
of New York Yankee Mickey Mantle and Frank Luke, the
Arizona Balloon Buster. No TV. No radio. No computer.
No cell phone. Just a bed and chest of drawers. To me, it
was heaven. I spent most of my time in that 12x12 room.
It was an imagination factory.
I saw my first dirt bike during my surfing days. I was
sitting in the water at an isolated beach break when
I heard a roar coming from behind the sand dunes. It
appeared as a blur, blasted me with a cacophony of
sound and left knobby prints in the sand.
I found the kid on the dirt bike later that day
lounging by the snack bar. I asked all the requisite
questions: who, what, why and how fast? A week
later I bought a used European dirt bike of my own for
$350 and started making my own tread marks on the
beach. Then, I went to a race. Then, I won a race. Then,
I quit surfing to race full-time. Then, I went to college to
prepare to become a professor of sociology. I kept racing
and studying, but I never became a professor. Instead,
when I was about to start my career as an upstanding
member of the academic community, I got offered a job
as a test rider. The rest, as I alluded to in the first
sentence, is just boring history.
But, let me say this: if, as a kid, I had an iPad, iPhone,
iMac, iPod or iWatch, I probably would not have become
a motorcycle racer. And, the men next to me on the
starting line today, lo these many years later, wouldn’t
have either. I race motorcycles for the same reason that
Frank Luke busted balloons and Mickey Mantle hit home
runs—for the romantic thrill of it. Not for the electronic
thrill of a video game or the camaraderie of being a
chat-room jockey, but to fulfill dreams that can only come
from a childhood filled with fishing, hunting, sports, a
vivid imagination and, dare I say, a love of history.
I have a friend in the bicycle business who claims that
BMX was killed by tennis shoes. Does that make any
sense? When Air Jordan tennis shoes and other high-priced footwear became the status quo in schools across
America, parents asked their kids to choose between a
new $120 BMX bike and a $120 pair of Nike Air Max
shoes. They chose the Nikes.
We hear so much about the end of days for
motocross—that today’s kids would rather talk, text,
scroll or play video games than actually do anything real.
The doomday wags say that kids are more interested in
simulated reality, where they can crash their pixelated
motocross bike over and over without the actual
adrenaline rush of going over the bars for real.
Take it from a guy who has crashed the real thing and
the fake thing—there is no comparison. ❏