After winning my first desert race in September of 2001, I was completely addicted to the sport. I wasn’t ever blessed with much natural athletic talent, but I had learned when I was younger that if I worked hard enough I could be successful at most anything I put my mind to.
In junior high I realized that if I was going to have any success in track and field it was going to be in distance running. I was not a fast runner, but I had heart. I don’t have the body type for distance running either, but I was willing to put the work in. However, I was plagued with 2nd place finishes until high school. I kept working hard and beat all the odds as a freshman. I surprised everyone, and no one more than me, when I beat the fastest cross country runner in my school. My success continued through high school and I even held our school’s cross country record for a number of years.
The events of September 11, 2001 will forever be etched in my memory. My mentor and main racing sponsor Terry Glass worked in aviation and his business was greatly affected by that day. I think I was a major stress reliever to him because I was at his house several times a week riding in the desert or working on my dirt bike. During the week I also started cross training with my junky hand-me-down mountain bike on the trails of a mountain preserve near my house in Phoenix. I received plenty of weird looks by the hard core mountain bikers, but I didn’t care. When they were stopped admiring their overpriced bicycles and catching their breath I would push on with one goal in mind.
The next race on the schedule for Whiplash Off-Road was the Vulture Mine race. It is located near the town of Wickenburg AZ. I managed to weasel some new tires out of Terry and his friend Cuffy Crabbe who had also helped me previously. Terry also had access to a toy hauler RV we could use. My only other sponsor Piper Performance also hooked me up with some good discounts on some parts that I needed.
On Saturday October 6th we headed out to the race. We found a nice place to camp and I headed off to sign up for the race. After sign up I returned to find Terry had gotten us all set up and unloaded, so I returned to the sign up area to have my bike and helmet inspected for any safety infractions. The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) had a strong presence at the race and we were warned they would write us tickets for any infractions or off course excursions, including hitting cactus!
In the afternoon, the registered riders could take a pre-run lap around the course to familiarize ourselves with it. They called it a poker run, the participants threw $10 into a pot and upon returning they drew 5 cards and at the end of the day the top three hands split fifty percent of the pot, the other fifty percent went a charity, which in many cases was an injured racer that needed assistance. I took full advantage of this. The 17 mile course was rough, twisty, and full of rocks. About half the course was what we called a 2 track, meaning that vehicles could also traverse it, but only a capable 4×4 would even attempt it in most places. The other half was only wide enough for a quad to pass through between the trees, bushes, and cactus. In a few places I actually stopped and moved rocks off the course. I even back tracked a couple of times to take a second look at things. No trophies are handed out for the poker pre-run so I wanted to get my money’s worth. There were not many places on the 17 mile course a rider could get any rest, much less take a hand off the handlebar long enough to get a drink from the Camelbak straw.
I didn’t win any money that day, but the $10 was well worth the course knowledge I received. Returning to camp, I went over my bike to ensure it was ready for the next day. Unfortunately, I over looked a very important item. In an attempt to be patriotic, which was cool in those days after 9/11, I put several American flag stickers on my bike.
Later I met up with a few friends that were also racing. We hung out around the campfire talking and I listened to numerous racing stories. I had such a good time, and while we were all competitors on the track, we were all friends when the dust settled.
Sunday, October 7, 2001, I woke to a cloudless, sunny day. The pit area was already busy with people getting ready for the chaos that would ensue shortly. Engines were being warmed up. Breakfasts were being eaten. Racers were trying to fight off nervousness. You see, to most competitive racers, it doesn’t matter how many times you line up at the start line there are butterflies in your stomach. I was nervous and yet confident at the same time. I knew that if I put my plan in place I stood a good chance of winning. That may sound cocky to some, but as a competitor confidence is key and if you don’t plan on winning there isn’t much point to it. However, this race course had so many variables that could end my day. So I, too, was nervous, because until the checkered flag flies you never know what will happen.
The first race for the day was the quads. One of my friends Dayton Raper, who was extremely fast on a dirt bike was going to race a friend’s quad “just for the fun of it”. So we all gathered along the race track to watch what we all figured would be a good show. Dayton didn’t disappoint, he came in after a lap with two flat tires and his day ended prematurely. He was fast on the quad…too fast. He didn’t adjust his “all or nothing” attitude and it caused him to puncture his tires from hitting the rocks too hard.
My race was next so I finished getting my pit set up and went to staging. My brother Walt drove out from Phoenix that morning to cheer me on and help Terry with my pit stop. My good friend Eric Brown also showed up to cheer for all of his friends. The race was scheduled for 5 laps. I would stop for gas at the end of the third lap. We started 2 bikes at a time every 20 seconds. I had been given the 8th starting position starting next to the 7th place starter.
Finally it was my turn. At the first sign of movement from the flag man I twisted the throttle and dropped my clutch. I won the short race to the first turn which was much better than my previous race. Immediately, the course was challenging. I put my head down and focused on the task at hand. The bike that started next to me did not even attempt to pass me as I sped off into the hills.
Not far into the race, the course turned down a dry river bed for a mile or two. Traversing the loose gravel and deep sand was treacherous, but I held the throttle open and tried to float over the top of it. Occasionally the tip of a large buried boulder could be seen. Terry and I called these kinds of rocks “China rocks”, because they were anchored all the way to China. These were always avoided at all costs because they could put an end to your race. I passed one bike in the wash, and at the exit was a hard 90 degree turn to the right. The next bike ahead of me was in the process of being picked up in the corner as I approached. The rider tried desperately to start his bike before I arrived to no avail. I am sure I showered him with rocks as I sped away.
“Fifth!” I said to myself as I flew through some soft sandy whoops. To my surprise I caught bike after bike. It seemed to me that many of the guys were trying to conserve their energy or they were extremely concerned about crashing. I know flat tires were also a concern and most guys in my class did not have spare wheels in their pits, so a flat tire would end their day.
I continued to count down the bikes one by one as I passed them. One guy slid out right in front of me but didn’t appear to be injured so I didn’t even slow down. Just after the 12 mile marker I caught what I thought was the lead bike. I caught his dust which caused me to charge even harder. I was standing up on my foot pegs attacking the rough terrain with a vengeance. I came over a little rise and could see the other bike about half a mile ahead.
I lost sight of my competitor as we twisted back and forth through some mesquite trees and cactus. The hard packed surface was littered with loose rocks, and one slid out from under my front tire almost causing a crash. The dust from the leader hung in the air making visibility difficult. I don’t know if he had an issue or not, but suddenly I was right behind the first place bike as I exited a turn. The next obstacle was a slight uphill that I had actually practiced a couple of times during my pre-run the day before. I knew exactly where I was and we found ourselves drag racing side by side up the rough hill. The top of the hill could not be seen, but I kept the gas on leaping over the top and clearing a number of deep holes and rocks. My competitor did not follow my lead and slowed through the rough bumps on top of the hill. If I counted correctly I was now leading the race.
I was in shock and excited at the same time. I continued to push as hard as I could through a treacherous section referred to as the “Cactus Garden”. The name pretty much leaves little to the imagination. One wrong move in that section and I would become a human pin cushion. Teddy Bear Cholla cacti, also known as “jumping cactus” grew along both side of the course. I zig zagged through cleanly which was a good thing because on the far side there was a BLM ranger just waiting to see if someone would hit one of the cacti.
Shortly after the Cactus Garden the course opened up into some 200 yard long, smooth straights with gentle, sweeping turns connecting the straights together. It was also slightly down hill and my speed was pushing 60 mph. I was feeling extremely confident as I pushed through the curves and accelerated on the straights. I was less than 2 miles from the end of the first lap and since there was no dust in the air I was pretty sure I was leading the race.
Suddenly the back of my bike bucked in the air. I made a quick adjustment with my body to counter the sudden instability. As my back tire landed on the ground I immediately realized something was wrong. My back tire was locked up and I was skidding uncontrollably. My engine had stalled also. When I came to a stop I looked down and to my dismay found the back wheel cocked sideways in the swing arm. There was no way I was going anywhere without work.
I jumped off my bike and flipped it over so I could work on it. In my pre-race prep work I had over looked my rear axle nut. The hard pounding bumps of the race course had taken its toll on the under tightened nut. It had come off which allowed the axle to slide over and out of place. Thankfully it did not appear to have any serious damage, but my race was over.
I pulled a few tools from my fanny pack and jerry rigged the axle back into place. At this point, I had been passed by most of the guys I had worked so hard to pass. I was extremely embarrassed. I used some wire from my tool kit to somewhat hold the axle in place. I proceeded to limp back to the pit area while being passed by several more bikes.
I pulled into my pit and put my bike up on my bike stand. Terry wasn’t expecting me to stop that lap and rushed over to see what was going on. I pointed out what had happened out of embarrassment. My friend David Gronland also came over to see if he could help. He was racing in the next race and had the parts on his bike to get me going, but there was no way I was going to ask him to take parts off his bike to keep me in a race that I now stood no chance of winning. So I pulled up a chair and cheered on my fellow racers while wallowing in my shame.
While waiting for my race to be over David’s wife Lori heard that we had started dropping bombs on the Taliban. A radio was turned on and we sat listening to the news. The United States was officially at war in retaliation for 9/11. We all stayed glued to that radio for the rest of the afternoon listening to what was happening on the other side of the world.
Instead of rushing home, I hung out to help David with his pit stop. Lori was grateful for that because usually she was the person lifting the gas can to refill David’s bike. This was the first time of many that I dumped gas for David over the next few years both in the States and in Mexico. David went on to win the race in the Open Pro class. He executed a perfect race, and I would like to think my assistance with his pit stop made all the difference, just kidding. David was the kind of racer that was a threat to win every race he entered, and he never gave up.
After the last race was over Terry and I packed up the trailer and headed home. I was extremely disappointed and discouraged with myself, but Terry didn’t seem to be. In fact, he was quite the opposite and encouraged me to keep after it. He decided that day to invest some more money into my racing habit and promised to buy me some more “go fast” parts for my bike. He was living vicariously through me and was enjoying helping me out. We made plans that day for the next race on schedule in Parker AZ the next month.