January 29, 2003




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Grease and blood

Prowling the pits at San Francisco's Supercross race.

By A.C. Thompson

IT'S TWO HOURS before race time on Jan. 25, and Jason Frenette's day isn't going so well. There's blood dripping from his elbow, a horrendous bruise forming on his shoulder, and a torn brake cable hanging from his canary yellow Suzuki dirt bike. "I think I messed up my shoulder again," he grunts.

Frenette is at Pac Bell Park for round four of the THQ Supercross series, the world's premiere off-road motorcycle competition. The stadium's baseball diamond has been transformed for one night into a serpentine dirt race course marked by hairpin turns and studded with mammoth jumps. Though Frenette came to compete, the brawny 28-year-old Canadian will be spending his night in the bleachers after a mishap during practice: another rider on a 250-pound bike hit a 60-foot jump and came down on top of him. Hence the blood and bruising.

There are dozens of underdogs like Frenette on the circuit. Some have no team, no corporate sponsorship at all. Others are turning laps for second- or third-tier teams. Few have a real shot at bringing home a trophy.

For the journeyman throttle jockey, life is anything but glamorous. Frenette, who gets a little help from a local motorcycle dealer, has to scrape up gas money to get from town to town. "Right now I'm in the hole big time," he says. "But I do it for the love of the sport."

Supercross is the big time. Tonight at Pac Bell a screaming throng of 40,033 fans – most of whom seem to have arrived at the stadium in jacked-up pickups – is filling the seats. Last year some 790,000 spectators filled outdoor arenas from Atlanta to Anaheim to watch racers compete in the 16-event series; 15 million more followed the circuit on ESPN2. As far as motorsports go, only NASCAR has a bigger draw.

On the circuit the crashes are brutal and frequent, the injuries horrific – snapped femurs are common – but the money, at least for the top dogs, is good. There are six-figure endorsement deals, signature clothing lines, well-compensated appearances in 1-800 Collect commercials, and of course, prize money for winning, sometimes as much as $100,000. Worshiped like deities by the fans, successful riders pull down $1 million or more a year and spend the off-season luxuriating in palatial, MTV Cribs-type estates.

With that kind of money and media exposure at stake, the major teams – Honda, Yamaha, KTM, Kawasaki, Suzuki – will do anything to win. Honda's three-rider squad, for example, is backed by 19 helpers, including three "race technicians," an "engine-data acquisition" person, two suspension gurus, and a machinist whose sole job is to fabricate custom parts. (It takes two custom 18-wheelers to carry all of their bikes and gear.) The Chevy Trucks-Kawasaki team mounts a similar effort, with a 14-person support crew.

Frenette may be riding the same tracks as the top-ranked riders, but he's living in a different world. His mechanic is a buddy who works for free. At night the two look for floors to crash on. Then there's the tour vehicle, a sticker-covered blue 1980 GMC van with barely enough room for two men and two motorcycles. "Look at the mileage on 'er," Frenette says, gesturing to the odometer. It reads 495,000. "They're all race miles."

Rene Reyes knows all about mileage. Following a dream, the spiky-haired 19-year-old drove the family van 1,200 miles to Pac Bell from Chihuahua, Mexico, to battle the big boys. Now, after failing to qualify for the race – his lap times were too slow – he's got his head in his hands. "I'm the Mexican national champion," he says, but in America he has yet to crack the top 20. It's going to be a long drive home.

"We're the B team," says Jeff Leggitt, co-owner of the Mach 1-Yamaha squad, a Vallejo-based farm team for Yamaha.

Compared with guys like Reyes and Frenette, the farm teams have it easy – the Mach 1 squad is working with a $500,000 budget. But in this business half a million bucks is nothing. Honda's A team spends twice as much on equipment alone.

Leggitt has hired two promising riders, both of them 25 years old: Nick Wey of Michigan and Heath Voss, a Texan. After putting in at least 28 weeks on the road this year, the riders are likely to take home between $70K and $80K, which isn't a hell of a lot of money, considering the risks of the profession. Still, Wey, a slight dude with movie-star good looks, sees it as a "sweet deal," he says. "I'm really glad Mach 1 stepped up." In a field of would-be giant-slayers, Wey is one of the few riders with the potential to win.

A total of four support personnel – a driver, two mechanics, and a team manager – travel with the racers. "We're a blue-collar team," manager Justin Quinn tells me. "I'm the marketing guy, I'm the organizer, I'm the manager. I put out whatever fires spring up."

This season there've been quite a few. Blown motors forced Wey to drop out of two races. "I was pissed," admits the rider, who's still recovering from a herniated disk. But Wey, pensive and edgy as race time draws near, remains determined to salvage the season. Tonight he's hoping for a career breakthrough: "I want to finish in the top three."

The gate drops and the bumblebee whine of two-stroke motors fills the stadium. Wey gets an atrocious start. Six laps in, he's running 16th out of 20 riders. The crowd's eyes are fixed on Honda's Ricky Carmichael, the sport's current god, who's leading by about 10 bike lengths.

Wey keeps slogging through the pack, making passes at every opportunity. In lap 10 he gets sketchy, landing hard on the front wheel and nearly getting intimate with the soil. When the checkered flag drops, he's in 10th place.

The breakthrough will have to wait.

E-mail A.C. Thompson at ac_thompson@sfbg.com.