The Pala Raceway in Southern California is buzzing one Saturday afternoon in mid-September, both literally and figuratively. It is the whir of finely tuned 250 or 450 cubic centimeter engines on motorbikes and the anticipation of the year's American Motocross Association (AMA) race series finale.
The dirt track along the Indian reservation is host to hundreds of racers and thousands of fans. To the naked eye, it's bikers against bikers, but look closer and you'll see Yankees versus Rays, Barnes & Noble versus Joe's Book Hut, Miles Davis against a random Spaniard with a vuvuzela ...
Multi-million dollar factory teams sponsored by the likes of Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha are on the same track as much smaller operations, called privateers. These privateers put teams on the track with their own money in the hopes they can compete.
Mike Milaccio and John Karas, along with Larry Sager, own one of those teams, Revolution2Mx. "I started like a sponsor, but not a team," Mike says. "From there, John and Larry and I got our heads together and I said, since we know a kid with promise, let's build a team. Let's make this a job. Let's build a sponsor base."
By day, they work as corporate recruiters, but in the hidden crevices of every free moment, they are less concerned with file folders and binder clips as much as they are with shifters, sprockets, brake rotors and rims.
"I have to do this in the morning or at night or on weekends," Mike explains. "I work my day job, and then get on the road and go pick up a part or go give John graphics."
He then gives his boss a shout out for her generosity in giving him the freedom to do so. Eighteen months in and $50,000 worth of expenditures and they're still fighting.
"We've grinding at it," he says. "We're just trying to get aligned with the right sponsor, someone to help take us to the next level."
Their main purchase, the bike, never earns money. However, the return on investment is there, albeit hidden. Mike continues, "There's a profit at the end of the tunnel. Once we have a sponsor, they'll say, 'Okay, how much do you need to budget?'"
For that, the team of friends hustles to secure big name backers. One that just jumped on board was Yahoo! Sports, who allowed them to run the Yahoo! flag on their bike, which provides visibility for the Internet company and a name backer for the team.
Davey Coombs who, along with his sister, Carrie Coombs-Russell, is co-vice president of MX Sports ProRacing, describes the carrot dangling in front of the privateer. "If you're a top, young privateer in Southern California and you go out and finish in the top 10 at Pala, you can expect a clothing deal, a shoe deal, an energy drink deal, all of those things," he says.
The Coombs are second-generation promoters having watched their father became the de facto leader of outdoor promoters in 1998, after both parents were involved in the industry since 1974. Now, the offspring handle the series marketing, operations, and are partnered with Alli Sports to handle the commercial aspects.
A former privateer himself, Davey had a "cup of coffee" with a factory team -- KTM -- back in 1985. (He laughs at how small they were compared to their size now.) So he knows a thing or two about being a rider on the rise.
Revolution2Mx thinks they have one such rider in Weston Peick. Mike boasts, "Weston's a great kid, upstanding, polite. He's a normal everyday kid who happens to go that fast on a dirt bike."
The grizzled motocross veteran (at 20 years old), Weston left high school to conclude his studies with a home-schooling program which allowed him to graduate after tenth grade. He says with a smile, "It's not like I failed out or anything like that."
A mutual mechanic friend of theirs brought them together and so far, the match has been solid. In Weston, they found a top notch rider already earning some sponsorships and Rev2Mx brought him a bike and a larger
But the partnership is not permanent. He's not on any contract and the only money he'll make is if he qualifies for an event and wins some purse money. Should a factory deal come his way, Weston would gladly take it, along with the salary and all the perks that come with it, and if John and Mike are presented with a corporate bankroll, they would consider taking on a higher ranked rider.
This is not to downplay the loyalty they have for each other. Speaking of the admiration he has for his rider, Mike begins, "We might go our separate ways, but we may always circle back around. The business is small and the talent few."
"It is what it is," Weston says. "Everyone wants that deal so you can't be mad that they have it and you don't."
Until that day, he does battle for Rev2Mx as best he can against teams more loaded than his. As we walk the grounds, John indicates a giant trailer with Kawasaki written all over it.
"They have millions and millions of dollars invested in building those bikes and they're not bikes that are available to the public ... and most teams have multiple riders," he says.
Larry speculates that, "for companies to sign a top rider under contract, they're probably around $250-300k." Then John adds, "So our challenge right now is being the best we possibly can while spending the least amount of money."
At the beginning of the day, Peick is ranked 23rd for the 2011 series, but the numbers are misleading. Mike says, "We didn't run the whole series. It goes back east, all over the country, so the travel gets really expensive." With a couple of top twelve finishes on the year, they are all optimistic at what he's capable of.
Overall, the odds are against him, what with 80 riders vying for 40 spots in the motos (races). Plus these factory teams have trailers that are mobile garages. If one of their bikes breaks, they can have a whole new bike ready in ten minutes. Some of their components aren't even on the market yet.
On the other hand, a privateer has two or three of the same part ready just in case, but has far less a window of error in going against superior equipment.
Still, such odds do not deter the participants. How does Weston hope to take out the big boys? "I come in halfway through the moto and start charging and picking guys off. I'm a hard charger. Usually they start dropping off a little bit. You start reading it and you see when it's time to do your thing."
Weston can do that because of his size. At 5-11 and 200 pounds, he's larger than your typical rider who falls in the range of 5-8 and a buck fifty. That makes him more durable, but he's got to keep his own cardio up in order to keep from overheating.
And for this team, it's a family affair. Weston rides, his father, Lou, works on the bike, and his family cheers him on. All this, while sharing the tent and vehicle transportation with other up-and-coming riders.
Next to Lou, Shane Allen is wrenching for Sean Lipanovich, a 21-year-old rider. "I met Sean at a race," the 20-year-old mechanic starts. "He had issues, couldn't get the bike running, so I got a hold of him. I fixed the bike in about five minutes and he hired me." (To me, it seems like a golfer in high school using a caddy in middle school.)
Meanwhile, fans have flocked to the sport. In the last two years alone, Davey has seen the numbers rise exponentially of the sport his father saw to promote. He reads me the impressive numbers he's received from Alli -- from the first six races of 2011, the total viewership was over 3.3 million. Add to that, 232,000 live streams of the first motos on the Internet and 122,000 people in attendance. Overall, these events were broadcast on five continents, 104 countries and 18 languages.
Davey credits the increase to a big shift recommended to him from Speed TV. "After 38 years of races being on any Sunday, we moved them to Saturday making motocross more accessible for TV viewers," he says.
Until that shift in 2009, races were tape-delayed. And on this sun-dried Saturday, close to 20,000 people line the track.
After the practice run, consisting of two timed 15-minute practices which determines who qualifies, it's time for Weston's moto. The ride will last thirty minutes plus two laps. Then he'll have a break while the other classes run before he'll do it a second time.
The engines rev and the starting gate lowers. Weston starts off well. Standing far to the side of the starting line are his owners, the ones with as much at stake, if not more, than their rider. They're understandably nervous.
Weston completes one lap while Mike and Larry focus on his position, by counting the bikes in front of him. Larry notes, "He's middle of the pack." "He's 18th," Mike specifies. This is acceptable as they know their rider's habit of finishing strong.
A minute later, Weston appears again, this time, pausing in front of the pit crew and waving his arm frantically, as John McEnroe might in protest to an umpire. Something's gone wrong.
Mike, Larry, and John try to understand what could be happening, without panicking. "He probably blew it up again," John says.
"I hope it's not blown up," replies Mike. Then he bows his head. "We've got the worst luck in the world, man."
One more lap and Weston dismounts. He's realized the obvious -- his bike has betrayed him. After only three minutes and eight seconds, he's out of this moto.
He and Lou wheel the bike back to the tent. "A brand new clutch cable!" Lou cries angrily, wheeling the bike past the helpless ownership group. "Right where it goes in the lever, it just broke right off!"
He goes back to work, replacing the cable, then prepping the bike as he had earlier. Weston's second moto is only two hours away and as overall finish is simply the average of both motos, he's going to need an exceptional run.
This time around, things seem better. Weston rides in the top fifteen for the first 20 minutes and is preparing to make his charge when the same bike malfunction occurs sending his team back to the tent feeling empty.
Mike tells me they've had the problems before. "I don't want to sell out the bike, but clearly we've had bad luck with it. We couldn't have counted on all the difficulties with that bike. We swapped out every part twice. It's a really bad, unlucky deal. It's one in a thousand."
Though ultimately, it's on him and Revolution2Mx to make it work. "I've got to give my rider a chance to show his talents," he admits, before announcing, "We just bought a 2012 Kx450f to ensure a fresh start."
Another expense and the frustration creeps through further, though he shows equal concern for his rider. "Weston's a real pro. The economy's tough. We're just trying to get aligned with the right sponsor," a statement which could be the motto of the privateer. "Twenty to fifty thousand dollars would change our lives."
Well, there will be more opportunities, assuming there's money to spend. The inaugural Monster Energy Cup (part of the supercross stadium series) is Oct. 15. "The best part about this race," Davey says, "is if the platform is there, if the TV viewership is there, if the stage is built, the opportunity is there for any athlete to shine between the drop of
the starting gate and the checkered flag." He sums it up: "The best way to make money is through your personal endorsements and sponsorships."
And that's what Weston Peick, Team Revolution2Mx, and others are finding out. Thanks to the surge in popularity and enhanced visibility of the sport, David has more chances to challenge Goliath. And that buzz is only going to get louder.