Saturday, March 17, 2012

Venus Rising: Elena Myers can still totally kick your ass

I was hanging on my AMA Pro Racing app a few minutes ago, as the second Daytona Supersport race laps clicked off, and I breathed a big sigh of relief when Elena Myers avoided the problems she had in Race 1, and scored her finest win yet. It's been close to two years since she made history by surviving a crashfest at Infineon, and becoming the first female to win an AMA Pro Racing road race national. (Yes, I know about Sherry Friduss.)

Before the 2010 season, I wrote a profile of Myers, knowing that as soon as that first win came, I'd be able to sell it to magazines all over the place. She came through for me, and versions of the following story ran in Australia, the UK, and in the old Road Racer X mag, here in the U.S.

The next couple of seasons weren't particularly easy ones for her, and there were times -- I have to admit -- that I thought maybe I'd been wrong in pegging her as 'The One'.

Anyway, I was glad to see her get that second win, and in honor of that occasion, I dug out the Elena profile that ran in MCN back in the spring of 2010. It's a bit dated now, but it will give you a pretty complete background on the fastest female road racer, well, ever.

Elena Myers can kick your ass

When a 16 year-old girl won the AMA SuperSport race at Infineon Raceway last week, history was made. Until this year, no female rider had ever even finished in the top ten at an AMA 'national.' But at least three people weren't surprised: John Ulrich, the man who discovered Ben Spies; Kevin Schwantz, who has mentored all the American riders in the Red Bull Rookies Cup; and Elena Myers. Here's her story so far...
Elena's racing for John Ulrich, one of the cagiest talent-spotters in the AMA. He's the publisher of the influential U.S. magazine Roadracing World and the owner of one of the longest-standing privateer teams in the AMA Superbike paddock. Ulrich told me, “She has as much talent at her age as Ben did, or John did.” Those would be Ben Spies (perhaps you've heard of him) and John Hopkins. They were two of his earlier proteges. 
MotoGP, take note: Elena Myers is the world's fastest girl. Readers, take not: Whether or not she gets to MotoGP, rest assured that she can kick your ass.
She hit my radar three of four years ago because I have several friends who are track day operators and expert racers in San Francisco's local club, the American Federation of Motorcyclists (aka the AFM, it's one of the three or four most competitive club scenes in the U.S., and it regularly spawns AMA pros.) They told us that they were used to being blitzed by a diminutive 12 year-old girl. Hmm... 
Her name came up again a couple of years later when Kawasaki's U.S. press maven Jan Plessner, who has long been a supporter of women's motorcycling in general and racing in particular, arranged for a backdoor support program for her; Team Green provided a 650 twin and then a ZX-6R and arranged for Cary Andrews whose shop, Hypercycle, had tuned for several top AMA privateers to build them. Hmm, again.
Elena has much in common with the other young guns who are currently shooting for MotoGP stardom. Her dad, Matt, was an ex-racer who put Elena on a tiny dirt bike when she was seven years old. There are differences, too; some of her rivals' parents have spent well into six figures on equipment and specialized coaching. 
Elena's dad's a motorcycle mechanic at a mom-and-pop shop in the small California town of Stockton, so their equipment budget's been tight, but Matt also worked part time at a local kart track and ran a pocket-bike racing series, giving Elena almost limitless track time at an impressionable age. 
“When you're a parent,” Matt said simply, “you naturally want to find things to do with your kids. At first, that's all it was. We didn't have the delusions that a lot of other parents have. I'd meet them at the track and their kids were five or six, and they had their whole lives planned out.”
No kidding. Kevin Schwantz who was the coach for the short-lived U.S. version of the Red Bull Rookies Cup, told me, “In the last few years, I've seen a lot of kids who were racing because it was what was expected of them, it was what they'd always done growing up and it was driven by their dads. Elena's not like that; the motivation is coming from her.” 

Although she was fast enough, and having fun, on pocket bikes and tiny supermoto bikes those first couple of seasons weren't a revelation. Her initial breakthrough came when, during an off-season, Matt fitted her tiny RM85 with bigger wheels and slick tires and she began to ride it in a road-race style. “One time, we were on track with Tommy Hayden (Nicky's brother, and a top AMA Superbike racer in his own right.) He was on his supermoto bike, training,” Matt recalled, “and I watched Elena ride right around him on the outside of a turn. That's when I thought maybe she could really go somewhere.” Hmm...
Towards the end of 2004, they took Elena and her 85 to a track day at Thunderhill; her first trip to a full-sized race track. The event organizer offered her a ride on his 125 GP bike. It was a bigger, faster track and a much faster bike than anything she'd ridden. One thing that's emerged in her career to date is that when the bike gets bigger and faster, she gets better. Matt found a used Honda RS125 and Elena became the youngest rider ever to petition the AFM, to allow her to get a race license. The AFM turned them down.
Not to be denied, in early '05, Matt convinced OMRRA (the club that races out of Portland International Raceway, in Oregon, about 600 miles to the north) to allow Myers to come up and take their new-racer course. Elena took the course, raced – and won, twice – against local experts. At the end of the weekend, they gave her an expert license.
Her Portland results paid off by attracting the interest of John Ulrich, who publishes Roadracing World magazine and runs one of AMA Pro Racing's longest-standing and most-successful privateer teams. 
“I'll never forget meeting her,” Ulrich told us. “She walked right up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, 'Hi, I'm Elena Myers.' She had a firm handshake, and I thought, I haven't met many 12 year-olds like this. We had a conversation like the one I had with John Hopkins when he was 14.”
Based on that first impression, Ulrich told us, “I thought she was The One,” the first girl with a viable chance to become a really top-tier road racer. Later he added, “Having raised two girls myself, and having always told them, you can be whatever you set out to be, I almost felt there was a moral imperative to help her.”
Ulrich arranged for her to get a better 125, and laid out – right from the start – a plan that led to her arriving at Daytona as soon as she turned 16 and was eligible for an AMA Pro Racing Expert license. Elena's road racing education continued as she raced that 125 in the USGPRU series, and then Kawasakis in WERA events (two second-tier national series.) Although she wasn't utterly dominant, she usually shared the podium with much older and more experienced competition. 
Cary Andrews attended a few events, but most of the time it was just her and her dad going to races. At the end of the season, when Elena went to the WERA Grand National Final at Road Atlanta, Ulrich dispatched one of his own team mechanics, Michael Tijon, on a bit of a spy mission. He was to see how well set-up Elena's bike had been. Tijon reported back that there was a lot of room for improvement.
Elena's pretty much in charge of her own rider-development program. She sticks to herself at the track, though she's benefitted from some coaching with Jason Pridmore, an ex-AMA pro who runs a track school called STAR. Her dad, Matt, was mid-pack club racer back in the '90s, who never scraped together the funds to run a whole season. He told me he didn't really know where his daughter got her speed. Interestingly, when he talks about her there's a measure of parental pride but there's also a lot of respect; he talks about her as if she's an adult, not his kid. “She's a straight-A student at school, and takes a very methodical approach,” he says, struggling to rationalize her success. “She just seems to understand how things work.”
She comes across as a pretty normal 16 year-old girl in conversation, which is to say – despite the fact that she's more articulate and confident than most kids – that she's not completely capable of explaining her success, either. Like any number of young riders I've spoken to over the years, she's got lofty goals. “I'd like to win an AMA championship,” she told me, “and then go to MotoGP.”
“I'm light, and that helps, but on the heavier bikes I need to be stronger, so I've been lifting weights,” she told me. She seems more comfortable talking about the physical side of racing than the psychological side, or her own motivation. But she's perceptive enough to add, “Being a girl, I get a lot of extra media attention and that helps.”
Again, no kidding. One of our conversations took place after she'd spent an afternoon doing three back-to-back live radio and TV interviews. “It's fun for me,” she said. “I don't think about what I'm doing; that it's live and all those people are seeing me.” 
At the beginning of this season, Ulrich's long-term plan reached the end of its first phase when, right on schedule, Elena rolled into Daytona with a newly-minted AMA Pro license and a GSX-R600 from Ulrich's stable – the bike that Jason Disalvo rode last year (he's riding for ParkinGo Triumph in the World Supersport Championship this year.)
“It took the first part of the day to get over the steepness of the Daytona banking,” she told me. “I wasn't scared but... nothing could have prepared me for that. Then the AMA week was amazing; I've been waiting four years for this to come and I was a racer and part of the show.” 
Ulrich found room for Elena under the Richie Morris Racing awning. So far, 'The Elena Project' has picked up support from Lucas Oils but it's still a pretty grassroots effort. A San Francisco lawyer and track-day addict has bought a few airplane tickets; a motorcycle journalist has put up enough money to buy a pair of tires. Her dad works as a general assistant in the pits.
Being part of a real team, with better equipment and a real crew chief, was great. “I love having a team-mate,” she told me. “I use all of his settings!” 
Although the SuperSport class is no longer the lion's den it was when Miguel Duhamel raced a full-factory Honda in it, it's still insanely competitive. Cameron Beaubier returned to the U.S. from a full season in the world championships, and Jake Gagne, J.D. Beach, Joey Pascarella, and Tommy Puerta are or were all front-runners in the Red Bull Rookies program. By barring factory teams and placing an upper age limit on riders, the AMA's turned SuperSport into the class you enter to make your bones. So far this season, fewer than half the races have gone full distance; red flags have flown far more often than chequered ones. It's intense.
Elena's pair of seventh-place finishes at Daytona weren't exactly a disappointment; she was the fastest Suzuki rider and the results seemed to suggest that the current class rules slightly favor riders on Yamahas. At the next meeting, she was caught up in a first-lap melee and – worse luck still – crashed on spilled fluids on the warm-up lap of the first race at Atlanta. That crash left her with a purple foot, but she limped to her bike the next day  and survived two more stoppages for a top-five finish. 
Her tough-mindedness isn't in question. Ulrich – a real hardass himself – told me, “I've never seen anyone with more of a race face. You should see her come in and look at the fucking monitor, especially if she's having a little trouble!”
“This year, she's really stepped up,” Kevin Schwantz observed after that Atlanta event. “There's still a gap to those front three or four guys but she's closing it. I think Road Atlanta would have been a good track for her, if she hadn't been so banged up.”
Her luck had to change, and at the series' fourth round, Infineon Raceway outside of San Francisco, it did. In the first of two SuperSport races that weekend, one of her rivals crashed, causing a stoppage and taking himself out of contention. On the restart, Elena was in a lead pack with Cameron Beaubier, who had been fast in qualifying, and Joey Pascarella.
Just past half-distance, Pascarella highsided himself into outer space. Elena and Beaubier swapped the lead over the next few corners, but Pascarella's crash brought out another red flag and ending the race. The order had been Pascarella-Myers-Beaubier on the last green-flag lap, but since Pascarella had caused the red flag, he was dropped to last, as per AMA rules. Despite the confusion surrounding the end of the race, there was a crush of paddock insiders around the podium, and a profound sense that history was being made. Myers said, "When they told me the race was called, they said, 'You got second, but wait, Joey crashed and you got first,' and I looked at my Dad and he was crying." 
A win is a win, and that was the first one ever by a female rider in an AMA road race 'national.' And in the fullness of time it will settle in on Elena Myers that there is no such thing as an 'inherited' victory. But, no real racer wants to win by a technicality; Elena Myers still wants to beat the guys to the chequered flag. Her plan to do that is simple: rider harder.
“I was talking it over with my dad and I need to charge every single corner,” she told me. “I need to make the bike wiggle on every corner exit and get more comfortable with it moving around.” Interestingly, she actually looks more comfortable on the bike than ever. “When I see photos of myself from the last couple of races,” she said, “I look like I'm on a Sunday ride.” So she's riding harder, against tougher competition, and getting more relaxed. That bodes well.
Kevin Schwantz told me, “She's got one thing that every great racer has, and that's a huge heart.”
Will she win more at this level? Almost certainly. Championships? Don't bet against it. Is she The One? Will she be the first woman to race in MotoGP? Maybe. But this much is already certain: Elena Myers can kick your ass.

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