Saturday, May 7, 2011

Notes from the Blue Groove: Nichole Cheza

Nichole Cheza isn't the first woman with a National number in flat track; Diane Cox and Tammy Kirk come to mind as women who were seriously fast 20 or 30 years ago. But for now, Nichole's the only female Grand National Championship 'E' ticket rider. When I talked to her, it's pretty clear that - since she's been flat-tracking since she was eight years old, growing up in Michigan and racing against guys like Jared Mees her whole life - she pretty much thinks of herself as one of the guys.

I suppose you'd have to call her a post-feminist. The other day, I called her up and asked her about the unique challenges of being a female in an almost all-male sport. She was quick to point out that Shayna Texter is coming up through the Pro ranks, but the only point of difference she could think of between her and Shayna, and their male competitors, were the setup differences required because they were smaller and lighter, not because they were women.

Nichole's dad was a motocross racer, and her first taste of motorcycle racing was mini-MX. But when Tom Cummings convinced Mark Cheza to bring his kid and her 60cc minibike to a flat track race, she took to it pretty quickly. As she grew, and progressed through the ranks, she raced both motocross and flat track, often on the same weekend. At that point, they already had girls' classes at those MX races, and she was a regular winner there, and usually raced a few boys' classes, too.

"Once I'd moved up to 125s, my dad said, 'OK we have to pick one.'" She told me. "By then, I'd won some flat track amateur championships, and in flat track they didn't separate the girls from the guys. I liked the speed of dirt tracking, and it suited my style a little better."
I guess the pink accents are a way of acknowledging that Nichole Cheza's the only chick with a GNC 'E' ticket. You would not know it from the way she rides.
 In 2003, Nichole was the AMA Pro's female athlete of the year, and the next year she moved up to the Expert class, and Harley-Davidson XR-750s.

"Miles are tough. People think they're easy, but it's a big drafting game, and you have to have that figured out," she told me.

Given her history, that was a massive understatement. In her first Expert season, at the Syracuse Mile, she was battling for a transfer spot in a heat race. In the thick of it, she let her herself get sucked in, literally, drafting too deep into a corner. Crash. Broken back.

Three years later she had another hard crash at Monticello, breaking her back again and puncturing a lung. It was when she told me about the long comeback from those crashes that I noted a difference between female racers and most of the male pro racers I've known. If you're going to be a professional motorcycle racer, at some point in your career you're going to get hurt. You're going to crash so hard that you're forced to come to terms with the fact that what you're doing is dangerous; people get killed in this game, and you're not immune.

When you realize that fact, it's going to spook you. If it didn't spook you, you'd be an idiot (and frankly a danger to yourself and others on the track.) But, you have to put it behind you, and move on. You have to get even faster because while you were out, recovering, your competition was racing and honing their skills. If you can't come to terms with it, control your fears, and move on, you have to find a different sport.

The difference between Nichole and most of the male pro racers I've talked with over the years is, she brought that up in conversation. The guys are, mostly, afraid to admit it. "I had a year when I really struggled. I'd just feel like I was getting going and getting some confidence back and the bike would break or something stupid would happen, and I really thought maybe this isn't for me," she recalled. "But everyone's going to have a bad year every now and then, and it was just one of those years." So after a season or two in which she was a little hesitant to mix it up in high speed drafting packs, she's back.

In between races, most of her time in Clio (near Flint, MI) is spent training. She still rides a motocross bike a couple of times a week, works out in the gym several days a week, and tries to include a cardio workout every day. She often rides and works out with Jared Mees. "We're not just competitors on the weekend," she told me, "We're competitors all week long. It's good to have someone like that pushing you."

On occasional days 'off', the ex-gymnast sometimes goes back to coach or just play around at her old gymnastics gym, too. Training hard is one part of her plan. "I want to be the first female Grand National Champion," she told me. The other part of the plan is, as she says, 'putting it all together.'

Taking the next step up means being fast and consistent at every single track, no matter what length, surface, or shape. Hagerstown, for example, bedevilled her for years. "It's slick, and banked, and I couldn't get the wheels in line there," she told me. But last year her team played around with tire pressures, and got her a set of tire warmers, and she finally got her Global Products-backed Harley-Davidson to hook up. In a two-steps-forward, one-step-back way that's familiar to any racer, once she got the handling sorted her bike developed a misfire. She wrote on her blog, "Although I had a tough night as far as bike problems go, it was the best I ever felt at Hagerstown. I am finally getting these car tracks figured out. I learned a lot and I'm ready for the Miles that are coming up."

The first Mile of the 2011 season's coming up at Springfield. The Illinois State Fairground's held some pretty good memories for her the last few years. She's won the Dash for Cash there, and seemed particularly comfortable on a wet surface that most of the rest of the field hated in 2009. Maybe she'll do a little rain dance this year, but either way the smooth, fast Springfield clay suits her and turns her small small size and light weight into a potential advantage. I kept an eye on her there last year, and while she didn't get Main event results, she looked smooth and fast, and was in the mix most of the day.

It's almost always a sneaky-strategic place. There have been many races there where a rider could be in sixth place going into Turn 3 on Lap 25, and be in first place at the Finish. "I'm finally more confident in the draft," she told me, and she's obviously looking forward to getting back on the big XR.

"I think I'm more accepted in dirt track than other females are in other areas, like road racing or NASCAR," she told me towards the end of our chat. "I've grown up with these guys; they know that I'm as serious as they are. If they're going for a last lap pass, they'll stuff me out of the way just like they would their male competitors."

I hope this may is the year she returns a lot of those favors.

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