dirt-bike-racing

Still Playing in the Dirt

This self-taught champion rider gave himself a crash course in motorcycle racing as a teen — and has never looked back.

Lisa Marie Hart Current Digital, Sports

dirt-bike-racing
Agua Caliente Tribal Member Vincent Gonzales Jr. has been riding dirt bikes since the age of 15 and doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. Here, he finishes a race at the Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernardino, California.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KATE ANDERSON

Anyone who has had the chance to glimpse the 60-plus-motorcycle brigade that belongs to Tribal Member Vincent Gonzales Jr. might find it hard to believe he hasn’t been riding since he took his first steps.

It is true, though, that one of his earliest memories involves a motorcycle. “My uncle let me ride one around the family property when I was about 5 or 6 years old,” he recalls. “I guess I caught the bug then.” But Gonzales had a slower start in gaining speed and traction on some wheels of his own.

“I didn’t ride again until I was 13 or 14 years old, when my cousin got a motorcycle for Christmas,” he says. A year later, fortune hit when his uncle gave him one of his bikes as a confirmation gift. “I guess that was because every time we went to his house, I was sitting on that motorcycle, pretending I was riding it!” Even then, three months went by before his mom felt comfortable enough to let him take it for a spin. “She had the keys, but I could still run and push it down the street, jump on it, and coast,” he laughs. He was fearless and 15 when his mother finally trusted that he knew what he was doing; that same year he entered his first race. Gonzales’ life, and the world of dirt-bike racing, had found a champion in the making.

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Tribal Member Vincent Gonzales Jr.

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PHOTOGRAPHS BY STUART FUNK

Vincent Gonzales Jr. at the Glen Helen Raceway with his grandson (far left) and son Vincent Gonzales III (center).

Since then, he has raced with the big dogs of motocross — some of whom went on to achieve professional stardom — and came close to going pro himself, if a serious, vertebrae-crushing injury hadn’t stopped him. But he was never jumping and bumping his way across the dirt to count medals or gain notoriety. Though Gonzales hasn’t kept tabs, he estimates he has finished thousands of races and taken home hundreds of awards. The thrill of dirt-bike racing has been a constant in his life.

In the mid-1970s, he raced up to three times a week; as recent as 2017, Gonzales competed in about 50 races, even winning the International Championship. The year before, he swept the nationals in California. “I’ve won a couple national championships, the international, and multiple Golden State races for all of California,” he says. “Last year I raced 10 of 12 races, and I won eight out of those 10 and got second twice in 2017 for championship. I had a good year in 2016, too, when I won nationals. But I crashed quite a bit that year.”

Glen Helen Racetrack

PHOTOGRAPHS BY KATE ANDERSON

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Gonzales is not a showy guy, though he has plenty to show, from battle scars born of crashes to hard-earned trophies to his incredible bike collection. His range of dirt and street models includes a 1930s/’40s-era Harley Davidson and his orange Austrian KTM, which has helped him win big over the past several years. Gonzales can be extreme when it comes to his passion for this extreme sport that he plans to pursue until there’s a good reason not to.

“I’d like to race until I’m 65, maybe even 70,” he says. “There are guys in our club who are 83 years old. They’re not jumping, but they’re still out there, and they’re in pretty good shape.” Seemingly born to be on the back of a bike, Gonzales currently races about every other week or weekend from January through November. He belongs to two different clubs, rides for Malcolm Smith Motorsports, and competes in the Over 60 Expert class, for riders up to age 65.

“My primary
reason for being
out there is to
be competitive
and win.”Vincent Gonzales Jr.
motocrossracing

PHOTOGRAPH BY KATE ANDERSON

For Gonzales, the attraction to motocross is straightforward. “I just like racing. It’s fun and it makes me feel good,” he says. “I like the feeling I get when I’m riding, as well as the competitive part, trying to better myself and not make mistakes.” After five decades, he understands every type of terrain he encounters, from tracks in Reno to Idaho and Montana. “When I first started racing I used to crash quite a bit. Like three or four times at an event, because I’d ride faster than my abilities,” he admits. “I still crash, just not as much.”

Gonzales lights up when talking about how he and his racing buddies convinced his high school vice principal to establish a dirt-bike team so they could race against other schools on Friday nights and what it felt like to qualify for the high school state championships and ride at the L.A. Coliseum. He also recalls the time he chatted with Steve McQueen at the track across from Palm Springs High School and then watched him race 60 to 70 miles per hour across the desert before Gonzales wiped out in the sand and McQueen sped off in a trail of dust. “He was a very good rider, and he was really nice. Just a cool guy,” Gonzales says. “It was all desert back then. Everywhere was a place to ride.”

Those were the days his nickname “Speedy” (for Speedy Gonzales) took him from long-distance running in his teens to his lifelong love for motorcycles. Kids at school who dared to challenge him would back off as soon as they saw his speed and his jumps. Today, his racing buddies refer to him respectfully as “Chief.”

Gonzales appreciates the camaraderie that surrounds a day at the racetrack. “But my primary reason for being out there is to be competitive and win.”