By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
Willows— Kalen Souza’s baptism by fire is over, almost before it begins.
It’s Sunday at Thunderhill Park, and hundreds of amateur motorcyclists have flocked from as far away as Idaho to race on the four-and-a-half mile long dirt course.
Souza, 16, is a sophomore at Willows High School, living a few miles east of town. He’s ridden motorcycles since he was 4; he rides now in a half-acre lot on his family’s pig farm, and in the hills up by Elk Creek.
But he’s never ridden in organized competition before.
At two on Sunday afternoon, Kalen is at the starting line of the weekend’s last race, sitting among a hundred motorcycles with engines sputtering like chainsaws. Noxious blue exhaust fills the air as parents and spouses stand by on the sidelines.
“I love to live vicariously through my kids,” jokes the father of a fourteen-year-old. The surrounding dads laugh.
Then the noise recedes as a prayer is offered.
“Keep ‘em safe, Lord— that’s what we mostly pray for,” the announcer intones. “We’ll give You the glory.”
The shotgun fires and Kalen kicks off, near the end of his group.
It may be the beginning of the race, but it’s the end of a long weekend for Kalen, one that started for him at half-past-six Saturday morning in foggy, hundred-foot-visibility darkness outside the entrance to Thunderhill. In their pickup, Kalen and his father Don sign a waiver releasing the park for anything that may or may not happen to Kalen on the racecourse.
“Do both parents have to sign the release form?” asks Don.
“Just forge it,” jokes Kalen.
In the dining hall, Kalen and Don navigate through forms while more experienced men, and a large contingent of women, sit around chatting over coffee. The main question is when Kalen will be racing; times are determined by categories by age, gender, experience, and engine size.
Saturday morning starts at nine-thirty with the yea-high tykes — age groups 4 to 6 and 7 to 8. Later racing are groups like “Divas,” women ages 35 and up, and “Gentlemen,” men ages 60 to 75.
Kalen hopes to race with other 12 to 17 year old beginners, a class he thinks he’ll have a chance in. Unforunately, his engine is too big, so he’s consigned to the open beginners’ race, the last of the weekend. Twenty dollar bills change hands quickly for the entrance fees, which run in the high tens of dollars; Kalen just fills in a blank check his employer and sponsor gave him.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything”
That motorcycle racing has its own subculture is apparent upon entering Thunderhill, where rows and rows of trailers sit for the weekend in the parking lot. Kalen is a newcomer to this organized competition, but he’s the second generation in the family. Don was a motorcross and flat bike racer when in his 20’s and 30’s, and gave Kalen at age three his first motorcycle as a Christmas present. They race now, in the hills near Elk Creek — “he’s starting to beat me,” laughs Don.
Kevin Murray, Kalen’s employer and sponsor, is a former and still occasional high-speed racer. He’s been training Kalen every weekend for the last two months.
When the circuit comes around to Willows, he’s planning to leave the repair shop on the course to Kalen and concentrate on his racing.
“I’m going to have to turn down a lot of money,” says Kevin. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
He rides off in a 2-foot-high motorcycle, top speed 80 miles an hour. A friend once gave Kevin $20 to ride it from one freeway exit to another. I ask Kalen if he’d do that for a hundred bucks.
“Maybe,” he replies. “But the ticket would be more than that.”
Ruts in the road
Kalen has Saturday off from working at Kevin’s shop, but stays from sunrise until 5 p.m. anyway — freezing in the 45-degree weather, watching what he can of the course and hoping to gather intelligence on the course from other racers. He comes back Sunday around noon, after picking out a pig to raise for the county fair.
He’s nervous; the weather is better, but the course is well-worn, full of a motorcyclist’s eternal demon: ruts.
“Like the second turn off the pavement,” says Kalen, pointing in the distance. “(The ruts) make you want to follow where other people have gone, but you want to have free control. Or you can have one tire in one rut, and one in another, and flip sideways.”
As Kalen dresses, donning a kidney strap and a thin, slippery two-ply suit — “when you hit the ground it moves, instead of taking your skin with it,” he explains — his cheering section gathers to offer advice.
“Good luck and just ride your own race,” says Kevin. “Just do your own thing.”
His goal is to finish the race.
“I fell maybe 20 times”
Kevin and I watch the whole race, trying to catch a glimpse of Kalen. We can’t make him out for sure; the mud covers where his number on the bike, but we find someone making pretty good time that we think it’s him. No such luck, we find out later: Kalen was out after a single lap, injuring his elbow in a crash on the backside of the course. He sits in a folding chair in front of Kevin’s shop, telling of his travails.
“I fell maybe 20 times in that one lap,” recounts Kalen to the sympathetic audience. Kalen. “Four times before I got started. Just ruts, and mud, and boards....I just about (got impaled) on one of those poles, I flew over it...I was just out of control 80 percent of the time. ”
He tells how he went out with a bang: stopped at the lap checkpoint, he kept kicking his motorcycle to get the engine to re-start. When it did, the bike ran through and quickly dispersed a crowd of about 20 people nearby.
Cheering-on turns promptly into consolation.
“You gotta admit, that was a lotta fun,” prompts Kevin.
“It’ll be a lot of fun a week from now,” replies Kalen jestingly. “I’m ready to go home and go to sleep.”
“It was your test, your-,” starts Kevin’s wife Sharon, acting like a doting mother.
“Baptism by fire,” I interject.
Someone says that Kalen’s schoolmates will probably needle him about what happened.
“Just tell them, you try it,” replies Don.
So next year? I ask Kalen. “Maybe,” he replies, saying he’ll need to start preparing three months beforehand.
Well-wishers continue to drift by. Did you finish? No, not exactly. How’d he do? “He learned a lot,” answers Kevin optimistically.
Kalen’s not there yet.
“Mud sucks,” he says, smiling.