Speed Racers

Every kid wants an ultra-fast sport bike -- until the day he dies

Enos takes off into the night on his Honda 1000 RR and leaves behind the group of young riders who aren't happy about being called squids. Still, some meet the definition. "I used to wear a jacket; now I just wear my helmet," says 23-year-old Chris Delgado. "It's too much of a hassle, especially when it's warm."

Carlos Garcia is riding his Yamaha R6 in front of the pack tonight. He says the group will probably just make a loop on some of the freeways and won't go much more than 70 or 75 miles per hour. "We don't get out of control," he says. The group tonight all heard about the ride on MotoHouston. Most know each other from previous rides; they come from all over Houston, but mostly from the suburbs that ring Beltway 8. They post on MotoHouston because, they say, the folks at HSN aren't interested in younger riders and will kick them off.

The ride was supposed to get under way at 9:30 p.m., but it's way past that and they're waiting on a few more riders. Talk turns to bikes, and the riders make fun of each other for crashes or for bragging about their stunting skills. "Everybody does wheelies," says one 19-year-old, who weighs maybe 140. "Why get a bike if you can't impress the ladies?" They also talk about another 19-year-old who supposedly died the previous night when he lost control of his Gixxer, rider-speak for a Suzuki GSXR. The word is he wasn't wearing a helmet and slammed into a car. These riders say they take more precautions and wouldn't go across a parking lot without their helmets. But nearly every one of them remembers the times they got up into triple digits; they look off in the distance, half-grinning, thinking about when they might get to try it again.


It was the worst phone call David Yeater, motorcycle safety instructor and owner of Awesome Cycles, ever received. "Wednesday night I get a call from this lady, and she said, 'I want you to know you have two students who will not be there' " for a beginner course that weekend. Yeater asked her why. "My son died Friday night on his motorcycle, and his brother will never get on another bike." The two brothers had both just been given Honda 600 RRs by their parents. Tooling around on the beltway, one of them struck a car and died.

"What do you say?" Yeater wonders aloud. " 'I wish you had called me and talked to me about these bikes? I wish you had locked up these bikes until they took the safety course?' " He likens them to firearms. "But you don't think of your motorcycle like that," he says.

Yeater says in almost every beginner class there will be at least one kid who says he's planning to get a big sport bike. The two-day course includes a few classroom hours but takes place mostly on the range. Once that kid gets out there and sees how he feels on a 250 Ninja, he -- or occasionally she -- starts to realize he doesn't need a bike that big, he says. Yeater suspects that the main reason amateur riders buy bikes they're not ready to handle is ignorance. He had one student in his late thirties who was taking the beginner course along with his wife. His wife kept calling him "41," and eventually the class figured out that he'd bought a Hayabusa and made it just 41 miles before wrecking the $11,000 bike. Yeater is fond of citing a statistic that claims most sport bikes will be crashed within six months of purchase. "Beginners are going to make mistakes," he says. "Sport bikes are not forgiving. They have too much power to be forgiving." That's a sentiment echoed by another Awesome Cycles instructor, Louis Spahni, the former sheriff. After eight years, he left the force because of "personal differences." With his two-inch goatee, spiked earrings and shaved head, Spahni doesn't look much like a cop. The 30-year-old cruises on a fierce-looking Honda CBR 954, and if he were ever given the nickname "Li'l," it'd be intended as irony. In short, Spahni's not someone you'd expect to be passionate about motorcycle safety.

Out on the range, Spahni and Yeater run students through various obstacle courses on about a dozen 250cc bikes. In order to qualify for a motorcycle license, potential riders have two options. Either they can have a friend ride their bike up to the DPS office and have a police officer follow them around in a driving test, or they can complete the two-day course approved by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and offered at schools such as Awesome Cycles. Most choose the latter. During the most recent legislative session, Texas lawmakers considered a proposal to make the safety course mandatory, but because the law would have required all riders to comply, it was seen as unfeasible. The bill died in committee.

If a Hayabusa is a tiger, then the bikes the students train on are kittens. And still the new riders are stalling out, missing curves and, often enough, dropping the bikes. When a student tries out a swerve drill in first gear rather than second, Spahni kindly tells him, "Put down your purse, Dorothy." The focus in the course is on learning how to maneuver a bike and maintain control. "Any idiot can twist a throttle," Spahni says. Students need to learn how to properly take curves, which cause the single most common type of crash on motorcycles, he says. "You can break the laws of Texas; you can't break the laws of physics." The instructors are anything but anti-sport bike -- Yeater rides a Kawasaki ZX-12R -- but both emphasize time and place. "You want to stunt, you want to go fast? Not a problem," Yeater says. "We'll send you to a place where you'll be in a controlled environment."

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