Speed Racers

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Princeton Watson had only four blocks to go. If his stepmother got home from her teaching job before he did, she'd know for sure that something was missing from the garage. That something was his dad's Suzuki GSXR 1000 sport bike, specially tuned and modified to do one thing well and one thing only: go fast. It was a shootout bike, used for running a quarter-mile in under ten seconds. No turning necessary, just smooth gears and a lot of torque.

The bike had been where it belonged only 20 minutes earlier when 14-year-old Princeton's father left to go to barbershop class. Gus Hunter told his son about a load of laundry that needed to be put in the dryer and that he loved him. His stepmother was supposed to be home pretty soon anyway, so it seemed all right. Princeton even called her up to check when she'd be back.

"Mom, if you're gonna be late, call me," he said. She promised to hurry home as soon as she'd picked up his younger stepsister. "I'm bored," Princeton told her.


Sport bikes

That boredom didn't last long. Princeton decided to take his dad's racing bike out for a spin to impress a girl who lived nearby. He'd ridden a similar bike, a GSXR 750, plenty of times before, but always under his father's supervision in front of their home in northeast Houston. He didn't bother putting on the helmet, leather jacket, leather pants or boots that were mandatory safety gear at the track. It was only going to be a quick run.

After showing off the bike, Princeton had to book it home. Witnesses say he was doing at least 60 through a 30 mile-per-hour zone in the family's neighborhood along Crane Street, just south of Cavalcade. Princeton was probably enjoying the rush as the purple motorcycle hummed along. He had 160 horsepower at his disposal -- a monster amount for the 375-pound bike. But when he spotted the blue Buick in front of him, everything went wrong. Princeton panicked and slammed down on the brakes, locking up the front wheel. The bike spun around, sliding on the ground underneath the Buick, according to witnesses. As the bike slid, Princeton hit his unprotected head so hard against the rear bumper, it broke the brake lights and left a dent. The motorcycle ended up in a ditch, and Princeton was dead on the scene, just four days shy of his 15th birthday.

"I can't emphasize enough he knew the consequences of touching my bike," says Gus Hunter. "He knew the consequences."

That may be true. Hunter had been training his son on bikes since he was 12, starting him out on a dirt bike before he moved up to bigger bikes. Then Hunter made Princeton practice maneuvering and coming to an emergency stop. When Princeton had his accident, he'd had more training than many sport bike riders and still he crashed, unable to maneuver and control the performance bike.

These bikes can speed past drivers on Houston highways, often at more than 100 miles an hour, in streaming blurs of bright-colored paint. Sometimes they hum like a pack of bumblebees late at night, hurrying along twisty roads like Allen Parkway. They're known by flashy names like the Hayabusa, Gixxer or R1, and they have top speeds close to 200 miles per hour. With a slight twist of the throttle, even amateur riders can send their front wheels skyward, popping wheelies down Westheimer. When the cops flash their lights to pull them over, they take off, disappearing onto Loop 610 or Beltway 8, outgunning and outrunning outmatched patrol cars. Doctors and nurses who treat these riders after they lose control call them organ donors.

The motorcyclist-as-outlaw has been a mainstay in the cultural psyche since the Hells Angels emerged in California, raping, pillaging and terrorizing shop owners and wholesome teenage girls up and down the West Coast in the '60s (at least if you believed the hysterical media accounts at the time). The Harley-Davidson cruisers they rode were all about image. Loud, greasy and crude, these hogs were for going on runs to drink beer and party. About the same time, motorcycles engineered for performance in races here and in Europe began going in a wildly different direction. Designers like Ducati raised the center of gravity to enable easier turning and added better brakes and acceleration. Sport bike designers entered an arms race that in the last ten years has gotten only more intense. With the help of computer models, designers shed so much weight and added so much power that a modern-day sport bike bears little resemblance to an early-'90s version, much less one from the '60s.

While the cruiser remains the most common type of bike, the past five years have seen a sharp increase in the popularity of sport bikes, whose sales nationwide have risen by 89 percent since 1999 and now account for one in four motorcycle sales, according to one industry-tracking group. Industry watchers aren't sure what is driving the uptick; higher fuel costs are obviously playing a role. (A typical bike can go 200 miles on its three-gallon tank.) For young riders especially, sport bikes, with their cachet and performance specs, are a must-have.

But these bikes aren't designed for amateurs. The handling, acceleration and braking performance of the typical sport bike is engineered to win races. That requires ultra-sensitive brakes and throttle, two things with which new riders are anything but graceful. Winning races boosts a brand's popularity and translates to sales. Add a license, mirrors and make a few other changes, and the same bike that competes in world-class events is street-legal and on sale for less than $10,000. With a high-interest loan -- which is more than affordable for the average 20-year-old looking for wheels -- the bike is out of the dealership and onto the street in no time. If a Ferrari cost ten grand, wouldn't you drive one?

"These bikes are made for racetrack use," spokesman Glenn Hansen says of Suzuki's GSXR line. "We have the image of being the bike to own," he says, noting that Suzuki has dominated races in recent years. Hansen says they're perfectly fine for street use, so long as the rider obeys traffic laws and wears the proper safety equipment. Clifton Burdette, director of the Texas DPS Motorcycle Safety Unit, agrees. "To blame it on sport bikes is almost an unfair thing," he says. "Sport bikes are extremely well designed. They handle very well. They have excellent stopping power. They just have to be used [properly]."

But proper use doesn't always come naturally for young riders. While the greatest number of deaths occurs among older riders who often aren't wearing helmets, those accidents usually involve alcohol or cars invading a motorcycle's space, Burdette says. With sport bikes it's different. Accidents and deaths are nearly always the result of a rider's loss of control, either at high speeds or in turns.

It was a warm summer night in July when 23-year-old Eric Arredondo decided to take out his brand-new Kawasaki Ninja 636 -- a perfect night for riding. Arredondo had purchased the bike three weeks earlier from a dealership in Corpus Christi, where he lived. Newspaper accounts said he'd been so impressed by the riders he'd watched go up and down Saratoga Boulevard that he decided he needed a bike too. He and two pals were flying at more than 100 miles per hour up South Padre Island Boulevard when he had his accident.

Going into a turn, Arredondo realized he was starting to lose control and made an amateur mistake: He tapped on the brakes. A more experienced rider would have known to push the bike into the turn, even accelerating to regain control. Instead, Arredondo lost it and pulled a high-side, going airborne off his Ninja. His body struck a light pole in the center of the highway, and he was instantly decapitated. His lower torso landed in the westbound lanes, while his head kept flying, finally rolling to a stop on the eastbound side of traffic. His blue bike also came skidding to a stop. It still had on the temporary paper plate.

"A lot of people don't realize that not only had a dramatic effect on the family but on the emergency responders who had to see body parts in the roadway," says Corpus Christi Police Captain Robert MacDonald. Not used to seeing carnage fit for Baghdad on their highways, many of the witnesses were traumatized, he says. Arredondo's death was only the latest in a string of fatal accidents. From December 2004 to this summer, Corpus Christi had eight deaths, all involving sport bikes.

After this gruesome accident, city officials decided they'd had enough. Police have since been compiling a database of riders involved in traffic stops or accidents, noting their license numbers and the makes and models of their bikes. They also encourage motorists to report dangerous bikers. When they get reports, they contact the riders and let them know that the police know who they are. "Sometimes it works," MacDonald says. MacDonald believes it's only a handful of riders causing the problems, which began in about 2002.

These riders haven't exactly been stand-up citizens, either. In one accident, witnesses saw a group of six riders going 90 miles per hour through a turn. When one of them lost control and crashed, the other riders took off. Not one returned to the scene of the accident. "They goad us into chasing them," MacDonald says. "We don't want our officers engaging in pursuits of motorcyclists, because they almost always end in death. To chase a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour for a traffic violation creates substantial risk to the public." Riders have figured out that if they create havoc and endanger lives, the chase will get called.

Houston rider Greg, who asked that only his first name be used, remembers the night he outran a cop. He and a friend were cruising along the beltway and he got stuck behind her because he had to go through a toll -- well, actually around a toll bar, but he still had to slow down. To catch up, he got in the left lane up on the northwest side near Tanner Road and sped up to about 130. After passing two cars, he saw a cop. "I think I almost pooped myself," he says. He popped out of his rider position and slowed down a bit as the cop's lights came on. "I knew I was going to jail. Man, you can't go that fast," he says. So he tucked back down and twisted the throttle on his Honda CBR 600 F3, easily losing the cop. "It would have been pretty impossible to catch me, unless he had a helicopter," says Greg. "I had a helmet, but man, I was being dumb. I had a tank top on."

MacDonald is sympathetic to most of the riders ("I tell my friends I can't go through my midlife crisis because my wife won't let me buy a Harley," he says) and recognizes they don't have any tracks nearby to race or stunt on. But the main drag in Corpus is not acceptable, he says. Different from the speeders are the stunt riders, who can cause their own problems, popping wheelies ("12 o'clocks") by accelerating quickly, or pulling "endos" by stomping on their front brakes and sending the back wheel into the air. "The Kawasaki ST is so well engineered and balanced, it is so easy for an amateur rider to do wheelies it gives them a false sense of security," causing many riders to overestimate their skill, MacDonald says. One death involved a rider who was tearing down Saratoga Boulevard popping a wheelie when a car pulled out in front of him. "The person pulling out didn't see the motorcyclist because the headlight was pointed up at the sky."

Chris Junemann's father was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was three years old. Even so, he's always been drawn to bikes. "My whole family on my father's side always told me that if I ever got a bike they'd kill me. My grandfather still doesn't know," he says. The threat obviously didn't do much good. Today Junemann, 26, rides a GSXR 750 and runs MotoHouston.com, a local Web site where riders can talk bikes or meet up for rides.

Junemann got in his own wreck out on FM 1458 near Brookshire on a curvy section known as Racer Road. Coming around a turn on his bike, he hit a patch of mud while doing 90 in a 30 mile-per-hour zone and broke his ankle. Riders say the cops out there will sometimes pull them over, but they almost never write tickets. The police tell them that business owners like the money riders bring to the community when they get lunch or buy gas. Junemann says he's never gotten a ticket, but has gotten his bike up to 135 miles per hour on public streets. "After 100 miles per hour, all you see are higher numbers on your speedometer," he says.

Riders who speed or stunt in public don't engender much love from the rest of Houston's motorcycle community when they get caught on camera and make the nightly news. "When you see these idiots doing tricks down the freeway, it makes everyone look bad," says Louis Spahni, a motorcycle safety instructor and former Harris Country sheriff who often responded to motorcycle accidents on the beltway. "Every accident that I had ever worked, without fail, without question, the motorcyclist was doing something stupid," he says. Experienced riders like Spahni have a name for these squirrelly kids: squids. Squids are the poseurs who strut around on their bikes without helmets or safety gear. They're the ones likely to be doing wheelies in the HOV lane. On another message board, Houston Sportbike Network, posters often chew out kids who brag about speeding and deride bikers who end up in news stories for acting like squids.

Junemann started his message board because he felt HSN wasn't welcoming to younger riders. "They're kind of set in their ways," he says. He doesn't police the posts as rigorously as HSN, and posters can often be found venting about the police. Junemann says a lot of sport bike riders think the cops are after them. "If they are, it's because the sport bike community has brought it upon themselves," he says. "You never see a Harley speeding down the freeway at 150 miles per hour." A recent post on MotoHouston found one rider recruiting for a high-speed run around the beltway, promising speeds of 185 miles per hour. Junemann posted a reply, saying, "While this board is a bit more laid back…most of us aren't THAT laid back." The poster didn't find many takers, but rather than attack his plan, most made fun of his wanting to go in a straight line. "What a waste of expensive gas," wrote one.

It's Wednesday night at Poseur Point 1, and the parking lot is beginning to hum as about a dozen and a half sport bikers show up for a ride. Better known to the public as the Starbucks at Post Oak and Westheimer, the Galleria-area hangout is a favorite starting point for riders because of its central location. It's called Poseur Point 1 because it's where dudes will go to show off. There's no point in wearing helmets, because then the ladies couldn't see their faces.

"You got plenty of squids out here," says Brandon Enos, a 29-year-old rider who just happened to be meeting a girl for coffee when the bigger group of younger riders showed up. "They're the ones and the reason I pay out the ass for insurance," he says. Enos rides with a group called 10 West that, he says, is selective about its membership. On weekend nights, he and other members will sometimes come up to the 24-hour Starbucks to watch the kids and "bozos" in their wife beaters and tennis shoes hang out and pose in front of their bikes. He notes that 30 years ago cops would hassle guys on Harleys. Today the guy on a Harley is a doctor or a lawyer, so the police hassle sport bikers because they don't know the difference between a law-abiding rider and a squid, he says.

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."

Another reason amateurs hop on sport bikes is often the dealers themselves. Glenn Hansen of Suzuki points out that the company gives a $50 discount to any rider who takes the safety course, adding, "You don't ever want to sell somebody a bike that's too much that they can't handle it, because then it's not an enjoyable experience for them." But not all dealerships behave that way. James Mejia went shopping for a Yamaha R6 recently, having done his research, and decided that he had enough experience to start out slow and learn the bike. The 23-year-old airline pilot also had taken the safety course and knew the difference between a 600-class and a 1000-class sport bike. That's why he was surprised when the salesman tried to push the R1 on him. "There's not much difference overall," he was told. "I was kind of surprised," Mejia says.

An even bigger problem can be parents, who are yet more unaware when it comes to bikes. Yeater and other riders think parents see motorcycles as only a little more dangerous than cars. They don't understand the level of skill involved. "A parent going out and buying their son, their 16-year-old son, an R1 is no different than handing them the keys to a Ferrari," Yeater says. "And most parents would never, ever even consider doing something like that. But they don't know any better. They have no idea how fast these machines are and how powerful."

Gus Hunter knew just how powerful a bike his son Princeton had taken out the day he died. He used to check his bikes to see if they'd been ridden while he was out. "Not that I didn't trust my son, but he's a kid," Hunter says. Now he says parents need to lock up sport bikes.

He does some work for his business, Hunter Motorsports, in his garage, handling parts, tune-ups and repairs. Princeton used to hang out in the garage watching his father work on the bikes and eventually started helping out, moving parts and wheeling around bikes to help his dad. "I'd tell him he had to learn that in order to ride on the track," Hunter says. On the back bench, alongside the Bible and near his bowling ball, there are dozens of printouts showing off colors and patterns for bike designs. "Princeton did those," Hunter says. He'd been planning how he wanted to design his own bike. Princeton was into two things, says his father: "bikes and girls." Bragging a little bit, Gus Hunter says, "He really wasn't into the girls, the girls were just attracted to him."

Princeton would have started high school this fall. Instead, he had what Hunter says was the biggest funeral he'd ever been to. Down the driveway, there's a burned-rubber image in the center of the road. After the funeral, Hunter took out one of his bikes and paid tribute by peeling out to etch a cursive P on the asphalt. Since the accident, Hunter hasn't spent much time working on bikes.

On a recent Saturday he made his way down to Houston Raceway Park for a shootout competition. If Princeton had been alive, he would have been competing for the first time. "My son had it in him. He had that same adrenaline," says Hunter. "I knew once I got him out here and he gelled with the bike, I knew he was going to be something serious."

It's hard for Hunter to be out here. He knows almost everyone, and people keep coming up to him to give him hugs. But he seems nervous and a little jumpy. When Princeton used to come up to the shootouts, Hunter's friends would pull the teen aside and put him to work getting their bikes in shape. "Somebody'd just grab him," he says.

Hunter got rid of the GSXR 1000 that Princeton crashed -- he couldn't stand being near it. He says he's going to get a 2006 model. He won't say what he's going to do with it, but you get the feeling the bike will really belong to Princeton. Like the rubber initial in front of his house, a tribute to his son.

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