When his son was left blind and a quadriplegic by a riding accident, Tom White might have turned against motorcycles. Instead, he built one of the country's best collections - until cancer struck.
Tom White had a plan.
The motorcycle entrepreneur was going to sell his multimillion-dollar parts company, buy a horse ranch on the Central Coast and retire to live the good life.
Fate had something else in store for him.
In 1997, his then-teenage son Bradley had a near-fatal motorcycle accident that left him blind and a quadriplegic. A few years later, his wife, Dani, suffered a series of brain seizures. She needed ongoing medical care, too.
While attending to his family, White found a way to put medicine and his love of motorcycles together.
He had collected hundreds of vintage motorcycles over the years, assembling one of the best collections of early motocross bikes in the world. Figuring enthusiasts would relish the opportunity to see the bikes, White in 2005 began opening his home for a Bikes & Burgers charity event, which raised funds for the hospital program that had treated his son.
This year’s June 4 gala was going to be the biggest yet, expected to draw more than the 1,000 attendees that came to the previous event, and was likely to raise more than $200,000.
But fate intervened again. The fundraiser was canceled last month after White received a diagnosis of a fast-moving cancer that had invaded his liver, lungs and lymphatic system.
I thought we were going to host a fundraiser. But all of a sudden I am fighting for my life.
— Tom White
As a young man, White wasn’t interested in motocross. He was a flat track racer, with a promising career on the Southern California circuit.
But his day job was fixing motocross bikes for an Orange County shop. In time he developed ideas about specialty parts that he and his brother Dan, with help from their father, turned into a thriving business.
White married, and the pair began having kids. First-born Kristin was followed by Bradley and then Michael.
White Bros., meanwhile, became an aftermarket powerhouse, capitalizing on a national wave of interest in dirt bike racing and riding. The company sold custom exhaust and suspension systems and saw millions in annual revenue.
White did everything “just right, from starting and running a very successful motorcycle parts business to assembling an extraordinary collection of rare and vintage motorcycles” said Roger Riddell, the off-road race champion who worked on the film "On Any Sunday" and produced "On Any Sunday 2.”
Collecting motorcycles was, at first, his son’s idea. In 1984, a 6-year-old Bradley saw a rusty 1965 Greeves 250 Challenger motocross bike at a race event in Perris and said, “Dad! We should buy this and fix it up.”
White made the purchase, and soon other early motocross bikes followed. By 1997, White had 25 motorcycles in varying stages of restoration.
That was the year of Bradley’s near-fatal accident. An amateur racer who started on a mini motocross bike as a child, the 18-year-old was preparing for an upcoming race one weekend morning. He hopped on a motorcycle and headed down a dirt road behind his father’s warehouse.
He knew the road well. But since the last time he’d been there, someone had stretched a length of chain across it.
The chain struck Bradley across the throat, crushing his windpipe and cutting off the supply of oxygen to his brain. By the time paramedics began arrived, he was nearly gone.
Doctors told the Whites their son would live the rest of his life hospitalized and unresponsive, and urged them to unplug the feeding tubes that were keeping him alive.
But that night, White said, he and Dani decided the doctors were wrong.
“If God had wanted him, God would have taken him,” White said.
Three months later, Bradley came home. But he required extensive ongoing treatment, around-the-clock medical care and a special vehicle to take him to and from the hospital for appointments.
White found himself selling bikes to avoid bankruptcy, until there were only three motorcycles left in the garage — including the Greeves that Bradley spotted that day in Perris. A settlement with the people who had strung up the chain helped forestall financial ruin.
So did the sale of his company. Three years after Bradley’s injury, the White Bros., which had $37 million in revenue in 2000, was sold to Motorsport Aftermarket Group for an undisclosed sum. (It was later acquired by parts giant Vance & Hines in 2008.)
“Suddenly, we had this pot of gold,” White said. “We had to do something with all that money.”
White — who in 2014 was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame — had already become interested in honoring a sport he thought was being ignored. Major motorcycle museums had collections of rare and famous machines from the worlds of road racing, flat track, dirt track and even speedway.
But no one was paying attention to motocross. So he began acquiring bikes again, concentrating this time on the early days of the sport.
It's a passion, and it's an addiction, but they make me happy.
— Tom White
White’s new collection grew to about 170 motorcycles. Sharing space with that first Greeves were dozens of early motocross bikes made by Husqvarna, CZ, Maico, Bultaco, Montessa, BSA, Triumph, Matchless and other marques.
White recognized that his hobby was getting a little out of control: “It’s a passion, and it’s an addiction, but it makes me happy,” he said.
Among the most prized machines in what became known as the Early Days of Motocross Museum are a very rare 1961 Lito 500cc race bike and an even more rare 1934 Husqvarna. White said he paid $45,000 and $95,000, respectively, for the two motorcycles — but not in front of his wife.
“I always tell her, ‘The most I ever paid for a motorcycle is $150,’” he joked, winking while Dani looked on skeptically.
The rarest item in the collection, White said, is a Husqvarna 500cc twin four-speed desert racer — one of only three ever made, and the only one known to still exist. He called it “probably the most valuable dirt bike on the planet,” and set its value at more than $200,000.
Through the years, White would open his private museum to select groups — a motorcycle company hosting a corporate retreat, or unveiling a new model. But the collection was legendary, and he was pestered by requests from aficionados.
Eventually he hit upon the idea of using his collection to raise money for Orange County’s High Hopes Head Injury Program, which he felt had returned his son to him.
Now 38, Bradley is blind, mute and uses a wheelchair — but certainly not unresponsive. When his father paused to tell a visitor about the first Greeves he and his son acquired, Bradley chortled with apparent delight.
“See?” his father said. “He still loves that bike!”
Dressed just like his dad in blue jeans and a black “Early Days of Motocross” polo shirt, Bradley also became animated as his father showed off a few vintage Husqvarnas, as his caregiver piloted him around the collection.
Everywhere in the massive home are vintage motorcycles. In the living room, next to the grand piano with its bust of Mozart and view of Catalina Island, is a 1969 Husqvarna 250 Cross. More bikes are in the bar, the dining room and White’s downstairs office.
“They’re art, and they look good,” White said.
Only Dani’s painting studio is motorcycle-free: “I told him that room was mine,” she said.
The first fundraisers drew a couple of hundred people willing to pay $10 to see what was hidden in the barn. When the Whites moved to their current four-acre estate, and expanded the barn to include more motorcycles, the Bikes & Burgers event mushroomed.
Ticket prices went up, and in 2015 the event returned $170,000 to High Hopes, White said.
This year was to be the biggest yet. Food trucks, three live bands and former motocross legends Bob Hannah and John De Soto were going to be in attendance to justify the $100 VIP ticket and $250 Platinum ticket.
Then he got the diagnosis.
(The doctor) told me, ‘We found some bad things. There’s a mass in your intestine.'
— Tom White
For months, White had been suffering from stomach pain. A physical examination turned up nothing unusual. A gastroenterologist ordered more tests, but results indicated no problem.
But after White got a CT scan, he got a call from his doctor.
“He told me, ‘We found some bad things. There’s a mass in your intestine. And cancer in your lungs and liver and lymph nodes and everywhere,’ ” White said. “It was two days before my birthday. Happy birthday, dude!”
He started chemotherapy almost at once, and his attitude and outlook were positive.
“I’m strong,” he said. “If you take away the stomach pain, I’m at 95%. I’ll face this like I’ve faced any challenge in my life.”
After the second round of chemo, his hopes had dimmed somewhat.
“I’m going to do everything I can, but it doesn’t look like a good long-term outlook,” he said.
Oncologist Dr. Ralph Hanahan, who has been working closely with White, was more blunt.
“He has advanced cancer, and it has spread to other organs,” Hanahan said. “He has limited life expectancy.”
White said he was “getting things in order.”
“If this moves quickly, I want to be able to pass the torch to the family pretty easily,” he said in early May.
He’d already had the hard talk with his children. He wasn’t sure how much Bradley understood. But Kristin and Michael, now 41 and 30, respectively, assured him the collection would remain intact, he said, and the fundraising would continue.
“The museum was his lifelong goal and dream and has been a useful tool to raise money,” Kristin said. “And now raising money for cancer awareness is going to come into it, too.”
White’s attitude ranged from sorrowful to sanguine.
“I’ve had a lot of good years, and I’d like to have a few more, but we all get what we get,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said he would proceed with his treatment, and keep his love for motorcycles burning bright in his mind.
Parked in his driveway is a brand new KTM motocross bike that he bought himself for his 68th birthday.
“I decided I’m not going to ride it until I’m healthy,” White said. “That’s my incentive to get better.”