The Ups and Downs of Motocross Stardom : Family's Passion Becomes $500,000 Career for Son

The roar isn't from the crowd. The seats at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium are empty. The roar is coming from down in the arena. Bulldozers are heaping up the soil in time for Saturday, making the place look like a sea of black ocean rollers careering round the perimeter, hemmed in by hay-bale walls, occasionally interrupted by hay-bale high-jumps.

This is where the Ben Hurs of the 20th Century will come to do battle Saturday night, hurling themselves into the mire on skeletal, wasp-buzzing motorbikes to entertain 70,000 who come to watch the weeding out of every careless one of those plastic-armor-plated creatures on their flying machines.

This is motocross, chariot racing updated. The Sport of Kids. Gung-ho youngsters of all ages up to 26 or so. That's about when you retire. By then you'll have survived at least 10 years of racing through mud and rough terrain, mostly on a track on someone's farm, but sometimes in specially set-up obstacle courses in giant arenas like the stadium. Either way, you'll be clearing jumps, mauling machines and breaking bones with unhealthy regularity. Motocross is a sport that earns motorbike manufacturers millions in bike sales, and top riders a few high-rolling years.

Come Saturday night, this place will be a madhouse of motors, mud and mayhem. Forty gladiators on bikes will be fighting to be one of the final 21 for the main event.

But up in the bleachers, a middle-aged couple from El Cajon will be looking down nervously for the rider with the number 1 on his back. That's their boy. Rick Johnson. The guy who has wowed the motocross world, and made his parents, Dick and DeLauris, old before their time.

Well, that's the way they feel. DeLauris says, "He's put 20 years on us! You think being a motocross star is hard? Try being a parent! You want to ask why we smoke so much?"

The fact is, in devoting their lives like stage parents to helping Rick to the top of the motocross world, Dick and DeLauris have created a problem for themselves.

Not only do they have to bite their nails every single weekend of the season as their son travels the world on two wheels, but they also have to face their personal dilemma: Is there life after motocross? What do you do after you've given your entire life to creating a star? Now that you've molded a successful gladiator at the expense of your nerves, how do you avoid feeling like the skin the snake has just shucked off?

The Johnsons' son, a star? You haven't heard? Ask any Japanese sports fan. Ricky Johnson's a national hero there. Ask them in Italy, Germany, France. Ask the 70,000 who will pour into San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium on Saturday night. Johnson is 22 and has been a pro since he turned 13--the youngest pro ever. Right now he's '86 supercross (motocross in a stadium) champ, '86 250 c.c. national champion, the Carlsbad Grand Prix '86 champion, division champion in the European Trophy Donations in Italy, Japan Supercross '86 champion and Japan Grand Prix champion. He has given his name to back a fashion clothing line (Too Hip), and he is owned lock, stock and barrel by Honda.

He suffered a broken leg when he was 13, a broken collarbone when he was 16, a badly dislocated hip when he was 17--and only last month had surgery to collect bone chips from his ankle. He suffered separated ribs when he was run over by his teammates at Carlsbad, and was knocked cold when he flew 100 yards through the air at 65 m.p.h. into a wall at Anaheim Stadium.

That was just a week after his friend David Bailey was paralyzed from the lower chest down when his bike broke his back in a crash. That makes four of his friends paralyzed.

But, that's motocross. If you're lucky, you'll last till you retire, with a lot of money and only a few painful joints and fractures to trouble you for the rest of your life. It's tough on a kid.

But it's tougher on the kid's parents. It has dominated Dick and DeLauris' lives for nearly two decades. And some of it is getting to Dick.

"This isn't a sport," he said of the arena circuit, "it's the Roman games. Gladiators facing lions. You win or you die. People come for the blood. Watch the TV ads. They show the accidents! The promoters don't care who gets hurt as long as they fill the stadium. Can you imagine what that makes DeLauris and me feel?

"The night Rick crashed at Anaheim, they took him to the hospital. . . . Eight other riders had gone through the emergency room ahead of him. It's just too dangerous. But . . . of course I'm not speaking for Rick here. He knows what it takes. And anyway he answers to Honda now."

Of course, you might say they have only themselves to blame. Rick's career became their life. It has been something they became consumed by, and because Rick was so damn good, because the roller coaster never stopped, they never even thought of getting off. Until it swamped them and success boosted their boy's life into orbit and into other hands.

This thing started way back when Dick was courting DeLauris in the '50s. He met her on a Harley-Davidson in Corpus Christi, Tex. He was in the Navy. They used to go riding together. After they got married and moved to San Diego, they would take motorcycle trips--wild, fast trips down around the border. They used to race each other over the Laguna Mountains to Tecate.

But then they had a baby. "We'd gotten married older than most," Dick said, "and when DeLauris had Laurie, Rick's elder sister, that changed everything. And then when Rick appeared four years later, we really treasured them."

"I had a hell of a job having babies," DeLauris said. "It was hard labor, I'll tell you. So once we had them--we were kind of older, I was 30 when I had Rick--we'd had time to get a little wildness out of our blood, and they became the center of our lives. We decided it wasn't worth risking our lives on bikes, not now we had what we wanted most--two beautiful kids. So we gave up bike riding and turned our attention to the kids. We spoiled them rotten."

One indulgence for daughter Laurie was a child's motor scooter her dad bought for Christmas.

"Rick was about 4, but he would go out there and sit all day long on that scooter," Dick said. "So, after a while I got the message and saw a tiny scooter advertised in Sears: half a horsepower. . . . That lasted three weeks, a month. Then he was back on Laurie's, because that was bigger."

By the time Rick was 6, he had gone through three motorbikes and was riding a Yamaha 60. It looked like a real bike.

At school Rick was wrestling and playing baseball, but he didn't like team sports. One day he came up to his dad and said: "Dad, I want to race motocross."

"Two weeks later I went out and bought him a Honda XR75," Dick said. "He was 9."

November, 1973, was Rick's first motocross race. That was when Dick and DeLauris got their first hint of what they were letting themselves in for: 10 years of nights spent in the garage tinkering with motors, cleaning mud off wheels, frames and leathers; making piles of sandwiches Friday nights; waking up at 3 on Saturday mornings; hauling the family out to drive hundreds of miles to the weekend's mini-motocross meet.

"Sometimes it was four days a week. Luckily, I was a house decorator and could flex my hours," said Dick. "Our daughter Laurie--she was real upset. She tried to go out with us and race, but somehow it was always Ricky. He was still riding her bike half the time. By the time he was 12, we realized he had a real natural ability."

"By this time we were getting out of mini-cross, too," said DeLauris. "The politics were real bad. Parents would be so fanatical they'd cheat, maneuver, do anything for their brat to do well. The pressure they put on their kids!

"And that, more than anything, would lead those youngsters--and some parents--to drugs and booze. It was the parents' pressure would blow so many of those kids away."

"But I loved it all," Dick said. "It gave me a chance to mix with my son. I was his adviser, his mechanic. We had a passion to share. I never had anything like that with my father."

Gradually, everything was being tuned to supporting Ricky's sport. Time, money . . . especially money.

"When Rick was 10 (12 years ago) the National Minibike Assn. had a race at Saddleback, Calif., 100 miles from here," Dick said. "That weekend alone cost me $1,000. You know, Motel 6, tires, food, the lot. We bought this big lot of property here in El Cajon and filled most of it with a practice track for Rick. Boy! Did that make the neighbors mad. But they could never do anything about it because we never used it after midnight."

For father, mother and son, these were the golden years. It was a time when Dick was the power behind the throne, giving Rick home-prepared bikes that were clean and solid, not super-tuned machines like some fanatical parents were spending their fortunes on.

Rick's talent did the rest. He knew he didn't have the hottest bikes, and that made him work harder.

At Four Corners near Ramona, Dick saw some land on the Barona reservation he thought would be great for kids' motocross. He approached the Indian owners. Soon they had one of the finest courses anywhere for kids.

To get out of the Little League-type politics, Dick moved Rick straight into the adult league when he was 12. Within four months, he had accumulated enough points to qualify in the professional class. He was just 13, but he would be winning $100 to $300 a weekend. By 16, he was racing in the nationals and within a year was bringing in $18,000. This year he'll be earning upwards of $500,000.

But, for Dick and DeLauris, success has taken their son away from them.

In the glory years, while Dick and Rick slaved on the bike and the practice courses, DeLauris became de facto manager. As the money started increasing, it was she who worked on the contracts, who looked to insurance--even insuring with Lloyd's of London. She handled the motel bookings. She learned about corporate law so she could make the leap when the time came for Rick Johnson to become a corporation.

They could have hired a manager, but managers in the game have a checkered reputation.

"I've been really lucky with my parents," Rick said in a telephone interview. "They encouraged me but they didn't bulldoze me. They let me take my own pace, looked after business. Dad helped me grow up, become a man. Mom, she's played the perfect mother role, always there with the bandages."

It was success that broke up the team. There came the moment when Rick was being wooed by the big factories. Yamaha had been giving him bikes since he was 13. Now, at 16, they offered him a full contract.

"That meant they were buying him. The lot," Dick said. "And suddenly, I was out of a job. Their factory mechanics took over all the servicing of his bikes. Plus a whole lot of his scheduling. DeLauris still had to do the arranging of his life and so forth, so it hasn't been so bad for her.

"For me, the pressures were still there, the worries were still there, but I had my life taken away from me. It broke my heart.

"Factories have their trade secrets. You can't even fiddle with their bikes. They don't like daddies in the pits. I can understand it, but it just ripped me apart. It was too early. I'd been involved, completely involved. I had helped make this success. Now the success I'd help create put me on the sidelines. I felt I was too young to retire, and too old to start anything else in my life.

"Suddenly, I wasn't even having a meal with Rick for three or four days. Now, of course, he spends half his time out of the country. I tell you, when they took Rick away, DeLauris and me, we sat around. We fought. We bitched, we drank too much and we smoked too much.

"When I went to see Rick ride, it became sort of embarrassing. He was surrounded by his factory people. I was an outsider. They had no time. It's not his fault. But it's been tough. Look at him at 22, earning far more money than we ever earned. Before the factory took over--Yamaha, then Honda--it was fun, stimulating. Now, for me, it's a little frustrating. I see things wrong, I bite my lip."

Dick and DeLauris exchanged a look that held a hundred feelings.

"He said to me one day," DeLauris said, " 'Mom, you're not having fun anymore, turn it over to a manager. If I lost all of my money I don't want to be mad at you.' Hell, I could understand. It must be difficult for any kid making breaks with his family."

They are sitting in the big El Cajon ranch house in the middle of a big garden surrounded by a kind of dust moat encircling the property: Rick's practice track. They used to share this with Rick, until he moved out. The home speaks of the prosperity that their combined effort has brought them. A sunken sitting room in browns and woods, cushions embroidered with homey expressions like "I Love You" and "Bless This Mess."

There's a scattering of bike magazines with photos of Rick zapping at you off the cover. "Why I Win: RJ Reveals His Killer 'Attack' Racing Secrets!" shouts Motocross Action. "Best Photos of the Year's Worst Crashes" blasts Dirt Bike. A Japanese television team is not long gone, here to interview the parents of one of Japan's heroes.

"Of course, we were delighted when the factory moved in in one way. Suddenly, we weren't having to pick up the tab for all the travel, the tires--for everything," Dick said. "But I tell you, watching is harder than taking part."

They were hoping Rick could come over for the days, but he was in Los Angeles, taking a day off after just flying in from Italy. "Would you like to see some videos of Rick?" DeLauris asked.

So how well are mom and dad coping? Well, nothing stops them loving the sport and their son's career in it.

"I totally love it," said DeLauris, "because Rick's a natural. Beautiful to watch. On the 250 you can't beat him. He's probably the best in the world. We're proud, all right."

Proud, even if hurting a little. But maybe that's no different from every parent's dilemma, just exaggerated by the meteoric speed of his leap to fame.

San Diego psychologist Sandra Ceren calls it the "empty nest syndrome" and says it's one of the more common problems brought to her.

"Parents often find it very hard to wean themselves from their children, to see themselves as people again, not just parents, especially if they've been heavily involved in their kids' lives."

Dick and DeLauris do have a lot to be grateful for. Rick's success hasn't wrecked their marriage--a not uncommon phenomenon. They're still a family. They can still bring Laurie, who runs a building site catering van, and Rick together and have a good family gathering every now and then.

They have the comfort of knowing he couldn't have done it without them. And Rick knows they're out there in the bleachers, biting their fingernails and praying for him.

The other day, at Anaheim, when Rick flew through the air and hit the hay bale at 65 m.p.h. and lay still for a while, his father dashed down and stood there in shock. Shaking. Shaking. He couldn't stop the shakes. When Rick woke up, and saw the look on his dad's face, he knew what love was. They both knew what counted.

Come Saturday, at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, amid the roar of the bikes and screams of the crowds, Dick and DeLauris will be there, looking out for No. 1.

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