Author’s note: The events in this story took place in August 2012, when I was approached to write a non-fiction short story for a collection that was to be published highlighting good people doing good things. Admittedly intimidated by the idea of writing a non-fiction piece for the first time, I jumped at the opportunity none-the-less. After completing the first draft I was informed that the project had unfortunately been cancelled. I sat on this story for far too long knowing that the experience was too great not to share so here it is for your reading enjoyment, without further delay.
Sergeant Eddie Stow was a soldier in the infantry for the United States Army for 9 months before his first deployment landed him in Baqubah, Iraq for 13 ½ months. It didn’t take long after his return before a second deployment found him stationed in Mosul, Iraq for another 15 months. However, when Eddie returned from his deployment in late 2007, things weren’t quite the same for him as they were before he left. He continued his service until early 2011, but was discharged due to the chilling side effects from his time spent abroad. Eddie returned home suffering from chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and traumatic brain injury. Participating in, and bearing witness to the mortal drama of gun battles took their toll on his psyche.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, the toughest thing motorcycle racer Pete Cline was going through was what to watch on television when he was struck by a moment of inspiration. Typically, good ideas do not come from watching TV. However, every once in a while, a stroke of genius is inspired directly from the boob tube, and that is exactly what happened. Early in 2012, as Pete tuned into an episode of the hit show Top Gear, he was mesmerized by a segment that featured off-road rally racing trucks. The story focused on a team of wounded British military veterans preparing to qualify for a grueling race that takes place over nearly-impassable terrain, the Dakar Rally. The inspiration behind the team got the motorcycle racer in Pete thinking. As he kicked back in his recliner a moment of clarity broad-sided Pete; he witnessed precision training and natural instincts being put to the test by the veterans testing their knowledge and physical limits.
“These guys master their equipment, build it, race it, and build it again when the terrain pushes it too far…I can relate to that,” he thought to himself. “Their training is second nature and their racing endeavors reflect that training and battle experience. When their truck breaks down they’re forced to get it running again, much like when they were on the battlefield and things went haywire – they had to keep going no matter how much punishment they absorbed. Not bad qualities for members of a race team to have.”
Pete immediately sprang into action, and started making all the contacts needed to pitch his idea. It only took a matter of weeks before he had made connections between Team Ohio Racing, the motorcycle team he rode for and managed, and the Wounded Warriors Project (WWP). That connection however, was merely a way to open the door; he still had to win them over.
Pete began by presenting his idea and proceeded to sell himself – his ideas, personality, ambitions, and abilities – repeatedly, to prove he could pull off this massive undertaking. Not surprising, the WWP was very hesitant and cautious to begin a partnership. The organization is very protective of its members and itself, and rightfully so; they have to ensure that their participants will be portrayed positively and not be put in a position to be taken advantage of, and Pete had to prove that his intentions matched their philosophy. Once the positives of publicity from media coverage and the constructive impact on participants were explained and the WWP could see what kind of return on investment could be gained, the agreement was finalized.
From their website: The Wounded Warrior Project is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “honor and empower wounded warriors” of the United States Armed Forces. “The Wounded Warrior Project works to raise awareness and enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service men and women, to help injured service members aid and assist each other, and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet their needs.”
Pete twisted the throttle wide open on the WWP mission. With his first race in the AMA Pro XR1200 series on the horizon, he decided to put the abilities of a group of Wounded Warriors to work.
The XR series is an entry-level series, but is certainly not for beginners or the faint of heart. The bikes are heavily regulated and are all almost identical, leaving the only advantage between the riders themselves and their skill level. Luckily for the Upper Arlington, Ohio resident, Pete was fortunate enough to head into his first competitive race at his home track at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where he has taught the track’s riding courses for seven years. No stranger to motorcycles, Pete has raced in other series with success, winning multiple regional championships in the Western Eastern Road Racing Association (WERA).
The local WWP office sent out an email to numerous members who they thought would have the knowledge and desire to contribute based on their education and designated specialties during their enlistment. One of those candidates was Sergeant Eddie Stow from nearby Ashland, Ohio. Eddie was perusing the aisles of a local grocery store when his phone chirped to alert him of a new email. He cast a cursory glance in his phone’s direction when the subject line grabbed his undivided attention – “Help needed for motorcycle racing team.” Excitement coursed through Eddie’s veins, but doubt that he would be selected quickly crept in knowing that he wouldn’t be able to respond until after he returned home later that evening. Reverting to the determination that was instilled in him by the Army and his never say die mentality, he decided to respond the first chance he got. After some brief paperwork detailing his prior mechanical experience, Eddie was informed that the organizers would be in touch. Approximately 3 weeks later, he received official word that he was selected to help with the team.
Showing up to the track for the first time, WWP members were caught by surprise thinking they would shadow the team, but ended up being the team. That fact alone spoke volumes to the soldiers-turned-race-team about the interaction that Pete had in mind. It was also one of the most impactful things for the team members themselves. Specifically, it helped Eddie feel useful, and that psychological impact for him is immeasurable – not just during the weekend at the track, but that feeling overflowed into his personal life, on normal weekdays, at home with his family. Eddie’s decision-making ability in the field was stripped by the mental struggles of coping with unimaginable experiences from war, and to be back in a fast-paced decision making role made Eddie feel like a valuable member of a team again. The Warriors were full members of the team the minute they were thrown into the fire, not just “helping hands” like they may have had in mind when they were invited to be part of the experience. Pete listened intently to any and all ideas that came from the Warriors, and luckily so.
“I think if we reshaped the seat cushion, you’d be able to move around on the bike and lean into the curves a little more,” Eddie suggested. With an idea as simple as shaving some cushion from the seat padding, the team was also able to shave 3 seconds off of their lap time from the added mobility of the rider while on the track.
The Warriors military training also came in handy. With the rapid pace of things on the track, the Warriors discipline kept them focused with the fast-paced nature on pit lane as well. The Warriors had to be prepared to top off the gas tank or change a tire on a split second’s notice. They were also in charge of updating the lap tracking information board. This board is used to relay important timing information to the rider while he’s on the track, helping him keep track of the competition. Knowing the serious danger involved in motorcycle racing, not unlike the mortal danger on a battlefield, they relied on each other to keep the whole team safe. Even a brief observation of the Warriors in action, taking orders, and preparing the bike between runs made it abundantly clear to everyone that this was their team and they were there to run it.
The first weekend was a smashing success. The interaction with the WWP members and Pete solidified the relationship. The impact the experience had on the Warriors was immense, but even more so for Pete knowing that he had a hand in making it happen. The team prepared the bike between runs by changing the brake fluid, cleaning it up for photo opportunities, swapping out used tires for fresh ones, and rolling the bike out to the starting grid. From there, it was up to Pete to take over. He finished the race with the motorcycle in one piece, or as he put it, “Without yard-selling it.” Although the final standings left plenty of room for improvement (17th out of 19), the take-aways from the weekend left everyone involved itching for more.
Luckily, there was plenty more being planned. Before the team departed following the race, Pete approached Eddie with a simple question. “Have any interest helping mentor the Warriors team that will be selected for the next race?” Pete figured that with experience under Eddie’s belt, he could serve as a leader for the crew and offer some consistency for a team that would otherwise be made up of all new faces. With the possibility of extending the experience, and the next race being held in conjunction with the MotoGP circuit at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Eddie jumped at the opportunity.
Following the first race, Eddie couldn’t deny how much his interest level in motorcycle racing and mechanics had grown. Before the team was officially selected for the Indy MotoGP weekend, Eddie had already begun pursuing training at a motorcycle mechanic trade school.
After tire testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), where Pete spent more time on his bike than any other participant, Team Ohio Racing’s ambitions and expectations were raised to the next level. Entering only his second race in the XR1200 series, Pete took full advantage of every minute he was allowed on the track, learning the surface and nuances to all 16 turns along the 2.6 mile long course. The original goals from the Mid-Ohio race (to finish the race with the bike in one piece and to ensure everyone had a great experience) were still intact, but the competitive nature of the racer in Pete was starting to rear its head. He had bigger plans of being more competitive and ending the weekend with a more satisfactory finish.
It appeared that his goals would be met yet again when he laid down a lap time fast enough to qualify for the 22nd starting position out of the expanded field of 29 riders. That is, until halfway through the qualifying run when he took too much speed into a tight turn. Weight and a general lack of aerodynamics are admitted faults of the Harley-Davidsons that are ridden in the XR1200 series. Having said that, the laws of physics took over and pushed him higher up the track through the turn, leaving him with only one option. “This is gonna hurt,” he thought to himself – among other things. Pete couldn’t lean the bike enough into the turn without laying it down, so the bike drifted off the track and into a gravel pit, which is designed to slow racers down to avoid from crashing into one of the retaining walls. The gravel worked as intended, keeping Pete from smashing into the hard concrete barrier. Unlike a car, however, the Harley lacks the stability of four wheels when it comes to a stop. So instead of safely coming to a rest, Pete’s front wheel dug into the gravel, throwing him over the handlebars, breaking his left clavicle and a rib after the 540 pound machine came to rest on top of him. It would later be revealed that ligaments in his knee had also been torn during the wreck.
While Pete was wheeled from the scene in an ambulance, it was back to business for the Warriors. There was no time to waste, seeing how the team had to follow-through with some extra-curricular activities outside of the speedway that afternoon. With their rider laid up on a hospital gurney, the Warriors were scheduled to make an appearance at a meet and greet event at a local Harley-Davidson dealer. A spokesman for the WWP was interviewed, hot dogs and soft drinks were served, and Warrior team members hung around to meet and talk to fans and get pictures taken with the Team Ohio motorcycle…which luckily was still in one piece and in surprisingly good condition after the spill only a couple of hours earlier.
That night was filled with frantic phone calls from Team Ohio representatives to potential replacement riders and race organizers. Team Ohio’s crew chief spent the entire night sweating bullets, desperately trying to locate a rider that needed a team and negotiating with the AMA to allow the team to compete with a substitute rider. Unfortunately, once the dust settled, the team was informed that another rider could not fill in by using the qualifying time that Pete had posted, and there were no more qualifying opportunities scheduled for a replacement rider to get their own time. Devastated by that days turn of events, fatigue finally took hold of the team and they crashed in their beds almost as hard as their rider had on the track earlier that afternoon.
Much like in the military, things change on the fly. Luckily, the Warriors were able to stay involved the rest of the weekend. When the team was informed that their weekend would be forced to come to an early end, they managed to secure an alternate objective. They picked up the next morning right where they left off the previous afternoon – only with a different team. Arrangements were made with another XR team who had a shortage of crew members to have the Warriors fill in and man their crew. Richard Barnett’s Motolist.com team was more than eager to have the opportunity to work with the Warriors. Coincidentally, Rich kept the team consistent, finishing in 21st position, one spot ahead of where the original Warriors team qualified for. The second race of the weekend showed that Rich paid close attention the first time around and improved 4 spots by finishing in 17th.
When all was said and done, the Warriors had a great weekend full of action at one of the biggest on-road motorcycle events in the country, at one of the most legendary tracks in the world. But the story doesn’t end there. Following the success at IMS, the agreement between Team Ohio Racing and the WWP was extended to the next event in the XR series in New Jersey. With Pete still sidelined due to his injuries, the local New Jersey branch of the WWP was contacted and able to supply an entire new team for Aaron Borello and his Air Ground Express team, providing the manpower he needed to participate. With an all new crew, Borello managed to finish just outside of the top 10 in 11th place out of a smaller field of 15 riders.
2013 looks to be a hopeful year for Pete and his band of fully-capable Warriors, with an agreement now in place for a continuing partnership between Team Ohio Racing and the WWP. There have also been brainstorming sessions that could include the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) providing additional team support next season, offering a way to reach out to even more veterans and show appreciation for the unimaginable selfless sacrifice that is made by committing to serve their country. In addition to that, Pete has some other hard decisions to make. By his own admission, the success of an older rider is not common, and he feels that the Warrior participants deserve a better chance for higher finishes. The racer in him is still itching to twist the throttle, but the realist and organizer in him can see that it might be close to time to pass the baton.
UPDATE: Due to lingering issues from the torn ligaments in his knee, Pete was unable to participate in a riding capacity for the 2013 season. Regardless, he was still able to coordinate the partnership with the WWP and various race teams throughout the season under the newly coined team name VETMotorsports.
In the meantime, Eddie has continued his schooling to gain his Associates degree for Powersport Technology which will be followed by 42 more weeks for V-Twin education. He hopes to graduate in February, 2014.
Information in this piece was gathered in part from the following sources:
Vance & Hines XR1200 Series – http://www.vanceandhines.com/xr1200/
Wounded Warrior Project – http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/
Team Ohio Racing facebook – https://www.facebook.com/#!/VETMotorsports
Dakar Rally – http://www.dakar.com/index_DAKus.html
Indianapolis Motor Speedway – http://www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com/redbullindianapolisgp/