By Luke Renzland
Last week we hooked up with Luke Renzland and Michael Stryker, motocrossers who were planning a poorly-organized assault on the Unadilla GNCC over the weekend. They came, they saw … they finished. Here’s Renzland’s tale.
As a motocross racer growing up in northern New Jersey, one thing I learned to ride early on was rocks. Whether it was open practice at a public track, a private track in someone's backyard, or a trail ride out of the back door, you always come across rocks during your ride. At first it’s awkward. You have to learn to be comfortable with the feeling of your tires deflecting off marbles and sharp edges. But, after enough practice, it becomes natural and you begin to see the rocks differently. You see them just like you see braking bumps, ruts, or a kicker on a jump face. As a motocross racer, rocks are supposed to be the enemy. But, as a kid who learned his craft in the woods of New York, rocks feel like home.
Around 2012 is when I started to become comfortable with the treacherous conditions of the Northeast. I linked up with Nate Kanney, a multi-time GNCC race winner, and started riding with him a few times a week. At the time, I was a 17-year-old kid happy to learn everything I could from one of the most skilled riders on two wheels. No matter what time he wanted to ride or where he wanted to ride, I'd be there. A lot of his riding spots were an hour away, but I had just gotten my license so I was happy to drive any distance to learn from him. I’d never seen anything like the tracks he took me to. They were super gnarly, narrow tracks that were scattered with rocks, roots, and thorn bushes. At other times we would ride some private motocross tracks that I had access to. The more we rode together, the more I noticed that I started enjoying the technical, GNCC-type courses almost more than I loved a wide open, perfectly groomed moto track. That was the year my vision of racing a GNCC event bloomed. I set my sights on the Unadilla GNCC.
Sadly, I broke my collarbone that summer so that crushed my dream of the ‘Dilla GNCC that season. In 2013, I came out of Loretta Lynn's with a 450 A class championship and ended up agreeing to race some bigger events which overlapped with the GNCC. I missed the opportunity to line up again in 2014 when I had an obligation to do a local race/autograph signing for my team. Then, I decided to get hurt at the end of the outdoor season in '15 and '16. Needless to say, I felt like my dreams of racing the Unadilla GNCC might never work out, but I finally had the chance to make it happen this year, and the plans all fell in place perfectly. Well, actually, it wasn't even remotely perfect. Grab some popcorn and I'll fill you in on the details.
Early in the year, I heard news that the XC3 class (for 125 two-strokes) had been added to the lineup at the GNCC events. I have always been a big fan of two-strokes and 125s have always had my heart. I knew this was the class for me. I got on the phone with my best buddy Mike Stryker and pitched the idea to him about running the 125s at Dilla. I knew he would be all about it since he has done a handful of GNCC events in the past. As expected, he gave me a very excited “YES” and then the path was set. All that was left was to get our hands on a couple of 125s and go race. Easy enough, right? Nope.
I was busy with the supercross season at the time, but in the back of my head I was brainstorming about who I could call for a bike and how I would make it all work. Over time, I locked down a Yamaha YZ125 from an awesome dude named Michael Parker. I had never met him at the time, but it was a “friend of a friend” deal that worked out somehow. So, my bike was set. Now I had months to continue planning and keep organizing the other “small details.”
Needless to say, the summer flew by and my planning went nowhere. I pre-entered for the race while I was in Indiana for the last National of the year, and that was the only progress I made. Now I was two weeks away from my GNCC racing debut. On top of this rush, I also took on a gig filming a video in Florida the week after the final race. I was in a pinch for time and I was about to learn what it felt like to put together a race program within a week. All my life, I had known nothing other than race, train, eat, but I was about to take on the roll of team manager, mechanic, title sponsor, and rider all at once.
In addition, I worked for my father doing construction on the Monday-Thursday leading up to the race. He had me too busy to leave the job to go get my bike, but Stryker and I were both able to cut out of work a little early on Thursday and headed out to go get some 125s. I met up with him at his house in New Paltz, New York, at 2:30 p.m. and we headed north on I-87. My bike was located in Saratoga Springs, NY, and Mike's machine was in Potsdam, NY. We arrived in Saratoga Springs after a couple hours of driving. It was my first time ever meeting my bike sponsor, and he has a really awesome track and race shop open to the public. It’s called Parker MX and anyone located in upstate NY should check it out. My bike was down in the basement of the shop propped up on a big bike lift. She was a little dusty, but the whole bike was in tact and I was instantly excited. We spent about five minutes trying to find a front number plate to fit, and then we loaded her up. We got some parts from his race shop and quickly scooted out the door to head to Potsdam for Stryker's machine. After three hours of windy back roads and zero cell service, I learned what Potsdam was—a small town overlooking the border of Canada. We were far from home and it was getting late. We arrived there at about 10:00 p.m. and spent 30 minutes checking out his bike sponsor's race car shop. At 10:30, we were back on the windy road aimed back home. After a couple root beers and candy to keep us awake, we arrived back at Stryker's house at 2:45 a.m. We set set our alarms for 6:30 a.m.
Those (almost) four hours of sleep flew by way too fast, and before I knew it, Stryker was on his way back to work and I was on the way to his parents’ garage to prep my bike for battle. Like I said, I was always the kid who just rode the bike and handed it off to someone when it came time to work on it. It was a shell shocking experience when I was all alone in that shop for nine hours that day prepping this bike. The bike wasn't in bad shape by any means. But, it was a 2005 and I felt like I needed to go through the whole bike to feel comfortable racing it for three hours. The motor had only seven minutes on it since the last rebuild, but I did the oil and filter, I took the brakes apart and lubed the pins and pistons, I customized the cockpit by adding my grips of choice and cleaning the throttle assembly until it was snappy like new. She needed some TLC, but after it was all done, the bike looked great and I was proud of the hard work I put in to make her shine. A big thank you goes out to my brother Kody for doing the graphics after work that day and for helping to double check my work. We loaded up the bikes that night and got ready to shake them down the next day at a local track where we were teaching a riding school for 50 students with six other instructors.
Stryker and I got to the track at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday and unloaded our pretty 125s. We planned to put about 20 minutes on the bikes to make sure everything was running good and to get a feel for them before race time. Both bikes started first kick and they sounded just as good as I imagined. We entered the track and couldn't contain our excitement ... the work was done and we were ready to race! It was all a dream until two laps went by and my bike bogged and a nice, loud crunch came from the engine. Stryker pulled to the side of the track with me and we were silent with disbelief. We had gotten so close, but now we were reset right back to the starting point! Now I had to find a bike that was ready to race within eight hours. I thought the dream was once again ruined. As I disappointingly pushed my bike through the pits past all of the students, a young kid riding a YZ125 approached me and asked what the problem was. I shrugged and jokingly told him I would be glad to ride his 125 for the weekend. To my surprise, the kid perked up and told me he would be right back. Two minutes later, he and his dad rode a 125 over with a “FOR SALE” paper plate taped to the number plate and told me I was welcome to use the motor. The father let me know it had a brand new engine top to bottom, and it was race ready. I had a smile ear to ear and thanked him up and down. Stand up people like that are hard to come by! The dad's name is Dan and his son is Ian Kearon who is a schoolboy rider that absolutely rips. Next, I called my brother Kody to let him know it was time to do an engine swap while I worked 9-5 on the track with the students. He swung by to pick up both bikes and he was off to the shop to get it done. Eight hours later, Stryker and I headed back to his shop to meet up with Kody. We helped him put the finishing touches on the race bike and loaded the trailer. We had it packed and ready to go by 7:30 and headed north to Unadilla.
After a stop at Walmart to grocery shop along the way, we pulled in shortly after 11:00 p.m. on Saturday and parked. It took us about half an hour to level the rig, and then we were off to bed just after midnight.
Stryker and I shared a three-man pit crew on Sunday. They were up early getting my bike prepped with a big tank and running our wheels to Dunlop for fresh treads. Us riders slept as long as we could, and got up sometime around 8:00 a.m. It felt awesome to get more than seven hours for once! We jumped out of bed, popped in a King of Queens DVD, and started making breakfast for ourselves and the crew. Chocolate chip pancakes, eggs, bacon, bagels, and fruit smoothies were on the menu. We ate as much as we possibly could since we knew we were about to endure three hours of suffering in the woods. After breakfast, we all walked to the first turn as a team to watch a few starts from the 10:00 a.m. amateur race. It was the first time I had ever seen a dead engine start, so I focused on the referee dropping the flag and just tried to comprehend exactly how it all worked. After a few rows of starts, we walked back to the pits to get our transponders and prep a few sets of goggles for the race. After my goggles were done, it was getting close to noon which meant we were only an hour from the start of our 1:00 p.m. start time. I started getting dressed and chatted with Stryker to try to learn more about how GNCCs worked. I didn't get to see any of the track except for the first turn and now I started getting nervous. Am I going to get lost? What do the trails look like? Will I get stuck in a mud hole? My mind was scrambled with thoughts of the unknown. I was about to line up with pro riders to my left and right, and I honestly had no clue what I was doing.
Once we got to the starting line, I noticed a lot of eyes looking at me. These guys knew I was the “moto kid” trying to stomp on their territory, and from the looks of it, they didn't want to let me leave without gaining a new respect for woods racing. A few minutes later, I hear the announcer shout “10 SECONDS!” and the line went silent. My whole body was shaking with nerves waiting to start the bike. After what felt like a lifetime, the referee dropped the flag and I successfully started my bike first kick. I dumped the clutch, and shot into the first turn with the rest of the XC3 racers. Two corners later, I realized that this was no longer a race for fun. The helmets were on, the adrenaline was racing, and I was locking bars with Stryker fighting for fifth position heading into the woods. It was set to be an exciting three hours.
I battled through the woods with Stryker for about 15 minutes before we hit the FMF Powerpoint section, which, from what I understand, is a technical section that most of the spectators flock to for some excitement (and to see some crashing). Well, I added to the spectators pleasure on lap one when I crashed on the steep uphill! I got right up and only lost two positions, but my front brake lever was gone. Now I was left with only one brake for the next two hours and 45 minutes. Great, right? Bad luck struck again about four corners later when my rear brake decided to fade. Now, I was left racing through the steep hills of Unadilla with no brakes and confidence that was fading quickly. With one lap completed, I pitted to tell my crew to get the brake lever off of the spare bike, and then I proceeded back onto the trail. One more lap with no brakes, and 10 miles of trail later, I pitted for the brake lever swap and a splash of fuel. The pit stop took a painful three minutes, but the brake lever was worth the wait, and, to my surprise, my rear brakes came back after letting them cool for a few minutes. I raced back onto the course in ninth and rode overly aggressive the next three laps until I had to take my last pit stop for fuel. I drank a few sips of coke and a splash of water while I pitted, but got back on track as soon as I could. I finally caught up with Stryker the next lap and I saw that he was struggling physically. We were suffering out there together, and seeing him pushing himself to the limit motivated me to keep chugging along. It was the mental push I needed. I got pretty hungry and tired with two laps to go, and thankfully I got lapped by the leaders so I didn't have to paddle through another 10 miles of slick rock with no energy. I crossed the finish in fourth place in the XC3 class and 34th overall out of all classes. I was so relieved to cross the finish and sit down with a drink and a slice of pizza.
One part of me was heartbroken to miss the podium by one position, but another part of me felt so accomplished to complete the full three hours and FINALLY live the dream that alluded me for so long—racing a GNCC. At Unadilla. It took so much work to get across that finish. From driving through the night to pick up bikes, to learning how to work on a bike, and riding it for three hours in an unknown environment, I put myself through a lot to see that checkered flag and I learned more about myself from this one race than I have in a long time. It was unorganized chaos, it was messy all around, but it was a struggle that helped me grow as a person and racer. I'm proud of myself, Stryker, and our three-man pit crew: Kody, Stacey, and Dick for pushing through the challenges we faced. I have to thank Michael Parker and the Kearon family for both helping me with a bike to race. Thank you to Doc Maresca at St. Lawrence Radiology for supporting Stryker with his bike (Stryker would also like to thank the Boyesen family, Fivestar Powersports, Fly, Scott, Side and Black Diamond Graphics.) Also, I need to thank Mr. and Mrs. Stryker for letting me bombard their garage for a few days to work on my bikes while I was in NY! And from the GNCCs, a shoutout to Big John, who I have to thank for the awesome parking spot even when we showed up well past your bed time! And lastly, thank you to the whole GNCC racing family for welcoming me into your world. A lot of them didn't know what to think about a motocross kid coming into their series at first, but after I finished the race, I had so many people come up to congratulate me and chat. I haven't felt that much compassion in all my years of racing SX/MX, and it means a lot to me to see that support. It was an experience I'll never forget. Until next time GNCC racing family, Cheers, and I'll see you all soon!