The Thursday morning leading up to what was the Houston 2 round of the 2021 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Championship, Carlen Gardner sat in tiny San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport in the Central Coast Region of California awaiting a flight to Texas. The main man with the master plan of the privateer BWR Racing team, the native of nearby Paso Robles wanted to get to the Lone Star State as quickly as possible to not only meet his team and begin the process of preparing for the second round of the ’21 series, but to also try and make it into his second main event of the new season. As fate would have it, the 23-year-old would place fifth in the eight-lap LCQ inside NRG Stadium, thus missing the main and finding himself back on an airliner headed west to his hometown of 29,793 inhabitants. As all of us who follow this sport of supercross know, making a main event and lining up against the very best super-motocross racers on the world is one thing, but to do it as a hand-to-mouth privateer is an entirely different. Eight rounds into the new supercross season, Carlen Gardner has fought his way into three main events, namely Houston 3, as well as Indianapolis 2 and 3. He’s missed out on the other five feature races, but the fifth-year professional remains both undaunted and undeterred, determined to rise from his current 22nd place in 2021 series points. Sometimes it’s really easy to get caught up in following the million-dollar stars who make our sport truly what it is, but truth be told, what it takes to get out on the road and travel from football and baseball stadium to stadium to try and make a living as a privateer supercross racer is astonishing. How do we know? We called up our buddy Carlen and asked him about it.
Racer X: Carlen, the 51st Annual Daytona Supercross is upon us. What are you up to and how are you getting prepared?
Carlen Gardner: I just pulled an engine out. Yesterday we had a little problem. We’ve had some malfunctions with a couple of things going on. I pulled the engine and now have to give it to an engine guy. We’ll split the cases and fix what we need to. Luckily, it didn’t go any worse than it did. I was supposed to be riding today, but we’ve not got a working bike today. I’m going to borrow a buddy’s bike and at least go ride the riverbed or something tomorrow and get some sand practice in for Daytona. After the last Orlando race, I took last week off. I was pretty mentally beat from the first half of the season just with everything going on and with everything that I take on with doing all this, I was just pretty worn out, so I just took the week completely off and shut my life down. Luckily, it’s Daytona this weekend so we are going to have some sand and a rough track, so I’ll got hit the riverbed here and get some type of decent practice in.
Even with living your life as a full-on professional supercross privateer, do you have any sort of day job you need to be holding down during the week?
Technically, yeah. I don’t work for anyone necessarily. I have full-time riding coaching business that I do. I’m a personal trainer on the side, as well. I’ve got my personal training license. I’m kind of halfway between riding coach and halfway trainer. I just try to fill in time here and there during the week and try to ride a couple times a week and work out myself. Yeah, I stay pretty busy and then I run the team full time. I co-own the team and manage that completely. Yeah, there is all kinds of stuff going on.
A juggling act, eh?
Yeah, yeah, but it’s good. I enjoy it. It’s the way I want to have it.
So just how do you make the BWR team work?
Yeah, so I’m partnered with Brian White and BWR Engines. He had his team K1 Speed Honda from 2015 through 2017. I met him through Chris Riesenberg from Race Tech. I went and rode some outdoor with them in 2016 when I turned pro. We molded together really good. After working together a bit in 2017 and 2018, in 2019 I just said, “Hey, let’s do this. Let’s rebuild. I’ll take over everything and we’ll partner up and we’ll keep the team name and I’ll use my resources. Let’s make it big. Let’s get a semi-truck and do it legitimate. Let’s get some riders.” It’s a crazy story how it all worked out, but it did. We got three other guys, two 250cc guys and a 450cc guy and we competed throughout the whole 2019 season. We built from there. It kind of turned into that and I took over the management side of the team and I just used all the local resources from the 805. It can be stuff my dad knows from being a contractor, to just everyone who connects with us and helps us out. LTEC Excavating [Leo Tidwell Excavating] here in Paso Robles helps us out. They’re a local family here in Paso Robles who grew up riding and racing and they still do. They’ve helped us with the semi and everything. They’re a huge, huge part of our team. I use other local companies too—painting companies, construction companies, concrete companies. We don’t have any big supporters, I just found 15 or 20 guys to throw in here and there and we make it happen. That’s kind of our approach: We keep it family oriented with friends. It all keeps us a home style team.
How do the trucks and everything they carry get to the next race, in this case Daytona?
The last couple of years, Brian White actually did all of the driving himself. He would build all of the engines and build all the suspension and be the mechanic for me and drive the truck to every round. This year we made it a different deal. He was just getting beat. He was doing 120-hour weeks and was worn out. Now, I just use my resources everywhere I can. I call around. I find a new truck driver every week. I’ve had buddies drive, construction company drivers fly in and drive. I’ve had a truck company owner fly in for me and drive the truck. Yeah, I’ve literally had a different guy drive the truck to every single different round. Even today, this guy just texted me right now. I’ll find out tomorrow if he drives my truck from Daytona to Texas next week. It’s pretty stressful. That’s kind of what I was saying earlier. I was just kind of beat from the first half of the season because it is all pretty stressful. Luckily, this weekend, my dad is going to come with me. We don’t get to Orlando until 9 at night. Then we’ll have to get a rental car and drive to Daytona. Then we’ll have to get up and park the rig. We’ll hammer out our setup and the mechanics will build the bikes and finish what we need to finish. We’ll normally do a very full day on Friday just touching everything up and getting ready. From there we’ll have dinner, shower and go to bed and try to get some sleep for Saturday. I tell people that Saturday is the least stressful day of my week.
You just have to race the motorcycle against the best riders on Planet Earth, huh?
Yeah, exactly. That’s the most relaxed I can be. Saturday is what I look forward to. Yeah, I get to ride. When you have deal with everything else on top of riding and racing, you just want to ride. Even during the week when I go practice, I’ve still got to order parts and set up rental cars and flights and fly in mechanics and sign up for all the COVID[-19] stuff and pay for all the entries and all of that. I never get to focus on just practicing. Saturday you get to really be a dirt bike rider and nothing else. I love my Saturdays more than anything.
What’s going through your mind when you are waiting to go out for practice or for a race and you look around and see a multitude of millionaire factor-backed racers who probably don’t know a lot about you.
I don’t know… I’ve never been a star stuck guy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing to see all of that. You separate yourself. You still look at them like they’re not even human. It’s like, “Dude, these guys are nuts!” Yet at the same time, I’ll be sitting there looking at them and thinking, “God, what if I had that budget? What if I had that bike? What if I had that freedom he has? What if I just flew in and road?” All that kind of stuff makes me think about things. I look at them and think, “Where would I be? Would I be competitive with them? Would I not?” Maybe it doesn’t matter. I don’t know. Those guys, they race, and they get to fly home and they’ve got a prepped track and they get on the bike that the practice bike mechanic got ready for them. I don’t know… I just worry about how close I can get to them. It makes it even sweeter when you drop time and you close up that second gap. All we worry about is how far we off from the leaders lap to lap, you know? At the end of the race, try not to get lapped twice. I try to just get as close as I can to those guys as possible. It’s like a Weston Peick story. It’s like, “How close can I get? How much better can I get every year?” That’s why I do all this stuff. It makes it so much sweeter. Just to make a main event is awesome and to be at that level and knowing what it took to get there, all that is what is so rewarding about doing all of this.
Look, to even make a main event is a huge accomplishment. And to do it as a privateer is, well, really saying something.
As far as the 805 area that I come from [Note: 805 is the area code for the Central Coast region of California, which is also his racing number], you don’t see yourself as being that guy. When you come home and you go out to dinner and you’re at the local restaurant and people come up to you and they’re a fan, it’s just amazing. Just because you’re from the area and you ride a dirt bike at that level, regardless of if you are good or bad, people look forward to seeing you and talking with you. They’re attached to you. It’s like, “Hey, Carlen is from this area. That’s awesome.” That’s always super-cool. I mean just this week I went to breakfast and lunch around here a few times and everywhere I went I had the owner or somebody come out and talk with me That’s the super, super cool part. You get humbled by it. It is badass what we get to do. When you do good and people realize it, it’s awesome. As a competitor you always want to do better, but in the eyes of your fans or your family, they think you’re God’s gift almost! It’s been super-cool this year and each year I see it more and more.
You’ve missed making a few the mains by one place this season. Heartbreaking?
Oh, it’s destructive. Whether you crash or you get 16th or you miss that main event by one spot, regardless, you’re like, “Dude, I was there.” It’s so close out there. There are five or six of us in it and then there are 17 or 18 factory guys in it. There are five or six privateer guys that are in it. Like, there are five or six of us that are in there every weekend and we swap out. It’s whoever got that fourth place start or that top five start that gets you in the main event. You have to get a start. You can’t get sixth, seventh, or eighth of the start and come through the pack. It’s impossible. You have to get a start. It takes years to develop in this sport! People come out and they can show speed, but to do it weekend after weekend and race after race and be competitive at it and not crash and not make mistakes takes years of that maturity. It takes maturity you have to develop year after year and race by race and that’s what we have to deal with right now. It takes four, five, six years to be able to get on a 450 and run 20 minutes on a supercross track. It takes years to know all these little things that make you good at this sport.