Elena Myers returns to place she made history
Elena Myers doesn't look big enough to push a motorcycle, much less have complete control of one flying 190 mph around a paved track.
At 5-foot-3 and 115 pounds, she looks more like she should be lugging a backpack around a college campus than becoming the first woman to win a motorsports event at Daytona International Speedway.
But the 19-year-old Californian is a pioneer in a sport with few female faces. Myers won the AMA Daytona race in the SuperSport division last spring. It was not her first barrier-breaking experience. In 2010 as a 16-year-old, she won a SuperSport race at Infineon Raceway in California, making her the first woman to win an AMA Pro Road race.
"It's funny, I get people asking me, 'You're 19, are you in school? Where are you going?'" she said. "I'm doing what I love while I can. There's no other time to do this but now."
Myers will return to the spot of her historic victory this week at Daytona, competing in the AMA Daytona 200 with a new team and high expectations.
She is a long way from where she started, picking up on her father's hobby as an 8-year-old girl and running with it, further than either might have imagined.
Starting at a young age
Matt Myers would bring his young daughter to the golf course in Discovery Bay, Calif., a small community about 50 miles east of San Francisco. But he was looking for something else they could do together.
A former amateur dirt bike racer, he bought his 8-year-old a small, inexpensive dirt bike. It weighed about 50 pounds, and they rode around in parking lots for a while.
"She liked it," he said. "She wasn't particularly good at it, but she was learning. You could tell she enjoyed it, and she was getting a rush from the speed.''
Dad and daughter eventually graduated to go-karts and then pocket bikes, a kind of mini-motorcycle, and Matt started a racing club at a new track that opened in nearby Stockton.
"I could see that she had a knack for the speed and judging distances," he said. "She was pretty aware of what was going on around her."
Elena moved from pocket bikes to minibikes to supermoto. She won her first race at the age of 11.
"The bikes got bigger, and I got faster," she said.
Elena was 13, three years younger than she would have legally been able to obtain a driver's license, when she became the youngest rider ever offered a sponsorship from Kawasaki. That prompted a major family decision. Elena would move out of school and into independent study and begin traveling the country to race full time.
"It was her decision," said her mother, Anita Myers. "This is what she wanted to do, and she's never wavered from that."
Elena, a straight-A student, graduated last year and has no regrets. She attended the prom, hangs out with friends and doesn't feel as if she has missed much.
"It worked for me," Elena said. "Most of my friends were at the racetrack. It was what was normal for me. What 14-15-year-old gets to say they traveled the country doing what they loved?"
It's clear Elena hasn't lived the typical life of a teenage girl. She turned professional at 16, racing for Team RoadRacing World, whose owner, John Ulrich, spotted her as a 13-year-old and told her she could race pro for him when she turned 16.
She has traveled to Florida, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Ohio and around California. Matt said "nobody knew what to think" about his teenage daughter on the racetrack, competing against men.
"I don't think she's ever had a chip on her shoulder, because she knows it's tough out there," he said. "I think the hardest thing is that I think the guys respect her, but they don't intermingle. You'll see them hanging out with each other at the track, and that is something she doesn't really experience much. She's there to do a job, but I think she wants to be part of things and be treated like any other rider. But overall, she handles it well."
Elena isn't sure some of her competitors take her seriously yet.
"They just do dumb things, sometimes. On the warm-up lap, they might try to run me off the track," she said. "I don't have that many friends in the class that I race with, honestly."
Elena was racing at Daytona for the third time when she won last year, making history in the process.
"It was one of those weekends where you go there with this vibe that, 'I'm just going to destroy everybody,' and you have confidence like you never had before, and it really showed on the racetrack," Elena said. "Somehow I pulled it off, and it was really crazy."
The crazy had only begun. After the best season of her career and becoming one of the most popular racers in the series with the longest autograph lines at most races, Elena was almost left without a ride this season.
She and her father had a falling out with Ulrich, and she had to scramble to find a new racing team. Her new arrangement with Triumph, the team she will be racing with at Daytona, didn't come together until just a few weeks ago.
She went three months without getting on a bike before she began preparations for Daytona two weeks ago. She said it was the most stressful time of her young life.
"It's been very hard," she said. "You hope something comes together and when it doesn't, you worked so hard for it and it's a big letdown and you start thinking about, 'What else can I do?'"
Despite the attention she generates on the tour, it's not quite a glamorous life. The top riders in AMA events often make only around $50,000 a year, expenses covered by team owners and sponsors. Others are subsisting on prize money won at various events.
Elena probably isn't looking at a long career. She said her goal is to race overseas, compete in international races, where there are a few more women who have been competitive. But ultimately, she said, she would like to settle down and have a family.
She already has experienced so much as a competitor -- hard work, hard falls (she has broken several bones, mostly in her hands and wrists, some of which required surgery), hard days and great success at a young age.
"All the experiences I've had have helped form the rider that I am," Elena said. "Being a girl can help me and hurt me. I'm not as strong as boys, so that can make it tougher, but I think I mentally have an edge over them. I'm a very calm, methodical person, so when I get into sticky situations on the track, I can analyze it better and think faster."
Elena is moving up to a new racing class this season, from SuperSport to SportBike competition. It will be an adjustment. She has changed her workouts and her diet to prepare.
"The level of motorcycle and rider are elevated now," Matt said. "It's going to take her some time to adapt and change her approach and fitness. The races are longer now; the level is way more intense. I hope she doesn't put too much pressure on herself."
For Elena, her love for the sport is rooted in the hard work she does every day to get ready to race.
"From going to the gym every day, to the years it's taken me to get to this point and the money and effort and time everybody's put in," Elena said. "When you get a good result, there's no feeling quite like it. We all ride for that feeling."