I confess that the first time I ever saw the one-armed guy, wearing a riding jersey, walking through the pits at a flat track National, I pegged him as some rider's helper. One of the brutal realities of life in motorcycle racing is, it's pretty common to see guys in the pits who have been gimped up in racing accidents and still come back for more. If they're too mangled to ride, they end up tuning for someone or find some job to do; an excuse to hang around and absorb the racing vibe.
AMA Flat Track racer Jason Griffin hits the dirt literally an arm-down on the competition, having lost his right arm in a childhood accident.
I did think it was a little strange that this guy was also wearing big riding boots. That didn't seem like the most comfortable choice of footwear for a day spent in the pits. I saw him at least a couple more times before I finally realized that the reason he was wearing those riding boots was that he was a rider -- the complete absence of a right arm notwithstanding.
The expression is, "I'll believe it when I see it," but really what people should say is, "I'll see it when I believe it."
I started to believe my eyes at Springfield a couple of months ago. The one-armed guy came out flying in the first qualifying session for the Motorcycle-Superstore.com
Pro Singles class. He finished ahead of Cycle World's Mark Cernicky and a bunch of other guys (actually, seven other guys and one chick named Tiff Sloan.) Admittedly, in the second Q session, most of those people eked ahead of him but he was not the slowest guy out there. IE, he was faster than I would have been, since I definitely would have been the slowest guy. He missed the cut, but so did about 20 other riders.
I really had my eyes opened the next day, when I realized that he was also racing in the TT. I mean, on the Mile once you're up to speed on a single, you 'just' steer it and work the throttle. The TT course throws a jump and several shifts per lap into the mix. It's intense; almost any rider really has his hands – both of them – full on a Grand National TT course. So on that day, even though the one-armed guy was the last guy on the time-sheet, his presence there at all made me realize I had to meet him.
Oh. By the way; his name, in case you want to think of him as more than just a one-armed guy who races flat track, is Jason Griffin.
Leaving aside the actual motorcycle racing
, being a racer is a tedious round of loading bikes into vans for long drives; unloading them, working on them, schlepping gear and tool boxes; wrestling with E-Z Up awnings and then in and out of sweaty leathers. It's all stuff that can be frustrating and tiring for an able-bodied racer. I would have understood it if he'd been literally hot under the collar after missing the cut at two races in two days. I would have understood it if his attitude had been, 'I would have beat all these guys if they had to race with one hand tied behind their backs.'
So I had a little extra twinge as I walked up to introduce myself. But, he was cool.
Sometimes I'll meet someone like this and try so hard not to look at the disability that that almost makes me look there. But that was not a problem with this guy. He has remarkable pale gray eyes, he seemed almost completely unblinking even on that hot, bright, dusty Springfield day. Those eyes grabbed my gaze and held it. Maybe that's a skill he developed because he's been missing his arm for as long as he can remember.
Jason Griffin has a somewhat southern accent, 'cause he comes from the Carolinas. He has a quiet, almost blissed-out way of speaking that belies the intensity of his sport. He told me that when he was two, his dad was mowing the lawn on a riding mower. Little Jason ran out to watch and was standing behind the mower when his dad put it in reverse. It was probably worse for his dad, who must have been shattered by the knowledge he'd cut off his boy's right arm.
Jason's dad was an enduro rider in the southeast, and both of his kids rode from a young age. He swapped the throttle of a minibike to the left handgrip for Jason, who started riding when he was about three.
Motorcycles kind of went by the wayside for a while as the boys became teenagers and got distracted by, as he put it, "Girls, cars, and whatever." After finishing school, Jason got a job in another city, and his brother came back to bikes, doing some flat track racing with his dad; the typical little family team doing local stuff. "It was what held us together as a family," Jason told me. That's typical too.
About eight years ago, his brother died of an overdose of pills and booze. The way Jason describes it, it seems as if it was a tragic accident, more than intentional act or part of a larger pattern of abuse. "I got the phone call that night," he recalled, "and I started packing my stuff to come home right away."
When he got back, it seemed like the only thing to do was to pick up flat tracking where his brother had left off. And the thing was, he was actually pretty quick on the local level. At least, he was fast when he kept it on two wheels, which was not that often. He didn't really know how to ride flat track at all. He watched the local fast guys at Mid-Carolina Speedway, a 1/4 mile clay track in Neeses SC, and was awed when occasional Grand National riders came through to use local races as test-and-tune opportunities or to cherry-pick small-town prize-money for a tank of gas.
"I thought you just put your foot out, and put a lot of weight on it, and kept it wide open all the way around the track," he told me. He admitted to cart-wheeling a few bikes into fences, and told me that looking back on it, he'd put other riders at risk. It was a miracle that his only real injury was a broken collarbone, "But it was on the side where I don't have an arm, so it didn't slow me down."
A few things have happened since then. Jason found God. And Joe Kopp, and American Supercamp. Kopp and Supercamp's Danny Walker showed him that flat track is all about body position - especially so if you've only got one hand on the bars. Jason settled down and got consistently quick enough to win an AHRMA Southeast championship. Needless to say, he was pretty much a shoe-in for the unofficial title of the fastest one-armed flat tracker, and people were inspired by his example. In 2006, the AMA declared him to be Sportsman of the Year.
Racing the mile one handed seems like a big enough challenge, but Griffin doesn't stop there; he takes on the rough TT course the following day.
When I saw him, he was racing in the Motorcycle-Superstore.com Pro Singles class. He races those events when they're close enough to his home base in South Carolina, traveling with his parents and camping along the way. He also takes in a bunch of All-Star National races (what we used to call the Hot Shoe series) and gets seat time at local races along the way. It makes for a summer any aspiring flat tracker would be familiar with, and he's got the same goals as everyone else: find a competitive Twins ride, get an Expert license, make a national main event, earn a national number and lose that regional letter on his number plate. The only difference is, he's twice the age of most Pro Singles riders. And he's doing it with one hand.
That dream result, if it comes, will come on a fast, smooth clay track. He told me that he envied guys who could hang it way out on pea-gravel tracks, coming off the corner with a ton of body english to get the bike upright and hooked up. "When I see pictures of myself riding, I don't think I look cool," he admitted, because he rides with his body more or less straight up and down.
Obviously, he's at a special disadvantage on rutted or bumpy tracks where bikes need to be manhandled, but he tries to make up for that with the best possible suspension setup which is an area where he's pretty dialed in. "I see some guys, and their bikes are bucking so bad," he told me. "My heart goes out to 'em."
He's got the use of a Suzuki
TL-1000 powered Twins bike, and told me that he has racked up enough points in the Pro Twins class at All-Star National races to qualify for an Expert license. But his application's been turned down. "I don't know who decides [license eligibility] and nobody would ever say why [he was turned down]" he told me in reference to AMA Pro Racing
, "but I'm pretty stubborn."
I didn't ask anyone in Daytona about Jason's license application. My understanding is that, these days, AMA Pro wants the main route to the GNC class to be through the Pro Singles class, where Jason's results have been under-whelming in absolute terms (albeit overwhelming in relative terms.) He seems to go better on his Twins bike, and really believes that he deserves a chance to race it with the big boys.
"I don't know anything about religion," he told me. "But I know I've prayed for things and they've happened. I try to be humble; everything I have, He gave to me and I give him all the credit. I know that He can take it away."
I guess for now, Jason's praying for good results race by race, hoping to make the show in the Pro Singles class, and that some day he'll get that Expert license. Until then, or until there's some kind of divine intervention he and his parents will keep racing because it's what they do.
"Without racing," he told me, "I don't think any of us could hold it together."
He's been without his right arm for so long that he's almost glib about it. Or maybe talking about it in that, um, disarming way is something he does to put other people at ease. But I can't help but think that we have an expression to convey really, really wanting something -- we say, "I'd give my right arm..." but who among us has any idea what that really means?
Does Jason Griffin deserve his Expert shot? I guess that's arguable. What's not arguable is his desire and determination.