A bike with a roll cage roars into view. Only three lengths behind is the next racer, gaining on him. The caged bike whips into the turn, its back wheel sliding out and causing a muddy roost at “A Day in the Dirt” Motocross Grand Prix in San Bernardino, CA. Then, the rider hunches his shoulders over the handlebars with catlike reflexes. Man and machine launch headlong into a 50-foot jump, making it look effortless. But the man inside the speeding cage, motocross legend Doug Henry, has a trail of potentially career-ending injuries behind him, including one that caused paralysis. He’s also accrued an impressive number of accolades, including his induction into the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame. These days he fires up his modified Yamaha 450 for the same reason he did three decades ago when he first started out: an unbridled love of all things motorcycle. ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan caught up with him at the track.
Lia Martirosyan: Have you raced “A Day in the Dirt” before?
Doug Henry: Yeah. I love doing this. It’s such fun coming out here. I used to see people in the industry when I was racing every weekend. But, now, being on the East Coast, I don’t get to see them as often. When I come out here, I get to ride and have a really good time with them. It’s a fun event and not a big, high-pressure event like some other races.
Chet Cooper: So you never get tired of bikes?
Henry: I don’t, but I did get tired of traveling at one point. The constant wide-open, on-the-road training and being mentally prepared all the time got to me after a while. When you race professionally, everything you do, eat, breathe is motorcycling. So got tired of that. But after I stopped, it didn’t take me long to miss it. “A Day in the Dirt” is the kind of riding I did when I first started out.
Cooper: There are fewer jumps in this track, right?
Henry: Yeah, the organizers [Kenny Alexander and Jimmy Roberts] try to make it very safe. You come to the Glen Helen Raceway for the AMA MX Nationals, though, and it’ll be a lot different.
Cooper: How do you make a turn if you can’t put your foot down?
Henry: (laughs) Very carefully.
Cooper: I’m thinking how narrow some of those turns out there are.
Henry: Yeah, those are the toughest. When you’re going fast it’s not so bad, but when you go real slow, it gets tricky.
Cooper: So, if you go down, you’ve got to wait for somebody to put you back up on the bike?
Henry: There’s somebody following me the whole time in case I fall, especially if it’s in a bad spot where people can’t see me. If he can’t get me up right away, at least he can stop people from landing on me.
Cooper: Probably the easiest way to spot you on a track is your bike. Tell us about the other modifications.
Henry: Well, it’s actually an ‘09 WR Yamaha 450. We took the foot pegs, foot brake and kick starter off, and then added hand controls, including a shifter and brake, along with a special seat that has a shock absorber in it. The biggest thing you’ll notice, though, is the cage that wraps around the bike to protect me if I crash. It took quite a bit of work to build that. Some things we’ve
tried have succeeded and some have failed, but we’ve learned a lot. We had a little mishap with a shifter today, for instance. But, hey, we got another one and we’ll try it out tomorrow.
Cooper: How many races have you done on this bike?
Henry: Probably 20.
Cooper: What are the mechanics of keeping you on the bike?
Henry: I have a lap belt, so I’m strapped into the seat. And then my feet are in stirrups, so I stay planted pretty well. If they do come out, I just make sure they’re in before I take off again. But I’m not usually in a hurry to get back up if I fall.
Martirosyan: When did you start riding?
Henry: When I was 4 1/2 or 5. I started riding around the house and the family farm. Of course, I didn’t start racing until I was 15. And, at first I was a “privateer,” which means I paid my own way. That lasted about 10 years. Then there was a kind of in-between status when I first went pro and started getting my expenses paid for. That started around ‘91 or ‘92. I didn’t get my first big “factory” ride, though, until ‘93. That’s when I started getting paid good money to race. And, after that, I pretty much raced non-stop from ‘93 to ‘07. In 2007, I took a couple years off before going from Motocross to Supermoto, which is when you put street tires on a dirt bike and race on the street some and in the dirt some. I did that for three or four years until I got injured. Then, I took a couple more years off, got a bike built with hand controls, and started racing again.
Cooper: You broke your shoulder recently?
Henry: Yeah, from riding.
Martirosyan: Ouch. Get hurt much?
Henry: (laughs) All the time, but this is nothing. The last time I broke my back was seven years ago—probably two years after I started riding again.
Martirosyan: You’ve broken your back more than once?
Henry: Oh yeah. In 1995, I broke my back, but there was no paralysis and they were able to rebuild my spine, fusing together three vertebrae at the time, and I was able to get back to a 100 percent. There’s always pain, but I work through it. Right now, my shoulder hurts, and that’s going to hurt until I hurt my wrist or my elbow. Then, that will be sore, and I’ll forget about the pain in my shoulder. You’re always sore somewhere when you do motocross.
Martirosyan: In how many different sports have you won championships?
Henry: I’ve won them for supermoto, snowmobiling and cross-country racing. I’ve also won some supercross races over in Europe.
Martirosyan: What’s the fastest you’ve ever gone?
Henry: The fastest that I know of is 168 miles per hour on a street bike.
Henry: That was just for fun, just to ride. When we were racing supermoto, we were racing right around 100 miles per hour at top speed.
Cooper: You must slide more in supermoto?
Henry: Oh yeah. You slide a lot in supermoto. Those tires are slippery.
Martirosyan: Going at that speed must require precision. You make one mistake, one wrong twist, and…
Henry: (laughs) Yes, but it’s exciting to know anything could happen at any time. You find that fine edge between speed and safety, and you ride on it. You still have those almost-crashes and almost-falls. But if you don’t crash or fall you think, “Wow! That was close, but I saved it. I’m good.” Then you have a couple of falls and you slow down a little and think, “I’d better back it down.” But that’s really what it’s all about: finding that edge and riding on it.
Martirosyan: Do you still get an adrenalin rush when you ride?
Henry: Absolutely. I’m always nervous when I ride. But I also know that I’m going to have a good time, even if I crash. And I think: Even in the worst-case scenario, I still have my other sports. I have mountain biking, road cycling, skiing. I can still do all that plus this right now, so why not?
Cooper: Which race were you in when you got your last injury?
Henry: Supermoto. The first time I broke my back I was doing motocross in Budds Creek, Maryland. The second time I broke it I was doing supermoto.
Cooper: Where did you sustain the spinal cord injury?
Henry: In Florida.
Cooper: I mean, where in your spine?
Henry: Oh. I guess between T10 and T12.
Cooper: Around Tampa.
Henry: (laughs) Yeah, right around there
Martirosyan: You were recuperating for two years after your last injury. Were you following doctor’s orders, or did you decide to take that much time off?
Henry: It took me a while to get used to living out of a wheelchair. And I spent a lot of time figuring out what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to ride because it’s so much fun. You guys interviewed Ricky James before, right? Well, seeing him ride and have fun again made me think, I want to do that, too. Riding moves me, and I want to do stuff that moves me. It’s definitely the thing that makes me happiest.
Martirosyan: Do you have a daily exercise routine?
Henry: Somewhat. I have a hand cycle on a wind trainer, so I’ve been using that to recover from my shoulder injury. I ride that three or four days a week. And then I go to the gym three or four days a week, and I mountain bike a lot, too.
Martirosyan: How do you mountain bike since your paralysis?
Henry: A company in Massachusetts made a one-off mountain bike for me. It has two wheels in front and one in back, and it has hand controls. It’s amazing where the thing can go. It blows me away. The gearing is really low, so I can climb hills and go over rocks and roots. It’s taken me down some trails I haven’t been on in years.
Martirosyan: Are there a lot of nature trails near your home?
Henry: Yes. I have an 80-acre farm in Connecticut, and there’s state land all around. So I just go outside and take off on the mountain bike for a day, take my dirt bike, or go snowmobiling.
I bought the place where we live a while ago. It was a fully functioning farm back then, but it became more of a hobby farm for me.
Martirosyan: So you don’t raise chickens?
Henry: I used to. I had chickens, cows, pigs, goats, sheep, but it became difficult to take care of them after my last accident.
Cooper: Have you always lived in Connecticut?
Henry: I’ve lived in Connecticut my whole life. I’d come out to California in the winter, and I used to go to Florida in the winter to ride, too, but I started coming to California a lot more once I got my first factory deal with Honda. I was with Honda the first three years after going pro, and then with Yamaha after that.
Cooper: What would you say your job is?
Henry: I guess you could say I’m in the PR business. And I still do some racing. I’m also in the process of rebuilding my house, which I lost to a fire in 2010. It’s kind of nice, though, because now I can rebuild it to be accessible.
Cooper: This is on the farm?
Henry: It is. And, then, having two teenagers, my other job is playing chauffeur.
Cooper: What does your wife do?
Henry: She works for a cabinet company.
Cooper: So your new house should have nice cabinets, if nothing else?
Henry: (laughs) We’ll see.
Martirosyan: What caused the fire?
Henry: We’re not sure. They never really came up with a cause. I had an outdoor furnace, and they weren’t sure if something happened with the propane tank or lines. Nobody was around when it happened, so it’s still a mystery.
Martirosyan: So you just came home one day and your house was gone?
Henry: Actually, I was out here. I came to do “A Day in the Dirt” and got the call the day before Thanksgiving that my house was on fire. I completely forgot about the event and flew straight home.
Cooper: At least nobody got hurt.
Henry: Fortunately, the kids were at school, and Stacey, my wife, was at work, so everyone was fine.
Martirosyan: That’s good. So do your kids ride?
Henry: Yes. My daughter’s 17, and my son’s 15. They ride a bit, but not a lot, and I’m okay with that. I don’t need them to be that into riding, but it’s really up to them. I do get nervous watching them ride, but I guess that’s a parent thing. (laughs)
Martirosyan: Because of your experiences, watching them ride must make you more nervous.
Henry: It does. Sometimes I don’t think they understand the consequences of crashing. I guess they must, but they just don’t think about it. Every time I go out there, I know I’m taking a risk. But the reward has always been worth it to me.
Martirosyan: What is the reward for you?
Henry: It’s a chance to forget about everything and just ride. I get so focused and feel so alive: I experience more fear and joy on a bike than anywhere else. It’s physically demanding, and I push my body to its absolute limits when I’m out there. But when I have a good day, there’s nothing like it.