OK, Now Where Are the Pedals?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, March 1997

OK, Now Where Are the Pedals?
Having swapped his bike for an Indy Car, would-be speed racer Greg Lemond considers the road ahead from a very new vantage point

By Ned Zeman

Buttonwillow, California, a windy, dusty farm town that 1,600 call home, seems like one of those places that really isn't a place, just a handful of houses and tin-sided buildings strung along a two-lane rural highway about 20 miles west of Bakersfield, surrounded by barley fields and tumbleweed. The Joads could have made a go of it here.

But the town does have at least one modest attraction, and when the wind is right, the best way to find it is to listen for an angry, high-pitched whine: the sound of race-car engines buzzing around the track at Buttonwillow Raceway. It's clearly a long way from Indy or Daytona. This is a road-racing track, not an oval--it's about a mile in diameter, with a distinct dogleg configuration set up today. The track hosts few races and has no grandstand, just winding asphalt, a few sheds, and beyond, miles and miles of dirt.

The teams that choose to practice here often do so to save money. Because it's several miles from the middle of nowhere, Buttonwillow is half the price of most other tracks. The Raceway is also a budget-conscious classroom for less than seasoned drivers to improve their skills in obscurity. On this hot Central Valley morning, the sweaty, grease-streaked members of a crew from Miller Brothers Racing, most of them midwesterners--Miller Milling Company is a Minneapolis durum wheat mill--are bustling around their canary-yellow Formula Ford 2000, a cutely downsized version of an Indy car, as an intent young man eases himself into the foam-padded driver's cage. His relaxed manner masks the fact that he is a freshly minted rookie with virtually no experience in professional auto racing; in fact, this is only his third practice day as a pro. Which brings up another advantage of Buttonwillow. "Out here," the driver says, grinning like Alfalfa once he's strapped in, "there's nothing to crash into."

THERE ARE CLEAR ADVANTAGES to teaching a rookie driver to race in the midle of nowhere. "Out here," LeMond says, grinning like Alfalfa, "there's nothing to crash into."

The team watches nervously as the rookie pulls the little car out onto the track and herkily accelerates, and the car is soon zipping around the course at 120 miles per hour. The crew takes a few cautious steps back from the asphalt, since the rookie is consistently missing the first turn, catching the dirt on the track's outside edge and sending up a cloud of dust. With each pass, the turn gets the best of him. "Missed again," mutters Scott Gates, the team's general manager, scratching notes on a clipboard. His amiable chief mechanic, Bruce Bender, registers concern by roaring a belch. Sure enough, the car soon spins out into a full 360. It sits for a long minute, ticking in the heat, before the driver grinds it back in gear and moves off again. After a consolation lap, the car pulls into the pit area, the driver shaking his head. He asks if a photographer could please stand farther back from the track. "I don't want to kill someone my first week," he says, smiling.

"It's pushing," the rookie complains as Gates and Bender approach the car. "It's really pushing away." He means the front of the car seems to be drifting--a subtle problem that seems to plague neophyte racers more than veterans.

There is more scribbling and chin-scratching. Sweaty and stiff, the driver climbs out of the car, yanks off his helmet, and stretches. "G-forces," he mutters, toggling his aching neck. He unzips his red jumpsuit and casually admires several purple, saucerlike bruises on the back of his right arm, caused by banging into the bars of the driver's cage at high speed--the badge of a rookie. This is a considerable leap from his other roles in life: bagel-shop owner, endorser of Wheaties and IBM computers, former Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, and three-time winner of the Tour de France.

It might be a typical sleepy day down at the racetrack, except that this bruised and goof-prone rookie is the exceedingly atypical Greg LeMond, the greatest American cyclist in history. Two years after retiring at age 33, LeMond has unexpectedly emerged as the most famous absolute beginner in auto racing. It's a career swap that may appear odd at first but does follow a certain primitive logic, given LeMond's competitive r‰sum‰. "Speed," notes a member of LeMond's racing team, "has never been a problem for Greg."

Steve Knapp schooling the new kid in the finer points of motorcars.

Until recently, LeMond thought of becoming a race car driver about as often as he thought of becoming a tugboat captain. The only Yank ever to win the Tour de France might still be slumming around his estate on the outskirts of Minneapolis, fly-fishing, cooking, and tracking his endorsements and other business interests, if a friend hadn't suggested to him that he might like this auto racing thing. Before long, LeMond was tucked into an overpowered set of wheels at the Russell Racing School, in Monterey, California. The school, luckily, was not far from the home of LeMond's longtime friend and adviser Warren Gibson, who was able to pop in frequently and offer moral support. Gibson--or Gibby, as LeMond fondly calls him--is 20 years LeMond's senior, and he worked at Squaw Valley before devoting himself full-time to the cyclist in the early 1980s. Officially, LeMond is represented by ProServ, the Microsoft of sports management agencies, but since LeMond retired from cycling, Gibby has continued to be an unofficial manager-publicist-confidant as well as a zealous presence in his dealings with the outside world--a hovering, one-man entourage.

At the Russell School, LeMond spent three days absorbing the fundamentals of his new sport. He learned about equipment, shifting, and finding a "line," the driving alley a driver learns to negotiate in his duel with centrifugal force. Later, he spent three days in an advanced racing course, getting schooled in strategic elements that must have seemed familiar--passing, attacking, thwarting pursuers--but at speeds about twice what he ever did on a bicycle. In little more than a week, he was hooked.

It was during the school's final exam that LeMond began to show signs of promise, or at least bravado. During a series of timed racing maneuvers, LeMond lost control of his car and smacked it into the wall. So he hustled over to the pits and--as if swapping a busted-up bike for a new one in mid-Tour--simply grabbed a new car and returned to the race. He finished third, albeit on a technicality: The judges awarded him the bronze mostly for his persistence. "I think they liked that after I crashed, I kept driving," he says.

In any event, a seduction had been consummated. Soon LeMond was hunkered down in front of Speedweek on ESPN or off talking shop with fellow racer Paul Newman--a perk novice drivers seldom enjoy. He even sucked his wife, Kathy, and three kids, ages seven to 13, into his new obsession; all four have since taken racing classes themselves. Then, last July, he decided to turn professional, which meant hooking up with a well-heeled sponsor to foot the bill. Although LeMond tends to imply that this second career is something of a lark, friends say he had been restless and slightly adrift in his post-cycling life (his career was cut short by the onset of an incurable disease called mitochondrial myopathy, which slowly and quietly debilitates muscle cells). Where a more pedestrian athlete might simply have retired to a career of tire commercials, LeMond was determined to start all over again in a sport that, not long ago, he barely knew existed.

IN RACING SCHOOL, after LeMond smacked his car into a wall, he ran to the pits and--as if replacing a busted-up bike in the Tour De France--simply grabbed a new car and dove back in.

LeMond, being LeMond, has attracted some pretty special treatment that has enabled him to make surprising progress in his new profession. According to Gibson, LeMond's sponsor is forking over some $150,000 this year to help him shinny up his steep learning curve. Miller Milling Company sponsors two other less-storied but more accomplished drivers, John C. Miller and Steve Knapp. Knapp, a lanky, laconic man who vaguely resembles Ron Howard and who won the 1996 Formula Ford 2000 Championship, is the best driver in the world in his class. He has assumed the task of nursemaiding LeMond at Buttonwillow, and he often climbs behind the wheel himself to demonstrate fine points. This has definite advantages. It's like having, say, Greg LeMond teach you how to ride a bike.

If LeMond learns his lessons well, he can probably squeeze out a living in auto racing, but only a marginal one. His Formula Ford 2000 is a $45,000, 150-mile-per-hour speedster that competes in the entry-level category of the five Indy-car classes. The Formula Ford class is to the Indianapolis 500 what single-A baseball is to the World Series, and there's about as much chance that LeMond will ever make it to the Brickyard as there is that a local high-school standout will wind up throwing a no-hitter in Yankee Stadium--it's possible but not likely. The Toyota class, the next level up, is as far as he can realistically hope to go.

While the mechanics swarm around the car during LeMond's post-spinout pit stop, he tries to puzzle through the glitch in that first turn. LeMond is a touch ruddier and thicker than in his cycling days; with his red suit he bears a faint resemblance to a department-store Santa on coffee break. Gibby--thin, graying, relentlessly peppy--is ever-present at LeMond's side, and now he slaps the rookie on the back. He does this often.

Gates and Knapp shuffle in to offer advice. "Hold it longer," Knapp say. "You were turning too soon. Hold it. Hold it. You want to hit the apex just right." LeMond nods, frowning. Gibby slaps him on the back.

A little later, Knapp dons a helmet and jumpsuit, climbs into the driver's cage, and puts the FF2000 through its paces--showing LeMond how it's done. His turns are flawless, his speed clearly faster than LeMond's. While he devours the course, LeMond scurries to various vantage points around the track. As Knapp shifts gears, LeMond mentally shifts along with him: "Second...third...fourth...third." His eyes never leave the car. "Jeepers, creepers," he says repeatedly, riveted by the yellow blur whizzing past him. "Jeepers, creepers."

Yo, Indurain, eat my dust: LeMond tries to keep his Formula Ford 2000 on the straight and narrow at Buttonwillow Raceway.

Inside the team trailer, a few steps off the track, a black laptop computer spits out statistics about Knapp's practice runs, as it has about LeMond's earlier laps. The instrument allows the team to peruse, among other things, LeMond's speed, RPMs, and steering. With its animated version of the Buttonwillow track, the program looks like a video-arcade game, but without the annoying sound effects. When LeMond bounces in, eager as a puppy, Gates is gravely comparing LeMond's numbers to Knapp's. "It's pushing, right?" the rookie asks hopefully.

As it turns out, the car is pushing only slightly and needs no major adjustments. On the computer screen, where aspects of each driver's performance graphically appear, LeMond's turns aren't nearly as economical as Knapp's; at certain points on the track, moreover, Knapp drove almost 20 miles per hour faster.

LeMond orders a sloppy pastrami sub and quietly dispatches it while staring accusingly at the computer screen.

"Greg is finding the limit," Gates says later. "That's why he's here. He's a racer. He pushes it hard. That's what it takes. I'd be upset if he weren't sliding off the track."

Knapp also is generous in his appraisal. "A good driver has a certain instinct," he says. "There's a lot going on inside the car and inside his head. All at once. Whatever he's doing, it affects the dynamics of everything. With Greg, his biking helps a lot. He's always right on the limit. The tires and speeds are different, but in other ways it's very similar. It's early, but we think he's got it."

Of course, whether LeMond excels at racing probably means less to the Miller Milling Company than the publicity that inevitably follows him. "Obviously," notes Scott Gates, "the team saw some marketing opportunities." Individuals, too, are aware of the cachet of cozying up to LeMond. "Hey," Gibby suddenly remarks to him that night, back at the Super 8 Motel where they're staying, "have I shown you your new IBM ad? It looks terrific."

"I'm not racing because I can't let it go," LeMond says. "It's just a challenge. I mean, I'm a competitive guy. It doesn't make sense for an enthusiastic 35-year-old man to retire, does it?"

Everyone's back at the track the next morning after another night at the Super 8 and yet another breakfast at Denny's, and LeMond is doing his best to explain his motives. It's clear he's more interested in getting back into the car, though, than in thinking about why he's doing it. In his own savvy way, LeMond remains the same unvarnished guy he's always been, working hard at playing, delegating the dreary details to others. Mostly to Gibby, who is doing his part to keep expenses down by sharing a $45-a-night room with LeMond at the Super 8--a grown-up slumber party.

"Speed," LeMond finally announces. "That's what the two sports, cycling and driving, have in common. That, and knowing the difference between riding out there by yourself and racing. A lot of new drivers know how to drive, but they don't necessarily know how to race. You only learn that through experience. When I'm in the car, that comes naturally. The biggest difference between cars and bikes is mechanical--I still don't know a lot of this stuff. That, and time. I mean, unlike cycling, I can't just go practice whenever I want."

By the end of the day, the computer shows that LeMond's practice is paying off, if only slightly. He's managed to match Knapp's speed on two of his 30 practice runs. It's a small victory, but LeMond is ecstatic, smiling broadly as he stands in the warm afternoon light of the track. "Until I watched Steve," he enthuses, "I never had the confidence to go, like, fast." He's dying to get back in the car. His red jumpsuit is zipped, and Gibby has sidled up to walk his charge back onto the track. "I tell you, this feels good. I could race this thing all day."

"The thrill," Gibby says, clapping. "It's giving you the thrill back, isn't it?"

LeMond laughs ruefully. "Don't start in with that again," he says.

"It's true."

"Whatever you say."

"It's true. You were depressed sitting around at home."

"I wasn't depressed. I was..." He smiles, groping for the right word.

"It's a common phenomenon among top athletes," Gibby continues. "Very common."

"OK," LeMond nods, squeezing out a laugh. "But depressed isn't the right word."

Gibby slaps him on the back, and laughing like schoolboys, they head off.

Ned Zeman wrote "The 1997 Outside Prognosticator" in the January issue.

Photographs by Dan Winters

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