When I was a little kid, my friend Tommy’s dad once said, “Second place is the first loser.”
We’d laughed and latched onto the phrase, throwing it back and forth at each other every time one of us would beat the other one in a friendly dirt bike race. I know it’s stupid to think like that because even getting second place in a race filled with expert riders is still a pretty good accomplishment. People have had extremely well-paying careers from getting second place.
But if second place is the first loser, then what does that make eleventh place?
I reach for a box that I’ve stuffed too full of my belongings, and not only is it heavy as hell but it’s going to explode out the bottom if I don’t hold it carefully. With a sigh, I lug the thing out of my apartment and down to my truck, which is also overflowing with the rest of my stuff. How did I get so much stuff? I barely even lived in this place after spending the last two years on the road with my motocross team.
After my devastating fuck up two weeks ago, I realized I can’t afford to keep this place. It was my pride and joy, too. My first apartment, deep in the heart of Nashville, Tennessee. It was good to me. Many parties were thrown. Many hot girls had a drink in this kitchen. Most of them woke up here the next morning because I’m too damn nice to kick them out after hooking up.
With the last box in my truck, I head back up apartment 312 and do one final sweep of the place to make sure it’s empty before I drop the keys off at the front office. I had a professional housecleaner come yesterday and make the place sparkle. I need that thousand dollar deposit back, even though I hate to admit it to myself. I’m broke. Well, nearly broke.
Due to my own stupidity, I am the tenth loser of the summer qualifiers, and now I’m jobless and have no money coming in.
Feeling like the dumbass I am, I get on the highway and leave Nashville in my rear view mirror. I’m heading back home. Back to Hopewell, Tennessee. The smallest country town you’ll ever see. If not for Hopewell Motocross Track, no one would even know the place exists. I spent the first nineteen years of my life trying to get out of there, and now just two years later, I’m coming back, broke and jobless and a complete failure.
It’s not all over, not yet at least. I’m still a member of Team Loco. I’m still considered a professional motocross racer. I just failed to qualify for the summer circuit, and now I’m stuck sitting on my ass until the fall qualifiers roll around. If I don’t make those, then I’ll be screwed, and I’ll no doubt lose my spot on Team Loco.
I grip the steering wheel as I stare ahead at the highway, telling myself this is just a temporary setback. I still have money, just not enough to justify staying in my apartment for three months while I’m not earning anything. I briefly mentioned the idea of moving back with my mom and she got so damn excited that I knew I had to do it.
Mom’s the best woman on the planet. She raised me all by herself after my bastard of a father left her six months pregnant. Her parents both died young, so I’ve never had any grandparents. I have one aunt, but she lives in Florida and is so antisocial she just keeps to herself. She was also in college when Mom got pregnant with me, so she never helped out. Mom did it all by herself. She was twenty years old with baby me, and she worked her ass off to give me everything I wanted. We never had it too good, and there were many times we ate PB&J every night for dinner, but I’ll never be able to pay my mom back for what she did give me.
I was five years old and every time we drove past Hopewell MX park, I’d press myself to the glass and stare in awe at the bikes as they soared over the track. I wanted to ride. I wanted my own bike. I could feel it in my bones that this is what I was meant to do.
There’s no way we could afford it, but somehow Mom bought me a used KTM 50cc dirt bike. She loaded it into the back of her Suburban and we went to the track. She asked a random guy to help us out, and he ended up being Tommy’s dad, Big Tom.
Big Tom took me under his wing and taught me how to ride. How to kickstart a bike and shift gears. He kept my bike maintained for me until I was old enough to change my own oil and air filters and tires. When I got too big, he found a great deal on a Yamaha 125 for me and I didn’t find out until later that Big Tom bought the thing and my mom made payments to him for years to get it paid off. Big Tom believed in me, probably more than he believed in his own son since Tommy was never very fast. He and my mom were my biggest supporters.
When I was thirteen, I was old enough to work as a flagger at the track, and that helped pay my registration fees for the weekend races. Mom got me used motocross gear at local thrift stores and somehow we made it work. She never had any hobbies of her own, and instead just made sure I was at the track every weekend so I could race. She even traded the Suburban in for an old Chevy truck to haul around my bike.
Thinking about my mom now is the reason I feel so damn shitty. I did all of this for her. Sure, riding is my life and my biggest passion, but I want to be pro for her. I want the big paychecks so I can buy her the new car she deserves so she can finally stop driving around the POS truck of hers. I want to pay off the mortgage on our tiny two bedroom home and then buy her a new house. I want to pay her back for all the years she sacrificed to give me what I wanted. And I was doing pretty damn good for the last two years until it all fell apart.
Marcus, my team manager, has told me a million times that I’ve got potential. That I’ve got what it takes. That I could win more if I only stopped the flirting and the partying. I thought he was just being the nagging father figure of the team, but he was right. Dammit, he was right, and I hate admitting it.
I fucked up.
I am the reason I failed.
I let the sudden fame of being the hotshot pro racer on Team Loco get to my head. I stopped working out every day, stopped riding six hours a day to get faster. I slacked on everything except the interviews, the autographing posters for fans, and then using my motocross fame to hook up with the hottest girl at the party.
It was fun as hell, too. But then it came back to bite me.
There are three qualifying races before each season. Even as an official pro rider, you’re not guaranteed a spot in the season. You have to qualify by placing in the top 10 in one of the races. You’ve got three chances.
I blew every single one.
Now my teammates, Jett, Aiden, and Clay will be traveling around the country this summer racing each weekend and earing five to ten grand each time. They’ll get the TV interviews and magazine articles and girls throwing themselves at them.
I’ve got three months of jack shit waiting on me in Hopewell.
But Marcus told me this is a good thing. He told me to get my head back in the game. To hit up the local MX track every damn day and ride like my job depends on it—because it does. I need to work out more, eat healthier, and stay far away from girls. If I get back to top racing condition, then I’ll qualify for the fall circuit easily and I’ll be back racing with my team. I’ll earn the money and get noticed in the big leagues and hopefully drafted to a bigger team. I love Team Loco, but they’re the amateur pro team, for racers aged eighteen to twenty-four. Once you’re good enough, you get a spot on the real pros. That’s where the real money comes in.
I was seven years old when I saw a video of Ricky Carmichael giving a tour of his house. He’d framed the first paycheck he got from his first pro riding team. It was a hundred grand. And that was fifteen years ago. Now the salary is closer to two hundred and fifty thousand. And that’s not counting endorsements, sponsorships and paid interviews.
I can take care of my mom with that kind of money. All I have to do is stay focused.
My old house looks just as I remember it as I pull into the gravel driveway. The grass is a little high and I make a mental note to mow it this afternoon so Mom doesn’t have to. The two bedroom brick home is about the size of my old apartment, except it has a nice patio on the back that’s perfect for entertaining.
I knock on the front door instead of letting myself inside so I don’t give Mom a heart attack. She throws open the door and immediately bursts into tears.
“Zach, baby!” she says, throwing her arms around me. “Oh, I missed you so much.”
Mom’s a whole head shorter than me, and she still smells like flowers. Her brown hair has always been dyed blonde, but now it’s kind of a mixture of both colors. Highlights, I guess.
“I missed you too, Mom,” I say. I guess I haven’t been back to visit her as much as I should.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she says, finally letting me go. “Your room is right where you left it.”
I smile and glance around the living room. Not much has changed since I was here last Christmas. The same old furniture, and the same framed pictures of me on the wall. There’s a few school pictures and my high school graduation one, but it’s mostly pictures of me on a dirt bike. A cluster of trophies as tall as my mom are in the corner of the living room. I head down the hall to my room and can’t help but snort a bit when I walk in.
I’ve still got my twin sized bed, but at least I ditched the Power Rangers sheets when I was in high school. All my friends had bigger beds, but stuff like that costs money so I never asked for a new one. It’s uncomfortable as hell. I wish I’d thought to keep my bed from my apartment and bring it here instead of selling it with all of my other furniture. Dirt bike posters hang on the wall, and most of my old junk is still in here. It looks like the bedroom of a fifteen-year-old. Part of me wants to update it, but that would mean I’m settling in. If I settle in then I won’t go back to racing.
This is just temporary, I tell myself.
After I’ve unloaded my stuff into my small bedroom, I sit with Mom on the couch. “Are you hungry?”
“I could eat,” she says. “I can make us something. What would you like?”
“Nah, don’t cook. I’ll go get us some food. What about Skeeter’s?”
Skeeter’s is the best restaurant in town, and besides one name brand fast food joint, it’s the only restaurant in town.
“Sounds good,” Mom says. “I’ll take my usual.”
I kiss her on the cheek and then get back in my truck. Skeeter’s makes the best cheeseburgers and fries, which is what Mom and I both consider the usual. The restaurant is just how I remember it—old but charming—and I walk up to the bar and order our food to-go.
“Duuude!” a voice I’ll always recognize says. I turn and see Tommy sitting a few barstools down. “Zach’s back in town!”
“Hey, man,” I say, giving him a quick hug. Tommy never pursued professional racing. He always just liked riding for fun. He’s gained a beer belly since I last saw him, but otherwise, he’s that same goofy kid I grew up with.
“What’s been going on?” I ask.
“Same old shit, different day,” he says. He points to the embroidered nametag on his shirt. “I’ve been working out at my uncle’s shop for a year now. I think I’ve finally talked him into letting me buy half the company and be his partner.”
“Nice,” I say. Tommy’s uncle’s mechanic shop always gave my mom a good price whenever she needed her car fixed. I’ve got huge respect for the guy.
Tommy grabs three fries and takes a bite out of them at once. “What’s up with you?”
This is the question I’ve been dreading. The question I will no doubt hear from every person I run into this summer. Why is the famous guy who got out of this small town back in the small town? I’ll make up a lie for everyone else, but Tommy is my friend. I swallow my pride and tell him the truth. He listens carefully and doesn’t look like he thinks any less of me when I’m finished.
“Ah, man, that ain’t nothing to worry about,” he says. “You’ll get back on the fall circuit.”
“I hope so,” I say. “I just need to concentrate this summer and find a job or something so I don’t drain my savings.”
Tommy lifts an eyebrow. “A job? Why waste your time on that when you can just get paid every Friday?”
“What do you mean?” I say.
He snorts. “Man, you’ve been gone a while. I’m talking about the Hopewell MX summer series. Races every Friday. Sign up for the cash class and you’ll win that five hundo every race, easy. You know no one in this state can beat you.” He snaps his fingers. “Easy money.”
A small flame ignites in my chest. I hadn’t thought of that. Although I fully plan on practicing at Hopewell MX all summer to hone my racing skills, I never thought about actually racing. But they do have a summer series here every year. Because it’s an amateur track open to the public, there’s no qualifying. And if you sign up for the cash class, which is one special race every race day, the winner gets five hundred dollars. Second place gets two fifty and third gets a hundred. It’d be enough money to pay my bills, and I’d be sticking to my goal of getting my life together this summer.
“That’s a great idea,” I say.
“Hell yeah it is,” Tommy says, clapping me on the shoulder. “Just keep your dick in your pants and get back to racing and you’ll be back in the pros in no time.”
He’s right. He’s totally right.
I just need to follow through with it.