By Michael Antonovich
Photo by Brendan Lutes and Chris Kinman
The path from standout amateur prodigy to professional motocross racer is comparable to a barren desert highway. It’s desolate, long, and grueling, with uncertainty lying after every curve and mountain. Many of the highly touted “next big things” will struggle to live up to the expectations they are saddled with by sponsors, family, and even themselves. After years of misfortune, they will abandon their careers like a car that has given up the ghost in the unforgiving conditions and set out into the unknown, searching for work in an industry far from the motorcycle world. Others still continue along the treacherous road and luckily find the oasis of factory rides, fame, and financial security that eluded the competition. Davi Millsaps is fortunate to find himself in the latter category.
His 2006 Supercross Lites Supercross Championship, victory in the 450 division, and stints on both the Suzuki and Honda factory squads make him the envy of his graduating class, as many of his past competitors struggle to maintain relevance in this quick to forget sport. But these accomplishments have not come easily for the Southern born and raised 23-year-old who has spent time on the injured list on numerous occasions during his career. A frightening get-off at Budds Creek during the summer of 2010 not only left Millsaps on side lines and unable to compete in the last few races of his Honda contract, but also in doubt of ever again racing at the professional level. After months of anxious recovery, Davi found himself back on the highly competitive circuit with assistance from the JGR/Muscle Milk/Toyota team, an organization that has become known for its craftsmanship and technical prowess in just four short years. Is this the formula that takes him to stand upon the top step of the podium in the years to come?
When speaking of the 2010 season, Millsaps is quick to point out that he was never the quickest rider in the opening rounds. “The season started off slowly, which is usual for me. But it got better and better, and I won my first race at the fifth round in San Diego and ended the year third in points, so I can’t complain about either of those things.” If you take away a difficult night in Toronto, where he completed fourteen laps and scored a mere two points, he finished no worse than ninth place in the other sixteen main events. His podium appearances at stops such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Salt Lake City are overshadowed by his night at the finale in Las Vegas though, where he was seen riding bare assed on live TV while en route to a sixth place finish. As the pro tour headed outdoors, it was not long before he was once again on the podium, as 3-2 scores at the opening National at Hangtown netted him a third place finish. The following weeks were not as prosperous, as “Davi Duke” failed to score top-10 overall finishes at both Freestone and High Point. But the worst was still yet to come.
“I have no idea.” As I dug for details about the Budds Creek crash, Davi himself was still unsure what the catalyst was. Things were going well prior to then, after qualifying ninth in practice and running well within the top-10 during the first moto. But just past the halfway point, caution flags flew and the scene took a grim turn. The accident required him to be airlifted to the nearest hospital, where he was forced to spend the next few days while awaiting the doctor’s prognosis. “I broke my ribs and pulled some cartilage away from them, bruised my lungs, broke my back and thumb, got a concussion, and lost eighty percent of one of my kidneys. At first I was told a lot of things because the doctors didn’t know what was going on, and because I had pain between my lungs and ribs I was life-flighted out of the track.”
When he arrived at the hospital, his broken back and ribs immediately took a back seat to the kidney injury. While some are able to donate the organ and continue on with life, many do not face the same risks a professional athlete encounters. As his condition stabilized, the recommendation of retiring was passed down by various doctors to the downed rider. “A few told me that it was my choice, but if they were me that they wouldn’t ride. I had my kidney specialist in California, who was an ex-racer, tell me that he would never tell me not to ride again. He said my chances of losing my other kidney were the same as some who had their kidneys losing theirs.” Three bedridden weeks with a diet restricting sodium and caffeine followed by another three months of no strenuous activities or painkillers were prescribed. But just sixteen weeks after being rushed to a Maryland emergency room and being told to hang up his boots, he was back on the bike and looking at offers for 2011.
Home Sweet Home
As Anaheim I slowly approached, Millsaps had secured a ride with the JGR Yamaha group, a ride that had been previously discussed but never came to fruition. He still speaks highly of his tenure with the Honda team, saying, “My time there was amazing and I can’t say one bad thing about the team. Everyone from the manager to the bottom guys are all great people, and I still consider them friends. But it was time for a change and the opportunity that I wanted to take came.” The team’s North Carolina base is much closer to Millsaps’ childhood home of Georgia than Murrieta, California, is and that distance from the Southern California distractions is something he longed for. The highly capable staff and private facility that is able to produce nearly any part to improve the bike being within a reasonable drive from his home made the Yamaha effort a perfect fit. “If it has to be done, then it can be done by those guys. Anything that they can build themselves rather than have someone else make is good for JB [Justin Brayton] and I.”
He also enlisted the help of former racer and fellow Southerner Ezra Lusk. Lusk, the underdog who became a household name in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, is well aware of the trials and tribulations that a racer encounters. After a lackluster Supercross season, he says that “Yogi” was a vital tool that kept him thinking positive. “I came into the season not knowing what to expect. I didn’t have much time on a brand new bike and I came here doing the best I could coming off of an injury. It was very hard. I talked with Yogi for a while and he understands everything. The whole season was up in the air and it didn’t go the way we wanted, but that’s how it goes with racing dirt bikes.” The duo looked over various details in Millsaps’ program before coming up with what they feel is a solid package.
While only a quarter of the 2011 Outdoor National season has been completed, Millsaps has already made an impressive mark. Top-10 finishes in all six of the opening motos and a second place overall in the scorching heat at Freestone, Texas, show that he is ready to do battle as the summer presses on. “I was riding good enough for third place in Texas, but second was given to me [after Ryan Dungey DNF’ed with only two laps to go]. But I’ll take it away I can get it (laughs). It definitely helped me because I haven’t landed on the podium once this season, and it is something I wanted to do for the team and for Yogi.” He does not want to rest on his laurels, though, and expects to win a race by the conclusion of the season. With the full support of a well-equipped team, a qualified riding coach, and newly instilled confidence, that goal seems like it will be reached by summer’s end.