Billy The Kid

By Ryan Cooley

Photos By Donn Maeda

Atonly 22 years of age,

Southern California’s Billy Laninovich has experienced more than his share of misfortune in the sport of motocross. A prodigy of sorts, having earned a factory KTM ride before ever rolling a wheel into a Supercross starting gate, Billy has spent the last few years of his professional career mixing sporadic success with frequent injury. Entering the 2005 Supercross series, Billy was back in the saddle, 100% healthy and ready to fight back. But like William H. Bonney (A.K.A. Billy The Kid) who rode his steed across the fierce and unforgiving New Mexico Territory in the late 1800s, Billy Laninovich rode his CRF250R into a wild, wild 125cc West Coast series that featured some of the sport’s most decorated tiddle-class guns-all aiming to shoot him down.

The legend of Billy Laninovich doesn’t quite see him as the vicious and ruthless killer that Billy The Kid was known as. In real form, Laninovich is not the cold-blooded rider that the nickname “The Kid” would lead one to believe, but rather a young man who lives in a violent dog-eat-dog racing world, where knowing how to use his weapon is the difference between winning and losing. And while still a young gun in the sport of motocross, Laninovich’s calm and friendly demeanor takes a back seat to what’s most important… Winning races! On Saturday, January 29, 2005, Laninovich did just that. San Francisco was the town of his first-ever Supercross victory, and the rest of the 125cc West Coast riders were his victims. To prevent future mythologizing of his legend, we sat down to get the true-life account from “Billy the Kid” himself…

We heard a pretty funny story about your first race ever. Did you really stop to help a competitor up off the ground?

(Laughs) Yeah… It was at Barona Oaks. I think I was seven years old at the time. (Laughs) I don’t know what I was thinking. I was just racing and some kid fell over in front of me, so I stopped, put my bike down, and picked his up and helped him start it. When I got back to the truck, my dad was like, “Billy… You’re not supposed to stop and help people up while you’re racing.”

So would you do that today if Ivan Tedesco fell down in front of you?

(Laughs) Yeah, right! If I didn’t run him over first…

Something that’s haunted you your entire professional career-or probably your entire life for that matter-is the proper pronunciation of your last name. Let’s set the record straight…

That’s true. People have a hard time with it. It’s pronounced Lan-in-o-vich…

So exactly how it’s spelled…

Yep. It’s funny because I’ve actually heard people accuse me of saying it wrong, too. I just usually don’t correct people when they say it wrong, so I’m sure many of them just think that their variation is correct.

You had a pretty successful amateur career… What was your favorite title?

Actually, I didn’t have that many amateur titles, really. I didn’t start racing the amateur Nationals until I think about ’96. Most of my success came in my last year as an amateur pro in 2001. I won both classes at Whitney that year, and three out of four championships at World Mini in Vegas. But I think my favorite title was in 1999 at Loretta Lynn’s when I was still an intermediate. I wanted to back that one up in 2001 as a pro, but I got hurt testing a bike at the Suzuki track before Loretta’s came around.

You made your National pro debut aboard a factory KTM in 2002. Not a lot of guys can say they started their pro careers with a factory gig. How did that deal come together?

Well, one of our close family friends, Scot Harden, works for KTM, and he really wanted to see me ride the bikes. Pretty soon after I hurt myself on the Suzuki before Loretta’s, my dad and I met with them, and it seemed like a really good deal for us, so we ended up signing the contract for two years.

How difficult was the transition from riding amateur Nationals toull-time Supercross? Did you have very much Supercross experience under your belt before signing with KTM?

No, I didn’t, actually. I didn’t have much time on the bike or on a Supercross track, but I still felt pretty solid. Testing was going really well, until about two weeks before the series started. We were up at Castillo Ranch and my bike bogged off a triple. I had to jump off, and I landed on the backside of the triple. I ended up tearing my ACL, my meniscus and the MCL in my left knee. I made the decision to go ahead and race anyway, but that wasn’t the best way to start my Supercross career. I got a podium at my fourth or fifth race, but after that, I ended up doing even more damage to my knee and had to stop to get surgery. I came back to race the last five Nationals that year, but it was probably too soon to come back on my knee, because I ended up damaging it again.

The first half of 2003 treated you a little bit better. You finished second behind Bubba at the Salt Lake City Supercross, and fourth overall in the 125cc West…

Yeah, I had a few ups and downs, but all in all, that was a pretty good series. Before my win this year, that second place in Salt Lake was my favorite race. But then at Glen Helen, the first National of that year, I hurt the same knee again and had another surgery.

Your left knee’s been through a lot the past few years…

(Laughs) Yeah… Then I actually hurt it again before the 2004 season started. I was practicing at Elsinore, cased a jump, and hyper-extended it. I tried to ride through it, but at the first East Coast round I over-jumped a triple and finished it off. That’s when I decided to hang it up for the rest of ’04 in order to get it fixed properly. I had full reconstructive surgery, and took the time needed to rehab it properly.

Once you started riding and training again later in the year, you had your work cut out for you. We saw you a few times out at the local tracks in SoCal, and you had packed on some pounds…

(Laughs) Yeah, I think I put on about 25 pounds or so while I was off the bike.

What did it? Did you just get too lazy, or did you eat too many Ding Dongs during your time off?

(Laughs) I got a little bit lazy, I guess. It’s hard not to after a surgery like that. But I was also lifting a lot of weights, which made me gain some weight, too. But yeah, I got up to about 180 lbs. from my usual 155.

Losing 25 pounds for most people can be pretty damn tough. Did you have a hard time with it, or did it fall right off?

It wasn’t too tough. It didn’t just fall right off, but once I hooked up with my trainer, we lost the weight pretty fast.

With a healthy preseason of training and testing under your belt, how were you feeling coming into 2005 with all of the fast guys who were scheduled to ride on the West Coast?

I knew I could go out there and do well, but it was hard to predict how well, since I had missed the entire year before. I felt like I was up to pace at the test track, but racing’s a whole different story.

You won a couple heat races at rounds two and three, but you had yet to put it all together in a main. What made the difference in San Francisco?

You know, I had shown good speed up to that point in the series, but I just couldn’t get myself up there in a main. In San Francisco, I surprisingly felt really well during the practice sessions. We didn’t get much riding in that week because of the rain, and typically I don’t feel that comfortable when I am short on practice. It’s actually funny, though, because I almost didn’t even make it out of my daytime qualifier that weekend. I got a bad start, and then someone went down in front of me, so I ended up battling from last place just to make the night show. But in the main I finally just got the start I needed and put down some good laps, and that’s what it takes.

Is there any way of describing the way you felt when you took the checkers for your first professional Supercross win ever?

It was the best feeling in the world. I was thinking back to the years before when I struggled through injury, but finally all the hard work paid off. That feeling is hard to describe. I’ve been working and training really hard, my health is good, and everything fell into place. I was stoked to win, but now I am really looking forward to moving on and getting more. I don’t want just one. It was nice to finish second the following weekend in Anaheim, because in the past I’ve never really followed up a good ride with another one. I felt like I finally validated myself, and now I just want to keep it going.

In the past, several racers-like Josh Hansen, for example-have gone on to sign bigger-money contracts for the season after their first-ever race win. Are you looking to collect, now that you put your name in the win column?

(Laughs) I’ll just take what I can get. I don’t know, the money comes as you’re successful, and it’s good, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think it’s as pleasing as winning. The bonus check that follows is definitely nice, but winning races is far more gratifying, so that’s my focus right now.

You’ve got the final two West Coast rounds coming up in a couple weeks-and obviously you’re looking to win those races-but what can we expect from you when the outdoor Nationals kick off in May?

I am looking forward to it. There are a lot of guys who can go really fast outdoors, and because I haven’t ridden the Nationals in a while, I am not sure how I’ll stack up. I kind of prefer Supercross, but I can ride outdoors too. I just need to learn to hang it out a bit more. I’ve never been the kind of rider who just hangs it out and takes big chances, but I think that’s something I am going to have to learn this year to be on the podium and win races.

Supercross win ever?

It was the best feeling in the world. I was thinking back to the years before when I struggled through injury, but finally all the hard work paid off. That feeling is hard to describe. I’ve been working and training really hard, my health is good, and everything fell into place. I was stoked to win, but now I am really looking forward to moving on and getting more. I don’t want just one. It was nice to finish second the following weekend in Anaheim, because in the past I’ve never really followed up a good ride with another one. I felt like I finally validated myself, and now I just want to keep it going.

In the past, several racers-like Josh Hansen, for example-have gone on to sign bigger-money contracts for the season after their first-ever race win. Are you looking to collect, now that you put your name in the win column?

(Laughs) I’ll just take what I can get. I don’t know, the money comes as you’re successful, and it’s good, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think it’s as pleasing as winning. The bonus check that follows is definitely nice, but winning races is far more gratifying, so that’s my focus right now.

You’ve got the final two West Coast rounds coming up in a couple weeks-and obviously you’re looking to win those races-but what can we expect from you when the outdoor Nationals kick off in May?

I am looking forward to it. There are a lot of guys who can go really fast outdoors, and because I haven’t ridden the Nationals in a while, I am not sure how I’ll stack up. I kind of prefer Supercross, but I can ride outdoors too. I just need to learn to hang it out a bit more. I’ve never been the kind of rider who just hangs it out and takes big chances, but I think that’s something I am going to have to learn this year to be on the podium and win races.