This article was originally printed in our December 2016 issue of TransWorld Motocross.
Long Way Around
An Unusual Career Path Has Helped Lead Zach Osborne To The Top
Second chances are scarce in motocross. Riders are given a limited window for success—often very early in their professional career—and if things don't pan out in the allotted time, attention turns to the next person on the list. It's happened dozens of times and will certainly continue to be the norm. True, there are a few exceptions to this unofficial standard, but it's more difficult to fight back to the front than it is to be there from the beginning. Some have ridden for lesser teams or moved their entire lives to other parts of the world for a new start.
Zach Osborne has lived out both of these scenarios. A strong passion and perseverance while facing the chance of a prematurely ended career helped Osborne during his time contesting the Motocross World Championship in Europe, which in turn helped him to reclaim the attention of the American teams. Now some eight years later, he's a front-runner in the 250 class and a title favorite for 2017.
The Osborne family shares a passion for racing as his father drove stock cars and his uncle held a status in the local motocross scene. With their involvement, Zach was on a Yamaha PW50 and at the track in no time. The progression was quick, albeit unforeseen, and they qualified for the two biggest amateur races of the time (the now-defunct Ponca City and still-strong Loretta Lynn's) in only his second year of racing. "I don't think we knew what we were getting into when we went with the scale of it and how many people were there," Zach shares. "It was mind-blowing because the biggest race we did before that was a regional, and then we go to a field in Oklahoma and there were 2,000 riders. It seemed like the thing to do, what everyone talked about, so that's what we did." A third at Loretta's kept them going and attracted the attention of Fox and KTM, which then led to a role in the development of KTM's mini-bike range and the initial versions of the 85 SX.
KTM's faith in Osborne through the amateur ranks eventually led to a spot on the factory team for his professional debut. But things seemed off from the start, and he struggled with numerous health issues, some of which stemmed from late puberty, and he failed to turn in the expected results. "There's a point in that where you don't even know who you are in the middle of the change," he says. "Your mind wanders, your body changes, and there's a lot going on—it's something that I struggled with. Now you could look back and say that I'm a late bloomer, but at the time I thought it was over." The biggest blow came at Budds Creek in 2006 when he imploded while leading a moto, and this hung over Osborne in one way or another for a decade. "I had severe Epstein-Barr, which came from mono that I had previously and never let get better," he explains. "That led into 2007, which was dismal. I had chronic bronchitis, exercise-induced asthma, and my body was run down from a long time of riding but not enough maintenance." When asked what the cause could have been, Osborne is quick to explain that it was the culmination of numerous issues. "There were so many things that were tough. My fitness was okay at first, but with the decline of my health everything else went, as well. I was still pretty fast and was doing okay, but at the same time I was never on the level that I should have been."
In 2008 Osborne found a spot at Yamaha of Troy, a longtime powerhouse in the small-bore class, but he experienced two substantial injuries and practically rode for free. "Everything was successful, and the bike was pretty good. I didn't have a salary, but at that point I didn't really deserve one. I got hurt at the first round of Supercross and broke my scapula, so I missed all but a few races that season. Then I broke my wrist at Glen Helen," he recalls. From the outside everything with the team seemed exceptional, especially with Jason Lawrence's 250 West Coast SX title, but internally things were in shambles. "When I wanted to ride there was no equipment," he continues. "They were in the process of folding up, but no one knew what was going on, and you couldn't get a firm answer. I was stuck, and I didn't foresee it folding before the end of the season." With limited options and a depleted bank account, Osborne left California in the summer and figured his time as a high-level racer was over. "After Glen Helen my apartment lease was up, so I got all of the stuff out and drove home. I worked for my dad and drove a dump truck—just normal stuff. Three weeks into the broken wrist and the dump truck, I cut my cast off and rode my bicycle. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew that I didn't want to drive a dump truck for very long [laughs]."
Even before the injuries and collapse of YoT, Osborne entertained the idea of riding for a European team. "In January of 2008 I was at Mimi's Café in Corona [California] by myself when two guys walked in, Rob Walters from Smith and Ash Kane [European industry figure]," he says. "Rob asked me to sit with them, and we joked about maybe riding a GP or something because I had done a few European championships." With a plan for 2008 already in place, this was chalked up to simple bench-racing. But when Osborne's team folded and the European team's riders suffered injuries, the two parties put things in motion. "I got the call, and within four days I was there to do one British Championship round and two GPs," Osborne notes. "I took everything that I owned with me, which was my phone and iPod. My KTM deal was good, but to live in California without a salary wasn't cheap. I scraped together 1,000 dollars from my last paycheck from my dad and whatever else was left over and then traded it at the airport when I got to England. I think I got 433 pounds in exchange for my last 1,000 dollars [laughs]. I was devastated."
With the support of Steve Dixon's Yamaha team, Osborne was able to rebuild his career in the MX2 division of the Motocross World Championship against stiff competition. "When I was there it was stacked with Ken Roczen, Marvin Musquin, Gautier Paulin, Evgeny Bobryshev, Steven Frossard, Tommy Searle, and me, and all of us could win GPs," he says. A crop of podium finishes, moto wins, and an overall victory at the MXGP of Turkey were the professional highlights, but Osborne enjoyed the way of life more than anything else. "I don't know if my time there as a kid helped me out, but I never felt homesick. I stayed with Mel Pocock and his family, and they took me in," he explains. "I think that's why some guys don't succeed, because they count down the days until they go home, and I never did that. I embraced it, and I like that it's slow and people aren't as concerned about money or working. It's more about enjoying life while you're here, and that's something I've tried to bring back with me."
Due to the strict age limit of 23 years in the MX2 class, Osborne knew in 2011 that his career was again going to change. A jump to the 450 class was already possible, but he had a feeling of unfinished business in the 250 class and, more importantly, the United States. With Dixon's support, Osborne put together a small run of 250 West Coast SX races in 2012 with intentions of securing a new job in 2013. "For my last year of MX2, Steve agreed to let me do some Supercross races so I could get the attention of teams. It was a big gamble for me and a financial burden for him," Osborne admits. Offers came in quickly, even after the finish of Anaheim I, and eventually he signed a two-year deal with GEICO Honda.
Back In America
Even though injuries plagued Osborne during his term with GEICO Honda, many still saw potential, including Bobby Hewitt of Rockstar Energy Racing. Hewitt previously offered Osborne a ride during the team's independent days on Suzuki in 2012, which was politely passed up in favor of a final year with Dixon's team in Europe, but full factory support from Husqvarna made the offer for 2015 and 2016 too good to turn down. "Bobby has understood through the whole process of getting me back to where I needed to be, and I think they all believe in me," Osborne boasts. "I have a really good bike and a really good group of people around me. We trust each other, and they know how I work." It comes as no surprise that Osborne has signed a contract extension to stay with the squad for the next few years.
2016 was a breakthrough season by most standards, and Osborne claimed multiple wins, the firsts of his career in the United States. "You have to learn to walk before you run. This year was my first heat-race win, which sounds ridiculous. You'd think I would have won a thousand of them by now," he jokes. The biggest moment was the overall victory at Budds Creek, the site of the rookie season meltdown. "On the way to the race I told my trainer, Ryan Rowell, that I had to win Budds Creek before I could win anywhere else. I felt good going in and knew that I was going to do well. It was a huge weight lifted off of my back, and it's unexplainable for it to happen there the way that it did."
After a decade of racing the 250 class, Osborne thinks that finally he's figured out what's necessary to take a title and has decided that 2017 will be his final season in the division. "I feel like with the results of the last few years, I can be in there for both championships, especially if I can get momentum going in Supercross and carry it into the outdoors," he states. Husqvarna feels the same way and has determined that a full-time move to Florida in order to train with Aldon Baker will help take things to the next level. "They were looking for a 250 guy to come there, because the three of them didn't want another 450 rider. It just made sense for me to go there," Osborne explains. "It was a huge decision, and it's tough to leave something I know is successful with Ryan Rowell, but it's an opportunity to ride with them every day and build confidence. I feel it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I had to jump on."
Some have protested Osborne's extended time in the "support class," but he has little concern for their calls to move up to the 450 class. "To anyone who would say it to my face, I'd tell them that I'm making $300,000 to $400,000 a year in the 250 class with a guaranteed deal that puts me at the front," he declares. "Or I could go to the 450 because someone that doesn't have a clue thinks that I should, and I could struggle or barely make $100,000." With a wife and young daughter to support, Osborne has far more responsibilities than some of the teenage competitors he faces on the track, and the well-being of his family has a large influence on his riding. "If anything, Brittney and Emory [wife and daughter] have given me more motivation, and I think of them when I'm on the bike," he shares. "There's a lot of money on the line when I'm on the track, so the better I do, the better off we all are."
At 27 years old, Osborne is near what was often considered the retirement age in motocross. While some of the competition complains of burnout after spending most of their lives on the bike, Osborne's interest has intensified. "I don't know that I enjoyed riding when I was supposed to—when I was a young kid," he points out. "I was successful at the time, but I didn't enjoy it the way that I do now. I enjoy the training, the long motos—I just love it." In fact, he's already decided that after a run in the 450 class, a move to GNCC and similar intense events will be the next step in his career. "It's pushing the body to another level, and I think that anytime you can be on a bike for three hours is a good thing," he continues. "You learn a lot about the bike, different situations, and your body. It's always been about learning for me." There are a few events in particular that he'd like to do, with the famed Dakar Rally through South America at the top of the list. "It's very dangerous and I have a family to think of, but it's something I've thought about since I was a kid when I saw the rigs and bikes at the KTM factory."
But before any of that can happen, Osborne will have to take on 2017. "This year will be huge for me," he says. "It has to happen, because this is my last shot at a 250 championship. I feel like when I came through, if you were 17 or 18 years old and at Loretta's, people wondered when you were going to turn pro. Now the age deal has moved on, and people like Alex Martin and me have turned the tables a bit. It takes a little longer for some guys to mature and reach their potential. I've had good results, so I'm always there at the front."