(NOTE: I wrote this for The Racing Journal in 2008.)
Racer wrestles with biking success
By Tom Gillispie
ALTON, Va. — When Mike Himmelsbach talks about leaning his racing motorcycle hard into a turn, he smiles broadly.
That, he says, when you're really racing. And living.
It's natural for Himmelsbach, of Quakertown, Pa., who has been around bike racing most of his 37 years. His dad, Bill, raced and is a motorcycle engine mechanic. Mike says his parents even had him at a young age so Bill could take his son riding with him.
"Motorcycles are in the family," he said Friday as his race team prepared for Sunday's motorcycle race at Virginia International Raceway. "I've been in the sport since I was three. My parents have brought me to races my whole life."
Himmelsbach remembers playing with a toy motorcycle as a child. As a teenager, he ran two races in 1987 and actually considered quitting after his first race, at Summit Point, W.Va.
"I didn't do very good," he said with a smile. "I started on the front row, and, by turn three, I was 16th. I was very slow and finished 20th or 21st."
How close was he to quitting?
"Close, very close, believe me," he said. "I was very discouraged at the end of that weekend."
But he stuck it out and in 1990 won the amateur national championship at Road Atlanta.
Now Himmelsbach, a 14-time Grand Prix national champion, holds more championship titles than any 125 GP rider in America.
But it hasn't been easy. One year, he broke his back. Another year, he injured his ankle in a way that doctors considered amputation. One of Himmelsbach's friends had undergone such an amputation, but Mike had surgery instead, and his career continued.
"I had a 50-50 shot," he said. "I was lucky."
Himmelsbach says he joined the No. 1 Aprilia USA/Lloyd Brothers Motorsports team this year to have a better shot at a 15th title. So far, the team has been perfect in 2008. Himmelsbach and teammate Ty Howard gave the No. 1 team the victory in the Daytona 300 SunTrust MOTO-ST Series race in March at Daytona International Speedway.
Himmelsbach and Howard also won Sunday morning at VIR, although neither looked particularly happy hoisting the trophy on the podium.
Howard, the team's No. 1 driver, put them on the pole, but in mid race he crashed and broke the shift lever on the bike. And they got behind a lap as they fixed the problem.
The teammates drove like maniacs, and they caught a break. They were behind a half a lap, Himmelsbach said, when the caution flag came out. That tightened the field and gave them the chance to take the lead.
"Both of us weren't real happy with our performance," Himmelsbach said by phone Monday. "Neither of us raced as well as we thought we should. Ty was upset because he crashed the bike. My performance wasn't there. I thought, 'I don't want to be the next to put the bike on the ground.' Fortunately, another team crashed their bike.
"It was an up and down day. It ended up a good thing, but we were still kinda upset."
Himmelsbach's dad, flew in for the day, and he was there for his son.
"He thought everything went good," Himmelsbach said. "He was happy. He said, 'At least you didn't crash the bike; you finished on two wheels.' Dad always looks for positives."
Mike Himmelsbach isn't your typical bike racer. He was a high school wrestler at 125 pounds, and since 1990 he has taught wrestling at high schools and middle schools in his home area around Quakertown, Pa.
Do a Google search on the Internet, and you'll probably find Himmelsbach as a contact for the Blue Division of the East Penn Youth Wrestling League.
Himmelsbach says he wrestles most of the kids so he can keep in shape. he can still beat most of the middle school wrestlers on the mat, but he's already started losing to his 135-pound son, Colin, who turned 16 on Tuesday.
"I can't beat the majority of the high-school wrestlers, my son included," Himmelsbach said resignedly.
Colin, who has a different last name, Bynum, has already won two junior national championships.
Himmelsbach says that being slight of size hasn't hurt him as a racer. Howard is much taller and may outweigh him by 50 pounds, but Himmelsbach says they set up their bikes the same way. Although Howard favors a stiffer suspension, the two coexist well.
"I'm one of the smaller guys in the series," he said. "I have an advantage from a horsepower to weight standpoint, but I have a disadvantage in strength and throwing the bike around.
"That's why I work so hard in wrestling.".
In Himmelsbach's day job, he runs the motorcycle department of a company in Redding, Pa. He was asked if he's mechanically inclined.
"Not as much as my dad," he said. "I can take a shock apart and work on it."
Himmelsbach's dad keeps coming back into the conversation.
Himmelsbach says that he and his father often bike together, and Bill has attended nearly every race he's ever run.
Occasionally, they race together. In May 2007, Mike won a GTU Expert class race at Summit Point, and his father was in an accident during the GTU race. He was knocked unconscious in the fall and transported by helicopter to a local hospital, but he recovered nicely.
Himmelsbach gives his dad a lot of credit for his success.
"I think my dad's proud of me," he said. "He's why I chose this path. He's my greatest asset, as a mechanic, as a friend and as somebody who understood me."And apparently still does.
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