Ping teamed up with Chinese
motorcycle manufacturer Sky
Team to introduce their Tornado
model and turn the racing world
on its ear. He learned the hard
way that not all motocross
bikes are created equal
BY DAVID PINGREE
PHOTOS BY SIMON CUDBY
AND MATT WARE
I’m not going to lie to you: This is a painful story.
Not so much for you, the reader (unless you have
glaucoma or reading print gives you a migraine), but
painful for me. In case you haven’t been paying attention,
China is coming on strong in the world market—
all markets, including motorcycling. So I was assigned
the task of getting on board this growing dragon and
riding her to the American marketplace. How? I was
going to be the first Chinese factory motocross racer.
The Blue Room
It all started back in February at
the Dealernews Indianapolis Trade
Show. DC and I were walking
through the seemingly endless
color-coded rooms filled to capacity
with bikes, trailers, quads, gear,
and an infinite amount of motorsports-related
product (and junk).
As we wandered into a big, blue
room, my mind still racing due to overstimulation from the
previous ones, I was taken aback by the exotic barrage of
motorcycle manufacturers’ displays. But these weren’t
your typical brands of dirt bikes, like Honda, Yamaha,
Kawasaki, Suzuki, and KTM; instead, we stood staring at
the new dirt bike offerings from UM, Jackal, Thunder, and
Sky Team. China’s latest moto exports had washed ashore
in Indianapolis to begin making their way into the American
The bikes were generally smaller, heavier, much less
technologically advanced, and downright strange. They
looked like they had been based on mid-’80s offerings
from the Japanese. Maybe that’s why the cost was so
low—right around $1,000 for most (and that’s low enough
for them to end up on the floors of such retail giants as
Costco, Pep Boys, Sam’s Club, and more).
We talked briefly with several of the representatives,
and they spoke confidently about their presence in motorcycling
and the quality products that China is renowned for
making. I can’t say with any accuracy what Davey was
thinking, but that night as I hopped into bed around 8 p.m.
after a perfectly balanced meal at Hooters, my mind was
racing. It was racing about racing.
Kung Pow Comeback
When my alarm clock rang the next morning, I marched
back into the convention center and headed straight for
the blue room. I planned to sit down with each of the manufacturers
to find out if any of them had plans to go racing
in the States in the near future. It’s no secret that
motocross is a difficult sport to walk away from, and I
clearly still had the bug. I saw these fresh-faced Chinamen
as my golden ticket to the top of the motocross world, an
untapped resource of sponsorship dollars. With no Ricky
Carmichael or Chad Reed to suck their budgets dry, I was
in a perfect position to rake in some serious yuan. That’s
Chinese for cash, and these folks probably had a junkload of it.
My first several meetings were disheartening. These suits just
couldn’t see the potential in my ideas. It was like I was speaking
Chinese … er, well, maybe Swedish. They weren’t getting on board
with my plan, and it was frustrating. One of the manufacturers,
Tomos, wasn’t even based out of China! I discovered that these
hacks were Estonian, but not before I wasted half of my day pitching
my ideas to them like Randy Johnson on a double dose of ephedra.
(I should’ve figured it out when they wouldn’t stop dropping Juss
Just as I was about to abandon my dreams of a return to racing
against RC and take solace in a foot-long hot dog and an RC Cola
from the snack vendor in the main auditorium, I found my team.
Tucked in a corner next to a guy selling personalized trailer-hitch covers
and a middle-aged Harley-accessories-pushing woman whose
face was as leathery as her chaps and jacket, was the Sky Team
booth. I put the hot dog craving on hold and decided to give it one
last try. I ran through my spiel again, half expecting to fail. I offered
an immediate presence in U.S. racing, bike R&D, and an outside
chance at a championship. Sure, I was stretching for that last one a
bit, but a motocross bike is a motocross bike, right? Surely it would
They loved the idea. In fact, they had been workshopping ideas
to get involved in professional racing for some time. We exchanged
contact information, and they assured me we could work out the
details in the weeks to come.
Help Me Help You
When I got back home, I immediately contacted Jimmy Button. I
knew that in the imminent negotiations we would be talking mucho
dinero (and probably some American money, too). I would need a
wise sherpa to guide me over the contractual Himalayas that lay
(Opposite page) Ping took delivery of his new Team
Tornado gear before encountering stiff resistance at tech
inspection from Steve Whitelock over a loose wire. Then
when he asked Ryan Villopoto for advice on bike setup,
the kid suggested higher bars and air bags.
(This page) The brand-new Sky Team Tornado lacked “bold
new graphics,” so Throttle Jockey came up with the “funnel
meets trailer park” look for Ping’s Glen Helen debut.
before me. Indeed, I was going to need professional representation,
and Button was my man. However, Jimmy was
a little skeptical at first.
“Dude, are you serious about this?” the former Yamaha
factory rider asked. “What the hell are you thinking?” After
a heartfelt talk and a thorough explanation of my hopes and
dreams, he was more receptive. I think my exact words
were “Come on, Button, don’t be such a #$@%. Dang!”
We eventually came to terms. Over the weeks that
followed, I learned that my salary would be minimal (read:
nonexistent), but my bonus program was one of the best
Jimmy had ever seen. “Okay, Ping, your race-win and
championship bonuses are huge! They make Reed’s look
like chump change,” Jimmy confided. “Heck, if you win,
I’ll be making more than Chad with my cut alone!” He was
now fired up and getting to work on my personal sponsorship.
I needed gear, head to toe, and any outside
sponsors he could line up. See, I figured he could walk
into the corporate headquarters of Chinese-based giants
such as Chung King, Kikkoman, or Panda Express and
write his own ticket. My plan was coming together perfectly,
just like those little paper Chinese finger cuffs that
get me every time!
I needed a bike. With Button handling the business end of
things, it was time to get to work on the bike and my personal
preparation. After exchanging phone messages with
my new U.S. connection down in the Garment District, I
learned that my first shipment of bikes was apparently
being held up at U.S. customs in Long Beach (or maybe
she said I should quit using the wrong bleach).
It was then suggested by my editor (I’m still trying to
hold onto that job) that I should maybe just go and buy
one, kind of like Ron Lechien did when he bought his own
Yamaha YZ250 for the last race of the ’83 season and won
the San Diego Supercross. Apparently, my local Pep Boys
had a few Tornado models in stock. I swaggered in and
shot a head nod at the store manager. He didn’t act like he
knew me, but I figured it was just a matter of time before
my Team Tornado posters were blanketing his shabby little
establishment. I grabbed a pack of pine-tree air fresheners
and a bottle of tranny oil and pushed my new ride up to the
“That’s a sweet bike,” the manager offered.
“Damn right it is,” I quipped.
“But wouldn’t you rather have one with a kickstand?”
The total for the pack of three pine-tree air fresheners, a quart of
Pennzoil, and my ST 250 Tornado was $1,006. Those crafty Chinese
have just got it figured out, I thought to myself. Through clever purchasing,
efficient production, and lax labor laws, they were able to significantly
reduce the cost of the modern motocross bike. I had enough
money left over to pick up a case of Turtle Wax and some new wipers!
I loaded up my new hot rod in the Pep Boys parking lot and headed
to Pro Circuit. The crew there had already agreed to help with the
engine and exhaust mods, and they were anxious to get a look at my
little dragon. When I arrived, there was a sense of confusion among
the Pro Circuit employees. I kept hearing things like “Is it really aircooled?”
and “There’s no linkage” and “This thing should come with
a neck brace.” Obviously, the Pro Circuit boys weren’t very openminded
about a lesser-known manufacturer like Sky Team. After getting
help from three guys to unload it, I pushed it back through to the
race shop, then asked another guy to help me lift her up on the stand.
But the standard weight of the bike proved too much for the hightech
milk crate, so I just leaned her against the wall.
Mechanic Jeremy Hoyer lets Ping
know what gear he should be in.
I still needed a mechanic, and I had been working on a guy
named Jeremy Hoyer from the service department at Pro Circuit. He
is widely known as “Spacey” due to his uncanny resemblance to
screen actor Kevin Spacey. It took some convincing, but I finally got
“Keyser Söze” on board as my wrench. One of his stipulations was
that he wanted to see the bike in action. I told him that I was anxious
for the guys to get started on the engine, but that I would give him a
quick demo in the parking lot. After an impromptu Supermoto session
of hopping curbs, popping wheelies, and pretty much kicking
ass, Jeremy was in. At least, I think he said yes. He was laughing so
hard when I shut her down that it was hard to tell. I left the bike with
Jeremy and headed home, confident that my ST 250 Tornado was
in good hands.
At this point, things were looking pretty good. I had a factory ride
with a major motorcycle manufacturer, a competent agent squeezing
money out of corporate sponsors, a skilled mechanic who
resembled an Academy Award-winning actor, and a powerful aftermarket
company helping with my race-bike development. I couldn’t
lose, right? Right?
Dim Sum Support
Button was on the warpath for me. He had been on the
phone with every gear, goggle, helmet, and boot manufacturer
in the business. I couldn’t help but think that when all
my contracts were signed, I was going to be raking in the
cash like a Hong Kong action film. Unfortunately, there was
a broad sense of uncertainty throughout the industry about
my new ride. While Jimmy had commitments from Troy Lee
Designs, Throttle Jockey, Alpinestars, and Dragon, none of
them would sign me up for a salary. Instead, they all insisted
on huge bonuses for race wins and podiums. It was at
this point that I really started to second-guess myself. Why
was everyone so hesitant? Was my Tornado not as competitive
as I thought it to be? Why did it keep crushing bike
stands like Coke cans?
We did manage to secure one great sponsor that was,
for the most part, outside the industry. Moto Brew is a
Fresno-based pale-ale company with a penchant for motorcycle
racing. They were my first major backer—my beer
backer, if you will. That was the first good news I’d had since
that fortune cookie told me I was about to win something
called a “lotery.” We’d either have plenty of libations to celebrate
our success, or we would drown our sorrows in
Ping’s former team
manager Roger DeCoster was
impressed by the bike’s cupholder.
the Sky Team
After the big race at Glen
Helen, I had the chance to
interview Sky Team head
mechanic Jeremy Hoyer and
rider David Pingree as they sat
on the tailgate of their team
pickup truck, rehashing just
what went wrong.…
Racer X: What’s the closest
bike that you’ve worked on to
Jeremy Hoyer: [Laughs] To be
honest, I’d have to say an ’82
or ’83 XR200. It’s a pretty sweet ride, you know? We got the
suspension—all works stuff—straight over from Taipei.
Any handcrafted parts on this?
No, it’s all factory stuff. But I’m not sure how the labor works
in the Tornado factory—what kind of machines they have—
so it could be handcrafted. By kids.
How many man-hours did you put in on the Tornado at the
Pro Circuit race shop?
Actually, it sat around for quite a while. We had to have the
machinist make a lot of parts. Then we had to do a little finetuning
in the garage last night, then have Ping dyno it on the
cul de sac in front of his house. We used special fuel, too—
leaded, even. Don’t tell [Steve] Whitelock.
Do you have a special spot for the Tornado in the PC Hall
of Fame, like right between MC’s bike and RC’s?
Yeah, right on the end next to Ivan’s bikes. It’s probably the
best bike that ever came out of there—it’s a strong runner.
Racer X: Ping, how was the ST 250 hooking up?
David Pingree: You know, I might have had a little bit of a
lapse in judgment when we were testing. I might have
thought it was a little better than it was.
If you had it to do over, would you have stayed with Honda?
Um, I was never with Honda. But I would have looked into
Husky, or maybe even Aprilia or something—anything. I think
the front wheel was kicking up more dirt from dragging than
the rear wheel was from accelerating
What about that double you cleared?
That was the highlight of my day. I was able to get enough
speed up to get five, maybe six feet in the air. But I bottomed
her pretty hard, even with the smooth landing. It came down
like a house; maybe that’s why they call it “Tornado.”
How many years away is it?
I would say that they could have a competitive race bike,
and really come over here and make a mark on the U.S. racing
scene, within maybe 25, 30 years.
It looked like you got a great jump off the gate—what gear
start was that?
Oh, it will only pull first. There is no other option.
What about the brakes? How did they work?
I never actually needed them. The engine drag was enough.
What one thing would you change on the bike if you could?
amber suds. Either way, I spent
most of summer getting ready to
win, then celebrating said win by
opening a big bottle of Moto Brew.
Sometimes I would celebrate winning
both motos; other times it
was both motos of both classes;
and during one epic weekend out
at Lake Havasu, I celebrated winning
all three motos in every single
class at Loretta Lynn’s. I was getting
better at celebrating wins
than a USC frat house.
Lost in Translation
A few weeks later, I received a personal call from Mitch
Payton. I had explained to the Pro Circuit patriarch that he
really needed to get moving on the Tornado technology,
because I planned on racing the last national of the year on
it. Glen Helen was only weeks away, and I was obligated to
my sponsors to be there.
“We have a little problem here, Ping,” Mitch stammered.
I could tell by his voice that he was holding back
laughter. “This bike was obviously a cost-driven R&D project.
I mean, if we increase the performance of this engine
at all, you’re going to be pulling parts from the gearbox out
of the drain plug. The metal they used is so cheap, I could
bore the cylinder out with a Scotch Brite pad. The sad
thing is that, in stock trim, it doesn’t have enough compression
to blow the Styrofoam packing peanuts that we
ship our pipes in out of the muffler when we start it. I actually
had to reach in and pull a few of them out. That thing
is a roach, Ping.”
As you can imagine, this came as devastating news. I
tried explaining things to an R&D technician in China, who
I knew only as Sum Yung Guy, but the language barrier
was becoming a strain. I couldn’t tell if he said “Factory
parts on boat, on the way over,” or “Fat party goats own a
Fun Mover.” I was getting frustrated.
Wok the Walk
Glen Helen was only a week away. Despite the fact that the
Tornado was still mostly stock and my “works parts” were
stuck in customs, I was determined to go racing. I planned
to meet with my mechanic, Jeremy, in what had become
our team race shop—his garage.
Ping attacked Mt. St. Helen like
a fire-breathing Chinese dragon,
only to come crawling to a stop
like an insurance-selling gekko
lizard. He did, however, finally
make it to the top ... once.
While Hoyer and Ping
wait for the ST 250
Tornado to cool down,
a young cyclist challenges
Ping to a drag race.
“Bring that thing over and let’s get it dialed in,” Jeremy
said. I didn’t know what his plans were, but I liked his energy.
“Let’s try to drop the weight on that thing and then lean
it out a bit. Then we can do some dyno runs.” I was
shocked that he had titanium parts and a dyno at his house!
Alas, it turns out he didn’t. By “dropping the weight,”
he meant pulling out the battery for the electric start; by
“dyno runs,” he meant tearing up and down his street and
making a big sweeper turn out of his cul-de-sac. It was the
best we could do.
After several hours of not-so-fine tuning and countless
laps around the block, it was race-ready. It wasn’t the
fastest bike I’d ever ridden; I would have to ride like I’d
never ridden in order to be competitive. In fact, that probably
wouldn’t even do it. Now, I’m not a Buddhist, but in
order to qualify for Sunday’s national, I was going to have
to balance my inner self and attain an omnipresent, supergalactic
oneness. I’m not talking about something as simple
as total consciousness on my death bed, either. No,
this was going to take a miracle.
Moo Shu Meltdown
The weekend of Glen Helen came fast. As I packed my
pickup truck for Saturday’s practice and qualifying, I was
well aware of the shambles my team was in. The Team
Tornado transporter was “stuck in customs,” along with
every spare part, factory part, expense check, and rider
support from Taipei. This weekend, it was just going to be
me and Kevin Spacey working out of the back of my pickup
After getting a few odd looks as we pulled into the
Glen Helen facility, we set up our pit area somewhere
between the factory paddock and the no-man’s-land that is the privateer
pits. As Jeremy did his best to get us ready for the day, I
grabbed my #101 machine and headed for tech inspection.
First up was the sound check. The Tornado purred through with
a 94.7 decibel reading at 5,600 rpm, only slightly louder than a
KitchenAid blender. I jammed the silver beauty in gear and headed
for the AMA trailer. AMA director Steve Whitelock met us at the
front of the line.
“What’s this loose wire for?” asked Whitelock, pointing to the
electric starter cable that hung above the bars. I explained that even
without the electric start system and battery, we were still almost 100
pounds over the minimum weight limit, so please look the other way.
“Is that thing even homologated?” he continued.
“Of course,” I offered, adding, “Do you think we just showed up
unprepared? There are, like, a million of these at auto-parts stores all
across the country. I’m sure my employers have taken care of it.” I
quickly grabbed a number out of the bowl and hurried through the
line, knowing deep down that nothing was taken care of.
The Widow Maker
I was nauseous with anticipation as I headed to the line for practice.
The tension in the air was as thick as egg-drop soup. As I rolled over
the gate and into the deep soil on the start straight, I knew immediately
that I was in trouble. Our suburban-street dyno system had
failed us catastrophically. Any hope I still had was dashed as I rounded
the turn before Mt. St. Helen for the first time. I twisted the throttle
and wound up the Chinese power plant as I headed skyward up
the incline. I downshifted once as my rpm dropped. I downshifted
again. I tried to downshift again. No dice; I was already in first gear
and not even halfway up the hill. Uh oh. Then came my Iwo Jima
moment, as my forward momentum ended and I slung my leg off the
bike and began to push. It was all in vain.
As I sat there, stuck on the hill, reeling from the deathblow to my
resurrected career that this failed climb had come to symbolize, I
accepted defeat. I turned around and headed down the hill. It is a
strange thing to look into the eyes of your competitors as you fly by
them, the wrong way, on a big downhill.
So I cut the track and continued on with practice. The more laps
I completed, the more I realized the folly of my plan. This was not a
motocross bike that I was riding; it was a bladeless lawnmower. What
was I thinking? I felt like I was circulating the track on a fully loaded
pack mule. How desperate was I that I’d convinced myself I could
actually race this turd? Every jump I hit, no matter how small, ended
in a bottom-out session reminiscent of Doug Henry’s infamous crash
at Budds Creek. I was never happier that a practice session had
come to an end.
It took all the strength I had to lift my bike onto its latest stand (basically,
an anvil). It wasn’t until right then that I acknowledged how
heavy the bike truly was.
“Well,” Jeremy said. “How is it?”
“If I had to sum it up in a sentence,” I replied, “I would say it handles
like a shopping cart and it runs like a thermometer.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what it looked like,” he responded.
Then I really vented: “You know, as anemic as the engine is,
handling is this bike’s Achilles’ heel. All it would take is one little
kicker coming down a hill and I would have swapped out violently
through the fences.”
Jeremy fueled the bike and readied it for the qualifier. I swallowed
my pride, cleaned my goggles, and headed to the start line knowing that
qualifying was a long shot, at best. (Did I mention that this was actually
the Celebrity race? Whitelock had shut me out of the nationals when he
learned that Sky Team had not done the paperwork, nor paid the $3,000
homologation fee, and I couldn’t pay it because I had spent all of my
own race budget on new bike stands.) I got a good jump off the gate,
but the rest of the pack—a variety of editors, snowboarders, musicians,
and one policeman on a dual-sport bike equipped with a siren and a
gun rack—disappeared into the horizon before I got to second gear.
A few moments later, still struggling to make it to the end of the
long Glen Helen start straight, I was passed by the Asterisk Mobile
Medic’s Mule, which had been deployed to the first-turn crash that I
had yet to reach.
Finally, with two laps to go and qualifying well out of reach—I was
two laps down—the Tornado had twisted its last, heat-seizing on one
of Glen Helen’s many hills (though by no means the steepest).
My sad story pretty much ended there. I called Taipei on Monday
after the race. I wanted to explain how badly things had gone at Glen
Helen. I was looking for encouragement—a promise that we would
begin testing soon for 2006, or that I could get a handful of bootleg
Spielberg DVDs to hand out as Christmas presents.
I got nothing. Instead, when I dialed the international number,
a recording came on in broken English saying, “This company here
no more. You no call here again.” Of course, it could have said,
“U.S. Customs Pier 34. Your container’s on hold again.” It’s just
hard to tell. X
Ping knew his days as a Chinese
factory rider were numbered (to, like,
one), but he did his best to impress
the fanatical Glen Helen spectator
who came out to cheer him on.