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Making Tracks : Playing in dirt pays for Rich Winkler. His Rancho Santa Margarita company is the sole Supercross course builder.

July 22, 1998|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the beginning, there is dirt. Tens of thousands of cubic yards of dirt. In Anaheim, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New Orleans and other cities with big-time stadiums, the dirt is hauled in and transformed into big-money pro racetracks.

The dirt is moved around by heavy machinery that Rich Winkler rents town to town. So much rented machinery that Winkler was profiled in the in-house magazine of the maker of John Deere equipment as one of the best repeat customers.

Does it get any better than that?

Well, yes. Winkler, whose Dirt Wurx of Rancho Santa Margarita is the only company now doing the lucrative Supercross pro motorcycle racecourses, is also in international demand. He has just finished racetracks in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and El Salvador and will head to Japan for two courses in September.

"I think," he says with predictable arid delivery, "the cover of Time magazine is next."

Think El Nino muddied up your life this past year? Consider what it did to Winkler's. Imagine trying to sculpt 8,000 cubic yards of dirt into a professional motorcycle racecourse. In an outdoor stadium. In the rain. In three days. Careful you don't take out that hydraulic pitcher's mound!

An average of 50,000 people have bought tickets and expect the show to go on, as does the promoter. Roughly a million dollars is at stake. For Winkler, there's no such thing as a rain-out.

Dirt Wurx is the only company now designing and building motorcycle racetracks for the high-drama national Supercross, which is similar to motocross--in the speed, the dangerous feats, the dirt--but staged in stadiums.

Racers tackle jumps and sharp curves and tightly spaced dirt bumps called whoop-dee-doos. At the Coliseum in Los Angeles, Winkler's course sent them roaring from the field up into the stands, then through the Olympic columns for a dazzling 10-story plunge to the floor.

This season, Winkler pulled off his own high-wire act: 13 of 15 tracks for the American Motorcycle Assn.'s (AMA) stadium motocross series were built in bad weather.

Winkler, 40, pulls down six figures just for Supercross, whose season ended in May. By year's end, Winkler will travel the globe for other events.

"He is the premier international track builder at events in Europe, Asia and Central and South America," says Roy Janson, vice president of operations for PACE Motor Sports of Lombard, Ill. PACE contracts with the AMA, the governing body that sanctions pro motorcycling, to promote 15 national Supercross events yearly.

"The reason we've settled on one company is that we feel this guy's product, his knowledge of the sport, the quality of the construction crews he uses and the innovative approach he has taken puts him ahead of everyone else," Janson says.

Not bad for a pro racer forced to quit young due to injuries. Also, adds Winkler, whose dry wit and appearance are reminiscent of comedic actor Chris Elliott: "I broke my leg, my nose, both feet, a thumb, my ribs, my collar bone--three times. . . . It kind of slowed me down. Speed does help in racing."

His mother was not unhappy about this turn of events.

"We never thought he'd make any money in racing or with motorcycles," Roslyn Winkler of Ramsey, N.J., says of her oldest child. "Like an actor."

She laughs. Who could have known then that her son would find a lucrative career shared by few others on the planet?

*

Little League mom, soccer mom. One doesn't exactly pine to be motorcycle mom. Flying dirt clods, noise. There will be a seemingly permanent film of motor oil on the motorcycle kid. His big dirt bike will frequently occupy the back of the Ford Country Squire station wagon. There are driveway discussions, Dad versus the muddy one. Terror that your danger boy will not return alive from his latest thrill ride.

Around them picture the neighborhood--wooded and serene, an actual forest that extends beyond Ramsey (population 16,000), through other Bergen County suburbs. It is quiet here. It is Stingray bike country.

Then little Richie falls for a minibike and saves his paper-route money to buy one. He will soon graduate to a larger dirt bike that other kids covet, must ride--in and out of the driveway, up and down the street. Officers will be called.

Roslyn Winkler laughs.

"You have to remember, it was the '60s, and our neighbors [were] Mr. and Mrs. Homemaker--the only motorcyclists they know of are Hells Angels."

Despite the worries and mess, by the time Rich was 14, the Winkler family recognized motorcycle racing had become Rich's consuming passion. Picnic baskets were loaded and the station wagon packed for trips to Unadilla, N.Y., home to one of the first U.S. pro motocross tracks.

Still, when college time arrived, there was not much debate. Rich would go.

"I was actually a business management major," Winkler said on a recent visit home from the race circuit, "but the whole four years I was thinking, 'Insurance broker? I don't think so.' "

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