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Motocross trailblazer Sue Fish still has a need for speed

The 53-year-old's competition days are over, but injuries haven't stopped her from riding on her favorite trails and pursuing other activities. She will join motorcycle group's hall of fame in November.

July 16, 2012|By Andrew L. John
  • Sue Fish is an adrenaline junkie -- she's a former stuntwoman, motocross rider and competitor, street bike racer, mountain bike competitor, gym owner and personal trainer.
Sue Fish is an adrenaline junkie -- she's a former stuntwoman, motocross… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

SANTA BARBARA — Sue Fish disappears on a morning motorcycle ride over the mountain passes and fire roads in the foothills of Santa Barbara.

She escapes for hours into what has been her favorite spot for decades, available to no one. Lights remain off at her house. Phone calls go straight to her voicemail.

Fish, 53, lives life on the edge. Always has. Five neck surgeries haven't slowed her down, nor have various head injuries and broken bones.

She makes her friends nervous. They know she tends to overdo it on a motorcycle. She understands why they worry, joking, "There's a chip missing up here," while pointing at her head.

She can't help it. It's in her blood. Fish was introduced to motocross at the age of 4 by her father, and racing is what she believes she was meant to do.

For a time, Fish was among the fastest motorcycle racers in the world. That's why, in November, she'll be the 20th woman inducted into the American Motorcyclist Assn.'s Motorcycle Hall of Fame — an honor her supporters say is long overdue.

"I loved it," she said of the racing life. "I ate, slept and drank it."

Early in her amateur years, Fish's success prompted fathers to scold their sons for losing to a girl. Others complained that her bike had to be more powerful than theirs.

Fish was still a teenager when she won a women's world motocross championship and claimed consecutive women's national championships.

"She was just so much better than everybody else," said Cherry Stockton, a friend and former racer. "I mean, people would watch her race and just go, 'Whoa.' "

By the time she was 19, Fish had joined the men's professional racing circuit — something that was unheard of.

"You'd see this cute little petite girl out on the starting line," said Ricky Johnson, a former motocross champion. "But once you went out there and started rubbing elbows with her on the track, you definitely wouldn't think of her as a girl — she was serious competition."

Fish was influential as the sport's popularity soared in the U.S. An 8-foot-long cardboard cutout of a fish became a fixture in the crowd at her races. She attracted droves of fans and enough corporate sponsors to make a comfortable living.

Until the day her world took a tailspin.

While practicing for the women's national championship at Indian Dunes Motorcycle Park, Fish came tearing over a hill to find a jeep parked on the track.

With little chance to adjust, Fish hit the jeep, suffering a broken femur, a split sternum and head injuries.

At the time, Fish was the reigning women's national motocross champion and seemed poised to climb the standings on the men's circuit.

"It was always my feeling that one more year and it would've happened," former motocross racer Warren Reid said.

Instead, it was three years before Fish was able to race again.

"It was absolutely devastating," Fish said. "It was a long, long recovery process."

Her daily routine involved hours of intense physical therapy and training — a painful, taxing schedule that rivaled a full-time job. But Fish was determined to return to motocross.

When she finally did, after years away from the sport, Fish quickly shot back to the top of the women's circuit. Against the men, she placed fourth among 1,200 at a race in Riverside before retiring in 1985 to avoid the risk of further injury.

Not that she strayed far from danger. Fish immersed herself in stunt work for various television shows and movies. But nothing could quite fill racing's void.

She took up downhill mountain biking, a natural transition she thought, and won a silver medal in international competition.

"Sue's the type of person that it didn't matter what she was doing, where she was doing it, she was going to do it 100%," Johnson said.

When a knee injury forced her out of bicycle racing, she opened a gym and began working as a personal trainer. But each time she moved on to something else, motorcycle racing drew her back.

In 2004, she turned to road racing, which is over a track but involved her tearing around a winding course with her knees just inches from the pavement.

She smiles recalling the sensation.

That thrill also ended abruptly.

During a race, Fish crashed her motorcycle at 90 mph. She woke up in an ambulance and decided she couldn't take the risks anymore.

"She has this thing where she gets on two wheels and she can't help but go really, really fast," Stockton said."She knows one speed."

Fish reopened her gym and went back to personal training. She says the constant physical activity has helped her body cope with injuries over the years.

Recently, she served as an alternate on a local bicycle team that won the Race Across America. Still, a part of her yearns for motorcycle racing.

"I loved racing with every cell of my body, and … all that fire doesn't go away," Fish said. "Now it's just trying to find other avenues to fuel the flame."

Fish still has her favorite motorcycles, her hidden riding spots, and the passion for going as fast as she did as a teenager.

And when the lights are off at her house and she's unreachable my phone, there's only one place she can be found.

Just follow the scattered dirt and tire tracks.

andrew.john@latimes.com

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