As a filmmaker, you long to find those that are willing to subject themselves to your ridiculous ideas, those that have enough trust in you to play along with the unorthodox methods of getting results on video. It isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem, getting results, because making videos about dirt bikes isn’t enjoyable in the same way that actually riding them is. (I hesitate to say that making videos isn’t fun, because oftentimes it can be. Just in its own way.) See, a great video about riding your motorcycle is nothing more than a simulation. In fact, video and film are inherently simulation. Some might say fiction. (Tarantino has an interesting take on this, found here.) It’s a constant battle of contorting your world through the lens, to present the subject in bliss while reality bites. You’re wearing borrowed long johns and long sleeves, a sunhat, covered in bug spray and a bottle’s worth of Coppertone, carrying 15 pounds of camera gear through mud and dust, just to get a shot of someone looking at you through the trees as precise your vision for that shot was. It’s also ninety-five degrees out.
I digress. It isn’t always that dramatic, but I think something can be said about finding the right people to do this type of thing with. Some people (i.e. motocross racers) have trouble understanding how intensive making a video can be. A good video, at that. Not some lame-ass Instagram edit.
I’ve never met a rider who understands the process quite as well as Alex. Calling him up for the first video installment on World of Echo was probably the easiest decision that went into this entire project. His riding, textbook. Enthusiasm, infectious. His effort on camera, only matched by his effort put forth in his career. From dropping out of high school to live in Florida with Steven Squire, to riding balls-out for a shot at impressing Beta USA, eventually landing on the tarmac in Paris, France to compete for the United States in the International Six-Days Enduro.
Alex, as a filmmaker and a friend, thanks for being you.
Now let’s go ride sometime, sheesh.
As some readers might already know, World of Echo is only a creative outlet that sits alongside other projects throughout the year. It’s somewhere in-between a production that involves my home track, and social media duties for my home series: Great Lakes MX. Posts go up almost every day at @raceglmx, and your’s truly deals them out the best he can. It’s hardly career-defining stuff, but I was approached to put my efforts towards creating an online audience for our series and I really do try my best to make that happen. Since it’s my job to cover the races our series’ hosts, I’m always on the move, especially considering the span GLMX covers in Michigan and Indiana.
The weekend of May 26th put me in Millington, Michigan, some four-and-a-half odd hours away from home in Lowell, Indiana. The plan was to hitch a ride to Baja Acres for two days of sweat in my eyes and sand in my boots, regroup at home Sunday night, and be snuggled up in a bed at Hotel Witkowski by 9 PM Monday for our three-day film marathon.
Everything went off without a hitch. I made it to Baja, made sixty bucks between film duties racing the Farkengruven event, and got home safely Sunday night. It was only then, in a crusty-eyed haze Monday morning, that I decided to scope the forecast on our itinerary for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
Not a ray of sunshine seemed available for purchase, a cruel reminder that mother nature is the filmmaker’s natural predator. This wasn’t the first time Alex and I had faced adversity at the foot of a project, though. Before we embarked on a summer-long journey to piece together his opening part to my first full-length video, “Live! From the Midwest,” Alex called me as I was twenty minutes from his house to let me know he couldn’t get his throttle unstuck. I didn’t take my foot off the pedal, letting Alex know I’d be there whether his bike ran or not.
In similar fashion, we again stayed the course for this new mission. “So what if it rained?” I thought with nervous assurance. “We’ll make a video about the rain!” This was going to be the week, and I’ll be damned if a little rain is going to mess this shit up.
Splitting the car’s trim was a mountain of camera gear as North Liberty’s mosquito population greeted the windshield. It seriously sounded like rain was beginning to fall, the amount of bugs passing into the afterlife on my Pontiac’s front end. It was a fact Alex’s father, Ken Witkowski, laughingly agreed with as I waited for Alex to bring out supplies for my living arrangements.
“I hope you’re alright staying in the motorhome,” Ken spoke. “There’s no running water, you know. But you can come inside the house whenever you need.” I assured him it wouldn’t be a problem, as their motorhome offers a bump-out living room feature with a full-sized bunk in the back, garage area underneath. I’ve stayed many nights above the cab of our own 1987 Chevy Shasta, so this might as well have been the Taj Mahal. (Now I know my Dad is going to read this so let me be clear, our motorhome is a labor of love that I have had a blast staying in. I’m just trying to paint everyone else a picture here, Dad.)
Alex was taking longer than expected, so I went snooping around their garage while Ken and his wife, Holly, continued to chat by the driveway bonfire. The garage, along with the majority of the Witkowski household, serves as a museum for all things motorcycle related. Posters, banners, trophies, newspaper clippings, photos, and memorabilia line the walls from top to bottom. It was in the midst of the western-facing wall that I found a picture of “Hottie” Ken, giving support to a beautiful 1983 Husqvarna 430 WR. I mentioned this photo to Alex sometime during the week, wondering what role his Dad might’ve played in putting his son on a bike. He laughed,
“Yeah, [riding] definitely came from my Dad. He started by doing enduros back in the day; I think he did some hare scrambles too. He raced flat track a ton, as well. I think that’s what he was better at, was flat track.” Alex added, “I think he influenced himself to start riding. I may have the story wrong, but I’m pretty sure him and his sister used to rip around the yard on a bike when they were fifteen, or so. I feel bad I don’t remember the guys’ names, but I remember my Dad telling me about these two guys that got him into the flat track and enduro scene when he was in his twenties. It’s crazy to think back, now that it has all blossomed into this thing where Mikey [Alex’s brother] and I race every weekend.”
Once my supplies were delivered to the motorhome, Alex and I sat for a bit discussing what we wanted to get done the next day. I expressed excitement for shooting my first sequences on 16mm film, utilizing a recently purchased Bolex from eBay. I showcased the camera to Alex, displaying how it worked and what was unique about it. He seemed pumped, as he usually is. It should be noted that I don’t think I’ve ever seen Alex in a bad mood. He’s either pumped on something, telling me how “sick” something is, or laughing. At what, exactly? It’s anyone’s guess.
Our first location took us a few miles down the road to the Grady household where we were greeted by Buddy, a black lab who’d gotten noticeably older since the last time I saw him in 2016. Abby, wife to James Grady, meandered out as I was putting together an assortment of gear for the day’s activities. Her and Alex swapped stories from their last respective events, as Abby is an off-road hobbyist who’s highly respective of the craft. She spoke of her last outing the weekend prior, which had her wound up with an IV in her arm. It came as no shock to me, sweat already beading from my forehead in the back of the van. By now the kids had come out to visit Alex, undoubtedly excited he stopped by for a visit. Like Abby, her husband and kids also share a passion for riding, which means a visit from Alex is welcome sight for any youngster with the itch.
Alex dissected the single-track course with ease. It was the umpteenth time he had ridden the property this year, yet I’m always left impressed at how quickly a top-level rider can find his groove. I’ve spun some egregious opening laps at facilities all across the country, high-level goonage that would bump me back to C class if there was ever such a rule. Alex took a breath before the opening section, and was going top speed by the time I set my camera down. Finding support for racing wasn’t as quick to find him as his wits on a motorcycle, however.
“It was 2011 [when I was introduced to the Beta USA team]. I was at a national hare scramble with my KTM 350 and the thing just wouldn’t start, this was right before the race. I happened to be parked next to the Beta guys, and they had a bike set up for demo rides during the day. In talking with them earlier, I found out that they were pretty cool dudes over there. They said, ‘You know… we’re not really supposed to do this. But we’ll let you race this bike.’ I went out there and tried as hard as I possibly could to impress them. I ended up leading the A class for a short time before I ran out of gas (small tank). That whole race I just rode like a madman.”
“A little over your head?” I thought aloud.
“Oh gosh, yeah. It’s probably good that I ran out of gas or else I would’ve crashed out! So, I didn’t win, but they were pretty pumped on what they saw. We stayed in touch over the next couple years, until I met up and rode for them again in 2015 at Battle Creek, the same place they let me ride their demo bike. That was the start of everything.”
“Truthfully, if it wasn’t for that deal in 2015 I would be done racing. I was over paying for everything I needed when I didn’t have the money. The whole ‘privateer struggle’ is a little played out, but I wasn’t going to keep chasing the national enduro circuit if it wasn’t for Beta. We put together a small support deal in 2016 and I ended up winning the Open A National Enduro championship, which allowed me to sign with them the following year, and again in 2018. It’s funny, I said earlier that I never thought I’d do this as a job, but now that I am where I am… I’m going to take it as far as I’m able.”
Before we packed our gear up to head home, James joined us in the woods for the final few shots in his work uniform, your typical tradesman’s outfit. Collared shirt with his name stitched above the upper pocket, grey pants, and black boots. Buddy tailed us, sitting patiently between takes before we were on the move again, eventually finding our way back to the van. Out of water to drink and food to eat, James brought two Gatorade’s out of the house for Alex and I. They were packaged in aluminum cans, something we collectively thought was odd but also agreed hit the spot. James thanked us for coming out to ride on his property (the wooded course was hand-crafted by him and his family / friends). We conversely thanked him for allowing us the time, as the sun now was beginning to set on our first day out. The seats inside the van were a sight for sore eyes, or rather sore feet.
Alex plugged his phone into the dashboard and searched for the right music on the drive home. Kendrick Lamar’s song “X” off the Black Panther soundtrack was in heavy rotation, but Alex was looking for something different.
“It’s so easy to get stuck in a routine. It’s something I think about a lot, finding ways to continue to enjoy racing and riding, because I burnt myself out not too long ago. If I do get stuck in the mindset that I’m only riding two tracks all week, I try to find new ways to make it interesting. If I’m going to Leisure Time [MX] for the thirtieth time this year or whatever, on the way to the track I’m looking for new music. It’s just something fun to get my mind flowing before I ride, because while I am someone who likes to focus and get my work done, I need to find things outside of riding to keep everything interesting.”
Burnout: It’s a subject often studied in the motocross community. As a sport that isn’t tied to academic studies as an extra-curricular, many [nearly all] of its top stars find a way out of one routine, the public school system, and fall into the other, training and riding. Ensuring your future well-being doesn’t generally involve leaving high school sans diploma, but for some it seems to be the marked path. The night before we found ourselves back in the routine at Leisure Time MX, Alex spoke candidly,
“It was difficult convincing my family that dropping out and finishing school online was a good idea. I charmed my Mom easier than my Dad because my Dad, he was against it from the beginning. He was never for it. The only way I could convince him was to tell him I would eventually go back, but I knew I wasn’t going to go back. I just knew it.”
“There wasn’t any doubt?” I questioned.
Alex didn’t skip a step, “No, I didn’t have a single doubt about it. I seen where my life was going and the things I wanted to do, and the environment of public school didn’t seem to put me where I wanted to be. I got along with some of my teachers, but others not so much. I don’t know… the whole environment was just so corny to me. It didn’t feel ‘real world.’ I think if I would’ve stayed in school my life wouldn’t be a good as it is now. If I was a normal school-kid, I probably would’ve been causing a bunch of trouble. I probably would’ve gone to college and studied something stupid and wasted my money. Probably would’ve partied too much. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t be that much different, I guess. I think I just would’ve made a lot more dumb decisions along the way.”
“I grew up fast once I started the homeschool thing. I went to Florida immediately that winter and lived with [Steven] Squire, and at that point I just had to grow up. If I was going to do this, make all these changes in my life, I couldn’t just go to Florida and mess around. I had to focus, and at seventeen that can be kind of hard to do.”
I pressed the reasoning behind his decision to leave public school. “Did you think that the school system babied people for too long?”
“Oh yeah. Everything was so, what would you call it? Black and white? With teachers, you could either be real and have real-life conversations with them, or it was impossible. Besides the social skills I built up just talking with friends, school wasn’t doing me any good. I still, to this day, believe I made the right decision. I’m really happy with that because everyone said how much I was going to regret [dropping out]. It was actually really funny…”
I had a good laugh when Alex told me that story, because I thought that it was really cool to be a small part in someone’s, “I told you so,” tale. After our chat over copying the day’s clips to my hard drive, Alex returned to the house to make some dinner which his girlfriend, Josie, swears was delicious. Alex is great at many things, but it will take more convincing than a baked chicken dinner to prove to me that he’s a cook too. My Culver’s hamburger tasted just fine. Josie countered, “I thought you were going to that mexican place, Fiesta Cancun?”
We ended up having a decent argument about where I decided to eat, and the difference between telling someone what their favorite food is versus what they eat day to day. I can’t complain too much however, as Josie’s as cool as Alex, if not moreso. We couldn’t mince words all night because tomorrow we were on borrowed time. If you remember what the forecast looked like Monday morning, we were in for some shit Wednesday afternoon.
Tuesday’s inferno offered us the chance to enjoy the predicted eighty-degree weather as I loaded the last of my equipment into Alex’s van. I thought it was remarkable that this vehicle was still running, considering the amount of driving Alex alone does week in and week out. He’s joked before that he’d almost consider himself more akin to a truck driver than an off-road athlete. The van has undeniable cosmetic blemishes, including your usual motorcycle wear-and-tear along with a mangled door latch that could honestly be mistaken for an anti-theft device. (It took me the entire three day trip to figure out how to open the back doors.) Alex’s fair share of traveling took him all the way across the pond last year to Paris, France, in what was set to be his most incredible achievement yet: representing the United States at the International Six Days Enduro, one of the oldest forms of motorcycle competition in the world. It was all coming together, until a fundraising event held in the months prior threw the metaphorical wrench in the spokes.
“In June, around this time last year, we had the fundraiser. A lot of people came out and we ended up raising a bunch of money. It was a lot of fun, too. We had a raffle where we auctioned off a pair of Villopoto’s pants and a pair of Josh Grant’s pants, a lot stuff like that. I wasn’t even planning on riding the event, but then everyone was like, ‘Come on, man! Come ride with us!’ So of course I said, ‘Alright!'”
“I did some laps on the moto track we had and was having a good time, people were taking videos and pictures and stuff. I ended up going into the woods to do some riding and… yeah. I didn’t even crash or anything, but I was going down this hill and busted my hand. I still don’t know how it happened, like if I hit a big pothole or anything, but I just got a sharp pain in my hand. I thought it might’ve been a stinger at first so I kept riding, but when I stopped a ways up the trail to talk to some of the other riders my hand swelled up by the second. I was getting all kinds of questions from these guys and I couldn’t even pay attention, I just told them I was heading back to the camper.”
“I called my girlfriend once I got inside and told her she needed to meet me in there. She comes in and goes, ‘What’s going on?'”
“I think I broke my hand.”
Alex chose not to tell anyone at the fundraiser about his new glove for a hand. He explained to me that the ISDE wasn’t exactly the next day at the time, so he still held faith that he would be on a plane to France come hell or high water. Between June and the end of August, Alex got surgery and was bound to his coach seat set for Paris, where culture shock set in immediately.
“I’d never been out of the country before. I’m a full-blown Indiana kid and Josie’s the same way. Once we stepped foot on the plane, everyone was already speaking French. The food was weird, I couldn’t read nothing and I wasn’t ready for it at all. Josie ended up getting sick from the food, actually. She didn’t eat nothing but toast the first couple days in France. But anyway, we flew ten hours straight to Paris and hopped in a tiny rental car to drive another five to the track. It being my first time in a rental car though, I was flying down these tiny roads hardly noticing these flashes going off throughout the drive. Back home I ended up getting a bunch of tickets in the mail for speeding.”
“Did you have to pay it in Euros? Or whatever the French currency is?” I asked.
“I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t even pay them,” Alex laughed.
“As far as the ISDE stuff was concerned though, the biggest challenge wasn’t being fast through the timed sections like I thought, it was getting you and your bike to last through everything else, and they definitely try to challenge you with that. We did four to six tests a day, and you’re doing a hundred miles of total trail while working on your bike between tests. You’re trying to eat enough food… it was cool coming into every checkpoint though and seeing all of the American team members working. Plus they had snacks too, so you’re just chowing down. We were on our own out there, just riding.”
“You don’t eat lunch!?” I was a bit surprised.
I was curious if Alex found anything in France to his liking, something he might’ve wished was more prominent back here in the States. Perhaps he hadn’t gotten an up close look at their culture with his riding schedule so tight?
“No, the town we stayed in was actually pretty heavy on the culture side of things, moreso than Paris. It felt more like France there than it did in Paris, because in Paris they’re used to Americans coming in all of the time. It’s more tourist-y for sure. Where we were at was like, hardcore France. Lots of old buildings with preserved brick, it was really beautiful honestly. Most of the locals in town didn’t speak English, which made it tricky at times to get gas or go out to dinner. I wouldn’t say there was anything about France that I’d wish was more prominent over here, though. If anything, one of the biggest problems was trying to find ice for my hand. I couldn’t find ice anywhere. No trucks either. Not that that’s a bad thing, it was actually pretty unique, but if you took some Indiana kid with his big truck to France he wouldn’t even fit on the road.”
By now we had situated ourselves under the shade at Leisure Time MX, reveling in the comfort of being on home soil after stories from abroad. It was a Wednesday morning, a few hours before the track was technically “open” for business. Hard to imagine anyone besides us would be showing up today, considering the abysmal forecast which called for heavy rains in a few hours. A Land Rover with a bike attached to the back defied our expectations. Its driver approached the van after Alex took some hot laps on the course, his voice mumbled with the cadence of bad-acting legend Tommy Wiseau, “You ride that Beta like it’s a modarfucking bicycle!”
His laugh confirmed our suspicion that one, this guy was foreign, and two, he had more than a few teeth missing from his dome. “I am belsjan,” He added, responding to Alex’s inquiry of his origin. He felt so incredibly off, this guy. I shouldn’t say it’s odd that foreigners can be found in America, but Leisure Time MX in Medaryville, Indiana isn’t exactly a tourist destination, even for motorcyclists. The fact this Belgian dude was here to rip laps on a Wednesday morning before the storms hit was weird enough, and that weirdness was only compounded by the fact that he asked me to make a video about his friend (the current daytime operator at LTMX), to show to potential investors for a new motocross team. I told him I’d gladly make a video of his rider, who earlier had roosted the absolute piss out of Alex and my camera gear trying to impress us, when we were done filming. We “conveniently” didn’t make it back to the pits until it started to drizzle, and we left behind the Belgian and his protégé to the sands of LT.
The rain continued to fall through the night, the pitter-patter above my bunk growing louder and louder as I tried to fall asleep. It was safe to assume that tomorrow’s potential for filming had shrunk indefinitely, only confirmed by Alex’s text from inside the house. All of our potential spots were covered in abstract splotches of green, yellow, and red, a healthy dose of rain for the heat-stricken midwest. Alex left early the next morning to fetch some parts for his bike, among other things. I elected to sleep in, considering the extended work weekend I’d endured was prematurely cut short. My belongings were already packed and ready to be crammed into the frame of the Grand Am. It felt good to lie down with no immediate intention of getting up.
Eventually the transport out of the Taj Mahal began and I started to think of Alex, about how his expats and accomplishments were all seemingly null when being in his company. He’s one of the only riders I’ve become genuine friends with since beginning this thing where I film people ride dirt bikes, and it might be because there is no air of clout in his mind, in his vicinity. Genuine as they come. Alex defies what I wrongfully assume about those who live their dream racing motorcycles for a living, that they live in greed and ungratefulness. At times it seems motocross racing has found its deathbed, in a chokehold at the hands of the elite. Those who “make it” only get there with a crooked smile and fistful of cash. Alex, and hundreds of others out at the tracks week to week, keep a small dent in the vehicle that is modern American motocross, a dent continually trying to be buffed out by those who want us to be more like NASCAR or MotoGP. They walk among us in the pits, tattered jersey’s and beat down plastics blend those who rub elbows against the elite, with the commoners who look up to them. Living the dream, struggle be damned, hiding in plain sight.