Returning to the Fold

Some familiar faces make good on 2020's unkept promises at the Southwick National, one blue collar tale at a time. Featuring Andrew Boccarossa, Jake Pogodzienski, Josh Prior, and Joe Tait.

Stray water droplets from the forest’s canopy fell out of step onto campsites below, as the crowd pilfered through their belongings to determine what remained dry in the wake of tropical storm Elsa. Foldable chairs were shaken radically, turned, and flipped end over end. Towels slung over the walls of pickup beds rung out to dry in pockets of sunshine. Under EZ-Up’s returned to their practical height, riders surveyed their motorcycles for any unforeseen damages, as a distant loudspeaker bellowed through the tree line, “Will Call closes in five minutes! Five minutes!”

In the crater adjacent from the busy pits lied the sands of “The Wick,” an off-colored mess of brown and gray contrasted against lush greens from the surrounding, well-watered brush. Hopeful participants of the upcoming race sloshed around the venue in rubber boots and worn out tennis shoes, gesturing at various points of interest:

The live water flow racing down the paved entrance towards the starting gate. Rain ruts deep enough to engulf an entire adult body standing up. A (previously) white Subaru Legacy sunken helplessly into the soil, complete with the footprints of its defeated captain. Not quite unlike the tread from Armstrong’s boot on our moon, the impressions remained. Perfect size 9 indents, each one neatly filled with rainwater.

The competition foreign to these Northeastern digs were nervous, notably pacing the grounds with their teams in deep discussion. The locals just smiled.

Andrew Boccarossa

One of those smiling locals was Redding, Connecticut’s Andrew Boccarossa. Son to Pete Boccarossa, a long-time component of the family’s insurance agency in Norwalk, Andrew grew up in a household lined wall-to-wall with motorcycles, thanks in no small part to his father’s penchant for Superbike racing. Having enjoyed success both on and off his motorcycle, Pete made it a point to hang onto his bikes, though his love for the pavement hadn’t translated to his son, who preferred his wheels on the dirt.

“My pops was never big into local motocross racing,” Andrew began, “and though he loves the sport and enjoys seeing me do well, a lot of what I do on my bike, I do on my own.” In a niche sport such as motocross that heavily relies on familial and community guidance, Andrew’s upbringing was markedly unorthodox. “I didn’t experience an actual gate drop until I was old enough to drive myself to the track.”

“I didn’t experience a gate drop until I was old enough to drive myself to the track.”

Andrew Boccarossa

On any given work week Andrew, now 23, can be found in various Connecticut neighborhoods, tying up loose ends at houses he and his father have overtaken from the state. Another facet of Pete’s success in the insurance business is his growing real estate game, where he’s turned his earnings into investments by acquiring condemned properties, which are then rebuilt and maintained with the help of his son. Andrew wouldn’t consider himself the master of anything, but he does know a little bit of everything due to the nature of his work. With a wry smile, he looked forward to tomorrow’s activities.

As the rains from Friday had dissipated by dawn, the layout of The Wick changed significantly in the wake of its personnel’s earth moving equipment. Gone were the rain ruts slicing their way down the hillside. The buckets of water, which could be seen flowing towards the staging area from the Legion Post, had evaporated in the morning sun. In place of ponchos and umbrellas, fans began infiltrating the grounds from baseball fields and school parking lots in t-shirts and shorts, coolers of beer uniform in tow.

CeCe DeStefano

“I feel good about today,” Andrew said, in reference to what would become his first showing in the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross finals. “I think this is going to be the one.”

His wrench for the day, a friend of Andrew’s by the name of CeCe DeStefano, assured he stayed on point between practice sessions, keeping his gear free from dirt and debris. Their simple quarters in the back of Andrew’s pickup truck seemed to be doing the trick, as he sat 50th in the overall qualifying pole, only 14 positions outside of direct qualification into the afternoon finals. The overall, which combined the less traveled B classified riders with the highly seasoned A classified factory riders, totaled an astonishing 87 entries, a field in which Andrew was on pace to steal a spot from in the Last Chance Qualifier, where only 4 additional riders advance to the finals in a 4 lap sprint.

Unfortunately, those gloomy skies that loomed over the sandy nook in days past had proverbially followed Andrew to the starting gate. What most riders know about those dreaded LCQ races is that they wield unrivaled chaos, and it’s as much of an accomplishment to simply finish the breakneck melee as it is to earn a ticket out of one. Andrew knew this as well as anyone, having been in this spot numerous times before. The game plan he’d briefed CeCe with had been executed to perfection: Get the jump on the competition, round the first corner in a favorable position, and have her ready with the sign board by lap one. CeCe waited with the other mechanics, but as the bikes flew by in brilliant streaks, Andrew was nowhere to be found.

At the top of the first crest, blind to the mechanic’s area along turn one, Andrew had tangled with another rider on the opening lap, igniting a chain reaction of bikes and riders toppled onto him. His bars bent, shroud cracked, radiator and subframe broken off their posts, Andrew lay defeated. As the track crew chained his expired motorcycle to an ATV off course, he sullenly walked the hillside to reclaim his goggles lost in the carnage. The workers waited for his return, knowing it would be a long walk back to the pits. Nearby fans cheered for his safety, knowing one of their own would be back for more in the years to come.

Jake Pogodzienski

Northeast of the neighborhood plots rearranged by the Boccarossa’s, the town of Waterbury sits buzzing on the Naugatuck River, its epicenter at the intersection of I-84 and James H. Darcey Memorial Highway. Cars whiz through the city’s cuts as a husband and wife shuffle out of the 49 Supermarket with groceries for the week. Around the corner, evangelicals gather for mass at Waterbury Baptist Ministries off Holmes Ave. In the distance, the blare of a firetruck’s sirens ring across town, coming from one of nine different stations and heading wherever help is needed. The 235-member department, complete with 13 unique service capabilities, sees an average of 22,000 calls for assistance per-year. Of those 22,000, a certain number of them are answered by 450 privateer Jake Pogodzienski.

“I grew up in small towns, farm towns,” the man affectionately known as Pogo offers while he stretched. “It really shocked me when I joined the department and saw how some people get by in big cities.” Being that the Waterbury fire department responds to medical and general assistance inquiries, Jake has seen his fair share of Connecticut’s metropolitan underbelly. “It puts my life into perspective. I was fortunate to grow up within means and have a clean and functioning house to come home to at night. Some of the people we get calls from have next to nothing.” Situations he refers to as, “eye-opening.”

While he enjoys his time on the department, Jake said that it took some time to adjust after passing his civil service exam 3 years ago. He finds clarity and peace of mind on his motorcycle however, and at The Wick he hoped to leave those thoughts behind with a maiden voyage to the premier class, similar to Boccarossa in the small-bore division. Despite returning from a 24-hour shift Friday morning, he felt relaxed and ready after a full night’s sleep in his pull-behind camper.

Carrie Davis

On the board for Pogo that afternoon was his girlfriend Carrie Davis, a Registered Nurse working in Rhode Island, and an accomplished racer in her own right. Davis, 28, has competed in the women’s division in both the US and Canada, where she ranked inside the top 10 for three years straight before the pandemic complicated international travel.

Of The Wick, she speaks fondly, “My dad got me into racing and my first race ever was at Southwick on a KTM 50. I grew up 15 minutes away and I’ve been racing here for over 20 years with the same group of people, and a lot of us are still at it today at the highest level. That familial aspect of racing here at The Wick is unlike anything else, and no matter where I’m at, it will always be my second home.”

“The Wick… will always be my second home.”

Carrie Davis

Her father, Bob, was on hand, even though his daughter wasn’t competing on course that weekend. He’d come to support her and her boyfriend in the trials of professional competition, offering a hand wherever needed. After a pressure washer gave up the ghost before Jake’s trip to the LCQ, Bob stepped in to help investigate. Their team had already taken a hit by failing to qualify straight through the timed practice sessions, and they needed every moment available to prepare for the unpopular sprint.

Though his team, and the Northeast mob peering through chainlink eyelets, focused their collective energy behind Jake, a poor start proved insurmountable in the short-lived moto. It’s understood in circles such as these that sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.

For Carrie, her brow furrowed as she consoled Jake, she maintains faith in the obstacles that racing provides. “We are both our own people with differing personalities, but those personalities compliment each other. When Jake is finding his focus before the motos, I like to try to be as loose as possible, even if deep down I’m more nervous than he is!”

“The challenges we face on race day,” she adds, “be it a faulty pressure washer or an unsuccessful qualifying session, that only brings us closer together.”

Jake intermittently spoke with Carrie’s father, his face and upper torso plastered with Southwick terra firma. His jersey hung over the fence dividing the main pits from the backwoods, displayed for all to see like a war torn battle flag.

Carrie continues, “It means a lot to me that he wants me to be head mechanic on race day, despite the fact that if anything actually went wrong with the bike, I wouldn’t be able to do much with my backpack full of tools other than hand them over to him! Despite that, Jake continues to put his trust in me.” The RN has taken that trust and run with it, even developing an off-the-bike training program that fits into their busy schedules. “I spend the weekdays grinding it out right alongside him,” she says, “which makes our Saturdays extra special. To be standing next to him as he tries to accomplish a childhood dream, knowing and participating in all that he goes through to get there, is gratifying. I feel lucky to share that experience, and I want it just as bad as he does!”

P: Plourde
Josh Prior

As Pogo and Carrie jostled the last of their belongings into their respective spaces, now fully transformed from their gear to their street clothes, Josh Prior and his father Jamie of Hebron, Connecticut, rode tandem through the factory pits to the starting line. The American Ladders & Scaffolding backed Gas Gas machine purred past titans of industry such as Star Racing Yamaha, Monster Energy Kawasaki, Red Bull KTM, and the storied, bright red, American Honda semi. Loyal fans grasped over mesh fencing as the rider stuck his hand out, in hopes to transfer some of their spirit onto Josh before he rode into battle. After qualifying 1st out of the 450 B classification, Prior set his sights firmly on a strong finish in the finals that afternoon. It was a feeling he had become shockingly unfamiliar with, as he struggled to be competitive on the road earlier in the year.

At Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado, round two of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Series, the European machine Prior had entrusted with his life coughed and sputtered in the Rocky Mountain altitude. He and his father, who Josh commends is “better than any factory mechanic out there (besides Josh Ellington),” were left perplexed. Though bike issues didn’t follow him to round 4 at RedBud MX in Buchanan, Michigan, Josh’s mentality was lacking. The same issue that kept Pogo out of the finals at Southwick, a poor start followed by a powerless charge towards the front, kept Prior on the sidelines in Michigan. He made sure not to make that same mistake when the tour came home.

Jamie Prior

Prior, or Prybar as he’s known, is no stranger to failure at The Wick. As he explained in the moments before his moto was called, “In 2017, I missed the finals at this race by one spot. I finished 5th in the LCQ. It was devastating.” So devastating in fact, that he quit riding altogether in the month that followed. Only with the encouragement of his father did he agree to sign up for another pro race in neighboring New York, at the Unadilla Valley Sports Center in New Berlin. To his surprise, he actually qualified.

“My father and I cried,” Josh admits.

He continued, “This is the pinnacle of our sport, really. To be on the gate with those guys, factory riders with salaries, training programs, and dedicated teams gunning for wins and championships, it makes all of the hard work and sacrifice we experience worth it. My dad and I spent years chasing these moments.”

“…to be racing the best in the world, it’s hard to put into words what that feels like.”

Josh Prior

Josh, who works with his father under the banner on their shroud decal, American Ladders & Scaffolds, expounded on their relationship. He told stories of racing alongside his father on the local NESC circuit, late nights during long weeks working on motorcycles, and their relentless pursuit for privateer glory. “I love that guy so much,” Josh says. “My dad has never missed a single one of my races.”

Lastly, Josh offered, “To do it at this level is emotional, and to be racing with the best in the world, it’s hard to put into words what that feels like. It’s incredible.” In the moments that followed on a crisp Saturday afternoon, Prior would pilot his ride to a 29th place overall finish, much to the delight of the Southwick faithful.

P: Plourde
Joe Tait

West of American Ladders & Scaffolds and just north of the Boccarossa’s insurance office is Georgetown Heating & Cooling, an HVAC outfit located in the town of Wilton, Connecticut. Wilton itself is a quiet addition to Fairfield County, in the shadow of cities like Bridgeport, Stamford, and Norwalk, whose collective populous towers over the tiny residential community. Similarly, the Georgetown repair unit remains unassuming, out of the digital spotlight and very much to-the-point. On the web, you’ll find nothing more than a modest Facebook page, with a phone number listed on the banner image.

When you call that number, Ross Tait answers.

A storied laborer, Ross has worked for decades in his trade, where his days consist of installing, repairing, and replacing heating and air conditioning units in a myriad of climates and confinements. “We might as well be a moving company at this point,” Ross jokes. “We just wrestled a 750 lb. boiler up a flight of stairs today, and did the same with the replacement on the way back down.” For Ross, the effort is worth the hours he’s awarded off work, a big reason why he switched employers a few years prior. The newfound time allows him to be more attentive to his son Joe’s racing efforts, when the two aren’t already alongside each other transporting the new units around.

“Joe’s worked with me on and off since he’s been old enough to have a job,” says Ross. “He’s held a few other gigs here and there, but he’s helped me out plenty, and continues to do so to this day.” The father and son duo lean on each other, as the Tait family has done for years in their off-road pursuits.

In the afternoon’s when Joe got off the bus from grade school, his grandfather was there waiting in his pickup truck; motorcycle loaded in the back, gear bag in the passenger seat. Ross playfully adds, “Joe will give you some sob story about how he never had any seat time growing up, but don’t let him fool you with that nonsense. He had plenty of it thanks to my old man! It goes without saying that Joe loved every second of it, though.” When Joe’s grandfather got sick a few years back, the elder Tait couldn’t muster up the energy to follow Joe on the pro tour anymore, until recently, thanks in part to the purchase of a used motorhome that Ross fixed up.

“He’s doing alright now,” Ross quipped. “You either get busy living or get busy dying, right?”

Joe and his mother, Patricia

Tucked away behind the Twisted Tea Suzuki semi, surrounded by well wishers and family alike, sat the boy’s grandfather at his motorhome, which served as home base for Team Tait that weekend. Joe’s mother, Patricia, circled the campsite, checking on her son to see that his needs were being met on race day. Her passion for Joe’s racing seeps through her words, as she recalls various locales the family used to frequent in their amateur days. “We raced all over,” she started, “New York, Massachusetts, Maine… It wasn’t often that I missed out on a local championship or amateur national either.” She admits, however, that with her busy work schedule it has been difficult to support Joe in his professional endeavors. “I’m glad the series has come back to Southwick, because this is the closest event for us all year. Being back at The Wick gives me a chance to see my son race again.” Another in a laundry list of reasons the locals rejoice at the return of their famed sand pit.

Joe’s amateur career that Patricia so fondly recalled wasn’t nearly consistent with his contemporaries, however. In the same vein that Andrew Boccarossa found an unfamiliar way to the pro ranks, Joe’s largely modest results in his early years paled in comparison to the likes of his competitors now. The plethora of high stakes amateur titles many of those riders boast had eluded the Connecticut mainstay for years, and following an ACL/Meniscus tear in 2016, coupled with a collapsed lung at the Daytona International Speedway in 2017, the ambitious young rider had called it quits on his racing career before it even began.

“That was when Joe started coming in to work more often,” Ross says. “Those injuries scared him, and they scared me too! I mean, any parent hates to see their kid laid up in a hospital bed.”

“I could see the pain in his eyes. That hurt worse than any injury I’ve ever gone through.”

Joe Tait

In the time that Joe spent off the bike, he contemplated what racing had cost him and his family. “I could see the pain in his eyes,” recalls Joe on days spent in gurneys and medical gowns. “That hurt worse than any injury I’ve ever gone through.”

In the absence of his motorcycle, Joe found new appreciation for the effort necessary to go racing. Under the tutelage of his father, he adopted the familiar “workin’ man” New England attitude to go along with his new life. His outlook on the sport had lifted from its gloomy depths, and he began competing again with rekindled passion. Ross recalls a turning point during the 2018 Loretta Lynn’s Regional Championship at Unadilla, the same place where Prior qualified for his first Pro National. Joe waxed the field with ease.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Ross bellowed. “His speed shocked me. It was hard to imagine this was the same kid laid up in the hospital a year prior. He crushed those guys.” Posting 1st overall with 3-1-1 finishes in the College division, and claiming one spot off the podium in the highly competitive Open Pro Sport class, Joe was poised to make his mark at the Amateur National Championships in Tennessee that summer.

Ultimately, what was it that sparked Joe’s return? After a pause, Ross pondered aloud. “I don’t know,” he began. “I think for these kids, it just gets in their blood.”

With his renewed love for racing, in what was supposed to be his final, motivated moments leading up to the whirlwind that is the Loretta Lynn’s Amateur National Championship, Joe had gotten word that one of New England’s own had lost his life in a motorcycle accident. Brian “Cheese” Desrosiers, 25, of Groton, Massachusetts, had tragically succumb to his injuries on July 7, 2018, just over three weeks shy of the big race. Joe’s reinvigorated outlook had come to crushing blows with the reality of his loss, a situation he still finds himself coming to terms with today.

As Joe slipped his jersey on, his fire-y red mane brushing against the stitching, he explained the story behind the decals plastered on his helmet, chest protector, and motorcycle. Ride4Cheese, they all say.

“Brian was the type of guy that left a positive impression on everyone he met,” opened Joe. “The day he passed, I couldn’t believe what anyone was telling me. He and I had just spoken a few days before. I was telling him all about how he was going to be my wrench for the nationals after I went pro, and most importantly that I needed him! I wasn’t going to do this without him.” Through those decals and stickers he religiously sports, Joe keeps good on his promise. Brian hasn’t missed a race since.

Reeling from his loss, his family continually in his corner, Joe commanded his Yamaha to impressive 3-3-1 finishes in the College division at the Ranch in 2018, shattering the industry’s expectations, and even his own, in the process. For everything that had happened in those grueling summer months, Joe hadn’t made much sense of his place in it all.

“I’ll dig into my own pockets as deep as I have to go, because that makes it all the much sweeter….”

Joe Tait

In a moment of sincerity, he contemplated, “I didn’t know what to think when I won that title. To tell you the truth, I don’t believe I deserved to win at all. I mean, there’s just no way I should’ve won that week, right? I’m just a nobody from some small town in Connecticut, I had no business being up there. That wasn’t supposed to be my legacy. For whatever reason though, my name is in that record book.”

“Despite all of that, nobody remembers,” he continues, harboring some ill towards that fateful week. “For as many times as Weigandt or whoever might’ve said my name at the Ranch, or the people outside my crew who came and congratulated me, they don’t remember me now.” He mellowed out quickly, “That’s not entirely their fault though, but I still recall those moments, and I make sure to remember who stuck by me through it all. Regardless of who supports me though, I’ll dig into my own pockets as deep as I have to go, because that makes it all the much sweeter when you put a wheel on those factory dudes.”

With that, Joe headed to the line for the first moto of the day, the Southwick masses howling on his way into war. He promptly rewarded them with consistent 21-21 moto finishes, working every inch of the circuit as they cheered him on.

Jett, meet Joe.

Given the nature of the rough and rutted Massachusetts course, its sand washes toppling over themselves in an endless sea of beige waves, the local talent seem to mystify outsiders near and far. Those unfamiliar with the territory failing to realize that these are the conditions its populous were raised in, the same bumps and turns that a young Joe Tait carved on his minibike while his grandfather watched from afar. Where Andrew Boccarossa earned his racing chops. Where Josh Prior and his father rejoiced in victory and agonized in defeat. Where Jake Pogodzienski overcame hardships with his steadfast Carrie by his side. With such history and camaraderie entrenched in its ridership, one wonders if there is a sense of ownership that comes from knowing these lands, if that chip sits affixed firmly on their shoulders. Ross Tait doesn’t believe so.

“These kids, they really got nothing to prove,” he offered. “They’re simply out here to do the best they can. The Northeast kids in particular are tight knit. They joke and laugh, and that’s what I enjoy most about being in New England. They’re a good group of kids that have each other’s backs. Motocross is tough as it is, you don’t need to make it any harder on yourself by fabricating division. I think these guys realize that. They will race hard, no matter if it’s against each other or the rider’s that come to visit, but at the end of the day they leave it all on the track. Even when the results aren’t there, when they fail to qualify or put it in the top 20 overall, everyone still has a good time and that’s what it’s all about.”

Such is life for New England and its band of brothers. On the course now, returning to the fold, eyes wide in anticipation of what might become their competition’s reckoning, they smile. Welcome back to The Wick.

P: Kadam

Photos by Jared Conley, Cameron Plourde, and Mo Kadam.