It was all happening so fast, yet the clarity was pure. Mary Spies remembers the long, ugly crash--her 19-year-old son, Ben, hitting the wall at better than 180 mph on the Daytona International Speedway tri-oval when his rear tire exploded during a Dunlop tire test last October. She recalls thinking the worst, though when he jumped up immediately after coming to a stop, she was confused. "Are humans like deer?" she wondered, "You shoot them [and] they keep running?" She saw her son apparently waving his arms, and wasn't sure what to think. "I was just basically melting. I thought I was on fire," Ben Spies remembers.
"It just went from everything good, to all of a sudden I was sliding on the ground," the 2003 AMA Formula Xtreme champion recalls with complete detachment, a distant yet present horrifying memory. "I knew I was headed up to the wall headfirst; I looked over my shoulder and saw it coming. So I dug my left elbow down into the ground to spin [myself] around, then I went into it feet first and hit it pretty hard--I hit it so hard I came off the ground. Then after that I was just sliding down the tri-oval on my back, but leaning toward my left side. I remember trying to spin to either side, but couldn't because of the banking. I was stuck on my left butt cheek and my back, [and] that's what got ate up."
Spies' crew chief, Tom Houseworth, is a tough guy who's seen a lot, but nothing like this. "I saw his eyes and how big they were. I knew I was in trouble pretty bad," Spies recalls. Yet he never lost control, never panicked. His leathers were causing the heat sensation, so he stripped out of them, some of his skin peeling off at the same time. Then he jumped in the ambulance and said, "Let's go."
It was deep into the next morning before he would be operated on at Halifax Medical Center. Amazingly, there were no broken bones. But the wounds were deep, filled with bits of the dangerous Speedway pavement that had claimed yet another victim. His left elbow looked like someone had taken an ice-cream scoop to it. His shoulder was ground chuck. His left buttock was gone, chewed to the bone. When he could finally be moved days later, he hobbled into his motor home and laid in the back popping pain pills while his mechanic, Mitch Leonard, drove him and his mother home to Longview, Texas.
So it went for three months. Every day, his mother would have to dress his wounds with antibiotics and try not to tear the skin when she changed the dressings. It would take an hour each time, and she had to do it three times a day. "Of course it was painful for Ben--it [killed] my soul [every time]."
The pain never went away, and it was bad enough that Spies was on a morphine drip for a while. He knew it would get better, but when? Worse than the physical pain was the mental anguish. It wasn't his fault. He'd crashed and was scarred for life and it wasn't his fault. "He wanted to [get] back to riding," his mother says.
Mary Spies has a reputation as a brassy 52-year-old, but her resolve through her son's darkest days earned her the respect of many in the paddock. She speaks her mind and sometimes says things that she shouldn't, but she's always tried to do the right thing for Ben and her daughter, Lisa.
The next time Ben Spies rode a motorcycle was at a pre-season test at Laguna Seca three months later. He was struggling a bit, and Mary Spies thought it was due to the memories of the Daytona crash. She phoned Kevin Schwantz and said, "I don't know where you are, but you have to talk to Ben."
Spies was lying on top of the pit wall when Schwantz arrived. "He hadn't ridden in so long and he was getting tired," Schwantz said. Spies was also disenchanted that the 600 was not as blindingly fast as he'd hoped, and handling problems with both the 600 and 1000 were wearing on him. "He was just kind of down in the dumps. I don't think it was anything specific about getting back on the big bike," relates Schwantz. They talked for a while, and finally Schwantz said, "Just go out and ride it."
The Laguna Seca Supersport pole position from 2003 was 1:28.654. The fastest Yamaha rider did 28.95 during the test; Spies did a 29-flat.
Schwantz says that "being a 19-year-old kid it would have been real easy to get back on it and say, `That grip on the right doesn't turn as far now. There's something wrong with it.' But he got back on, worked up to speed. Didn't take him months to get there. Once he got healed up, he jumped back on the bike and got going pretty quick." Even then, Spies couldn't ride like he wanted to. The buttocks injury meant he had to take care moving his lower body on the seat countless times each lap. "At the end of the day it hurts for sure," Spies says.
Spies said it will take another year to heal completely. "I lost so much, [my butt is really] sensitive in one spot and the scar dries out real bad; I have to put lotion on it a lot. It's getting better. My arm is basically completely healed--it doesn't look good, but it works pretty good. My back doesn't bother me too much."
After surviving the '04 season-opener at Daytona, Spies moved on to California Speedway, where he won the Superstock race and hounded Kawasaki's Tommy Hayden to the Supersport flag. The following event at Infineon Raceway saw Spies lead every lap of the Supersport race, elbows up and out as if he was riding an RM250 dirtbike, not a GSX-R600. The style is unique, like that of Schwantz, a fellow Texan whose path to greatness began--like Spies'--in motocross and moved quickly to roadracing. "I think style is something that just comes from what you're comfortable doing," Schwantz says. "The elbows-up style is what he likes, and that's the way he feels comfortable, most in control, able to react.
"Everybody asks me about Ben and what I think about him; I just wish that when I started racing I was as smart as he is," remarks Schwantz. "For [being] 19 years old, the kid has such a good grasp on [what's] good or bad. And a lot of that, I think, is why you saw me making lots of mistakes. Every race I started, third row, three seconds off in qualifying--I thought I'd figure it out and force the thing to work. Whereas Ben seems to have the intelligence to say,
I can't go that fast. I can almost get there, but if they race that fast I can't do it.' And sometimes I'm thinking,That's the wrong attitude. Just go out and see what happens.' But I think it is just a genuine, natural feel for how the motorcycle's working. He just seems to be so far ahead. I can't really compare him to anybody else."Like most youthful protgs, Spies started early. He was introduced to motor- cycles at age 7 by Keith Cherry, whom Mary Spies met in '90. Cherry bought Ben a Honda 50, followed by a proper dirtbike as he got bigger and the usual years of motocross racing, but Spies didn't like what it did to his knees and ankles. Then came a Yamaha YSR50, and Spies was entranced. They'd go to parking lots so he could practice and attend CMRA races so he could watch. He'd sit at home and study videotapes of the greats. Spies was 8 years old when he met former World Superbike champion Doug Polen at a racetrack, and the precocious youngster told Polen what he was doing wrong. "I'm going to be a racer some day, and I'm going to be better than you," Spies told him.
There's already talk about Spies going Grand Prix racing. Schwantz believes it's his destiny. "I think he's got the ability to go," Schwantz says. "He seems to be able to go back and forth between all these bikes, and still be able to give feedback as to what they're doing right or wrong. I don't know it for a fact, but I think he's got a pretty good idea of [steering] geometry, offset and caster, raising the ride height in the back, changing the swingarm pivots on the Xtreme bike last year. He's got a really good idea for what that's all about. Whereas when I raced them, I'd come in and tell them what the problem was. I didn't know what you did."
Spies' maturity is evident in his choice of classes. In addition to Supersport, Suzuki gave him the option of racing Superbike or Superstock this year; Spies chose Superstock. The competition was better, he said, and that would make him a better rider. How many 19-year-olds would turn down the chance to race a Superbike?
His contract is through '05 with American Suzuki, but Schwantz believes he'll be on a MotoGP bike before then, at least to test it. Unlike many riders whose lifelong goal is MotoGP, Spies won't let himself think that far ahead.
"I know I'm signed through the end of '05 with Yoshimura, and that's what I'm focusing on right now. I want to win races over here," he states. "If the deal's right and the bike's good, I might do it. Nicky [Hayden] and [John] Hopkins, they jumped at that opportunity. It's not something I'm just going to straight jump at. But if it's a good opportunity and I think I'm riding well enough to go over there and compete and be up front, I'll definitely give it a lot of thought. Right now I'm just concentrating on what I need to do."
One stumbling block to his overseas career is flying. Spies is a white-knuckle flyer who endured too many painful flights in small planes on the way to his family's summerhouse in the Bahamas. These days he drives his motor home everywhere. "If it takes me 24 hours in my motor home, I definitely choose that to being two hours in a plane," Spies confesses. "It's probably a little fear of heights, and I'm a control freak a little bit. I won't ride on the back of a motorcycle with anyone else driving. [But] it won't stop me from racing MotoGP."
"I guess the main thing for Suzuki's behalf is, `Is he ready to take up traveling and flying and doing the life of a Grand Prix racer?'" Schwantz asks, "because it ain't about being in a bus and driving around. There's never going to be a small amount of flying because you're going to have Malaysia and Australia and Japan and South Africa." Living in Europe (as Schwantz did) is the answer, according to the '93 500 GP world champion, not commuting, as Nicky Hayden does.
"I definitely want to grow up some more over here," Spies says. "You go over there and you don't get to have as much fun as you do over here, riding your dirtbikes and playing with wakeboarding and stuff. I know you just miss out on a bunch of stuff. So I definitely want a couple more years over here. If I feel I can be the best over here and I'm winning races, then I'll go over there to ride against the world's best. I just see that as a long ways away right now, and I'm just trying to concentrate on what I need to do to win both of these titles this year."