Ricky James, paralyzed at 16 in an amateur competition, is back on his bike, riding, even if the thought of it makes his parents squirm.
The temperature seemed to rise by the minute at the dusty Lake Elsinore motocross park. Ricky James launched his motorcycle, looked toward a group of spectators while in mid-flight, and motioned with his left thumb and pinky finger.
He veered off the dirt track, rolling past his mother, Tina, who watched nervously.
“Did you see that, Mom?” he shouted.
James, who turned 18 on Aug. 24, isn’t the first teenager to scare the daylights out of his mother while riding a dirt bike, but he might have been the first Paraplegic to do it.
Only 18 months earlier, Tina had stood over her son’s crumpled body after he’d crashed during a high-profile amateur motocross in Texas. The accident left him paralyzed from the chest down.
“I was about six months shy of going pro,” James said.
The injury derailed his hopes of a professional racing career, but not his dreams of riding his Honda 250cc cycle again. His parents quickly admit the activity makes them squirm and say they’ve been criticized for allowing their son to get back on his bike, but they recognize what it has done for his spirits.
“I think the reason Ricky does this is the shock value,” said his father, Rick. “His mom thinks it’s because of how much he loves to ride.”
As he has grown increasingly adept at wrestling his 240-pound bike over jumps and through turns, many have noticed, including some with similar spinal-cord injuries.
“He’s going much faster than what I thought was doable,” said David Bailey, James’ longtime coach and once a top racer who was paralyzed in a motocross accident in 1987. “I worry about him, because he’s so good.”
Bailey, 44, who took his first laps on a dirt bike in 19 years last Valentine’s Day, has organized a fund-raiser Monday, the day after the final Toyota AMA motocross of the season at Glen Helen Raceway in Devore, for injured motocross riders and their families.
The Lake Whitney Spring Classic outside Hillsboro, Texas, is a key stop on the amateur circuit and James, then 16, was aiming for a victory.
As he completed the first of five laps, his closest pursuer tried to pass on the inside but instead broadsided James, launching him headfirst into a waist-high embankment.
His bike then slammed into him.
“I knew I was going to crash, but I thought we were going to tangle up,” James said. “Then I realized, ‘Oh, I hit wrong or something, I can’t feel my legs anymore.’ ”
Rick had been only about 15 feet away, holding a grease board to advise his son of his track position. After telling his father that he thought he had broken his back, Ricky’s eyes filled with tears. Tina ran her palm up her son’s back and felt the bulge in his spine. He also suffered a broken wrist, broken ribs and a punctured lung.
“It was a bad, bad dream that day,” Rick said.
It wasn’t long before Ricky’s determination began to surface, however.
Doctors estimated he would be hospitalized at least four weeks in Texas, but he checked out in two. Another said James probably would need six weeks of Rehabilitation at Casa Colina in Pomona, but he was packing his bags after four.
Before he returned to the family’s home near Murrieta, where a downstairs office and part of the garage were modified into living quarters, James was invited to the World Mini Grand Prix in Las Vegas. Friends strapped him aboard a dirt bike and he was driven around the pit area to a loud ovation.
It was a defining moment for him, and he came home determined to ride again.
Over the next few months, James spent hours in his garage, thinking up ways to ride his bike without the use of his legs, hips, lower back and abdomen muscles.
“I had no idea about my injury,” he said of the early stages. “Like, I can’t hold my hips on my bike, and I found that out the first time, so I thought, ‘Maybe duct tape will work?’ ”
James was introduced to a fabricator who, through ties established by his own spinal-cord injury, had built four-wheel mountain bikes for disabled riders.
They put their ideas together, adding metal platforms for foot support, protruding titanium bars to cage his legs, extra padding on the handlebars, and a bucket seat from a shifter kart for a more stable base. James also wears a specially designed corset to support his midsection.
Because the clutch, gear shift and rear brake controls were foot operated, the rear-brake lever was moved near the left-hand grip and an automatic clutch was installed. While riding, James keeps the bike in third gear.
On the recent outing to Lake Elsinore, James was accompanied by his friend and roommate, Ross Levell, 18, who gave up motocross after James was injured because he feared a similar injury.
James parked his truck alongside the novice track, a layout too easy before his paralysis but one that now offers just the right challenges. One of Levell’s first duties was to help James strap on his boots.
“I don’t want to hurt your toes,” Levell said as he worked the boots onto James’ limp feet.
Once the motorcycle’s engine was running, Levell lifted James onto the seat and fastened straps around his waist and boots.
Though he hadn’t ridden his motorcycle in nearly a month, James was one of the faster riders on the novice track, reaching speeds of about 50 mph on the straight sections and soaring up to 60 feet over some jumps.
On two occasions, he fell. In seconds, however, he was helped up by fellow riders, track workers and spectators, many of whom weren’t aware he was paralyzed.
“That was my fault,” James said after the first crash. “I hate it when it’s my fault.”
With Levell holding his back fender for balance at the start of a low-stakes race earlier this summer, James beat everybody to the first turn. The experience was something to smile about, but probably won’t be a regular occurrence. Other than his goal of racing in the Baja 1,000 in June, he is trying to build a life away from motocross.
He has been involved in fundraising for spinal-cord injury research and recently began focusing on “Life Rolls On,” an organization founded by a young man who was paralyzed while surfing off Newport Beach.
“I’m really glad to see Ricky grab this spinal-cord injury by the horns,” Bailey said. “A year and a half into my injury, I was still pretty grumpy.”
James and Levell also have moved to Ladera Ranch in south Orange County so they can attend Saddleback College. James says he’s considering a career in Physical Therapy.
“I could just ride for fun now, get a good job and not be relying on the talent of motocross,” he said. “I can go back to my regular life. It’s kind of different, but you just have to look at it differently.”
By Dan Arritt, Times Staff Writer