by Skyler Howes
Trying something a little different here. I know most of you really enjoy the detail of my race reports so I will continue that but now I'm going to throw in some behind the scenes info on what it's like in the life of Skyler Howes and the struggle of being a full blown privateer. Sorry for the delay on these reports, however, I did need some time to cool off so I didn't write on pure emotion.
Over the last few months of 2015, I was in the process of locking in some support from a manufacturer. Just before Christmas, I had an offer and was set on accepting it. Then at that same time there was another manufacturer that made me an offer, one that I couldn't refuse. I was confident that within a week there’d be a couple of bikes in my garage ready to outfit and race in the first Hare and Hound, which was less than a month away. Now, to most everyone, this may sound pretty radical, right? Two offers from two different manufacturers? This is a privateer’s dream. However, things are much more complicated than they seem. The process of getting support of this magnitude takes a lot of time to work out. If I were to accept the better offer, if everything went exactly as planned, best case scenario would be to have a bike to race less than a week before NHHA Round one. Well, if you follow my social media, you’ll know that it didn’t happen.
I want to make it perfectly clear that the people working to give me support are working their asses off for me and in no way am I being ungrateful, just stating the struggle and stress of the racer. So with the best case scenario of getting a bike to race less than a week before the first round, it meant no bike to ride and train on. Fasst Company has a large role in my racing career, they have given me the advice and knowledge that I’ve needed since they moved to Utah in 2010. Lucky for me, Fasst owner Cole Townsend is in full-blown mini-dad mode right now and hasn't really ridden his YZ450F much and offered it up to me to train on and race if needed. So I took it out for a ride and figured I needed to dial in a few things. I took the suspension over to Dick’s Racing and he got it all set up for me and then took it out for one more ride and was happy with the setup. After all this we were down to only five days before round one and made the decision to get the bike prepped and ready to race.
NHHA Round One
At the last second I had a Fastway stabilizer shipped to me (huge shout out to Pro Moto Billet), got some fresh Kenda tires mounted up, Ride Life Industries got me dialed in with some number plate graphics, and on the way to California I stopped by Carl Maassberg's house to borrow his IMS tank with dry break for quick pit stops. Then it was race day!
I took a few rides down the bomb run and decided to start on the very far left. It was a longer run but way smoother than any other line so I could keep it pinned all the way to the banners. Since I've been on a two-stroke my entire life I'm accustomed to getting insanely good starts. Four-strokes have a reputation for bad starts, so the nerves were especially high when the banner went up.
The banner dropped, the bike fired perfectly, and I made my desired line with clean air and held the Yamaha to the stop until we reached the very end of the bomb run where I veered off and lost my line. I had to swerve around a few bushes and lost a little bit of time to Ivan Ramirez who had reached the banners first. As we came to the top of a rocky hill and headed down the back side I had the speed to pass Ivan and take the lead so I went by him on the left. Once we got to the bottom the course turned right and Ricky Brabec came charging down and took the inside line and the lead. I closed in right behind Ricky and took to the trail in second overall. He was riding really smooth and it wasn't too terribly dusty so I played it smart and trailed just behind him, locking on to his pace.
A few miles later, Nick Burson came blasting through the bushes to put a pass on me in the rockiest spot of the valley and completely destroyed me with a sea of gravel shooting from his rear tire. After riding in third until mile 20 I followed course onto the side of a hill that veered off of a score road. The trail just looped up and around and came straight back onto the score road. As I turned off and stayed true to the trail, Dalton Shirey took the b-line and stayed on the obviously faster road to pass me. Right behind him was Jacob Argubright whom I battled hard in hopes that we’d close the gap back up to Dalton and take a position back. We battled in a wide open wash, swapping positions back and forth just seeing who would brake later than the other. After a while, he ended up finding a smooth line on a valley and passed me, putting me in fifth overall.
We started making our way into the technical sections of the first loop and not too far behind these guys, feeling confident in my speed, but reserved on the bike as this was only my third time even riding the bike. The next few miles I rode extremely tight and lost the pace of the top four. One thing I have noticed since Kurt passed away (I think when he was racing everyone knew he was going to win, so they were just super chill) is that the pace is insanely high as everyone knows that they have a shot at the podium. I feel like the pace has doubled since my rookie year in 2013.
So I was losing time and riding really tight, when suddenly the bike starts to backfire and stall. I must have stalled the bike 15 times in the next 15 miles and lost a ton of positions. When I finally came through the pits though I was still in eighth place and went back out on loop two after a quick pit, thanks to Mitch and Sammy. The second loop was much faster and I loosened up and didn't have a problem with the bike stalling as much although it was still backfiring on deceleration.
Even so, I tracked down Ivan and passed him then caught up to Justin Morgan coming across a valley. Just then, the bike bogged out but continued to run. I started to pray that it was just a fluke and nothing would happen but then it coughed like it was running out of fuel. I thought to myself that I had a fuel pump failure and my race was about to come to an end. The issue got progressively worse over the next five miles, Ivan passed me back, and the bike eventually sputtered to a stop. I stopped for a while, took out my SPOT tracker and hit the mechanical failure button so my parents would know why I had stopped. After a few minutes of sitting on the side of the trail, watching riders cruise by, I started pushing the bike thinking there was no way I was going to sit out in the desert and not do anything. After 10 steps I figured if I could get the bike to start, it would be better to limp it in than push, as I still had 10 miles left. It started after a few kicks and surprisingly it ran fine?! I put on my goggles and rode it hard for a few miles before it started cutting out again. I was able to keep it going barely enough to get to the finish with a 33rd overall.
The Privateer Life
Mechanical failures like this are part of racing, no matter how prepared you are, sometimes things just happen so I wasn't too terribly bummed out. Actually the thing that bums me out the most when stuff like this happens, is I feel like the $100 entry fee was just completely wasted and I need to put in a day’s work just to get it back. This is the mindset that I have, anything that I spend my money on is converted into hours spent at my job earning the money to pay for it; because time spent doing things means more to me than the money. Another thing that drives me crazy are the keyboard warriors on Facebook thinking that because I’ve had some good results that I get everything for free and don't work at all. People don't necessarily need to know everything about my life, or what I'm doing, but if you're this deep into this blog, I may as well give you some insight into my daily program. I know I shouldn’t listen to them, and instead just keep doing my thing, but this next segment is for the people who think I’ve had it all given to me.
Upon my 16th birthday, my dad told me that if I wanted something I would need to work for it. So I started working for the local recreation center as a lifeguard at age 16 and eight years later I’m still there as the pool manager. When I graduated high school, I started work at Fasst Company in the shop and worked my way into the office as tech support and sales. I would wake up at 4am and go to work at the pool until 10am, go to Fasst Company and work till 5pm, then head back to the pool until 10pm—three times a week. The other three days at 5pm I’d head out to train and ride. I did this for almost three years straight, putting in 12-17 hour days, plus training. My rookie year of racing, I had a shot at a factory ride. I holeshot and lead races on a two-stroke and was told I was "next in line" or was being looked at for a spot on a factory team. So I was out to prove to everyone that I had what it takes; but what I ended up with instead was a broken back and lost my chance at that factory ride. (Coincidentally, where I crashed was about 100 yards away from where recent Dakar winner Toby Price broke his neck.)
After healing up from my back injury I decided that I couldn't work that much and give racing the attention that it deserved. So I stopped working fulltime at Fasst Company and but kept my job at the pool. This freed up more time to train and focus, but 2014 was still a tough year for me. I fought the bike trying to find a setup that worked for me. So even though I gave racing more attention, I still didn't progress much except for my one national podium that year.
So I'm back on my own in 2016, I'm back working two jobs, plus doing riding schools. I'm up by 6am, head to the gym and get a DA8 training workout in, head to work for the day, get off work just in time for yoga, then after yoga get some bike work in or chores around the house like laundry and stuff. With one (borrowed) bike, I ride one, maybe two days a week in order to save the bike and make sure it's prepped (since I'm my own mechanic) before the next race. If I have-back-to back races, I won’t be able to ride at all during the week. Especially if I have a mechanical issue like I did at the national. With being so slammed, my diet is not even close to where it should be either, which is another huge part of being a professional athlete.
As for the bike issue, I took it over to Fastheads to diagnose the problem. We took the entire bike apart, tested the fuel system, checked all of the electrical connections and put it back together, only for it to not start at all. We did this three times, making sure everything was connected right. I took the bike over to the local Yamaha dealer to use their YDT (diagnostic computer) they plugged it in, the bike fired up on the third kick and ran fine. The YDT also said that there were zero issues with the bike. I was so confused. I went out and rode the bike on my training tracks for two hard hours and had no issues. None. I figured that in the process of unplugging and plugging everything back in that we had fixed a bad connection and solved the problem, so I prepped the bike and the next day loaded up for the first round of the Utah (USRA) desert series.
USRA Round One
I felt confident after my performance at the National that I had everything it takes to take the win at the USRA race. I found a good line on the start and waited for the banner. It dropped, I kicked and twisted the throttle (which is a bad deal on a four-stroke) and the bike didn’t fire. I kicked and kicked, eventually starting the bike and taking to the course somewhere in the top 50. I quickly made up lost time and by mile five I’d already passed my way to third overall. I closed in on second and had a small tip over that allowed the top two to pull just far enough away for me to come in off of the first 15-mile loop in third.
Out on loop two I passed second, closed in to first overall on a flat straight, and had the speed and line to take the overall lead just 25 miles into the race. The leader had no idea that I was there and just as I got up to the back tire of his bike the bike cut out and started to bog out with the same issue that I had at the national. I about lost my cool and screamed out in rage. I just stopped right there, shut the bike off and began to let it cool off. I only spent about a minute stopped and lost three positions. I fired the bike back up, it ran fine and I went on to pass back two more riders to put me back into third overall, when the bike cut out and died again. I waited a few moments and started it back up just to have it barely run but I figured any forward movement was better than just sitting there. I came into the pits, got some fuel and sat there for a few minutes to let the bike cool off, losing more positions. This same process went on for the next two loops, making it just a mile or two until I had to stop completely and let the bike cool off. I finally made my way to the finish line in 23rd overall or something totally disappointing like that. The issue has to be electrical, the stator or the coil has gone bad, but I don't have the resources or funds to just swap out parts to see what works so I really have to get down with my mechanical self.
Back to the Drawing Board
This is where rage, doubt and depression set in. So much work, tiring work, that I do all on my own. Train on my own, ride on my own, work on my bikes by myself—all for what? To show up to a race to continue to have bike issues. I don't care how insanely talented or fast you are, if you don't have the equipment to carry you to the finish line without mechanical problems, you won't get the support, you won't get the magazine time, the PR—NOTHING unless you can have some good results. Luckily, in offroad you can stand to have a bad race or two and still be in the championship hunt. But this is where being a privateer sucks. The struggle and sacrifice start to outweigh the chance for glory. If you can't trust your machine, or can't ride it in between races because you can't afford the parts or simply can't find the time to make it a perfect machine (in between your 18-hour day—plus trying to get sleep) you start to wonder if it's really worth it.
I've had so many talented friends that have gone past this point, their families go into major debt to fund their dream just to have it all crash down on them. Their brothers and sisters get put on the back burner, they don't get anything because all of the family’s money goes into racing. I never wanted to see that with my family. My dad got me to the point where I could do it on my own, he and my mother continue to give me overwhelming support and would go into debt any second of the day to keep me going, but I won't let them do that. I don't come from a wealthy family, if I can't make it happen, I will not drag someone else down just for my own satisfaction.
This is the behind the scenes that most people don't see. Especially in offroad where we absolutely reach the speeds that could kill you. We work our asses off and risk our lives for a chance at the glory. Most people that is. I've also seen people that had it all, that came from wealthy families. At the first sight of working and racing, they already know how much better it is to not have to work and race and were willing to throw it all away because it just wasn't worth the stress.
What makes it worth it for me, is seeing the overwhelming support that I get from my sponsors. One of which I am especially glad to have been connected with this year, is FLY Racing. They have stepped up huge to offer me support and connect me with other brands that make it that much easier on me. Bland Recycling, Lake Powell Off-Road Association, Diamond J Management, Kenda Tires, Pro Moto Billet, Ride Life, Fasst Co., Tunex, all amazing people that have continued huge support because they understand the struggle and hope to see me take it up another notch.
It's been a tough first few races but I have calmed my emotions (lots of yoga) and I am back on the focused path of coming into the next race fully prepared. In the meantime, Cole has a very specific list for me to follow—and so far it’s helping!
2. Work out
3. Fix bike
4. If the bike is fixed then ride the bike
5. Diet and hydration
If it doesn't have anything to do with these five things, then it’s not necessary.
My ultimate dream is to race rally (Dakar) and the most prestigious races in the world. I don’t want look back on my life and say "what if." I will always take an opportunity when I see it and work my ass off at any chance I get. I get it, not everyone will be able to do it, and maybe I won’t either, but I never want to look back and say, “you know, if I had tried harder, I probably could have done it.” Instead, I will continue to work my ass off to live my dream.
Now here's the thing, I have officially accepted an offer, one that was not exactly like I expected but could potentially benefit my future in racing. However, instead of becoming debt free this year like I planned, in order to put a practice bike and race bike in my garage, I'll have to go further into debt and maybe somehow I'll find a way to make it to the races and represent all these amazing sponsors that support me.
If you're interested in supporting my racing, visit my website www.skylerhowes.com and sign up for a riding school! As of now, I am focusing on private sessions, one on one training or groups of three or more if you have some friends that would like to join in! I really enjoy doing these riding schools and have had some great success with people improving their skills. Schools are the most beneficial way help to my racing, plus you are getting good instruction in return!