Todd Smith and His Failure to DNF

Todd Smith at speed. Photo: Smith Brothers Racing Facebook page.

Pushing through pain at the 2017 Dakar Rally.

By Jerry Bernardo  
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By Jerry Bernardo

In racing Did Not Finish (DNF) denotes a participant who does not finish a given race, either because of a mechanical failure, injury, or involvement in an accident. [Wikipedia]

The ill-fated DNF: deep down inside motorcycle racers fear the dreaded DNF but in order to truly keep your name away from any ill association with that moniker sometimes you have to push on at all costs. Most racers I know wield this sort of a mindset: “If I can [somehow] manage to swing my leg back onto the bike and start it, I will keep riding. I may leave a blood trail but goddammit, I will finish this race!” The time it would take to give you examples of this “never-say-die” attitude would eat up the rest of our lives and let’s face it: no one wants to be called a quitter.

“In a race, the only thing that everyone can do, is quit,” 17-time Missouri State Hare Scramble champion Steve Leivan explains, “Not everyone can win, not everyone can grab the holeshot, not everyone can lead a lap, but anyone can quit. It's the easiest thing you can do in a race—and, the hardest. Just like winning gets easier after you've done it once, quitting becomes easier. Have you ever heard of James Stewart? I'm fortunate that I had the ‘always finish’ mentality pounded into me from a young age…I've never forgotten it. Even on a shit day full of struggles, I always tried to find a way to the finish line. Bruised, battered, broken or beat—always finish. If you're not going to finish, why even start?” Steve concludes.

Steve Leivan’s other “race face:” the look of pure perseverance. Photo: Eddie Marak.

Quitting while racing is kryptonite, it can make you shudder and convulse violently [unless you wear Crocs, then you have no available dignity left to combat the shakes]. Giving up in any sport is an immediate alpha male black mark and often nets you a massive barrage of taunts from fellow like-minded athletes.

While chatting to esteemed moto journalist Mark Kariya about the concept for this story, “Kato” reminded me of a similar scenario involving the late Kurt Caselli and a story about Kurt’s determination to finish a tough National Hare Scramble in California.

“When Kurt Caselli jumped into the AMA Hare and Hound Nationals full-time in 2011, everyone knew he was fast, but few knew just how tenacious he was. I covered the series before, during and after his three-year tenure, and I think it was that first year when he demonstrated that trait vividly.

Since I hadn't planned on being at the finish, I missed witnessing this firsthand so I'm relying on my somewhat fuzzy memory of what witnesses reported, but Kurt was leading with a bit over a mile to go, when the engine in his KTM 450 quit. [A tear-down later found that some rubber pieces in the clutch basket came apart and plugged a few critical oil lines, something that mechanic Anthony DiBasilio made sure never happened again.]

The race was in the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area east of Lucerne Valley, California, with the main pit/start/finish located at the north end of Bessemer Mine Road near a place nicknamed ‘The Rock Pile.’ The finish was a high-speed dash from rocky hills to the east across a flat, fast valley to the finish chute.

That valley and the course leading to the finish chute was sandy—not like in a sand dune but pretty loose—and was significantly higher in elevation than the valley floor.

With more than a mile to go and his bike showing no signs of regaining life, Kurt had two options: quit right there or push his bike to the finish—an incredibly difficult physical task after racing for more than 80 miles to that point.

Though understandably frustrated at losing the race right there as he watched rival after rival speed past, Caselli removed his helmet and started pushing his bike, accompanied by several friends and fans who, of course, were prevented by the rules from helping him. All they could do was give him encouragement and water, which he gladly accepted.

On hard, flat ground and in appropriate shoes and shorts, I'm sure Kurt could've run that distance in well under eight minutes. But at the end of a Hare and Hound National, in riding boots and pushing a 240-pound bike slightly uphill in the sand? I'm sure it was well over that pace.

However, he managed to reach the finish, securing a few vital points en route to the first of his three consecutive H&H championships and cementing his standing as a legend in the sport.” Recalls Mark.

So, I, Jerry DaVinci, stand here today to shout from high above the rooftops: “After you read this you will agree with me: no one in the whole world can say shit to Todd Smith.”

Jerry Bernardo: We are here at the finish line of the Finke and your brother Jake just told me you broke your back while racing the Dakar Rally this year. I didn’t hear about that, you never call, you never write…[laughs] How the hell did you break your back and still manage to keep on riding?

Todd Smith: [smiles] I just had a little crash—it wasn’t too big but I got stuck between the bike and the ground. I sort of hit my head a little bit, I didn’t really know how bad it was so I picked the bike up and kept riding. My back was sore but [to me] it didn’t feel like anything was broken. I finished that day, I think I rode around 300 km or so after I did it. The phsyio for the team said he thought it was just ribs. I have never broken any ribs before so I thought that was what it was.

Todd Smith with his son Ted and daughter Pippa after returning from this year’s Dakar Rally.

Todd Smith with his son Ted and daughter Pippa after returning from this year’s Dakar Rally.

I pushed on through the rest of the race. It hurt too much to sit down, so I stood up the whole time, I wasn’t very fast but I ended up finishing.

When I stood up and bent over, it [the pain] wasn’t too bad because I put all my weight on the handlebars. I had zip ties on my throttle so I could set the speed and I just rested my hands on top of the fuel cap, that helped take the weight off my back. I was pretty much riding with no hands and on the last day we had 700 kms of liaison.

JB:  What was going through your mind during that time?

TS: You invest so much time into something that you just want to finish it. I was not going to just give up.

Smith rode for the DUUST.Co team at this year’s Dakar Rally. Mechanic Mike Faulkner prepares his ride.

Smith rode for the DUUST.Co team at this year’s Dakar Rally. Mechanic Mike Faulkner prepares his ride.

JB: So you just casually finished the Dakar Rally with a broken back and flew all the way home to Australia?

TS: Yes. I landed in Sydney and my wife and kids were there to pick me up. I played with the kids for a bit then put them to bed.

Now that I was home I went to the hospital in Sydney to get checked out. They put me in for a CT scan and then they all went quiet for a bit. The next thing I know, five or six doctors came into the room and told me: “Do not move a muscle!” They had me there for the next three days and they were tossing a possible surgery procedure. The doctor asked me what I had done after I crashed so I told him how much I rode and when I got home I was lifting the kids up and stuff. I told him I had picked the bike up 20 times or so after crashing.

JB: What did they see when they scanned you?

TS: When they did the x-ray, they saw that T5, T6, T7 and T8 were all broken. T6 and T7 were the worst: the whole outside back part of the bone had broken away during the crash. The two pieces were sitting on either side of my spinal chord. Two of the vertebrae were also crushed.

Smith’s wife Amy snapped this photo of the damage to his broken back.

Smith’s wife Amy snapped this photo of the damage to his broken back.

JB: When they told you what damage you had done, did you get that sickly pit in your gut?

TS: I didn’t think it was that bad—I mean it was sore. I guess I was pretty lucky. It puts things into perspective pretty quickly.

JB: How does your back feel now after racing two days on the roughest piece of track in all of Australia?

TS: My back feels fine—it’s just the rest of my body that’s not caught up. Last year at Finke I broke my ankle and just kept riding [and finished] then I went to Dakar and hurt my back so it ended up putting me back [insofar as training] a fair bit. I didn’t think I was going to be this bad when I was pre-running but I didn’t really put in any big days [a ‘big day’ pre-running the Finke would be down and back in one day = 480 kilometres] I just couldn’t push in the whoops. Yesterday I was feeling really good but I couldn’t see the track [it was insanely dusty this year] and didn’t know if it was going up or down. I had to slow down and get into a pace and the slower I went made the bike not work the way it’s set up to ride.

Dakar Rally finisher Todd Smith embodies the never-say-die, never-quit attitude.

Dakar Rally finisher Todd Smith embodies the never-say-die, never-quit attitude.

JB: I am starting to believe there is a slight correlation to riding dirt bikes and getting hurt. [laughs]

TS: Maybe. I just know I can go down that track much faster than I did this year. [Todd Smith won the Finke in 2013, his brother Jake came in second.]

Todd [left] and brother Jake finished 1st and 2nd at the 2013 Finke [Todd won it]. Photo: Justin Brierty.

Todd [left] and brother Jake finished 1st and 2nd at the 2013 Finke [Todd won it]. Photo: Justin Brierty.

JB: I am just happy you can still walk and play with your kids… I don’t give a shit about the Finke track.

TS: Well, you just can’t sit at home and wonder, can you? You take it as it comes.

[Honda CRF450-R mounted Todd Smith finished the 2017 Finke Desert race in 7th O/A.]