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Ice Shift

Once celebrated -- and then ridiculed -- as rapper Vanilla Ice, Rob Van Winkle has found peace and fulfillment in a return to motocross racing

By Jeff Pearlman

  Vanilla Ice
"You're a kid, and everybody wants you," says Van Winkle. "The drugs, the women, the money -- everything was right there."  Reed Saxon/AP Photo
On the right side of his belly button, one of the world's most famous motocross racers sports a tattoo. It is a red-and-black oval-shaped leaf, and of the dozens of images -- big-eyed aliens, his family crest, the emblem of a '37 Cadillac -- covering his body, this is the one Rob Van Winkle seems to embrace the most. He looks at it often, circling it round and round with his right index finger, never passing up the chance to explain its significance to a newcomer.

"It shows that I've found a better purpose in life," says Van Winkle. "I don't need artificial highs anymore. I'm sober. Like the tattoo says, I've turned over a new leaf." Van Winkle smiles self-assuredly. We are sitting in his silver BMW 745Li, a sleek vehicle the owner describes as "Gucci, dude."

He is immediately likable -- warm, engrossing, the father of two little girls. And yet, there's that ... thing. That ... past.

Wow, I say, you don't even smoke marijuana?

Van Winkle freezes like ice. "Well ... um," he says, "I still spark up every blue moon. But I've slowed down a lot. Now it's only a couple of times per month."

And that's it? Just pot?

Again, a long delay. "I'll drink a little bit of Jägermeister every now and then too," he says. "But I used to do heroin."

Heroin?

"Dude," Van Winkle says, "you have no idea."

Dude, I shoot back, of course I do. Any VH1: Behind the Music-watching American knows way too many gory details of the life of one of the world's most famous motocross racers, because that racer is far more famous for his music than for his motocross. He is, in fact, one of the most ridiculed musical performers of all time, right up there with Milli Vanilli and Tiny Tim.

Rob Van Winkle is (egad) Vanilla Ice.

Please, put away the pitchforks. Yes, Vanilla Ice was a weenie -- from the shaved eyebrows to the baggy silver pants to the enormous entourage to the "Word to your mother" refrain to the appearance in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze to, well, you get the idea. All that, however, is old news. This is a sports story. A good one. As we chill in his Beemer, the windows up, the engine idling, Van Winkle and I are routinely interrupted by the roar of motorbikes flying past the vehicle. We are stationed beside Fort Lauderdale's Pepsi/Air Dania Motocross Park, one of South Florida's top dirt tracks and home to the Summer Championship Series. It is here where Rob Van Winkle/Vanilla Ice is a regular, known simply as Robbie, the pro motocross racer who, like everyone else, gripes about riding conditions, frets over the upkeep of his equipment and craves more action.

When he is not touring in support of his most recent rap/hard-core album -- he still performs under the name Vanilla Ice, but the shaved eyebrows and the balloon pants are long gone -- Van Winkle can be found at Air Dania three or four times a week, zipping around the 8/10-mile track on his Yamaha YZ250 at insane speeds. By whatever name, he is one of the fastest riders here -- a daring racer who casually soars 120 feet off jumps and roars around curves with rooster-tailing recklessness. "This is the ultimate rush," he says. "It's a great way to shut your mind off to the real world and just ride and feel the explosiveness."

Van Winkle is 34 now, and except for the handsomely sculptured face and ironworker's chin, very little of his early 1990s Vanilla Ice image remains. Nearby, in his nine-room house, which is surrounded by 90 acres of wilderness, there is a small office in which sits a cardboard box. Here, dusty and ignored, are Vanilla Ice dolls, Vanilla Ice posters, Vanilla Ice candy and hundreds of other items of pop-cultural humiliation. He will still talk about the dark ol' days -- from his rise as a break-dancer and rapper off the streets of Dallas to his tumble into Saturday Night Live parody -- but only if he can steer the conversation to his passion, a subject so intensely joyful to him that before long his words are punctuated with shouts and squeals of delight. Yes, he cherishes music. But he lives for motocross.

Van Winkle began racing motorbikes as an eight-year-old in Dallas, and over the next decade -- splitting his time between dance clubs, rap contests and the track -- he emerged as one of the Southwest's most successful teenage riders, winning hundreds of trophies on the schoolboy-class circuit. At 15 he placed fifth in the prestigious AMA Amateur National Championships at Loretta Lynn's Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. From ages 15 through 17 he won three straight titles at the Grand National Championships. "There were a lot of fast guys from Texas at that time, and he was definitely one," says Davey Coombs, the editor-in-chief of the motocross monthly Racer X Illustrated. "Robbie was a very legitimate racer, but then he fell victim to the machine."

By this Combs does not mean a dirt bike, of which Van Winkle owns six. No, in 1991, fresh off the album To the Extreme, which had sold more than 13 million copies, and atop the charts with Ice, Ice Baby, which was en route to becoming the biggest-selling rap single of all time, Van Winkle began to succumb to the hazards of fame and fortune. "You're a kid, and everybody wants you," he says. "The drugs, the women, the money -- everything was right there in front of me. It affected me. It would affect anyone."

Van Winkle also made the mistake of entrusting his career decisions to others. In 1990, he says, his manager, Tommy Quon, created and distributed a fictional Vanilla Ice press biography that claimed the rapper had been born and raised in Miami, had graduated from high school with 2 Live Crew front man Luther Campbell (who is eight years older than Van Winkle) and -- worst of all -- was a motocross racer with several national titles to his name. According to Van Winkle, Quon was equally responsible for an "official" Vanilla Ice autobiography, Ice by Ice, which stated in an early chapter that Vanilla possessed "over 1,000 trophies" for dirt-bike racing and later that he had "more than 400 motocross trophies." (Quon, who is again Van Winkle's manager, said on Behind the Music that all the information came from Van Winkle.)

Van Winkle, though, swears he had nothing to do with the falsifications. But once The Dallas Morning News brought them to light, his reputation was ruined. Within a year he went from winning a People's Choice Award and filling arenas to hiding in his home, afraid to go out in public. Although he had cut back on motocross racing to focus on touring, he now avoided the track altogether.

"Motocross is a brotherhood, just like cops and firemen," says Kat Spann, the editor of Southern Dirt Bike, a Texas monthly newspaper. "When Robbie first made it in music, we were all thrilled. But as soon as he lied about his motocrossing, that offended the community of racers. It offended us that just because he thought he was something special, he could lie like that."

Despondent, Van Winkle spent much of the early '90s experimenting with hard drugs. He suffered severe bouts of depression and says that one night he wrote a farewell note, then consumed large quantities of heroin, cocaine and ecstacy in a failed suicide attempt. "I had millions of dollars in the bank, I had a million-dollar home and a car and a boat," he says, "but I struggled to find happiness." That began to change in late '94, when Van Winkle -- by now a dreadlocked, pot-smoking recluse -- set up some buoys in the ocean behind his mansion on Star Island off Miami Beach. He had first tried Jet Skiing five years earlier, but now it became a passion. For hours every day he would zig and zag through the water. By the summer of '95 Van Winkle was the world's No. 6-ranked sit-down Jet Ski racer, competing nearly every weekend and earning Kawasaki sponsorship. It was perfect: He was performing in front of thousands of people, only a few of whom knew they were watching Vanilla Ice. "A lot of guys didn't like racing against Robbie because he's so aggressive," says Victor Sheldon, the U.S.'s top Jet Skier for the past decade. "He wasn't afraid to do what it took to win."

Although Van Winkle tired of the sport by '96, it had provided him with the boost he needed. Around that time he opened 2 The Xtreme, an alternative-sports store in Miami Beach that sold everything from Jet Skis to hang gliders. He also shifted musical career paths. After his first post-To the Extreme album, '94's Mind Blowin', sold fewer than 45,000 copies, he turned to skate-punk music. In '98 he collaborated with Limp Bizkit producer Ross Robinson on Hard to Swallow, a gritty, angry, 13-song collection that Van Winkle calls "my much-needed therapy session." The best tune on the album is a hard-core remake of Ice, Ice Baby entitled Too Cold.

As he regained control of his life, Van Winkle found himself inching back toward motocross. Four years ago he moved to Fort Lauderdale to be closer to Air Dania, and in 2002 he auditioned for ESPN's X Games in the freestyle division. (Says Van Winkle, who failed to qualify, "You've got these 16-year-old kids pulling the hairiest moves you could imagine. I had no chance.") In January he placed seventh in the Suzuki Crossover Challenge, an annual Anaheim event that pits athletes from various sports against one another on a supercross track. "The top 10 guys in the race are really strong riders, and the rest are just guys with bikes," says Coombs. "Robbie has proven himself." Vanilla Ice is even a character in the PlayStation game Championship Motocross.

With the recent explosion of reality TV, Van Winkle says he has received dozens of calls from producers anxious to, say, put Vanilla Ice in a house with six strippers, Hollywood Hogan and the cast of The Love Boat. While insisting, "I've got too much pride for that stuff," he did accept $50,000 from Fox in March 2002 to take on Todd Bridges on Celebrity Boxing. "I thought it'd be easy money, just a show," he says. "I didn't think I'd have to train. They told me it was an exhibition." The night before the bout, Van Winkle says, he and Bridges went out on the town. Then, a few hours before showtime, Van Winkle smoked a joint. "I get out there, and Willis is throwing serious punches," he says. "I'm like, 'Dude, what the f--- are you doing? It's me -- Rob!'" Ice was crushed in three rounds.

If nothing else, it was a learning experience. Van Winkle is neither boxer nor Jet Skier nor cheese-ball rapper. He's Robbie -- the guy with a lot of tattoos and a need for speed.

"This is where I'm happiest," he says, pointing at the track. "It's a special place."

Word to your mother.

Issue date: May 12, 2003

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