Of the five types of races that make up the American Motorcyclist Association Grand National series—short track, half mile, mile, tourist trophy steeplechase (TT), road race—the mile is the hairiest. It's run on a simple dirt oval, one mile around. The bikes hit 130 mph on the straights and may slow to 90 on the turns. Or they may not. If the track has a "cushion" of loose dirt along the edges, an especially bold rider can blast around turns at full throttle, sideways, his steel-plated left foot skimming the track like a flesh-and-bone outrigger, kicking up billows of dust while the rest of his body struggles to maintain balance.
In the 31-year history of the AMA pro circuit, no one has won more mile races than the newly crowned AMA champion, Bubba Shobert of Lubbock, Texas. In his six years in the expert ranks, Shobert has won 13, including four this year. His full name is Don Wayne James Shobert, but for all his 23 years he has been called Bubba, which is what his two sisters dubbed him when he was born: their little bubba. Shobert is still relatively small—5'7", 135 pounds—but that's the mold for motorcycle racers and their kindred spirits, rodeo riders. They have in common, too, the nomadic life of the circuit, frequently busted bones and, traditionally, broken hearts.
Motorcycle racers are also like downhill skiers: If you want to be a champion, start early. Bubba started when he was six, "still crawlin' up and down his daddy's spine," according to Delbert Price, a former Kawasaki dealer from Lubbock who teamed with Don Shobert, Bubba's dad, to create the AMA champ. Price, who was Bubba's mechanic in his early years, is a stubble-chinned, raspy-voiced gentleman. He walks with a hitch—a loaded .44 fell out of his truck and he was shot in the knee—and is missing the three middle fingers of his right hand, the result of an accident with a meat grinder.
Last September, on the eve of the San Jose Mile, the race that would clinch the championship for Shobert, Price pulled half a tattered dollar bill out of his wallet and slapped it on a table in a local cocktail lounge. "I been carryin' this around for about 14 years," he said. "Bubba has the other half. I can't remember exactly when we tore it apart, but I remember we swore that we'd put it back together the day he got number one."
When Bubba was 10, he won his first big race; the word "big" is used loosely because it was a national minibike race. By 13 he was a consistent winner on full-size bikes at his home track, Ross Downs, a quarter-mile oval—or short track—near Fort Worth, a 5½-hour drive from Lubbock. "I'd usually miss half a day of school Friday," Shobert says. "We'd drive there and race on Friday night, try to catch something else on Saturday night, maybe run up to Wichita, then drive home Sunday and I'd go to school on Monday." These were "outlaw" races, events not sanctioned by the AMA, so the 13-year-old could race for money. The purses were small—maybe $100 to $150 for a win—but Don Shobert allowed his son to keep all of his winnings.
Father and son rolled down the highway to small-time races for nearly 10 years, during which time Don saved his money for Bubba's 16th birthday, the day he would become eligible for his AMA pro license, novice division. When that time finally came, Don sold Shoberts' Wholesale Meat Co. in Lubbock, packed their motor home, and he and Bubba hit the national circuit—along with Bubba's mother, Martha, his sister Donna and Price. "We had talked about this since he was 10 years old," says Don.
"It's really hard for kids to know what they want out of life, but Bubba always knew," says Martha. "That's why we did it for him."
Bubba suffered his worst injury that first year, at a short track in Granite City, Ill. "I crashed and a guy ran over me and my hand went through his chain," he recalls. "When they took off my glove, three of my fingers fell off. But they were able to sew them back on. They came out O.K., but they don't bend on the ends."
While Shobert was in the hospital, his father began to question the path they were on and raised the possibility of Bubba's trading racing for college. "No," replied Bubba, "I don't think I'd ever be satisfied with myself if I knew I didn't try with all I had."
Shobert's progress as a pro wasn't spectacular, but it was steady. He was named 1980 Rookie of the Year in the expert division, riding a used Harley-Davidson and a Yamaha. In August 1981, at the Peoria TT, he hooked handlebars with Freddie Spencer, the Louisianian who is now the 250cc and 500cc World Road Racing Champion, and became involved in a crash that broke Bubba's arm, dislocated his shoulder and ended his season. In '82 he finished eighth in points and won his first two miles. At about that time, says Don, "It was time to get out of the picture and let him go on his ability." He went back into the meat business and Sandy Rainey took over as Bubba's traveling mechanic, and in '83 Bubba was fourth in the standings with three more mile wins.