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13-year-old's death shines spotlight on young racers

posted Sep 1, 2010, 6:33 PM by Elisa Myer   [ updated Oct 8, 2011, 8:19 AM ]

 R.I.P.
 Sweet Boy Racer

Donations to the Peter Lenz Memorial Fund can be sent through PeterLenz.org

Peter Lenz

Peter Lenz
May 1997 - August 2010
Height-Weight: 4' 11" - 81 lbs
Hometown: Vancouver, WA USA

 


Peter began riding on a PW50 when he was 5 and started racing it shortly thereafter. He moved on to pocketbikes from a solid motocross background off a KTM Pro Senior 50. At age 7 he moved to pocketbikes for the next 2 years finishing with an undefeated season. Peter then advanced to racing 3 years of minis with a variety of bikes including: NSR50, KTM65 roadracer, Metrakit 50 and 80 and Honda RS150R. At 11, Peter began his 125GP career, but was sidelined for most of that year from crash injuries. He returns to racing in 2010.

Off track, Peter trains by running and riding motocross in the backyard. He enjoys ripsticking, cycling and video games.

The grown-up resume just didn't match his appearance.  Listed at 4-foot-11 and 81 pounds, the baby-faced Lenz described his profession as "kid."

Yearly Summaries

2010 has shown that Peter didn't loose any speed over the last year. At mid-season he has earned 4 race wins and 5 podiums in 12 races. He currently leads the USGPRU Moriwaki MD250H powered by Honda National Championship. Along the way he has set the The Streets of Willow Springs 125GP track record of 1:19.29 on March 29, 2010.

2009 began Peter's 125GP career, but he was sidelined for most of that year from mechanical failure related crash injuries.

While still 11 years old, Peter became the youngest licensed Expert racer in AFM (American Federation of Motorcyclists) history as well as the youngest rider to win an AFM race with his win in the Clubman Lightweight class on March 21, 2009 at Buttonwillow Raceway Park.

Peter also became the youngest licensed Expert racer in CCS (Championship Cup Series) history and the youngest rider to win a CCS race with his win in the 125GP class on March 1, 2009 at Firebird International Raceway (East Course). In the same day, Peter set a new 125GP track record of 59.14s.

After the first two rounds, Peter was leading the USGPRU (United States Grand Prix Racers Union) West Coast 125GP and 250GP class championships. However, mid-season Peter crashed into a tire wall at Portland International Raceway (PIR) on May 31, 2009 due to several mechanical failures. He suffered several broken bones, (tibia and fibula just above the boot line; a broken femur; and a broken humerus just above the elbow including a severed radial nerve) all requiring several surgeries.

The accident effectively ended his 2009 season and his run at the USGPRU 125GP and 250GP motorcycle road racing national championships. He completely recovered by late November and immediately started training for next year.

Peter did gather enough race wins to finish the incomplete year as the 3rd place champion in both CCS SW 125GP and USGPRU 250GP West Coast Regional.

2008 was a busy year as Peter transitioned to a full-size GP chassis bike. The focus was to continue the development of his racecraft on MiniGP tracks on his NSR50, KTM65, and new RS85 & RS150R in select CMA CNMRA, CMRRA, NMRRA, & SMRRC races. He also ran the Can-Am Mini Motorcycle Roadracing Championship Series in which he swept all the classes with four National Champion titles. He was also crowned the CMA Canadian National Formula Thunder Champion, bringing his national titles this year to five while adding three more regional titles and a new provincial title. He was also awarded one of CMA's MAX Awards for the year. Peter trained at sixteen California Superbike School days and two Code R.A.C.E schools on three different tracks to hone his riding techniques. He began riding a RS125 in the fall and retired from mini racing on kart tracks. He raced his RS125 with WERA at LVMS finishing five tenths off the track record. 

Peter Lenz and Superbike School riding coach, Misti Hurst
                             Peter & California Superbike School coach, Dylan Code; Barber 2008 

Posted: August 30, 2010

Peter (Lenz) passed away early this morning when he was apparently struck by another rider. He passed doing what he loved and had his go(-)fast face on as he pulled onto the track. The world lost one of its brightest lights today. God Bless Peter and the other rider involved. #45 is on another road we can only hope to reach. Miss you kiddo. -- Dad

-- A Facebook entry from Michael Lenz, the father of fatally injured 13-year-old motorcycle rider Peter Lenz, posted at 2:02 p.m. Sunday.

In the benumbed hours that followed, people were trying to make sense of the nonsensical.

They asked whether the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, which the experienced MotoGP riders called bumpy and slick, was too much for these pint-sized prodigies who were competing in an entry-level series that showcases young talent.

They asked whether kids who aren't old enough to drive legally should be screaming around a perilous course at 125 mph. They asked whether the race should have been canceled, though at race time, officials were not apprised of Peter's condition beyond word he'd suffered traumatic injuries.

The questions were understandable and necessary, but missed the essential point.

To understand how motor-sports competitors think, to get inside minds that most of us can't begin to fathom, consider the favorite quotation on the Facebook page of the young man, Garrett Gerloff, who won the U.S. Grand Prix Riders Union race in which Peter was killed: "Dream as if you'll live forever; live as if you'll die today."

Sure, Peter was 13, and Xavier Zayat, the rider who ran Peter over after he crashed on the warm-up lap, is just 12. (Xavier was not injured.) But they are old enough to understand that their passions are not without risks. Their parents understand, too.

There were hysterical comments accompanying Sunday's IndyStar.com story about Peter's death, readers screaming "child abuse," yelling that these pre-pubescent boys shouldn't be allowed to take such chances with their lives.

Here's what they don't get: Young people get hurt, or even worse, playing football, playing hockey, playing any sport. Some of the most devastating injuries come in cheer-leading.  In motor sports, virtually every driver at the IndyCar, NASCAR and F-1 levels began driving before they turned 10 years old.

According to the United States Grand Prix Riders Union, this is the first fatality at this level in the nine years of the sanctioning body's existence.

We want to protect them, never let them cross the street, but in the end, we can't expunge the risks, and we snatch away their dreams at our peril.

After the MotoGP race, I cornered the mother of second-place finisher Ben Spies -- "just call me 'Momma,' " she said -- and asked about watching her son live on the edge week after week.

"He's been doing this since he was 8 years old, and every time the inside of my mouth is bloody from biting my cheek," she said. "But I understand that this is his dream, and I'm sure (Michael Lenz) knew his son wanted this more than anything.

"This was his whole life."

Ben Spies was 14 years old when he lost a good friend in a motorcycle wreck.

"For about two days, I thought, 'What am I doing? Should I be doing this?' " Spies said. "And my mom told me, 'If you want to quit, don't worry about us being in debt. You go ahead and quit and we'll survive. It's your choice.' I kind of think she wanted me to stop.

"But not a day goes by now when I regret staying with it."

Momma Spies tried again four years later.

"Ben had a bad wreck in Daytona when he was 18," she said, "and when we got home, I went to him and he said, 'I can see it in your face. Don't go there. Be my friend and be supportive. I'm not going to stop racing.' "

Before the MotoGP race, former MotoGP champion and current team co-owner and instructor Kevin Schwantz stood inside racer Nicky Hayden's garage, feverishly attempting to reach Michael Lenz on his cell phone.

Just a day earlier, Schwantz spoke with the young riders in their little area behind the Hall of Fame. Peter, Vancouver, Wash., was in that group. And now he was gone.

"I just came from talking to (fellow rider) Justin Morman," he said, shaking his head. "He was bawling his eyes out."

As word filtered out, dropping a dark cloud on the races that followed, the race community grieved in a very 21st-century way: They went to Facebook, the place where Michael Lenz had announced his son's passing.

There were people who knew Peter personally, knew him as one of the up-and-coming young motorcycle racers, a kid with the chops to someday ride on the MotoGP circuit.

There were people who didn't know him, who heard the soul-crushing news that a young teen had died Sunday morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "I just fell over Peter on the Internet," Danish fan Allen Thomsen wrote me.

It's hard for most of us to come to terms with this because mothers and fathers are not supposed to bury their children. But it makes twisted sense to those who've dedicated their lives to the rush of adrenaline and competition.

During his post-race news conference, Spies was asked whether 13-year-olds should really be taking it to the limit on motorcycles, especially on a tough track like the Speedway.

It was a legitimate question, but moments later, after he had left the podium, Spies was seething.

"I found that question really, really aggravating," he told me later. "Just not a cool thing to ask."

We don't understand. We can't understand. But they will get on their bikes again, and they will test the limits again, and they will do it with the uncomfortable knowledge that there's a chance, just a chance, they might be next.

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