What's In a Number?
Racers are interesting and strange people, superstitious about their routine and many other things.
By Dave Sulecki
Notice a racer arriving at the track and then getting suited up, and more than likely, this is done to a specific regimen: unload the bike, EZ UP, then fuel and chain lube, get dressed, right sock first, left sock next, jersey before pants, gloves before goggles… and so on it goes. And don't ever mess with the order of things; otherwise, the riding that day will be impacted negatively.
Ask a racer about their riding number and expect (at times) a lengthy discussion about numbers, what they mean, how the riding luck is affected, and how the universe helped them choose the number gracing their bike. Because racers are superstitious, this might even bleed into their choice of riding number.
Riding numbers mean something and are the identity racers choose to single themselves out in a crowd. And choosing the wrong number might be bad luck.
Talking about luck, just ask any veteran racer how they felt about #13 and Ricky Johnson's career and how that number can give any hardcore racer the heebie-jeebies. I recall that RJ declared defiantly how he would run the number and how it didn't mean anything right before his wrist injury, and unfortunately, his riding career was ended.
Was this due to his running the number #13, or just racing luck?
Why don't more racers use the number 13?
For the same reason, there is no 13th floor, I imagine. Nearly everyone will tell you that riding under that jinxed identity will ruin your racing career forever. Triskaidekaphobia runs rampant in moto, just as it is in council planning and high-rise buildings.
I really enjoy asking racers how they came about their number. Almost always, there is a backstory and hearing the reasons they landed on that specific number is often an interesting anecdote or happenstance.
One buddy had his bike impounded after getting caught riding on the street. The fee to get his bike back instantly sparked an idea—the fee is your new riding number. He ran that number for quite a while, I recall.
Another riding buddy runs 911, which was something he always ran even before the 911 date in time meant what it means today; it was simply the emergency number to call. Like Homer Simpson once said, "Hurry, get me the number for 911!" it still makes me chuckle. But he chose the number to be noticed, and it became synonymous with him at the track.
The most common response is a birthday or anniversary, connecting a month to a day and a three-digit reminder for racers who always forget important dates. How can you forget when it's printed on your number plates?
There seem to be a ton of 911s, 007s, 69s, 420s, and of course, a few 411s out there. The always popular phone area code seems to be a dying trend in the age of anonymous cell phone numbers. Who even knows anyone's cell phone number these days—let alone an area code? I have seen my fair share of the numbers 330 and 440 in Ohio and even a 216 out on the track.
A popular reason for choosing numbers seems to be "it looks cool on my bike." Maybe it's not a great backstory, but a story nonetheless. And what has ever looked cooler than James Stewart and that number seven?
When AMA Pro Racing adopted the new number system, I was against it. Rather than knowing a racer's rank in the pecking order just at a glance, we have "career numbers" to connect a number to a racer. This has probably worked so far since we all probably think of Chad Reed when we see the number 22, and I expect this to continue for many years. Don't we all think of Ricky Carmichael when we see a bold number four, even today?
At some point, my riding number settled on 402. I honestly cannot say how it came about, other than I liked the look, and it was Kenny Zarht's number, so I stuck with it. Eventually, it became my identity at the local level, easily recognized and instantly linked to me. And when meeting people at the track, you become identified by your number: "Hey, 402 is here today. What class is he riding?"
When I made it down to Loretta's back in 1990, they issued me number 25, which I was pretty excited about. My connection to that number was thin, but I will go with it regardless. One favorite pro, Bob Hannah, ran the 25 when he was on Honda, and my favorite NBA player Mark Price was number 25, so this was the best number ever for me!
Eventually, I used my AMA-issued racing number, which at some point we all decided was the last three digits of our AMA license number, mine being number 721. I ran that number for a while and enjoyed the anonymity of riding under a new identity until people couldn't connect me to the new number, and my cover was blown.
For now, I am going to ride with my wedding anniversary number, but only the day and not the month. I always liked riding under a two-digit number, and really, does the riding number even matter if you're only a weekend warrior at practice days? Probably not, so I am going with number 13.
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