Story and Photos by Kevin Novello
Mike Lafferty is sitting along the makeshift stage used for his 20 year Tribute Dinner signing autographs for fans as the NEPG crew cleans up around him. The line of fans is long but Mike’s unwavering smile makes everyone understand that he appreciates what he has. A few minutes earlier he sat atop the stage with the friends and riders that helped define his career and shared stories as 200 fans looked on. It also turned into something of a roast, which wasn’t unexpected. As the sun sets behind him he slowly makes his way to his camper, stopping along the way to chat with fans and friends. It is well after dark as he walks alone under the sodium lights and bat heavy sky and returns to his motorhome where his girlfriend Brandi and parents are waiting, much like they did when all this began.
An interesting thing happened the last time I called Mike Lafferty. Usually after a bad race, or a string of bad races – and he’s had a few of them this year – you get his voicemail immediately. The phone doesn’t ring five or ten times either, it goes straight to voicemail, emphatically, as if to say: Piss off, I’ll call you later – and in your case, Novello, much later. This time he answered the phone – and he didn’t sound pissed off – almost the opposite, which is kind of a big deal, really.
Mike Lafferty is in different place and is happy to be there. After 20 years of mercenary work as a KTM factory rider, he is now officially a KTM employee for the Ride Orange program. There is no more stressing about race results, injury, contracts and an uncertain future. His future is shored up. Now, he’s in a place where can finally breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the satisfaction of a standalone a career that spans 20 years.
When you stay with Mike in his camper, he is a gracious host. He often cooks dinner before a race that generally includes grilled, unseasoned chicken (seriously), salad, and rice, followed by some kind of fruit for dessert. In the morning he shifts his attention to the importance of the day and sits quietly eating breakfast while Country Music Television plays in the background. Shortly afterwards he’s off to the KTM rig to hang out, indiscriminately distribute his trademark brand of ball busting and meet with his mechanic to go over last minute prep items. On this morning, he has an influx of well-wishers that he has made time for. He eventually makes his way back to his rig to don his race gear for the last time as a member of the KTM FMF Factory squad. People stream by to wish him luck. Melissa Randt, who has been with Mike since the beginning of his professional career, steps into the rig to give him a last hug, revealing an undercurrent of emotion in Mike.
As the clock ticks towards the ceremonial start of his final enduro (the actual start was a short ride away), he gives a fist pump to a cheering crowd and then rides a wheelie along a grassed area adjacent to the road. From what I can tell, Mike is a calculating guy. He is the master of lending the appearance of spontaneity. But don’t be fooled, he is usually thinking several steps beyond his actions. He may seem completely unencumbered by his results, but he has every intention of winning this race.
At the end of each test, KTM mechanic Tony Hall gives Mike an indication of how he did – either a thumbs up for “You did well,” or a shake of the head indicating “Don’t bother getting up to check, you sucked.” He’s been getting a lot of head shakes lately. This time however, Tony gives him a thumbs up as KTM’s marketing director Christy LaCurelle makes her way over to deliver the results. “Pack my shit up, I’m done! We’re out of here. This day won’t get any better,” Mike exclaims. In a throwback display of dominance – and as planned – he wins the first test by 34 seconds over second place finisher Russell Bobbitt.
When Mike is struggling during a race, I know well enough to stand a good distance off the trail and completely avoid corners all together. When he gets behind, he pushes – hard. I’ve seen him flatten small trees or rip them from the ground as he drifts a little off course. As I stand in the woods, he looks smooth and deliberate – faster than the top 10 guys that I stay to watch. He closes out test two with another win and puts one more second between him and Russell Bobbitt.
Aware that he has won test two, he is smiling when Antti Kallonen walks over to congratulate him. “Are you ready to talk contracts for 2015?” he says, all seriousness before tipping his hand that he is completely full of it. He sits quietly in the shadow of the KTM van with Brandi and eats a PB&J sandwich before gearing up again. He’s in it to win it.
Test three goes much the same, no saplings are uprooted or sacrificed in a fury of frustration, just a smooth ground attack en-route to tying Bobbitt for the test win. As the race goes on, his mood remains loose, despite the very real prospect of winning this thing. Mike may be in it to win his final race, but long-time teammate and friend Bobbitt is riding like he’s fighting for a job next year. Mike stays in the top three through the fifth test before dropping to seventh in the final. He had enough of a cushion to shore up the second place podium spot.
At the end of the final test, a crowd of friends, family and co-workers has gathered to be with him. Al and Melissa Randt, who were there with him for every one of his eight championships, are on hand, along with the entire KTM squad, long-time friends and girlfriend Brandi, who stands quietly off to the side as friends and fans congratulate him. Back at the KTM rig, Antti Kallonen hands him a crate of 20 different beers from all over the world as a tribute.
What must have been an hour after the finish, Mike is back at his rig peeling off his gear. Friends and fans continue to stop by and congratulate him on his second place finish and remarkable 20 year career. Mark Hyde, Mike’s new boss, strolls by and yells, “You’ve got six hours until you are mine!” Mike is happy to hear it.
As the crowd thins he says, almost inaudibly, “Damn it, I should have won this one.” He then he slips back to being the guy who has managed to put it all behind him – mostly. He remains lost in thought until Brandi walks around the corner and stops in her tracks: “Babe, your shorts are see-through!” It’s true, they really are see-through – which sends everyone backing up several yards, then politely disappearing until it’s just the two of them. Brandi gives Mike a hug goodbye before catching a ride to the airport. His new job with the Ride Orange program will have him away from home for the next three weeks. As she steps away, the undercurrent of emotion resurfaces, but his smile again assigns itself to making everyone understand that he appreciates what he has.
Story and Photos by Kevin Novello