Chilliwack (Melissa Godbout)– Just a few short weeks after turning 14, A.J. Van Winkle is the youngest person to receive a racing license, after the Westwood Motorcycle Racing Club (WMRC) lowered their licensing age by two years from 16 in an attempt to attract more racers to the sport and grow their club. Though the club says they didn’t lower the minimum age specifically for him, Van Winkle is the first 14-year-old the club allowed to join their racing school and be issued a racing license based on his skill, previous race experience and track maturity.
Like other motor-vehicle licensing requirements, the WMRC license school involved classroom training, an instructor-led track portion, and then finally a mock race with the other students, whose ages ranged from Van Winkle at 14, up into their riders in their mid-50s.
Now fully licensed, Van Winkle can race bigger displacement (faster and more powerful) bikes at bigger tracks around the pacific northwest and North America.
“I was excited to be able to get my racing license because it allows me to race at other tracks- big tracks, fast tracks and eventually race bigger, faster, and more powerful bikes,” says Van Winkle, adding that even though he knew much of the information taught in the racing school already, due to years of racing, it was still good practice. “The more track time and instruction I get only helps me improve as a rider.”
No stranger to two wheels, Van Winkle started riding a dirt bike when he was just three years old. He first rode at Greg Moore Raceway when he was five. At that time, the youngest kid’s class for road racing was 10, and since he didn’t want to wait that long, Van Winkle decided to start racing dirt bikes just before his sixth birthday.
He won his first dirt-bike race in August of that year (2012), in the last race of the season, beating a boy three years older than him, that he had been chasing all season. From there he was hooked. Though minimum age requirements prevented him from competing on a road course, he took any opportunity to race or ride any motorcycle that he could.
At only ten, when he was finally old enough to start road racing, he promptly graduated out of what was called intermediate class by being too fast to continue competing at that level. It was then that he started racing against adults and at the end of the season, was voted the most improved rider in the club.
The next year (at the age of 11) he had a bike to race in the SuperSport class. The first race of the year in that class was the first time he won a race against an all-adult field.
“The adult racers really just treat me like any other racer,” says Van Winkle. “Sometimes they are surprised to find out how old I am but after they do, I am just another racer to them. I love to race and it really doesn’t matter to me how old my competition is. I want to beat them regardless.”
Since then, he has primarily raced against adults, mostly because there are only a few younger riders at the same level as him and Van Winkle knows if he wants to improve, he needs to race against experienced riders. Some of these riders are life-long racers and include riders who used to race against Van Winkle’s dad, Jim, who was also a motorcycle racer. “I think it’s cool competing against people my dad used to race against but I don’t spend much time thinking about that. They are racers and it doesn’t matter how old they are, my goal is to beat them.”
With his new racing license, Van Winkle can better work towards that goal; with more track time, even more race experience, and by working his way up to bigger and more powerful bikes. He currently races with a Honda CBR250R, which is a single-cylinder 250cc bike that makes somewhere between 26-28 horsepower. Most of his competitors’ bikes are two-cylinder 250cc and make over 30 horsepower. While to the outsider, the spread doesn’t appear that significant, it means Van Winkle is down on power, and on the track, that little difference actually makes a huge difference, especially in the straightaways.
However, Van Winkle has always found a way to be competitive with every bike he has ridden and in every class he has competed, regardless of how much of a power disadvantage he may have. It has forced him to focus on the details that make him a better rider, including braking, cornering, and maximizing the drive out of corners.
“One of the things I like most about riding is the power of the motorcycle,” says Van Winkle. “The new bike that I am learning to ride has quite a bit more power than the 250 I am racing right now and can wheelie out of a tight corner. I really like that! I like to ride because I like the competitiveness and the rush I get. I like to push myself to be a better, faster rider.”
Last summer Van Winkle experienced another first for anyone his age and was invited to ride at the prestigious and exclusive, Area 27, a private track with a membership costing upwards of $60,000, designed by Canadian racer, Jacques Villeneuve. “I was really excited because it is a large track and has a long enough straight that I could get my bike up to its top speed. It is a cool track with elevation changes and blind turns. My favorite corner is turn seven-you enter going uphill, drift wide, and then cut in tight heading downhill.” Located just outside Oliver, the luxury motorsports club isn’t open to just anyone, which was not lost on Van Winkle. “I feel really lucky to have a track like that not too far away from home and to have been given the opportunity to ride there. I can’t wait until I can go again- I have an even faster bike I can ride there next time.”
Never wanting to coast, Van Winkle sees his new racing license as his ticket to even more track time and being able to hone his craft. “I would like to continue racing and improving my skills as a rider and racer, hopefully moving on to bigger, faster bikes. I would like to be able to travel around learning new tracks and racing on them.” When asked if he ever tires of racing and time on his bike, he shakes his head and says without hesitation, “Any given day, I choose the track.”