Twice the Heart -- The Rider Files

Jason Griffin racing at the Indy Mile

Jason Griffin racing at the Indy Mile

Jason Griffin racing at the Indy Mile. (Photo by Larry Lawrence)

The first time I saw Jason Griffin fly past as I watched the Pro Singles class rip around the Indy Mile, I did a double-take. Did I really see what I thought I just saw? A rider missing an arm? On the Indy Mile? When Griffin came around during the next lap, I focused my camera on him and hit the motor drive to click off a half-dozen shots. I immediately hit the review button on the camera and, sure enough, there it was, clear as day: Rider number 23C, who was flying around Indy’s turns three and four as fast as anyone, was missing his right arm. I stood there in disbelief. How could a rider with just one arm race a Pro Singles bike around the Indy Mile? The concept didn’t seem to compute.

Fast forward to Springfield, Illinois, last September. I was watching the 36-year-old from Easley, South Carolina, in the final session of AMA Pro Singles qualifying. He hadn’t yet qualified for a national final, but that day he looked fast and was using the draft well. When the checkered flag came out I walked over to look at the timing-and-scoring TV monitor. Griffin missed the cut. He needed a few more tenths.

We’d already set up an interview for after the timed qualifying session. I walked to Griffin’s pits and he was there signing autographs for young fans. He smiled, but when they walked away his demeanor immediately changed. I wondered if picking this time for the interview was such a good idea. I walked up and told him it was  tough luck for not making the program. Griffin shook his head. He was obviously upset.

“I thought I had it today,” he said with a sigh. “I had a really good lap going and got a good draft in that group I was riding with. Man, I really wanted to make the show here at Springfield.”

Griffin gets a lot of love from the fans at the Grand Nationals

Griffin gets a lot of love from the fans at the Grand Nationals

Griffin gets a lot of love from the fans at the Grand Nationals. (Photo by Larry Lawrence)

More fans walked up. Griffin instantly snapped out of it, smiled, chatted with them and signed more autographs. He handed out little miniature numberplates bearing his name and number. After five or six minutes Griffin worked through the line of fans and we started our interview.

“When I was two years old my next-door neighbor got a new riding lawnmower,” Griffin explains about his missing right arm. “I guess I was excited to see it, so I snuck out of the house and walked up behind him. He didn’t see me, put it in reverse and that’s how it happened. I can’t imagine how tough that was on him and my folks.”

It’s obvious being without his right arm has never slowed Griffin down. “I’ve always been without it so it’s normal for me. I never let it hold me back,” Griffin explains.

When he was three years old, Griffin started riding motorcycles. He grew up riding off-road. As he got older he raced enduros and even did a little motocross. Then he got out of the sport for a time. His younger brother, John, and his dad got him back into it when they started running some local flat-track races on a modified 1982 Honda Ascot. Tragedy struck the Griffin family again six years ago when John died from an accidental overdose of pills. The loss of his little brother was devastating for Jason and his family and he felt lost for a time. But then Griffin was inspired to take up flat-track racing, the sport his brother had grown to enjoy so much.

Former AMA Grand National standout Garth Brow helped Griffin and after a lot of hard knocks on the little short track in Neeses, South Carolina, Griffin became a pretty fair flat-tracker. He won a number of AHRMA races and even earned a #1 plate in the 30+ class in the Florida series. Then this past spring Griffin won a Pro-Am Series, the All-Star Pro Twins Championship. The next step was trying the Pro Singles class at the nationals.

Jason Griffin has big goals in racing.

Jason Griffin has big goals in racing.

Griffin has big goals in racing and he

The most obvious modification to Griffin’s Kawasaki KX450F is that the throttle is moved to the left side. “I cut down the handlebar on the right side so I’ve got more track. I can get six inches closer to the wall than anybody else,” Griffin says with a smile.

With just one hand on the bar, Griffin says he tries to have a light touch. He runs a steering damper and guides the bike more or less with his legs. “I went to Supercamp once and they were preaching the same thing about using your legs, so I guess I was on the right track.”

Some wonder why Griffin doesn’t use a prosthetic arm for racing. He says Mert Lawwill has even offered to build him a custom arm. But while Griffin hasn’t totally ruled it out, he believes the fact that he can race and be successful with one arm has been an inspiration to people.

“One guy got hurt and was going through therapy,” Griffin said. “He had a poster of me on his wall. He told me everyday he’d get up, look at that poster of me racing and get inspired to do his therapy. If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eyes I don’t know what will.”

Once, in Florida, he won a race and a rider he beat protested Griffin, saying it was dangerous to race on the track with him. Griffin replied to the other rider: “I think pride is the most dangerous thing.”

Touché!

Having only one arm does bring its disadvantages for Griffin. Racing on a cushion track that’s just been watered is something Griffin still hasn’t quite figured out. But the problem is what would otherwise be a simple one: keeping his visor clear. He once tried  a tearoff on his visor equipped with Velcro. On the crossbar of the handlebar he put another strip of Velcro. When his visor got splattered he tucked in going down the straight, touched the two pieces of Velcro together and turned his head to rip away the tearoff.

“It was just one tearoff and it was a little tricky to do,” Griffin says with a grin. “If somebody can come up with a system to clear the visor automatically, that would be something I’d be interested in trying.”

Griffin has goals in the sport. One was that he qualified for the evening program, in the Pro Singles event at Lake Odessa last year. His next goal is to make a main, and then go from there. He eventually wants to turn Expert and ride the Grand Nationals.

“I think if I could do that I could make some history and help a whole lot of people in the process.”

--Larry Lawrence, The Rider Files

Griffin with one of his heroes: Jay Springsteen

Griffin with one of his heroes: Jay Springsteen

Griffin with one of his heroes: Jay Springsteen.