Brown Dog Wilson

*Dirt Rider*’s 2017 Rider Of The Year

Zach Osborne’s climb to two 2017 championships

T

here was a long holdup in the tunnel at Sam Boyd Stadium, and Zach Osborne left his bike to search for a restroom. He wandered down a hallway until he reached a locker room door. He noticed a phrase above it. Osborne has a soft spot for proverbs and inspirational quotes and he paused to read it. After exiting the locker room, he hustled back to his motorcycle for the final qualifying practice session for that evening’s race, the 2017 Monster Energy Supercross championship finale in Las Vegas. The day ended as one of the most unforgettable of Osborne’s life yet it was one that left him with an unusual lack of detailed memory. This might be why he and his wife Brittney still sit down weekly to watch the race. She estimates they’ve done this more than 100 times. Like a thriller flick with an unexpected plot twist, he still can’t believe the ending. Watching the race, even months later while sitting in his living room, his breathing grows shallow, his heart rate increases, and his palms sweat. A refresher: On the final lap, Osborne is in ninth place. The person he needs to beat for the 250SX East championship—Joey Savatgy—is almost three seconds ahead of him and in seventh.

2017 Rider of the Year Zach Osborne
Zach OsborneBrown Dog Wilson

“I still say to myself ‘no way’ at the point when I came back in the stadium on the last lap,” Osborne said of the track layout that exited the venue at the northeast corner and reentered at the northwest corner. From the point of reentry, the checkered flag was about 35 seconds away. When they reached the first of back-to-back whoops sections, Osborne was in eighth and 1.5 seconds behind Savatgy. The finish line was 18 seconds away. Approaching the whoops, Osborne remembered what he had seen on the brick wall hours earlier:

“If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.”

Osborne knew he had to "send it." Two corners later his aggressive and now famous pass left Savatgy on the ground but ended with what seemed like an impossible championship only 30 seconds earlier. "If you have that opportunity and you don't take it, then you need to stop racing," Osborne said.

2017 Rider of the Year Zach Osborne
Zach Osborne is Dirt Rider’s Rider of the Year for 2017Brown Dog Wilson

Watching in retrospect, Osborne's body relaxes when he sees himself on television crossing the line. Then he realizes he had been holding his breath. After dismounting his Husqvarna, he drops to his knees. He's sobbing and it seems like the struggles of the past 11 years are spilling onto the ground. "It was a feeling of waking up," he said. "I was so engaged in the race and it hit me at one time."

The moment wasn’t caught on television but Brittney ran from the press box with their daughter and said, “You did it!” when she finally found Zach on the stadium floor. She was disheartened to hear him reply, “I think they’re going to try to take this away from me.” There was a trip to the AMA truck, a sleepless night but, finally, a text message at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday from his team manager, Bobby Hewitt: “You’re the champion. No more worrying.”

“Until you have worked for 10 years to achieve this and it flashes right in front of your eyes, you just don’t know what you would do in that situation,” Brittney said. “If he didn’t make that move, he would have regretted it his entire life.”

2017 Rider of the Year Zach Osborne
Prior to 2017, Osborne had zero supercross wins to his credit.Brown Dog Wilson

The power of a phrase written on a wall is incredible. But it wasn't the first time Osborne, who went on to win the 2017 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross championship in the 250 class, had found inspiration in words. It took the worldly Southerner more than 10 years to the date to win his first major professional race in America, and at times along this journey words were all he had.

Abingdon is a small town of around 8,000 in western Virginia, only 30 miles up I-81 from Muddy Creek Raceway. Osborne, an only child, had what he calls a "privileged upbringing." His father, Mark, raced motocross when he was 10 and, despite losing his own father at 15, found his way into the National Hot Rod Association where he won seven nationals. Mark, who ends almost every sentence with a quick "yes sir," raced NHRA and Zach raced MX for nearly a decade, with Zach's uncle taking him to some races when father/son schedules overlapped. In 1997, still new to the amateur MX scene, Mark remembers going to the Ponca City Grand National Motocross Championships on the advice of a friend. On their way home, they stopped in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, and watched Davi Millsaps sweep the 51cc (7-8) stock class at the Amateur Motocross National Championships at Loretta Lynn's. "Why am I not in this race?" Zach asked his dad.

“We didn’t even know about it,” Mark replied. But in 1998, Zach came within two points of winning the title Millsaps had vacated. The two kids who beat him are motocross footnotes, but he finished ahead of a half-dozen future top riders: Austin Stroupe, Vince Friese, Broc Tickle, Cole Seely, Trey Canard, and Wil Hahn.

2017 Rider of the Year Zach Osborne
Left: In 2017 Osborne won four Supercross races on his way to the East Coast title.
Right: Osborne captured his first supercross title in one of the most dramatic race endings in Supercross history.
Brown Dog Wilson

In 2003, Osborne became one of Wes Williams’ first video subjects, long before he co-founded Vurbmoto and became a documentary filmmaker. Williams was 16, Osborne 14. “It was one of the best introductions I could have had to the sport of motocross,” Williams said of the welcoming nature of the Osborne family. “It may have done me a disservice because I expected everyone else to be that nice!”

Osborne’s early professional career was filled with injuries and illnesses, and to anyone who remembers the 2006 “Snack Pack” race at Budds Creek, to the voluntary European exile at the end of 2008, the career start was a well-documented flop. No matter how bad the results were, Osborne always figured out how to stay relevant. His willingness to interview with anyone at any time endeared him to the media, and he even wrote a monthly column for Racer X Illustrated called “Fish ’n’ Chips,” a diary about racing in the FIM World Motocross Championships.

2017 Rider of the Year Zach Osborne
Osborne entered 2017 with one AMA Outdoor win on his resume, from Budds Creek in 2016.Brown Dog Wilson

Zach is well-traveled, open-minded, and adventurous, but there were still tough times abroad. A recurring incident was trying to fill up his motorhome with gas and having his card declined either for insufficient funds or because the bank had shut it off. Even though he was paid by a British company, the money was wired to the United States. Holidays and time zone differences could make working with the bank hell. They didn’t have backup credit cards.

“There were times when both of us would have given anything to not be where we were,” Brittney recalled. When Zach went to Europe to race, she went to nursing school and spent time in Europe during the summers. They had met at Ponca when they were 12. He calls it love at first sight. She laughs and said it wasn’t for her. When Zach went to race in Europe full time, they were 19 and Brittney knew she wanted to spend her life with him. She admits now she was bitter about him being in Europe. She wanted to get married and settle down. “We made the decision that we would meet in the middle when we could.”

2017 Rider of the Year Zach Osborne
Osborne captured five overall wins on his way to his first MX title, his second AMA pro title.Brown Dog Wilson

Osborne knew he was on the last shot in his career as a motorcycle racer and he either had to perform or go back to driving a dump truck for his dad’s company, which was what he was doing in the summer of 2008, right before he cut the cast off his broken wrist to try out for Steve Dixon’s Yamaha team. Today, he admits he might have overstated his own health when he first spoke with Dixon.

Life can be hard. He knew that long before he ever left for Europe, before he struggled against a variety of energy-sapping viruses and broken bones. At the end of 2009, around his 20th birthday, he committed to something he’d been considering since he was 15: a tattoo of a cross wrapped in the words “Never Ask Why.” Brittney remembers him carrying around the drawings in a backpack when he was young. Zach recalls making 15 versions, all of them laughably unartistic. It never looked how he wanted. On a trip to Las Vegas, he went to Carey Hart’s Hart & Huntington tattoo parlor, had the design cleaned up, and sat down for the real thing. Zach chickened out before the needle hit his skin. A few months later he went to H&H’s Orlando location and got it done.

In classic tattoo color tones, a metallic-looking cross with fleur-de-lis-inspired ends takes up the majority of his outer right thigh. A paper scroll wraps three times around the cross and says, “Never Ask Why,” written in ancient-looking cursive. It’s not private but Osborne said very few people know about the tattoo, the only one he has. “It’s a daily reminder. No matter what you’re going through, God always has a plan for your life and you should never ask why.”

2017 Rider of the Year Zach Osborne
Left: Osborne only finished off the podium one time in the summer of 2017.
Right: He capped the title with a win at the final round.
Brown Dog Wilson

In 2006, when he led the first eight laps of the Budds Creek National as a 16-year-old but then faded to 18th by the 14th and final lap, he didn't ask why. When KTM cut him loose after one year of a two-year agreement, he didn't ask why. When in 2008 a shoulder injury was immediately followed by a wrist injury and coincided with the implosion of the race team he was on, he didn't ask why. When he won the 2016 Budds Creek National (his first overall pro win in the US), 10 years after the heartbreak that still haunted him, he didn't ask why. And when a domino effect slammed him to the ground in the first corner of the 2017 Las Vegas Supercross and caused his bike to get locked up with another rider's, he didn't ask why.

2017 Rider of the Year Zach Osborne
Osborne took an unconventional route to achieving his championships.Brown Dog Wilson

When Zach Osborne began winning regularly it coincided with joining Aldon Baker’s training program. But Baker didn’t teach Osborne work ethic or discipline. He didn’t give him desire or heart. Even Baker admits to wondering how Osborne did it. “It seemed like it was never going to piece together for him,” Baker said of Osborne’s career. But, according to Baker, Zach was a breath of fresh air. The guy loved to train. “He would have worked harder than what I would have allowed him. At the end of our days, he’d say, ‘Is that all you want me to do?’” Baker said getting the structure and balance right for Zach was key. Osborne said following the consistency in Baker’s program and being assured he had done enough helped a lot.

Yet there were other factors that often go unnoticed in professional athletics. When Osborne came home from Europe, he got married. Two years later, Emory, now three, arrived. The Osbornes own homes in both Florida and California and in each is a proverb in an 8 x 10 frame: “Bloom where you’re planted.” It’s yet another mental note, this one offering a reminder to focus on the now.

2017 Rider of the Year Zach Osborne
Osborne head into 2018 racing a two-time AMA champion.Brown Dog Wilson

“We decided to start doing things the best we could right where we were instead of wondering,” Zach said. That attitude shift, coupled with having a family, made a huge difference in Osborne’s results. And he took his family with him to the races and yielded himself to Emory’s schedule. On the road, when 8:30 p.m. comes and it’s time to put her to bed, he and Brittney sit in blacked-out hotel rooms, which he admits was hard at first since he grew up scared of the dark and always fell asleep with a TV on. Having a family has been everything except a distraction for Osborne. “It took pressure off the routine for me,” he said. “I was too ritualistic. If I missed something at, say, 11:05, I’d be bumming. It was all about me. I would struggle if the routine was off… It just changed me for the better and made me more tenacious. I feel I have more desire and heart.” And his results are undeniably up.

Osborne competed in 60 AMA races before his daughter was born in October 2014 and 63 after her birth. His average finish before Emory was 12.75 while his average finish after her birth was 6.1 and yielded two championships. “It’s been a maturity thing,” he said. “I’ve come into my own now.”