AMERICAN MOTORCYCLIST October 2019
Six Racers In MotoAmerica Have Won The AMA Horizon Award
Each year, a Nicky Hayden AMA Horizon Award goes to the top amateur racer in flat track, motocross and road racing who demonstrates best potential for success in the pro ranks. It was renamed in honor of AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Nicky Hayden—the first recipient of the award, in 1997—following his untimely death from injuries sustained in a bicycle crash in May 2017.
There are six road racers competing in the MotoAmerica paddock who have the distinction of having this globe-shaped trophy. I caught up with each of them in the months leading up to the AMA Road Race Grand Championship at Barber Motorsports Park in October, where the 2019 Nicky Hayden AMA Road Race Horizon Award will be presented to the next aspiring racer.
I wanted to find out where they started and what the intervening years have brought them.
I attended my first AMA Road Race Grand Championship at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2009 as a slow, nearly middle-aged, amateur club racer with no aspirations of a professional racing career. It was that year that I first met the much younger (and shorter) Miles Thornton and Jake Lewis, who won the AMA Road Race Horizon Award and the AMA Youth Racer of the Year, respectively.
Hayden Gillim won the Horizon award in 2010, followed by Lewis’ move up to Horizon honors the next year.
Xavier Zayat earned it in 2015, and the past two winners in 2017 and 2018, Joseph Blasius and Dallas Daniels, rounded out the group.
Most of these champions learned how to ride motorcycles about the same time they started kindergarten, some even earlier. All but one reached the pinnacle of his amateur road racing career at an age when most kids start thinking about driving a car.
Team Hammer’s Joseph Blasius got a later start than the rest.
“Road racing was never in the plans,” he said.
Like most, he started out riding a 50cc dirt bike.
“When I was 5, I rode every day after school until I ran out of gas and I’d have to push it back, and my dad would fill it up, and I’d keep going,” Blasius said. “I raced motocross in high school and college, but I still have a lot to learn about road racing.”
He started doing track days after a friend took him and his dad to the track after the friend hid a sport bike from his parents in Blasius’ garage. The year he won the Horizon Award, Blasius was 25 and had only been road racing for three years.
Starting out in a dirt-related discipline like motocross or flat track is not uncommon.
Miles Thornton was also a motocrosser, who then transitioned into supermoto before road racing.
“I started road racing when I was 10,” he said. “I was in Las Vegas for a supermoto championship and saw a Spanish Metrakit bike, and I begged my dad to get me one. I won a championship the first year and went to Spain with Jake Lewis in 2004.”
Before road racing, Lewis, Gillim and Daniels had all been successful flat trackers.
Rickdiculous Racing’s Gillim tried for two Horizon Awards in 2010, but just missed out to Briar Bauman in flat track. He succeeded in road racing.
“Garrett Gerloff and I were racing for the Horizon Award at Mid-Ohio,” he recalled. “It wasn’t really on my mind at the time, I just wanted to win races that weekend.
“To be able to have that on my shelf the last nine years has been really cool. That’s actually one of my more prized trophies, right next to the AMA Youth Dirt Tracker Award I got in 2006.”
Gillim started riding the Christmas after he turned 6. He and his brothers were given motorcycles that year, and he took his first ride in the snow.
“I can’t remember exactly when I started racing, but I do remember running into the wall a lot,” he said. “I hadn’t gotten the turning part down yet.”
Gillim started road racing in 2004.
“We bounced around, doing CMRA and WERA races, having fun and trying something new,” he said.
He won the AMA Pro SuperSport Championship in 2014.
In 2018, Dallas Daniels became the first person to win the double: AMA Horizon Awards in flat track and road racing.
“I grew up dirt track racing, and, ever since I was a little kid, it was always my goal to win the Horizon Award,” Daniels said. “When I started road racing, I sat down with my dad, and we thought it would be pretty cool to be the first person ever to make history and win both.
“To be honest, I was kind of nervous about road race. We got hooked up with Dale Quarterly Racing, and we were able to put something together for the road race nationals. I didn’t have much time on a 600, but we were able to do it in my first season.”
Pro teams watching
Lewis made the switch when he was 8.
“I grew up doing dirt track, and I won a lot of amateur titles, and then got into road racing,” he said. “At the time, the economy was still good, and that’s where the money was.
“My dad and the Hayden family were really close, so that’s how I got into it.”
Lewis said he won “pretty much all of the amateur road racing awards you could win.”
“Racing with [U.S. Grand Prix Racers Union] helped me a lot,” Lewis said. “Back in the day, there were 40 125s on the grid. It helped me learn quite a bit.”
In 2011, Lewis focused on winning the AMA Horizon Award and the WERA National Championship.
“I knew the pro teams were watching me and Garrett,” he said. “That’s where Mark Junge from Vesrah Suzuki recognized me, at Putnam when I won the Horizon Award, so that helped me get a pro ride.”
Lewis moved on to the Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing team before going to his current team, M4 ECSTAR Suzuki.
Since turning pro, Lewis was 2012 SuperSport East Champion, 2013 Daytona SportBike Rookie of the Year and 2015 MotoAmerica Superbike Rookie of the Year.
Always a road racer
Xavier Zayat, on the other hand, has been competing on road race courses most of his life.
“I didn’t do flat track at the beginning, but I do a little of it now,” he said. “I love it. It’s a blast. And, if I’d gotten into it when I was younger, I might be doing that instead.”
Zayat said he learned to ride when he was 5 or 6.
“We watched MotoGP, and my dad did a lot of track days,” he said. “When he showed me how to drag a knee on my PW50, I’d terrorize the paddock at ripping around in circles.
“I did a national series on pocket bikes. We’d just stick the bike in the back of a car with a spare motor and travel all over the country.”
Zayat moved up to a Moriwaki MDH250 at age 11 and won the AMA Horizon Award at age 16 in his first year on a middleweight bike.
“I won the ASRA Sportbike Championship that year,” he said. “At the last race at Daytona, I won a race against Danny Eslick and Jason Farrell and then won almost every race at the Barber Grand Nationals, which all got me a ride with M4 in 2016.”
He’s now riding in MotoAmerica Supersport with the N2 Team.
Racing without a team
Not everyone signs with a team right out of the gate.
Thornton, in particular, has had a bumpy ride.
“Previous winners were signed to big teams, so I thought sweet, this is my moment, because Nicky Hayden, Ben Spies, some legends have won it,” he said. “I didn’t get anything from it, besides being able to put it on my resume and a cool trophy.
“As far as getting a ride out of it? Didn’t happen.”
Thornton and his dad built a bike, and he ran as a privateer with some success.
He eventually went back to supermoto, raced overseas and even earned a podium with fellow American Ben Bostrom.
Patience and perseverance paid off, however. In 2017, with the help of pro racers Melissa Paris and Josh Hayes, he was offered a fill-in ride at Barber on the Altus Motorsports Racing team.
“The team needed a rider, so I got a call the Tuesday before I needed to be there on Thursday,” Thornton said. “It was kind of exciting, because Barber is my home track, and there wasn’t any pressure. But I wanted to do well, because I wanted to get back in the paddock.”
Paris and Hayes were happy with fifth place, and they asked Thornton back for the full season.
“I’ve been with them ever since,” he said.
Because Thornton is tall, he moved up to Stock 1000 this year.
“It’s been a big change, moving up to the liter bike,” he said. “I hadn’t ridden one before this year. Every weekend, we try to improve on it. I just want to keep getting better.”
That’s a common goal for all the riders, regardless of where they are in their professional careers—whether it’s getting on a factory team, winning a championship or perfecting the racing craft before moving up a class.
Every weekend is an opportunity for improvement. They all want to keep getting better.
For the racers out there aspiring to be in their places one day, these Horizon Award winners have some great advice: Ride more. Take it seriously, but don’t forget to be a kid. Put everything you have into it. Go easy on your parents. Hold on to the memories, because things happen really fast. Always ride with someone faster than you. Go to the racetrack whenever you can and comfortably push your limits.
All of these past winners agree on one point that Thornton put best:
“Have fun, and if you’re not having fun, find out what makes you happy. As long as you love to ride and enjoy it, you’ll want to put in the effort and the work to get there. Sometimes, I have to tell myself I’m pretty lucky to get to race a motorcycle.”
Jen Muecke is an AMA member from Cedarburg, Wis.