By Timothy Doe, Castaic Community Contributor
Suppose you opened up the sports page of your newspaper one morning and saw that the Dodgers had signed a 76-year-old shortstop. That would get your attention, wouldn’t it?
Well, this story isn’t about a 76-year-old shortstop, but it is about a 76-year-old motocross rider. Maybe at first glance you don’t think the two sports have a lot in common, but the truth of the matter is they do, and one of the similarities is the respective ages at which the athletes develop. In both sports you get started at a very early age, serve your apprenticeship as a teenager, reach your peak level of competition in your early and mid-twenties, then start at least thinking about hanging it up by the age of, say, 35. Not Gary Willison though, who instead of retiring from motocross in his mid-thirties actually started riding at the age of 36 and now, 40 years later, is still out there weekly, doing it, as the saying goes, in the dirt.
Gary started riding in 1977 at the legendary Indian Dunes track, which back in the day was out on Highway 126 in the Piru area. His first bike was a 125cc Suzuki RM, a far cry from the brand- new Honda CRF-450 he’s about to take delivery on. That’s how it works in motocross – you gradually progress to bigger, faster, more powerful bikes, and with his new 450 Gary has reached a plateau of sorts, and is out on the track at least once a week. A few years back he raced in a series of organized 70 years and older races held at tracks in several different states during a seven month season. It might have been a bit of a tough grind, but Gary still managed to come in first at every race that season.
But motocross isn’t all thrills – it has its share of spills, too, and Gary can tell you all about that. He’s had nine broken bones in the course of his career, and once broke both bones of his right leg at the same time. But you can’t let a little thing like that stop you, and Gary certainly doesn’t. Might be a good lesson there. Wasn’t it Frank Sinatra who sang “I just pick myself up and get back in the race”? He did, however, take a little break from motocross awhile ago and put in six years bass fishing, a sport which has a tendency to produce fewer broken bones, but the lure of the track proved too strong, and he put away his fishing tackle and got back on a bike.
Gary and his wife of 57 years, Connie, live in Palmdale, so he rides regularly at the Quail Valley track up by Gorman, or at the larger LACR in Palmdale.
Of course, motocross, like any motor sport, isn’t the world’s cheapest pastime. After all, you can spend six hundred dollars on a pair of boots if you want to. And although Gary obviously qualifies for Social Security, he’s also obviously not the type to just sit around and collect it. He usually puts in a four day week creating custom shower pans in advance of the tile setters doing high-end remodeling, and having begun that trade in 1962 he’s had plenty of time to niche in with a select group of quality contractors who are happy to keep him as busy as he likes. So not only does he actively participate in a demanding physical sport at an age when many people spend their time playing bingo, he also pursues an occupation that is most likely dominated by people 50 years his junior. Do you think maybe there’s a lesson in that?
So what’s next for Gary? Well, there is an 80-plus category in motocross, so it’s a safe bet he’ll be there, and if he is, the smart money says we’ll be seeing him winning races there, too.