The Heart of Motocross
I’ve never been good at dealing with the death of people I care for. I don’t know if people ever truly are good at that, but I do know that I’ve never been good at it, and I suspect I never will be. I’ve never been good about funerals and memorials either. If I can get out of going, I usually do, and it’s not because I don’t care, but rather quite the opposite – I care so much that the pain of going is often too much for me to handle.
But a week or so ago, I got an invitation on Facebook from an old friend of mine, Buddy Antunez. The invitation was to a memorial to be held at Starwest on November 2nd in honor of Buddy’s dad, Big Bud. I knew Big Bud had health issues, but I didn’t know he had left us. I knew right away that I couldn’t and shouldn’t try and get out of going. Big Bud Antunez was one of the greatest influences in my racing life, and as an extension of that, my life as a whole. And as it turned out, from the stories at his memorial, I wasn’t special in that regard.
It’s always bothered me that when a real jerk passes away, it seems like no one speaking at the service actually knew the person because they sugarcoat everything out of respect for the deceased. There was absolutely no danger of that last Saturday at Big Bud’s memorial.
Our sport is funny, too, because even a legendary sportsman in his own right like John Tomac eventually turns into “Eli’s dad” at motocross races. That’s how people tend to see him nowadays. But for those who knew Big Bud Antunez, no matter how successful Buddy ever was in racing, Big Bud always cast a long shadow. He was only ever “Buddy’s dad” to the uninitiated.
This is how I got to know Big Bud Antunez:
I started riding in 1987 or so at about 10 years old. My dad, much to my mom’s chagrin, bought me a brand-new (but old) 1984 Yamaha YZ80 that was fresh out of a crate from Montclair Yamaha, and my dad and I started going riding relatively regularly in the high desert. About a year later, after my first race at De Anza Cycle Park, I got a 1988 YZ80. As my skills improved, my dad started seeing a need to switch to a bike that was more competitive, and the YZ80 at the time was pretty old technology in the class. Through a friend of a friend, my dad bought me a 1989 Suzuki RM80 from R&D Racing. The bike previously belonged to Buddy Antunez, who had just moved up to the 125cc class.
Through Dean at R&D, we met Buddy, and we met Big Bud. Big Bud was simply the most positive, happy guy I had ever been around at that point in my life. It’s hard to put into words, but he was inspirational to say the least.
Over time, we came to learn that Big Bud was holding a motocross-training academy at Kelly Pichel’s house over the summer, and in 1990, I was invited, even though I really wasn’t very good at the time. It’s been 23 years now, and I don’t remember if the academy was a week or two weeks long, but I do remember that I felt outmatched in the company I was in. And I was. Going from memory, Craig Decker was pretty consistently the fastest guy there – at least until Buddy showed up – even though Decker was still on 80s or Superminis at the time. Another guy who raced RM80s, Jesse James, was one of the more vibrant personalities at the camp, and he and Ray McIntosh were pretty inseparable there. All of these guys were at least Intermediate-level racers, and I was a Beginner/Novice level. I was also the youngest. It was pretty intimidating. But Big Bud was always there for me and took extra care with me throughout the camp.
The most vibrant memory from that camp was that at one point I had pulled a muscle in my back. It would happen about once a year as a kid and would last 2-3 weeks where I could hardly move. My family doctor said it had to do with my growing so fast at that age. Well, about halfway through the camp, my back started hurting pretty bad, and on one particular morning, Big Bud asked all of us to take a run around a long circular road that I think went around a small lake. I couldn’t do it.
As much as I love my dad and, to this day, try to keep him proud of me, if my dad were the guy trying to get me to take a run that I didn’t think I could handle, his approach would’ve been entirely different from Big Bud’s. My dad likely would’ve called me a pussy or something similar and made it clear that I was disappointing him by my unwillingness to go run. But Big Bud?
Big Bud took me aside and simply talked to me. He was genuinely concerned with what was bothering me, and he showed it. And he was also concerned with making me a better motocross racer, because after all that’s why I was there in the first place. All of the other guys had already started their runs and I was sitting at the start of the run, by myself, feeling even more left-out than ever.
“What’s wrong, dude?” Big Bud asked me.
“My back hurts. It’s hard to walk. I don’t think I can run,” I said.
“Does your back hurt too much to even try?” Big Bud asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, we can’t know until we try, right?” Big Bud said.
“I guess not,” I said.
And I got up and started running. It’s hard to explain, but through his demeanor, Big Bud motivated me not only to not cheat myself, but he made me not want to let him down, too. My dad would motivate me by making me not want to let him down, too, but the road my dad used to get there was mean. I don’t know if Big Bud knew how to be mean. But he did know how to motivate people.
The next day, my back hurt worse, and Big Bud already had a solution waiting for me when we got to the road for the run – a bicycle. Just for me. I did more laps than everyone else, but I still got the workout without furthering the pain in my back.
I always hit my growth spurts before other kids my age. At Big Bud’s camp, I was significantly taller and heavier than Jesse James, even though he was 3 years older than I was. On the final day of the camp, all of our parents showed up to see our improvement around the track, and then obviously to take us home.
On the final day, my RM80 wouldn’t start. As it turned out, some dirt got sucked into the cylinder and seized the engine up. I was terrible at maintaining my bike as a kid – like most kids probably are. I don’t think I ever changed my air filter while I was there, and it was my responsibility. When my dad realized that he not only wasn’t going to get to see my improvement, but that he was going to have to pay to get the bike fixed, too, he wasn’t happy, to say the least.
When pops started showing his anger, Big Bud calmly put himself between us, effectively cutting my dad off to ask me what was wrong with my bike. I told him it wouldn’t start. He pulled off the seat and saw the air filter just caked with dirt, then just said, “Hey, Jesse, would you mind if Cox here rode your bike for the test today?”
Jesse said something like, “Fuck no, dude, that’s cool!” (He cursed a lot. In fact, he and Ray McIntosh called each other “Motha-fuck” throughout the entire camp.)
And I did ride his bike. The bike wasn’t even close to set up properly for me, but I still improved my time around the track from day one to the last day by a whole lot. It calmed my dad down to see my improvement, and when I left the camp, I went on a win streak that lasted months until I moved up to the 125cc class in early 1991. And, at 13 years of age, I won my first-ever 125cc race, too. Big Bud was so proud of my success, and he followed up constantly. He always called asking how I did on the weekend, and I’m pretty sure he did that for everyone at the camp. Every week.
I never made it to the level of a lot of the guys who learned from Big Bud. It’s quite a list, though, to be fair. Not just Buddy Antunez and Craig Decker, but Denny Stephenson, Jeff Emig, Jeff Matiasevich, and more all benefitted on the racing side from Big Bud Antunez. And I’d have a hard time believing Big Bud didn’t help them even more over the years in their personal lives.
At his memorial, I saw Buddy when I walked in, and he told me how Big Bud sent him a text message every morning, and it really messed with Buddy for the first few days that he wouldn’t wake up to a positive text message waiting for him from Big Bud. One of Big Bud’s grand-children said that, even though she lived in Utah, she would get a call from Big Bud every single day after school asking how her school day went and allowing her to vent about things that went wrong or tell him proudly about things that went well.
And in every case, the end result was the same: Big Bud made everything better.
That was my experience. And after his memorial, I now know that it was everyone’s experience. Big Bud was that rare man who changed the people around him just by showing up. He always inspired me to want to live up to his example, and in his passing, he’s still teaching me lessons. It was his inspiration at his memorial that led Denny Stephenson and I to squash a beef we had over some nonsense that the two of us only held onto because of pride. So, I got a friend back that I thought I had lost because of Big Bud.
And he taught me another lesson that I hope will take hold this time: I’ve always been bad at staying in touch with people I really care about. But I’m even worse at it when I see the person I care about is going through health issues. Because I’m so bad at handling everything that goes along with losing someone, when I realize someone is sick, I tend to withdraw to sort of protect myself from what could be an inevitable loss. The last time I saw Big Bud face-to-face was at one of the supercross races in Southern California a couple years ago. I absolutely loved seeing him, but he was in a wheelchair and didn’t look very well, physically. He was still glowing with positivity, but you could tell things weren’t going too great for him. I gave him a hug, but sort of “ran away” using my work as an excuse. I really did have work to get done, but nothing that could’ve or should’ve taken precedence over seeing Big Bud.
I’ll never be able to fully forgive myself for not doing for him what I know for a fact he would’ve done for me. If I were sick, he’d have been calling me every day, genuinely interested in the conversation, and he’d have been trying to help me through it any way that he could. But I didn’t do that for him.
It sucks that sometimes it takes losing someone important in your life to realize some of the errors of your ways. But I guess it’s fitting that Big Bud is making positive changes in the lives of those who knew him and loved him even after he’s gone.