Inspiration: Interview

Blame it on Rio

by guest blogger Aaron Heinrich

Proving that if you fall off, sometimes it’s best to get straight back on, racing rider John Chaves is a lesson in perseverance.

John Chaves started racing motorbikes in Brazil in the early-80s and eventually became the Rio champ in the 400 cc sport class in 1986. Part of the drive to race, he said, was the thrill and speed, but most of it was to get his mind off the death of his mum and dad during that same period.

When he moved to the United States in 1987, he began looking to take things to the next level.

“I went to the Keith Code superbike school and started working on getting my CCS (Championship Cup Series) license. I really honed the skills I’d acquired racing in Brazil, so after I won one of my first races in the US, I spent hardly any time in the novice class.”

John had the racing bug bad, to the point where over the next couple of years he went on to race in almost all of the races in the Super Sport Champion series in the area where he would finish as high as fourth despite a major crash.

“I high sided the bike, and broke my foot in 17 places. It was awhile before I could get back on a bike, let alone race.”

The crash wasn’t the first for the rider who had pushed the limit on two wheels from an early age. One of John’s most vivid memories of riding involved a small bike, letting out the clutch and “pulling the biggest wheelie that scared the hell out of me.”

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John was 13 at the time, but the incident didn’t deter him from wanting to ride. It only made him more determined.

Growing up in Rio de Janeiro meant he had to wait until he was 18 to get a motorcycle license. But rather than wait, John’s dad, a former rider himself, bought John a little Yamaha to get him started.

John initially went through three tanks of gas the first day he had the bike just riding around the family property. He soon moved through another bike or two, each progressively bigger than the last, but none of them had what he really wanted.

“I was dying to have a bike with a tachometer. So my dad bought me a brand new RD200. I was 14 at the time and started getting a reputation around the area as someone who liked riding fast. I went on to crash that bike”

That crash broke John’s hip, confined him to a wheelchair while he recovered, and led his dad to declare ‘no more motorcycles.’

So while John couldn’t ride he also couldn’t stay away. Once he got back on his feet, he started working two jobs and 18-hour days – one at a motorcycle shop to learn how to be a mechanic and the other for an architect where he learned to be a draftsman.

So by the time John was competing in the Super Sport Champion series, he was no stranger to accidents. When he returned to the 600cc class after his high-side crash, “the riders were a lot younger and better. So I decided to race super twins.”

John’s life then became a series of big changes and accomplishments. He started racing track days, went through two marriages, got a degree in mechanical engineering, and started working for IBM as a computer engineer just as the Y2K craze started heating up. Life was interesting and good.

But another crash in 2008 nearly ended it all.

“I landed pretty hard, but I didn’t have any injuries. But over the next month, I started having vision problems. So I finally went to see a neurosurgeon. Turns out I had what they call a subdural hematoma – the same thing that killed Liam Neeson’s wife and nearly killed Michael Schumacher. The surgeon got me to the hospital immediately, and by then a big percentage of my brain was filled with blood. The odds were not in my favour.”

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Not only did John survive this crash with no apparent physical or mental issues, but he walked out of the hospital on his own two days later.

Today, John lives with his third wife, Robyn, in Tampa Bay, Florida. His passion continues to be motorcycles and taking long trips on one of his favorites, a Triumph Tiger 1050.

“I was already partial to triples. A friend of mine had a Tiger 1050, and when I got on it, I just fell in love with it. I have a 2007 I bought in 2009 and have put over 50,000 miles on it. That thing is bullet proof!”

John has gone across the United States three times on that bike, but he said the cross-country trip he and Robyn took last year was one of the more memorable.

“We shipped the bike to Seattle where my son lives, bought a trailer there to pull behind it, then set out to see and camp in as many national parks as possible on the way home to Florida. I actually picked my wife up at the Seattle airport with most of our gear in the trailer, packed what she flew out with and took off from there. Not sure anyone had ever seen someone get picked up at the airport that way before.”

He said the high point was probably every major scenic overlook along the way, but the Grand Tetons were his favorite.

And what was the lowest point? A leaf spring on the trailer axle broke near the fairly remote town of Pinedale, Wyoming, but a couple of locals helped get them on the road the next day… and didn’t charge him a dime.

As for John’s ideal trip: “I’ve been trying to go to South America. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for some time. It would be quite an emotional homecoming for me.”