John Dowd made his professional motocross debut on the sands of Southwick in southern Massachusetts, a late-blooming 21-year-old trying to prove he belonged with riders who had been on their dirt bikes far longer than he had.
Nearly 27 years later, Dowd is back at Southwick, this time as a 47-year-old veteran closing out his career in what will likely be the final race at his hometown track – with his 16-year-old trying to earn a spot in the field next to him.
“It’s perfect symmetry, a perfect circle that where he started would be where he ended,” said Davey Coombs, vice president of the Lucas Oil Motocross Championships. “John Dowd is one of those real sportsmen who just loved riding motorcycle(s) and the fact that he was able to make a living doing it and never let the lifestyle or success change him, and now get to take his final bow at his home track is a great story for motocross and a great story in general.”
Dowd took an atypical path to professional motocross racing.
Unlike most of the top riders on the AMA Motocross circuit, the New England native didn’t grow up on dirt bikes and certainly wasn’t groomed from a young age to be a pro.
Dowd’s family didn’t have dirt bikes or even ride them, so his introduction to the sport didn’t come until he went to watch a friend compete at a local race. Thinking it looked fun, Dowd decided to give motocross a try.
Once he did, he didn’t want to get off.
He turned out to be pretty good at it, too, even if his style was unorthodox.
Dowd entered his first motocross race at 20 and turned pro about a year later, working for his father’s construction company to pay for his weekend races. He earned his first factory ride at 29, with Yamaha in 1995, and ditched the work-for-the-weekend approach, turning his entire focus toward training and riding.
Despite his lack of pedigree, Dowd had one of the more remarkable careers in motocross history, and most of his accomplishments came at an age when most riders have already retired.
Relying on his fitness and stamina more than the polished technique of his fellow competitors, Dowd piled up a string of oldest-to-do-it marks: winning a national motocross race, winning a Supercross title, finishing on the podium at a national and qualifying for a national.
Dowd’s approach to racing, along with a childhood of playing at his father’s scrap yard, earned him the nickname Junk Yard Dog, one of the more aptly-fitting monikers in his sport.
“My situation was that nobody could figure out how I could go as fast or do as good as I did because I didn’t have good style, I was older, I didn’t have a motocross background, I didn’t really have all the basics guys have these days,” Dowd said. “I was kind of an odd story somewhat, but I made up for it with my strength and conditioning, just hanging on. I was known for fighting real hard out there for every inch.”
Dowd has needed that grit to get through the later stages of his career.
Because he started so late in his career, Dowd has spent most of his career racing against riders around half his age – close to a third now that he’s creeping toward 50.
While many of the other riders might go out and party when they’re not racing, Dowd heads home to his wife and two kids in Chicopee, Mass., and the construction company he started running after his father passed away.
Dowd has been able to bridge the generational gap with his ability, earning respect from the other riders by keeping up with them on the track well into his 40s.
“The idea of a 47-year-old motocross racer is as preposterous as a 37-year-old NFL linebacker, and the riders respect that,” Coombs said.
Keeping up physically has been a little more difficult.
Because of his fitness, Dowd was able to race throughout his 30s without feeling much pain after races. Now that he’s well into his 40s, Dowd needs a little extra time to recover after races, his muscles, joints and all those previous injuries letting him know he’s not a young man anymore.
“When I was younger and in shape and training, I’d come through race weekends and feel great, like I didn’t get knocked down or anything,” he said. “Nowadays, every single time I go out and race, even if I don’t crash I’ll be sore. My body is definitely not liking this program anymore.”
That’s part of the reason Dowd has decided to put up the kickstand on his national racing career.
He had been trying to figure out when the right time would be to call it a career and when he found out this weekend’s race at Southwick will likely be the last on a national stage – because of a dispute with the landowner – it was an easy decision.
Adding to this memorable weekend, Dowd’s 16-year-old son, Ryan, will try to qualify for the race.
A last race for Dowd in the last race at his hometown track and his son possibly racing alongside? Hard to imagine it getting better than this.
“Taking him out of the equation, it’s still going to be a big, crazy day,” Dowd said. “There’s stuff going on with me announcing it’s my last race and Southwick’s last race, so there’s all kinds of press stuff and autograph things, and I want to race as well. Then you throw him into the mix and I absolutely have no idea how I’m going to get through this day.”
Just like he has through an improbable career, Dowd will find a way.