The speeds that Sam Verderico hits on his racing motorcycles are not for the faint of heart.
The East Wenatchee resident has gone up to 190 miles per hour on his custom-built 1,000 cubic centimeter-engine bike, and he makes no bones about how dangerous the sport is.
And yet that hasn’t stopped him from bringing his former teacher and self-proclaimed “risk junkie” Steve Wellman into the sport.
Verderico has spent the last 14 years racing all over the U.S. and on the Pacific Northwest motorcycle racing circuit, building his reputation to the point that he’s now one of the region’s top racers.
Along the way, he’s introduced numerous people to the powerful two-wheeled machines, and Wellman just happens to be his latest — and perhaps most serious — student.
The pair spends dozens of weekends together each year at motorcycle races, while taking even more time out during the week to keep their bikes in racing condition.
The student becomes the teacher
“I used to be his teacher. Now he’s mine.”
That’s the way the 60-year-old Wellman describes his relationship with the 35-year-old Verderico, but it’s only half the story.
Verderico took art class from Wellman at Westside High School in 1992, and the pair reconnected about six years ago, when Verderico went into the local golf shop Wellman was operating at the time looking for some lessons. But while Wellman was giving Verderico tips on his golf swing, Verderico noticed something in the shop that interested him more.
“(Wellman) had a Honda Hurricane in the back, and I saw it was a motorcycle torn apart, and I said ‘I got parts for you,’” says Verderico. “So I started giving him just junker parts, pipes I had wrecked, bearings off my motorcycles I had wrecked. … Eventually he built this custom motorcycle out of all my spare racing parts, and then he just started coming to watch me race, started being my pit guy, my mechanic. … He just started really getting into it.”
From there, they built a friendship around building motorcycles and going to races.
“The 600 (Wellman’s 600cc racing motorcycle) started with a bolt, and we built it together in Sam’s garage,” says Wellman.
“Sam said to me that it’s one thing to go to one of these tracks and see these racers, but when you personally know someone and you see them going down the track at 180, 190 miles an hour, it sheds a completely different light on what you’re witnessing,”
Eventually, Wellman was pushed enough to get on the track himself.
“The first couple times I told these guys some day I might go out on that track, but there’s no way I’m going to race,” he says. “They have this Taste of Racing at lunchtime (at race tracks), and Sam said ‘Go out there and race that bike.’ … Sully (racer Mike Sullivan) said it best — I came off the track with a grin I couldn’t put away, and Sully said, ‘Ah, set the hook.’”
It’s turned out to be a chance for him to live a lifelong dream.
“I always wanted to be a racer,” says Wellman. “I loved Steve McQueen and Paul Newman … I always thought I’d be a car racer, but racing cars goes into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But through Sam I discovered that motorcycle racing, on a relative level, you might have to have more skill to do what he does than any auto racer out there.”
And just a few months after his first full-scale race, he’s already hooked.
“(Wellman) is a full-blown racer with a novice license. Once it catches you it’s over. He traveled with us for a couple of years so he got the feel of racer, so when he started doing it he had it all,” says Verderico.
Climbing the ladder
Verderico has always been attracted to speed, but it took him some time to find the right avenue.
“A friend of mine, Joe Anderson, was going to go to a racing school but couldn’t go, so he sold me a ticket and I went to California for the Keith Code Superbike School,” he says. “Once I hit the race track at 16-years-old I just fell in love with it. … A couple years later I decided to become a racer because I got so many tickets I lost my license.”
He became a novice in 1998, and he’s been climbing the ladder of the Pacific Northwest racing circuit ever since.
Though Verderico usually races at venues like the Portland International Raceway in the sprint class, where a race lasts from 14 to 17 minutes, he’s no stranger to more endurance-type races. In late May he took part in the World Superbike Challenge at Miller Motorsports Park in Salt Lake City in a race that lasted over 40 minutes.
Over his 14 years in the sport, Verderico has been on the Speedvision channel a few times, but he hopes to make it a more regular occurrence.
“I’m getting there. My main goal is to go into AMA (American Motorcyle Racing),” he says. “I’ve raced a lot of the guys, but I want to actually go there and compete and do well. … I’m going beyond what I thought I was going to achieve, and I just keep going. The more you do it, the faster you get, so I can’t stop.”
The artistic side
Though racing is the No. 1 priority for Verderico and Wellman, they’ve found another way to enjoy the sport.
With the combination of Wellman’s art talents and Verderico’s skills acquired through his day job as a painting contractor, the duo has collaborated on elaborate art designs for their helmets and Verderico’s main bike.
The helmets feature flames that give off an intimidating look, but it’s the 1000cc bike that’s the real piece of art; it sports a patriotic image of an American flag waving in the wind, with flames rising up from the bottom, that was inspired by a trip back to Wenatchee from a race.
“We were coming back from Portland and we went by the dam at The Dalles, and Sammy says, ‘That’s it, Wellman. I want my bike to look just like that,’” says Wellman. “Because right on that huge dam, there must be an image of an American flag waving, all curled.”
“We spent 80 hours probably in his little house just painting that (bike),” Verderico says.
The bike’s artwork has been a hit with fans and other riders.
“We had that bike at World Superbike on Memorial Day, and thousands of people were coming up and sitting on it and taking pictures of it,” Verderico says.
Of course, there’s a risk with racing something that required so much time to create.
“We know we’re putting it on a race bike,” Verderico says. “I can go one lap (and wreck) and it can be gone.”
The intimidation factor
Riding at speeds fast enough for an airplane to take off can have a profound effect on a racer.
“They’ll tell you to keep your eyes pinned on where you want to go, but just for the pure hell of it I looked down once … I nearly fainted,” says Wellman. “I’ve never seen pavement go by that fast. It’s an intimidation factor. It blows your mind.”
Even more life-affecting is crashing at those speeds.
“At these kinds of speeds you can really get bit,” says Wellman. “I’ve crashed twice. They were stupid mistakes and I hope I learn from them.
“It’s like going out of a truck going 170 miles per hour,” says Verderico. “I’ve actually crashed bikes at 150 miles per hour, went back to the pits and got my other one, then went back out and went faster, just to ignore what happened. If you think about wrecking you go slow.”
Verderico says when everybody is riding that fast, the speed is only relative.
“You absolutely ignore the speed. At those speeds you can be going 170 miles per hour and it feels like one mile per hour, because all you’re catching them is one mile per hour,” he says.
Once a racer gets used to the speed, Verderico says racing becomes an addiction, no matter what the cost is.
“It just takes courage, mainly, with the speeds that are out there. Just the willpower and the drive to just keep going out there and risk your life,” he says. “Shattering knees, losing the livelihoods, going into comas, you have to ignore all that and just keep going.
“It’s something that’s in my blood and I can’t get it out. Just this last weekend (July 24-25) I had to go race and my wife’s about to have a kid, and I still went and raced. It’s an absolute addiction. It’s what makes me unique to everybody else. To say I’m a professional racer just makes me me.”
Brent Stecker: 661-5222