Personal tragedy inspires motocross museum’s mission
Motorcycles. They’ve brought Tom White fame and fortune, tragedy and heartache. They’ve also taught him a thing or two about perseverance and determination.
The first time White climbed aboard a friend’s Honda, he crashed it into a parked car. But he dusted himself off and eventually became a successful professional rider.
A serious crash during a dirt track race sidelined White for two years during his prime, but the time off wasn’t wasted. He discovered motocross and began building a parallel career on the business side of the motorcycle world.
And when a mini-bike accident left White’s oldest son blind and in need of round-the-clock medical care, Tom and his wife, Dani, picked up the pieces and made it their mission to help victims of traumatic head injuries. White now uses his extensive collection of more than 150 racing motorcycles to raise money and awareness for the High Hopes Head Injury Center in Tustin, Calif.
“Sometimes life craps on you. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you’re going to wallow in it,” White said. “Brad’s injury devastated us, as you can imagine. It was a tough thing to get through. But he’s our son, and we love him dearly. So you learn as much as you can, and you do everything you possibly can to help.
“Brain injuries range from very mild, where people recover to live normal lives, to catastrophic like Brad’s. High Hopes trains and works with these people so they can be the best that they can be. I’ve made it my life’s goal to help brain-injured adults who don’t have the financial resources that I’ve been so fortunate to have. The motorcycle museum helps me do that.”
Tom White’s first encounter with a motorcycle was a dubious one – “I hit a parked Cadillac, so it wasn’t a great start” – but it didn’t scare him off. In fact, as White grew more proficient as a rider, he spent less time surfing with his buddies and more time working toward a pro career in motorcycle racing. He eventually became an American Motorcyclists Association (AMA) Grand National dirt track competitor, reaching 80th in the national rankings. Then a crash broke his arm and pushed him to the sidelines. Since White had already gained some experience working for Orange County Cycle, he founded Tom White Cycle Specialties in 1975, hoping to market his own designs for off-road motorcycle accessories and performance parts while continuing to race.
Then he crashed again. Tom’s brother, Dan, came to the rescue and helped him complete the projects that he already had in the works, and by the end of the year Dan joined the business full time. Over the next 25 years, the two built White Brothers Cycle Specialties into a multimillion-dollar behemoth.
“We were a $40 million company with warehouses on the East Coast and the West Coast,” said White, who, after Dan left the business, sold the company in 2000. “We were the No. 1 dealer source for off-road performance parts. It was pretty intense. The reality of it is it’s a lot of hard work, and you don’t have enough time with your family. It became pretty stressful.”
But that wasn’t the only stress that White was dealing with. On Feb. 23, 1997, three years before selling White Brothers, life delivered a blow that changed everything …
Tom’s son Brad became infatuated with motorcycles at a young age, much earlier than his dad had. “When I went out the door on weekends, he came with me,” Tom said. “We were always at the races. He loved it. He was a natural. By the time he was 18, he had graduated to the intermediate class of motocross, which was a high level for his age. He was very good, and he wanted to follow in my footsteps.”
Then on that fateful day in 1997, Brad decided to ride a mini-bike while waiting for a friend to arrive and help him work on his Chevy El Camino. They were to meet at one of the buildings that now houses Tom White’s Early Years of Motocross Museum. Since it was a Sunday, no one else was there. And since it was only his second time on the property, Brad wasn’t familiar with the layout or potential hazards.
“There was a chain across the parking lot,” Tom said. “Brad hit that chain mid-chest, and the force of it crushed his larynx. By the grace of God, his buddy showed up 5 or 10 minutes later and found Brad in the garden – that was as far as he was able to crawl. He had no oxygen, and his heart stopped minutes from the hospital. He suffered a major brain injury that left him blind, quadriplegic and only able to eat through a G tube.
“The doctor suggested we let him die, but he had brain activity so we said ‘no way.’ God chose to let Brad live, and that was a blessing. He’s the light of our life. He has such courage. He’s such a strong person.”
The Whites found strength and encouragement at High Hopes, where victims of traumatic head injuries are re-taught some of the basic skills that they’ve lost. For those with more severe injuries, like Brad’s, even the smallest accomplishments feel big. The Whites were so touched by the good work being done at High Hopes that they regularly host special events at The Early Years of Motocross Museum to raise money and provide scholarships to other victims of traumatic head injuries who cannot afford to attend the rehabilitation center.
Tom and Dani host four public “Bikes and Burgers” events annually, along with special private events for industry heavyweights like Kawasaki, Honda and Yamaha, as well as other motorcycle organizations and media outlets. All of the proceeds go to High Hopes.
And since it has become a tradition for the residents of Villa Park, Calif., to host Marines from Camp Pendleton every Thanksgiving, last year the Whites opened their doors to 121 of them.
There is a lot to see in the Early Years of Motocross Museum, which includes two buildings – 110 motorcycles are in the main building and 17 track bikes and enduro bikes reside in a smaller one. And that isn’t all.
“I have 160 in my collection,” Tom said. “I just love motorcycles, and I enjoy sharing that with people.”
Among Tom’s favorites are a Redline 650 Triumph, similar to the bike he rode to victory in the Castle Rock AMA TT National in 1972; a 1961 Lito 500 MX replica of Sten Lundin’s winning ride in the 1961 FIM 500cc World Championships; a 1959 Monark 500 MX replica, similar to the bike that was victorious in the 1959 FIM 500cc World Championships; a 1968 Yamaha DT1 250 with 47 original miles; a 1976 Puch Twin Carb 250; and his current favorite – a 2014 KTM 350 SX-F.
In recognition of White’s contributions to the motorcycle community, he was selected to join the Trailblazers Motocross Hall of Fame in 2013, and he will be inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame on Oct. 17 in Orlando, Fla.
“Few have done more to advance the sport of motocross racing, and the history of motocross racing, than Tom White,” Ken Ford, a member of the Hall of Fame executive committee and treasurer of the AMA board of directors, said in a press release. “By virtue of his early racing success, his long and successful career in motorcycling, his personal dedication to promoting both the past and present of this great sport, and his selfless dedication to the Hall of Fame on the American Motorcycle Heritage Foundation board, Tom White is personally responsible for improving the experience and opportunity for motocross racers and motorcyclists of all ages.”
White said he is “humbled to think that my heroes, these great people of the sport, believe that I’m worthy of this acknowledgement of my life and career.” For those who know him best, as well as the many people he has helped, the honor is not only deserved but overdue. That includes, first and foremost, the members of his family. In addition to Brad, Tom and Dani have a daughter, Kristin, who is the oldest by 2½ years, and a son, Michael, the youngest. Kristin and her husband, John Anderson, own Dubya USA, which specializes in wheels for motocross, supercross, enduro and off-road bikes, while Michael is an editor for Road Bike Action magazine, as well as an avid bicycle racer.
Brad, now in his mid-30s, is confined to a wheelchair and continues to require 24-hour care. But his love for cars and motorcycles is still easy to see.
“We take him for rides in his El Camino,” Tom said. “And he lights up at the sound of a motorcycle.”