There was a time when Davi Millsaps liked to pull up his T-shirt and puff out his belly to show people how pregnant he could make himself look; a time when his greatest fear was being asked yet another question in an interview; a time when, as a very fresh 15-year-old, the expectations of the entire industry, especially American Suzuki, lay on his shoulders.
There has never been a time, until this season, when Millsaps was the points leader of the Monster Energy Supercross Championship, not for one, two and definitely not eight rounds. In the 10th season of a respectable but so far underperformed professional career, Davi Millsaps is having a breakout year, unheard of in a sport where early success is crucial and late bloomers are rare.
Millsaps, 25, is no longer a boy who doesn't like to do interviews. He's no longer a child who stares at the ground and piles up dirt with his oversized feet. Now a husband, a father and the current Supercross points leader, Millsaps is a man. He's been 6-foot-1 with a build that wouldn't be too out of place at the NFL combine since he was 13. But for those who have been around for each of his 10 seasons as a professional, it seems that Millsaps has grown up overnight -- matured into a man who understands that consistency and hard work are what wins championships. The difference is that he never stopped believing in himself.
"[I] just never did the work that I should have done or taken it as seriously as I should," Millsaps said while walking through the tunnels of Atlanta's Georgia Dome last weekend where he would finish third. "I always thought that the easy way would be OK. I never expected people to step up like they have."
David "Davi" Millsaps' rise from prodigy to points leader has been long and not without injuries, hardship and turmoil. His parents divorced when he was 12, and he and his mother, Colleen moved from Kissimmee, Fla., to southern Georgia, where she opened a motocross training center called Millsaps Training Facility. While she built that business she cleaned houses at night to earn enough money to support her three kids and keep Davi's amateur racing career alive.
Carlos Rivera came from Puerto Rico, graduated from the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute and worked at a Suzuki dealership before he came to MTF. He then became Davi's wrench and traveled to all the races. In 2004, just days after his 16th birthday, Millsaps went pro and brought Rivera with him. They won the 250SX Eastern Regional title in 2006 and then moved up to the 450 class, where they won three Supercross races together with Honda. A long list of injuries in the motocross series, including the loss of a kidney, an ear imbalance, many broken bones and a knee surgery, have plagued him.
At 19, Millsaps parted ways with his mother. They didn't speak for three years and rarely speak today. She has yet to meet her grandson, Dane Duke Millsaps, who was born in May 2012. Even though he hasn't fully mended his relationship with his mother, he still gives some of the credit to her for what he is today.
"If it weren't for Carlos, Thelma [Carlos' wife] and my mom, I wouldn't have made it," Millsaps told Fuel TV's "The Moto: Inside the Outdoors," a TV series devoted to motocross and the lives of its athletes. The Millsaps episode documents Davi's career and the family's feud and challenges but doesn't offer specific details on why his maternal relationship is torn. It's evident, however, that it's one of many factors that have contributed to Millsaps' delayed rise as a serious championship contender.
Millsaps is standing on the rust-colored clay that makes up the course at the Atlanta Supercross, the most attended race of the season. More than 71,000 spectators visited the Georgia Dome in 2012, and it's sort of a homecoming race for Millsaps. Although he moved to Murrieta, Calif., three years ago, he and his mother lived in south Georgia for more than 10 years. He owns property in the area, and his mother still runs MTF, where aspiring amateurs now show up to someday be like her son.
Atlanta's track walk has begun for the riders, and Davi gets pulled aside by the TV crew for an interview for that night's live coverage on Speed. Someone apologizes for not coming out to his motor home to shoot the segment. He laughs and says, "I don't have a motor home. I'm on a budget." During the microphone check he cracks a joke. Sitting atop the leaderboard has not gone to Millsaps' head. He might be a veteran and more mature, but he's still humble and also the class clown.
"All the riders that I have on my team are unique in different ways, but Davi has been a real treat to be around, and he has a different view on things, a different perspective," said Dave Gowland, team manager for Rockstar Energy Racing. "He's always wanting to bust on you."
Despite finishes of fourth, third and, last season, second, in the overall points of Supercross, Millsaps has been largely forgotten in the past few years, overshadowed by riders such as James Stewart, Chad Reed, Ryan Dungey, Ryan Villopoto and Trey Canard. Last month Millsaps even told Dirt Rider magazine that he felt "pushed aside" at the 2013 preseason news conference.
To say that Millsaps was not expected to win the first race of the season is an understatement. According to the commissioner of one of the sport's popular fantasy leagues, ProMotoFan.com, Millsaps did not receive a single first-place vote at Round 1. Of the 1,600 players registered for Anaheim 1 in early January, only 463 put him in the top 10 with seventh being the most popular placing of that group.
After eight rounds of 17, Millsaps has two wins and seven podium finishes. He has not been the fastest rider at each race -- only once has he earned the fastest qualifying time. He's usually around fourth. During the eight main events run he's been passed for the lead and found the speed to pass back. He's also ridden smart enough to know when third place is the best he can do that night.
For everyone who has been hounding Millsaps for the answer to "What's different this year?" he's sorry to say that he doesn't have a very exciting response: "I was prepared." He doesn't mind the extra attention, and the persistent questioning about what has changed will continue to make him smile and shrug. He loves being the underdog.
"No matter how many races I win or how many races I podium or, even if I go into Vegas [season finale] with the red plate [as the points leader], I'm still going to be the underdog there," Millsaps said. "No one puts their money on me. But that's OK with me. I don't look at my bike and see the red plate. I look at my bike and see the No. 18 and just another race."
When Millsaps rode for Joe Gibbs Racing, Rivera wasn't able to join him in 2010, ending a rider-mechanic relationship that lasted for more than 10 years. Although Rivera now wrenches for Dungey at KTM, he is still close with Millsaps and thinks of him as a son. The success his former rider is having now isn't much of a shock.
"All along since I worked for him, I told him that he could win any race that he wanted to," Rivera said. "He can ride a bike, the guy is amazing. He has a lot of skills, and there's no doubt in my mind that he can win races."
Millsaps was once a factory rider at Suzuki, then Honda, and then he spent two years at Joe Gibbs Racing. Now at Rockstar Energy Racing, he rides a Suzuki RM-Z450, but the team receives no factory support. In fact, it purchases its own motorcycles (at a discount) and builds its own motors. For suspension, Rockstar has a direct partnership with Showa. Winning Supercross races without some factory support is rare, almost nonexistent. Winning your first race on the first try as a team? Never.
Millsaps had a few choices of teams for 2013 and went with Bobby Hewitt's Rockstar Racing outfit because it was a chance to build and grow with something new. The team had proved itself as a good 250 class contender but hadn't put in a full effort in the premier 450 division. Millsaps liked the low-pressure atmosphere and the chance to give as much input as he needed.
Gowland said the advantage they have as a team is that no other company dictates how they do things. "We're going to build this bike the way it needs to be built, and we needed somebody that has the knowledge to help guide us in the right direction," he said of their search that led them to Millsaps for 2013. "It was just a partnership. It wasn't like we just said to him, 'Hey, we'll build it around you.' We said, 'We're going to build it with you.' That was how it started."
A new team, new bike, new mechanic, a baby boy and finally a strong start to the season. Everything has changed, even if nothing has. One true constant is former two-time 250SX champion Ezra Lusk, who has been helping Millsaps for three years. Lusk isn't his trainer, he's a riding coach, and the majority of their focus is spent on mental preparation.
"They all believe they can win, or else they wouldn't be professional athletes," Lusk said. "Davi needed a little bit more structure and discipline, a little bit more of that guidance to be focused every single time he rode out on the track."
From first practice to the final lap of the main event, there is a plan, and their success is dependent on following it. It's evident that Millsaps gets the underdog theme from Lusk. They refuse to allow pressure to become a factor.
Nine races remain in the season, and Millsaps even refuses to get caught up in an obscure statistic that wasn't realized until after his win at Round 1 -- he has never missed a Supercross main event since he joined the class halfway through the 2007 season. He's currently the active consecutive starts leader, and this weekend in St. Louis he can pass Kevin Windham for third place on the all-time list with 103. Reed is the leader with 116 consecutive starts, which ended last season when he was injured in Dallas. Millsaps is prouder that he won in San Diego, his 100th consecutive main event.
He will continue to field the questions of how, why and if, but Millsaps believes he's exactly where he belongs and intends to stay.
"I felt like I was always good," Millsaps said. "I never took it as seriously as I am right now and have been this whole year. Being on a good bike that I absolutely love and the team and support group that's behind me, it's been a long time since I've had that."