Ten years ago this month, Kevin Windham wasn't sure whether he wanted to race again. His season high was sixth place, and he was in such an unmotivated funk that his American Suzuki team benched him for a race. By late February, the halfway point of the 2002 AMA Supercross season, he was lying on the floor of the Georgia Dome with a broken femur, unsure of his future, yet relieved. He later admitted that if the injury hadn't taken him out of that season, he eventually would have taken himself out. After missing the rest of the year and opting out of SX in 2003 completely, Windham's quest to become the Cal Ripken of Supercross seemed unlikely.
Last weekend, Windham, now one of the most loved and popular riders on and off the track, had the opportunity to become only the second rider in the sport's history to reach 200 main-event starts. The first was Mike LaRocco, who holds the record at 228, reached between 1989 and 2006. Today, LaRocco is the manager for GEICO Honda, the same team for which Windham has ridden since his return to racing in summer 2003.
It's a record LaRocco had never thought about until he owned it, and now he's managing the rider who has the best chance of unseating him. When the then-33-year-old LaRocco hit the bicentennial mark at the Daytona Supercross in March 2004, his new teammate, Windham, a 10-year veteran, was only 26 and had fewer than 100 starts.
"I remember that night, and then I tried to think about how many I was at," Windham said. "It just seemed like 200 was so far away. And I also remember at that point feeling like I had been in the game a long time. In reality I really wasn't that close. It takes a while to rack up 200. Going that big is a major accomplishment."
While the 200 benchmark is impressive, another stunning statistic is Windham's current consecutive main-event starts streak. The Louisiana native hasn't missed a race since mid-2006, and his streak stands at 97, an impressive number in itself. In SX, Windham is by far the current active leader. Ryan Dungey, who has never missed a main event since he moved to the premier class in 2010, has 41 consecutive starts.
"It is unusual for guys to go that long in our sport, and it's cool that I've been able to do it and Kevin's been able to do it, and the fact that there is some sort of clout behind it makes it cool," LaRocco said. "I'm basically here to help Kevin break my record. It's a little bit funny."
While Windham enjoyed the reflection that comes with 199 career supercross main events, he's far from his farewell tour. His contract will take him through 2014, a symbolic year: the 20th season for number 14. Omens aside, Windham isn't setting firm the end of his career. If he wants to keep going, he will. If he wants out earlier, he'll do that, too.
"It's really weird to think about the end when you're in the middle of trying to do battle," Windham said. "If it were up to me, I'd ride until I was 50. I'm pretty much going to stay here and race these motorcycles until something just thumps me upside the head and says, 'It's time for you to get out.' Our sport is great when you're competitive, and when you're not, it's not so great."
Few riders in the sport's history can claim the loyalty Windham has earned from the race fans. Whether it's standing in the rain in San Diego to sign autographs well beyond the scheduled session, doing his famous track transfers in the darkened opening ceremonies or simply tirelessly flashing his smile, "K-Dub" is loved because he's remained a constant presence. "Kevin is the best there is when it comes to dealing with the crowd and the public," LaRocco said.
Supercross is a sport that is very front-focused, and although the phrase "you're only as good as your last race" is as cliche as "my tires hooked up well out there," it's true. But then there's Windham, who sits 10th on the all-time Supercross wins list with 18. He has zero titles and three times has finished second overall.
Although the fans love a winner and champion, they also love a guy they can identify with -- a father of four who loves country music, backyard bonfires and dirt bikes. And showing up for 200 races and counting seems to say a lot to the 775,000 fans who attend Monster Energy AMA Supercross in a season. They like a guy who's going to be there for them.
I have beaten the best in the world and I have been a part of amazing races with people whose talent is the best.
-- Kevin Windham
"That's one of the big parts of my day and a huge part of why I'm still around," Windham said. "The cheers I get I'm very proud of. At the end of the day, do I wish I had championships? Well, of course. But I can also rest assured that I have beaten the best in the world and I have been a part of amazing races with people whose talent is the best. Was I a good enough rider and talented enough to win a championship? In parts I was, but in parts I dropped the ball."
Windham's reach doesn't end at the autograph line or ticket counter. He's also left a big impression on other riders, especially his teammates, who have included Travis Pastrana, John Dowd, Damon Bradshaw, Josh Grant, Trey Canard and LaRocco.
"He was really the first guy who kind of took me under his wing," Canard said. "He was the first big figure in the sport to acknowledge me. In my first full year of Supercross, he was super encouraging. He's always been that way to me."
On the eve of a rare milestone, Windham stood alone. The closest riders to Windham are Chad Reed and Nick Wey, each with 148 starts, three full 17-race seasons behind. Both riders would need to qualify for every main event between now and the middle of 2015 to become the next to hit 200, impossible for Reed, who suffered season-ending injuries in Dallas. With a plan to race until 2014 and possibly further, Windham might put the career-starts record completely out of reach.
"I haven't found that thing that's going to keep me out," he said. "Yeah, things are different. Some things are harder, a few things are easier, but where I can go from here, I don't know. I really enjoy what I'm doing. I'm in a great place."