Young racers change fast. Predictions are difficult. As the first Liqui Moly Junior Cup race lined up this spring at Road Atlanta, the favorite could have been Dallas Daniels, the first young racer ever to win two AMA Horizon Awards in one year, both in road racing and flat track. Or maybe Kevin Olmedo, one of the faster riders returning to the class.
Instead, that first race was won by Rocco Landers, a racer many didn't know at all. And he dominated, winning by 16.226 seconds. Landers followed up the next day with another win over Daniels.
He was only getting started.
Following the most recent round at Pittsburgh International Race Complex, Landers has won 10 of 13 Liqui Moly Junior Cup races. He recorded a DNF in the first race at Pittsburgh due to a clutch problem. He finished 11th when weather caused a strange race at Virginia International Raceway and he pitted to switch to rain tires. And just once all year, at the MotoAmerica Championship of Utah, Daniels beat him in a straight-up duel.
At age 14, Landers is both the youngest and the most dominant racer in any MotoAmerica class this year, but he still isn't that well known.
"He's kind of come out of nowhere," said former world champion and MotoAmerica co-founder Wayne Rainey. "We didn't know much about him and he showed up at Road Atlanta and won by more than 10 seconds. That obviously got our attention. And then he just kept winning. So we obviously knew this kid is special."
So who is Rocco Landers, this kid who came out of nowhere? He's he son of Stoney and Jaime Landers. Stoney was a racer himself and an instructor at the California Superbike School, so Rocco had the head start of inheriting talent and having good advice as close as the kitchen table. The family officially lives in Oregon, but Stoney does a lot of work in Southern California as a general contractor and so Rocco is a common presence in club races at the California tracks, where he often wins.
If you weren't at those club races, however, you could easily have overlooked Rocco Landers, just as someone as plugged in to racing as Wayne Rainey did. And there's a good reason for that. For four years, Rocco's most important racing took place overseas, racing pocket bikes in Italy and 85 cc prototypes in Spain, where the opportunities for kids are miles advanced over what they are in the United States.
Rocco Landers didn't really come out of "nowhere." He came out of Europe. And his goal is to get back there.
Racing in Spain
To say that motorcycle racing is different in Spain than in the United States is like saying a steaming kettle of paella is different from a dry, unadorned saltine cracker. They're both food but there's no comparison.
"It's the thing to do in Europe," Stoney Landers says. "Kids go down to the ballfield and play baseball here. In Spain, they drive two kilometers and there's a little track. They have tracks everywhere. Go there on a weeknight, there's 30, 40 kids, 20 adults, all taking turns and sessions and renting bikes. They're not even racing all the time. They're just riding and having fun. And all of a sudden, you'll have two or three kids out of 24 who are pretty damn fast.
"It's not a mystery to me at all why American racing is so far behind."
There is no similar opportunity for precocious child racers in the United States, so Stoney took his son to Italy and then to Spain, trying to run his business from a distance, traveling back and forth, spending a lot of money.
"We pretty much had zero support all those years that we were over there," Stoney says. "I don't think we ever got anything for free. Maybe a couple of boots."
Last year, they bought Rocco a ride with a team and he raced in the RFME series in Spain in the 85GP class, with a best race finish of third and ending up fifth in the class in season points. That arrangement meant he was away from his family for months, but it made the financial and time demands easier on the rest of the family. This year, with Rocco eligible to race in MotoAmerica Liqui Moly Junior Cup, which is open to riders ages 14 to 28, they came back to the United States to regroup and remedy the lack of recognition that leads people to say you came out of nowhere.
"It's about the same amount of money to race the European Talent Cup as it is to stay here," Rocco says. "We came back over here to the U.S.A., to get as much support and as many sponsors as we could, so we could get some money to go back over there."
"That was one of the strategies for having him race here," Stoney adds. "It was going to be easier on our pocketbook but at the same time it was going to give him attention and recognition from people and fans. That's been working really well. So many more people know about him now. He's finally getting the attention he deserves."
As I'm talking to Stoney, he gets called away. Someone is here to talk to him and Rocco. It turns out that someone is Oscar Gallardo, director of the FIM CEV Repsol series in Spain. CEV is the Spanish acronym for "Racing Championship of Spain" and nearly all the races take place in that one country, but the field is very international because it's the most common stepping stone to the MotoGP World Championship classes.
Probably the best next move for Rocco, if he could get enough support to pull it off, would be to compete in FIM CEV Moto3 Junior World Championship, where young riders are usually riding last year's Moto3 bikes raced in the world championship as part of the MotoGP series.
"It's the best university for getting to the World Championship," Gallardo said, when he spoke to me later in the day.
And what does Gallardo say of Landers? "I believe he deserves a chance."
In addition to his astounding performance this year, Rocco has some other advantages. He already has some experience in Europe, so he's learned a little about adapting to a foreign culture and being far from home. He picked up some language skills in Spain (he speaks pretty good though rather accented Spanish).
Now what he needs is a break.
Rainey states plainly that straight from the top, starting with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, the powers that be want to see U.S. riders in MotoGP. It's also one of the goals Rainey had in mind when he created MotoAmerica to take over management of professional road racing in the United States: To give more U.S. riders a path to the world stage.
"He's really been working on going fast, working on his confidence, working on his experience, working on his racecraft," Rainey says of Rocco. "This is what this championship can do. He can learn all those things. The next time he goes back, he'll be ready. So yeah, this is what we were thinking about, somebody like that."
"It's chaos around here," Jaime Landers says cheerfully as one child scoots by on roller skates while she hunts up a pen for Rocco to sign a T-shirt and offers me a bottle of water.
Really, though, it's not chaos. It just seems to me like any other family off on a summer trip, only instead of a camper behind the pickup, it's a trailer full of motorcycle parts and equipment, and instead of a state park, it's a MotoAmerica paddock.
Rocco has two sisters and a brother, in addition to an extremely expensive and time-consuming racing habit. It's something the Landers have to think about, as parents.
"My wife and I are constantly making sure we give the other three kids enough attention," says Stoney. "That's one more reason we look forward to the day when Rocco gets more support, so we can focus more of our attention on the other three."
Then there's the other sticky issue for parents. Where is the motivation really coming from? Is it the child's dream? Or is it the parent's dream, projected onto the child?
In a previous job, I often covered the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championships at the Loretta Lynn Ranch, a crucible (and just about as hot as one, in August in Tennessee) where the country's best young motocrossers compete. A few go on to pro careers. A very few make it all the way to the top, winning fame and riches. It's easy to see the kids who aren't motivated from within. They're the ones who burn out young.
Both Stoney and Rocco make an argument that Rocco's motivation comes from within. Rocco repeats the family legend that even as an infant he was intrigued by motorcycle racing.
"The only time I'd sit still was when my dad would put Supercross or MotoGP on the TV and I'd watch that," he says.
Plus, Rocco seems like a happy kid. As a home-schooled teen whose spare time is usually spent at a track day or a club race, he feels at home in the paddock. You'll often see him in victory circle after another class' race ends, smiling widely and slapping the winner on the back in congratulations.
"I really enjoy being at the races and I enjoy having racer friends," Rocco says. "They understand me. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't having fun."
While even top professional road racers typically spend their off weeks riding bicycles or motocross bikes, Stoney believes in having Rocco on a road race motorcycle as much as possible.
"There's just no replacement for being on the motorcycle," Stoney says. "There's no replacement for drilling and training." Of course that also can lead to burnout, but Stoney swears that's never the case.
"Every time I've ever asked if he wanted to go ride, 100 percent of the time he's said, 'OK.' He's excited to go, no matter what. Even if we've raced all weekend. You want to go to the kart track on Monday? 'Yeah, let's go.' He never wants to stop."
I can believe these guys are sincere because, while it's always easy to find a few grim faces in a professional race paddock, Rocco is almost always smiling. He seems more like a 14-year-old kid than a race champion, however you envision that concept.
At one point I ask him what motorcycle he'd most like to ride. His answer is a little surprising: A fully modified Kawasaki H2R. He explains: "In the words of my favorite actor ever, Will Ferrell, 'I want to go fast'."
It's not the answer I'd expect to get if I walked over to the Supersport teams and asked the same question of racers about five years older than Rocco. I'd expect to hear about a test on a MotoGP bike or a wild card ride on a World Superbike. But it's exactly the answer I'd expect from a 14-year-old. In a way, that's reassuring.
The MotoAmerica paddock today and the future uncertain
If you only follow the top levels of motorcycle racing, where MotoGP mechanics slam garage doors down to keep photographers from capturing an image of some part being tested, you might think racing is a business coursing with secrecy and suspicion and no mercy for competitors. And you'd be right, about those levels. What's amazing is if you drop down just a few levels, the atmosphere is the exact opposite. Even at the top levels of amateur motocross, where families are sacrificing to give their kids a shot at a pro career, I've seen people hand over a part for free, just so another kid's only chance isn't ruined. Knowledge and help are shared even more freely.
Example: On the way to PittRace, the leaf springs on the Landers trailer snap, destroying parts. Another family team, of racer Cameron Jones, reorganizes their trailer so they can haul Landers' equipment to the track while Stoney works on repairs.
But what about on the track, when it comes to competing for wins? After Rocco's clutch failure in race one, that same kind of generosity shows up again.
Under the pop-up tent at PittRace, Stoney has all the clutch plates used all season in Rocco's Ninja all lined up, looking for clues about why the clutch failed in race one. While Stoney has been alone in prepping the bike at some MotoAmerica rounds, he has help for the end of the season from mechanic Ray Diaz. But even the two of them are not alone to figure out the mystery, as other experts around the paddock offer advice.
Former Superbike racer Dale Quarterley, who now runs the Quarterley Racing On Track Development team with four riders in the Junior Cup series, sits with Stoney and Diaz and patiently explains the rather complicated and counterintuitive reason for the problem with the Ninja 400 clutch design, the parts that can help and the ones that don't, and the modifications he's made on his Kawasakis. Keep in mind this is a team owner whose riders are getting beaten every weekend by Rocco, and Quarterley is helping ensure Rocco will likely keep on beating them. You won't find the Yamaha Factory and Yoshimura Suzuki Superbike teams sharing knowledge like that, but it's the way much of the racing paddock operates.
Confident that the clutch is fixed for race two at PittRace, Rocco launches from his pole position. He leads the first lap. He leads every lap. He's the only rider to put in a lap under 1:54, and only one other racer, Olmedo, is able to break under 1:55. Another eight-second victory, the 10th win in 13 races, and back to business as usual.
Right now, wins are coming easily, but there's always the looming question: What about next year? The only option for Rocco in professional racing in the United States would be to return to Junior Cup, because racers have to be 16 to move up to Supersport or Twins. Racing next year in the same class he is dominating this year would not be advancing. He has been approved to race a 600 cc Supersport bike in WERA club races, "But that is a supplement, not the main focus," says Stoney.
Few careers are more elusive or precarious than professional motorcycle racer. Ideally, Rocco could get enough support to race in the Moto3 Junior World Championship in 2020. But there's still the ever-present knowledge that even winning all the time could be less than enough to win him the chance he needs.