Sound of Speed


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On the edge of the Pax Trax Motocross Park, in Bunnell, Fla., kids run around in racing jumpers and shin-high boots while their shirtless dads tinker with engines and empty out jugs of gasoline. Truck tailgates lay open, the beds piled high with toolboxes and Styrofoam coolers and hibachis. Rottweilers loll in the sun, oblivious to the mosquitoes that sortie in from an adjacent swamp.

A young girl, all braces, blond tangles and blue eyes, puts on a helmet and starts her 85cc Honda. One of only two female riders at the track, she's noticeable for an omnipresent ear-to-ear smile. And for the fact that she weighs all of 95 pounds. The girl is tiny. As she takes a few warmup laps, a boy whizzes past her. He loops around and does it again, bleeding into her line. The girl shakes her head. She revs her engine briefly, considers chasing him down, then eases up on the gas and reluctantly lets him outpace her. The girl's mother, Roni Fiolek, watches the exchange from the bleachers.

"That stuff always pisses her off," she says. "These boys try to show her up. They really don't have any idea who they're dealing with."

Hello, my name is Ashley Fiolek. I'm 16 years old, I am profoundly deaf, and I race motocross.

These are the first words in the biography section of ashleyfiolek.com. The bio goes on to summarize the accomplishments of her amateur career. It's a record that would be impressive for any racer but one that screams for notice because Ashley Fiolek is both improbably young and unable to hear.

Fiolek registers sound at 100 decibels, which is to say, were she standing in front of a jet engine when it started up, she would detect only the slightest rumble. She has tried hearing aids, but they make her dizzy. She has no interest in a cochlear implant, an electronic device that would help her detect sounds, because "you can't do contact sports with them." She can speak but prefers to communicate through sign language and text messaging.

Motocross is a loud sport, and racers depend on sound for cues. The wasp's buzz of the engine tells them when to shift to maximize speed and control. Sound also warns that another rider is approaching, indicating when it would be best to move out of the way lest you summarily be bumped and dumped from your bike.

Fiolek knows when to shift by sensing vibrations, feeling the bike as it groans and memorizing every bump and dale of the course. Unlike other riders, Ashley also has to hold her line—commit to a path and stay the course even when it reveals itself to have been a bad choice-because to move suddenly could endanger the riders coming up behind her, riders she cannot hear.

"I lose time that way. But I can't risk it," Fiolek laments. "Still, I believe that being deaf helps my riding. Most hearing people get scared
if someone is right behind them. I can't hear them, so I'm fine."

After two years of dominating amateur races on her 85cc, Fiolek made her 125cc debut against the best women in the world in November, winning the women's supercross title on a machine that outweighed her by 100 pounds. "My feet don't even touch the ground when I'm on it," Fiolek says. She also qualified for a boys' race at Loretta Lynn's last summer. Out of 42 riders—41 male—she finished 11th. She'll turn pro in August, midway through the six-event Hitachi WMA National Championship series, the pinnacle of women's pro motocross.

The stunning rise of this wisp of a thing has caught the attention of her sport's biggest names. "Everybody wants to be the best," says pro rider Travis Pastrana, her friend. "But in your heart, you're always kind of thinking that it can't be done. Ashley doesn't think that way. She just wants to win."

IN THE kitchen of the St. Augustine, Fla., home Fiolek shares with her parents and her 3-year-old brother, Kicker, one of Ashley's jerseys hangs above the dining table like a work of art. Surrounding it are various plaques, mementos and, off to the side, a small, wooden crucifix. In the front of the kitchen sits Fiolek's weightlifting station, and just around the corner is a cluster of trophies, many taller than Fiolek, who is 5'1".

Keeping Fiolek in races and gear has kept the family nearly broke. "Our life has been about helping Ashley realize her dream," says her father, Jim, a software developer. Her parents were early enablers. Ashley got her first bike at 3 and was riding solo around the family's property at 7. In turn, Ashley has kept up her end of the deal. "Everything she has achieved, she has worked for," says Jim. "She is fast because she works to be fast."

Fiolek's goal is to be even faster. "I want to become the fastest woman motocross racer in history!" she says. "And I'm going to be the first deaf person to become a professional." It is clear, even as she says it, that this distinction matters far less to her than being the best. Her disability troubles her little. When asked if she would change one thing about herself, Fiolek writes—in capital letters—"I'D BE TALLER!"

Fiolek was born deaf, but her parents didn't know until she was 3. Doctors mistakenly labeled her everything from "spoiled" to "mildly retarded." Then one day in the kitchen, her mother dropped an armload of pans right behind her. Ashley didn't move.

Roni kept testing her. Tossing louder and louder items. Screaming. Shouting. Stomping her feet. Ashley never flinched.

She was officially given a diagnosis at University Hospital in Michigan, where the Fioleks then lived. "They showed her signs, and I could see in her face this wave of relief. She could finally communicate," Roni says, tearing up at the memory. Fiolek recalls none of the early drama. And she is rarely sad now, saying, "I only cry when I lose."

That's not too often. She made it to the state track finals in the 3,200 meters when she was 12. She broke school records and was recruited by the soccer team. She passed on it all. "I didn't want to get kicked in the shins," she says. Since ninth grade, Fiolek has been homeschooled. And while she has a few deaf friends, her immediate circle is made up of motocross pals and family.

In her bedroom, Fiolek keeps a Monster Energy cooler stocked with soft drinks. She has Mickey Mouse pillowcases and a lava lamp. Posters of racers are tacked to her walls, along with goofy snapshots of moto girls, all blond and giggly. There is a beanbag chair. Teddy bears. Video games. Here and there are quotes from Muhammad Ali written on white paper.

"She never played with Barbies," says Roni. "She preferred to be outdoors with the boys. I think she's only been in a dress twice."

Fiolek dresses like a boy, so it follows that she wants to ride like one. Her dream is to ride with the men in a pro national. While there have been a handful of women who've dropped in for Michelle Wie-esque moments in men's motocross, a woman has never raced full-time on the men's circuit. "She rides with guys, and she's adopted their style," says 2001 WMA pro champ Tania Satchwell. "If any girl is going to make the supercross circuit, it's Ashley."

On the track, the difference between boys and girls is more than just speed. "Boys play for keeps-they'll take you out," says Fiolek. "Girls don't bump." They can, however, be brutal off the track. Fiolek notes that some girls have criticized her for being "too friendly," a slight that perplexes her. "Why shouldn't we all be friends? Now I just train with guys."

For the most part, "the guys are nice about it. But their dads ... " Fiolek grimaces. "They don't like their sons getting beaten by a girl."

Back at Pax Trax, Fiolek is picking up speed, riding as if she is icing a cake: smooth and fluid, with supreme control. She banks her curves sharp, taking a tight line where lesser riders cut wide swaths. She passes everyone, including the boy who taunted her earlier. Other riders give chase, leaning into their bikes, jumping too high on the bumps. They look like beetles on a skillet. The crowd takes note.

"That's a girl."

"No, it isn't."

"Dude, it is. Look at her freakin' hair."

"Well, she doesn't ride like a girl."

After her run, Fiolek removes her helmet to reveal matted, wet hair and a ring of dirt around her mouth and neck. She unsnaps her chest plate and pats herself down with a towel, smoothing her hair back as best she can. As she cleans up, a truck pulls up with a family of fans aboard.

"God!" the father says, pointing a thick finger at Fiolek. "She's teeny. I mean, really teeny."

He goes on: "My son watched her on the TV last year. Thought she was all right."

Roni signs to her daughter, and Fiolek smiles and nods, answering through her mother, "Thank you so much."

"Let's get a picture with her," the man says to his sons, climbing out of the truck and inching closer to Fiolek. "Come on, y'all. Get on in here!"

The young men reluctantly oblige and shuffle toward Fiolek, who wraps an arm around each and flashes a huge grin as the camera snaps.

"God bless you," the man says, turning to go. As he does, he mutters, "Damn, does she look bigger on that bike."