One of the best things about doing track days and/or club racing is that you see people of all ages who are better skilled than you at riding motorcycles. There’s something about getting your ass handed to you by “a kid” while hitting the track. It's pretty awesome. Actually, when I say "kids," it’s usually teens or young adults from ages 15-20.
I first met one of these “kids” while doing a track day. I saw a girl on a Ninja 250 similar to mine, except her’s had a nicer paint job—light blue with green trim. I saw her on the grid, and went on right behind her. At times, I try to go at the same time as another 250 rider in order to see if I can keep up...
Let's just say, there’s no keeping up with Valentine Welch.
She pulled away so fast I couldn’t help but wonder if she had a turbo-charged 250. Every session afterwards, she would continually fly by me while picking off every big bike in her path.
Eventually, I started seeing her around more often, at both track days and AFM races, and decided to say hello and find out more about her. Valentine was hanging out with her dad, Mike, who right off the bat seemed like one of the coolest dad’s I’ve ever met. I chatted with him a lot at first, but eventually I started to talk with Valentine, who was incredibly friendly and easy to chat with.
Valentine was born, raised and currently lives in Medford, Oregon. She’s 17 years old and she looks it, but once you have a conversation with her it’s clear that she’s incredibly mature for her age. Valentine is also super smart—she’s taking all AP courses, so she dedicates a lot of her time to school. She also works a lot at her job at ColdStone Creamery, which in my opinion is one of the coolest jobs to have as a teenager. She’s also on the swim team, plays guitar, sings and enjoys the occasional video game.
However, Valentine believes that these things are mediocre compared to her true passion—her favorite hobby. She tells me that the most exciting thing about her is motorcycles.
Starting With the Smallest of Them All
Valentine says she was destined to start riding motorcycles. This was all thanks to her dad, who raced back in the day.
“I actually learned how to walk up at PIR when my dad was doing sprint races, and he actually missed my first steps because he was out there losing his race,” she said.
When Valentine was 8 years old, Mike got her a pocket bike. Initially, they (her mom and dad) took her to the church parking lot to get her comfortable riding the bike. After doing some research, they discovered that people raced mini bikes at the mini car track in McMinnville, Oregon.
“And I at first I kind of laughed at it because I’m there thinking ‘oh my god this is ridiculous. There are people on tiny motorcycles, some of them are full grown men.’ And then within a couple of months, we were up there and were part of the ridiculousness,” she told me while laughing.
Racing in the Golden State
Valentine raced pocket bikes for almost two years before heading down to California. Why California? She tells me it’s because that’s where the competition was. She stayed racing on the pocket bike, and had a lot of success on it before moving up to a “bigger” bike when she was 12 years old—a NSR50.
“I absolutely hated it because it was like a couch,” she said.
Since couches aren’t particularly fast or exciting, she hopped on a Metrakit, which she enjoyed much more in terms of performance. After gaining some experience on the Metrakit, she decided to upgrade again when she was about 14 years old. She got a Yamaha TZ125 and did her first ever big track day at Thunderhill Raceway.
“We got the TZ125 because it was fast, it was light and my dad loved two-strokes. It was my favorite,” she said.
Valentine started racing for the AFM in 2012 at 15 years old, and while doing some research on the AFM, Valentine and her parents realized hardly no one raced 125s; however, they did see there were a good amount of Ninja 250s. So naturally, it was time for another stepping stone (bike) for Valentine. They got the Ninja before getting involved with the club.
The Lawnmover (aka The Ninja 250)
“I hated it! Oh my God. The first track day I ever did on the Ninja, I came in and almost cried because it was so heavy, it was so slow compared to my 125. I said it had the power of a lawnmower. I was freaking ticked!”
After Valentine told me this, I asked her that she surely got accustomed to the Ninja 250, right? I mean, just because it has a suspension made out of what feels like packing peanuts, it doesn’t mean it’s all that terrible. Besides, I’ve seen her ride it many times and she makes it look so easy, so effortless.
She the responded: “I wouldn’t say I ever got accustomed to the Ninja 250. It wasn’t a good partnership at first, but once I taught it how to do things and I learned to make it do what I wanted, I think the Ninja and I got along alright. But I certainly never loved it to the degree that I loved my TZ."
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Once Valentine started racing for the AFM, she was able to be pretty damn competitive on the lawnmower. Even though she's gotten a few podium positions, she also tells me that doesn’t really keep tabs on standings, points or trophies.
“I race for pride—because I enjoy it and I just want to win. I don’t care all that much about the titles,” she said.
The Crippled Triple
The Suzuki 450 was next on this list of "big bike" upgrades. The 450, which starts out its life as a GSX-R600, is also known as a “crippled triple” because the 4th cylinder is disabled; therefore, leaving it with only three functioning ones.
“The 450 was kind of a stepping stone between the Ninja and the 600 because a lot of people are able to jump from a 300 to a 600. I’ve always been a little bit...I like to say safer? But in reality, is it more hesitant and slow to adjust to new bikes? And so for me to go from 250 straight to a 600 was just kind of ridiculous. Like it was just too much of a jump," she explained.
Just to be clear, I asked her if she wanted to eventually race a 600, which she replied yes, it's something she definitely wants to do.
Valentine continued to explain, “I mean, 600s are fast, they’re fun, no one really pays attention to anything you do until you’re on a 600. They are kind of like your first foray into actual real racing in a way. So the 450 gave us a taste of more speed and actual power, and acceleration, and braking and handling. So it has the 600 chassis and the size of a 600 that I can acclimate to, but without the high-siding, killing power of the 600. So once I really adjust to the size and the chassis of the bike and can make use the full power then I can go up after that."
KTM 390: Another Strained Relationship
Things were about to get even better for Valentine. Starting off the 2014-2015 AFM season, she now had both the Ninja 250 and the Suzuki 450 in her arsenal to race. It was awesome watching her to continue to kick ass on the Ninja, while also going out in another race on the 450...
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Then, out of the blue at a track day, I see her riding a KTM 390. I knew about MotoAmerica's KTM 390 Cup, but I didn't put two and two together at first. When I approached her that day to ask her about the bike, she told me that she was indeed going to race it in MotoAmerica. She told me there was buzz around the paddock about the KTM Cup, especially among the AFM "kids," who were planning on racing this new class. The KTM Cup only allows youths ages 14-22 to compete, and is equivalent to the European Junior Cup international class.
At first, it was something that wasn't in the cards for her to do this year, mainly because it took a lot of time, money and commitment. On top of that, she didn't have the bike, so the plan was to revisit the idea...maybe next year.
Then, luck in the form of a KTM 390 Duke fell right into her lap due to a friend of the Welch's wanting to buy one of the Cup bikes, but couldn't do so without a racing license. The friend then realized that Valentine had one, and he not only purchased the bike, but also allowed Valentine to race it.
As with the Ninja 250, Valentine looked spectacular riding the KTM—she appeared that she had a handle it. Again, this wasn't the most accurate assumption.
"I don’t like it ," she laughed, "I think that, especially after riding the 450 and the 250, it’s far too light, it’s far too thin. There are certain things about it, like the footpegs are too low. So whenever I go around a turn my outside foot is actually three to four inches off the peg and I’m just holding onto the bike just with my knee. I don’t fit the bike very well. I’m not a fan of the suspension. Generally, in the worst kind of way I don’t like the bike, but with all of its issues that I have with it, other people won’t see as issues since also kind of act as benefits. So because it’s so light, it’s so thin—it’s unusual to me. But it also makes it easily maneuverable, very flickable so it handles really well going into turns. It holds lines really well." She concluded her thoughts about the KTM by saying, "It’s also light enough that I can pick it up if I drop it as I discovered, so that’s a plus."
She unfortunately discovered the KTM's light weight at Miller Motorsports Park, which was her first race on the bike.
"Miller was an adventure. Our end goal at Miller was pretty ambitious. We wanted to finish top ten because we knew that Josh Serne was finishing around there and I beat Josh Serne on the Ninja 250 at AFM. So we figured that was pretty reasonable. I personally saw no reason why I shouldn’t go into the series and just win everything because I like winning and it seemed like a good plan at the time, " she said.
She qualified 23rd that Saturday, and for the first race she was able to place 17th overall. On Sunday, however, disaster struck.
"I was doing really well and dropping time and was probably set to finish top fifteen. And then a kid made a really aggressive pass on me and...he didn’t make me crash out, but I doubt I would have crashed if he hadn’t made that pass. Like, there’s no one to blame but me for crashing but I think he definitely contributed," she explained.
When it came time for the Laguna Seca races, she was curious to see how she would do. She'd never been to the track at that time, and has only experienced it while playing a MotoGP game. Her goals for the Laguna race weren't as ambitious as they were for Miller, but also weren't too farfetched.
"I just need to put my focus down the track and really make use of the practice and qualifying sessions. I mean, it’s as simple as I want to win. It’s my only drive for it. I want to represent well for our club (AFM), and for Oregon and for women especially. I just really want to go fast," she said.
She was able to finish the race this time around, and finished18th. When I approached her afterwards, I could tell she wasn't in the highest of spirits, but she was definitely not defeated.
"Overall, I think I performed the best that I could at this given situation. I'm still trying to adjust. I wasn't the fastest I could go by any means and it's still not the fastest I will go. I'm not happy with how I performed, but I can't really be disappointed because I put everything I had out there and it just wasn't enough this time." she told me.
MotoAmerica in 2016
Motorcycle club racing is a whole different ball game compared to racing with the pros in an organization like MotoAmerica. Valentine tells me she was taken back on how aggressive the racers in the KTM Cup were.
"I’m so used to racing at the club level where it’s generally, honestly older men. They’ll be in their 20s, 30s, 40s or whatever, and although they’re aggressive...they’re still polite in a kind of way, which is funny to say about AFM. They have such a reputation of being aggressive right? And then I got out there at the first race on the KTM and there are these 14-22 year old kids, and they were all absolutely convinced that they were going to be the first one into turn one. So everyone was throwing elbows and knees and everyone was bumping into each other and touching," she explained and then continued, "It was just crazy. It was a blast! I had a great time. I love getting close and racing aggressive. In a way, it’s really nice to see that they do treat me like a racer and they don’t pansy around me because I’m a girl you know. But it definitely was a whole new experience."
In regards to racing next year, the initial plan was to focus on the 450 and do another season of racing it next year, and then maybe do a few races on a 600. But, it seems that MotoAmerica made a good impression on Valentine.
"Even though my results numerically weren’t very impressive, I think that the experience we had there in general, just the overall vibe of it...I don’t know. MotoAmerica is a lot of fun and I absolutely loved it, and I think there’s real potential there and there’s definitely a lot of rider potential there that I’d like to compete with. So we might focus more on MotoAmerica next year than on AFM," she said.
And I couldn't agree more. She's done amazing on the smaller bikes and really, what's the rush to get on a 600? I know she'll eventually get there and kick even more ass than she is now.