By Jeanne Sager
COCHECTON December 28, 2007 There’s nothing left between Phil Nicoletti Jr. and his dreams.
Three years ago, a bright-eyed 15-year-old Nicoletti told the Democrat he wanted to be the next Ricky Carmichael and ride his dirtbike into the history books.
This week, an 18-year-old Nicoletti sat in his parents’ home in Cochecton and talked business.
He flew in for the holidays from his new home in California, a home provided by the Kawasaki Motor Sports company part of a contract to ride on the Xtreme Motosport.com Kawasaki team in 2008.
Earlier this year, Nicoletti made the jump from one of the sport’s up-and-coming amateur stars to professional motocross rider.
Adding a second place finish at the well-known Loretta Lynn’s National Motocross Championship in August to an already lengthy list of podium appearances, Nicoletti earned attention from the folks at Kawasaki.
“They said we’re looking for some riders, and your name is in the hat,” Nicoletti recalled. “It was pretty exciting you work so hard for that, having those words said to you . . .”
He’s now part of a four-man team that will compete for Kawasaki in the 2008 AMA Supercross Series and AMA Motocross Championships.
Nicoletti will start the year in February at the Georgia Dome, home to the Atlanta Falcons, where he’ll compete in the Supercross Lites East.
He expects to run in eight supercross races in 2008, plus 12 outdoor races.
The youngest rider on the team, he has a lot to prove.
“Being the rookie, I get picked on a lot,” he said with a grin. “I don’t think they mean half the stuff they say.
“I hope,” he added, his brown eyes twinkling.
After all, Nicoletti is still a teenager.
His parents, Sue and Phil Sr., have had to come to terms with sending their son halfway around the world to follow his dream.
Phil Sr. acts as his son’s manager, hammering out the details of the Kawasaki contracts including the home in Huntington Beach, Calif. where he crashes after 12- and 14-hour days of training.
It’s a party town, but the Nicolettis have faith in their son and his faith in the sport of motocross.
“It’s just like any athlete, whether it’s Derek Jeter or whoever,” Phil Sr. said. “You’ve got to stay focused you can get taken in by that atmosphere.”
Young Phil said it’s about choices.
“I’m a quarter of a mile from the beach, but a mile in the other direction is a gym where I’m supposed to be training,” he explained. “So you could go to the beach or go to the gym and do what you have to do.”
He chooses the gym.
He puts in long days working out, building his body up to hold onto a bike when he hurdles over jumps as high as a three-story building.
Gone are the days of making do with what his family can afford he calls the Kawasaki mechanics to meet him at the test track when he’s ready.
They’ve provided him with bikes for training in California and bikes for training on the old track built by his dad in Cochecton.
The Nicolettis have an old farm on a back road in Cochecton ample room for training.
That’s why Phil Sr. remembers buying his son a dirtbike for Christmas 14 years ago.
“We live on an old farm, we have a lot of property,” the elder Nicoletti explained. “It was just a guy thing.”
Four-year-old Phil took his first spins around the family basement.
His mom would go to work, and Phil Sr. would throw the windows wide open to keep the fumes from rising into the house.
Phil Jr.’s first race was at South Woods in Monticello.
“I don’t even want to talk about it,” he said, shaking his head and burying it in his hands.
“My dad pretty much walked beside me! I was going that slow.”
There was something about competition that hooked the eldest of the Nicoletti’s five children.
“I can’t stop doing it,” Phil Jr. said, flashing another of his wide grins. “When it comes to that point when I have to stop. . . I’m always going to have to have a bike, something with two wheels on it.”
He’s hopeful that as motocross grows as a sport, he too can grow.
NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs recently bought a motocross team, and new sponsors are pouring money into the sport.
Alumni like Nicoletti’s role model, Carmichael, are moving into the four-wheeled sports as their bodies age out of motocross with its constant motion, the bumps and jumps jarring the joints.
Nicoletti sees his childhood in New York, having to take winters off because of the snow, as an advantage.
He’s not yet burnt out, and he was able to step back and watch his competitors make their mistakes, learn from them.
“Now, for the next seven or eight years, I can put my head down, get it done and retire at 26,” he said.
“Go fishing,” he added with a laugh.
His performance-linked contract with Kawasaki calls for top 10 placements, but Nicoletti has his eyes on the top five and his hopes on the podium.
He’s learning as he trains, keeping his focus on the eldest member of the Xtreme team.
“He’s got a lot of experience, and I’m just going to use my eyes and watch him,” Nicoletti noted.
“This is a regular job,” he said. “It’s fun to be able to do something you love and get paid for it, but right now I’m riding and training and me and my trainer are gonna be putting in a lot of time at the gym and on the track.
“As soon as those gates are off, it’s game on,” he continued.
Starting with a Jan. 2 meet the team press conference, Nicoletti will be thrust into the spotlight in 2008, with autographs to sign and responsibilities to Kawasaki to fulfill.
From there, the sky is the limit.
“It looks like it’s such a far stretch away when you start, when you’re 4 [years old],” Phil Jr. said. “I still have a ways to go . . . I’ll keep plugging away.
“There’s only one top number 1.”
He’s been offered a chance to attend Formula 1 school, learning to drive the cars made famous by the Indy 500.
It’s an option, perhaps, for the days after dirtbikes.
It could just be another turn in the road.
“As long as it stays fun, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop doing it,” Nicoletti said. “Just like some people when they get out on a basketball court it’s the same feeling for me.”