“Back in the day.”
“When I was a kid.”
“When I was your age.”
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. We are all guilty of remembering the “good ‘ol days” to be, well, maybe a bit better than they actually were. Nostalgia has a way of taking hold of us and stirring up memories and emotions that hit us right in the feels. There is a simple, yet powerful quote in the series finale of the The Office courtesy of Andy Bernard: “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.”
Sage words from an otherwise inept sales associate with an anger problem. The point of all of this? Are the good old days as great as we remember them to be? Or, is it just our mind playing colorful tricks on us? I don’t know, but I will tell you that the 1990s and early 2000s of supercross, motocross, and Freestyle Motocross were in fact, the best got dayum years of our sport.
Okay, so I realize we’ve all heard this before: the gear, the bikes, the tracks, Art and David, the custom helmets, no energy drinks, McGrath, ‘Fro, Travis, K-Dub, Jenny Taft… err… fuck. My mistake. Jenny Taft was the only thing good about the last decade of our sport. And then she left for more promising horizons. I shall never get over this crush I have on her. If anybody out there knows her, can ya help a brother out? Yes, I am married. Yes, my wife understands my JT crush. To be fair, my wife has said she would leave me for Paul Rudd and potentially Jeff Emig. Soooooo. Okay. My apologies. Let me get this back on track.
Minus my crush (who wasn’t in the sport in the ‘90s), we’ve all heard the aforementioned reasons why our sport was better many moons ago. Now, I do not disagree. In fact, I agree 100% more than Trey Canard when he was giving 200% during that 2010 outdoor title chase. However, today, I am going to explain to you a very specific reason why the 1990s and early 2000s forever hold a special place in my heart. And, for our younger readers, consider this your history lesson and, for any current professional SX/MX racers reading this, start taking notes because you could probably learn a valuable lesson about not being an idiot.
Okay, are you ready? You’re not? Tough shit. Here we go. Enter: Derrick Shae Bentley.
“Who the fuck is Derrick Shae Bentley?”
“Was Bentley the guy that ran his fucking levers straight up like an idiot?”
“Oh, that was the guy that was always hurt and never reached his potential, right?”
“Bentley… The guy that won a title by two points and screamed ‘I FREAKIN’ WON IT!’”
“Yeah, I know the name. He rode for Mitch for about 64 years and then fell off the planet.”
Most likely, these are the questions you are asking yourself right now. Let me give you a brief history lesson. Shae “Shagnasty” Bentley of Fayetteville, Georgia, made his professional debut on Saturday, February 14th, 1998 inside the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana, aboard a privateer Tacate Kawasaki with 583 on his number plates. That night, with third gate pick for the main event, against the likes of Ricky Carmichael, Robbie Reynard, Casey Lytle, Brian Deegan, Nick Wey, Brock Sellards, Danny Smith and many other heavy hitters of the 125 division, Bentley would holeshot his first-ever supercross main event and would proceed to lead the opening laps. However, shortly after this, Bentley would hit the deck in the whoops and end up 21st on the night.
In 1998, the Internet was barely a thing and social media of any kind was not even a thought. We didn’t find out about new talent unless you saw them at Perris Raceway for a local GFI series, read about them in a magazine, or if they did what Bentley did and holeshot their first-ever SX race.
For me, what caught my attention was Bentley’s riding style. It was effortless. He didn’t move around on the bike. At all. He stood up almost everywhere, his levers were bent straight up, and, did I mention, he looked effortless. I have always been a sucker of riders with that type of posture and style that looks so effortless as if they are going slow, yet their lap times suggest otherwise. Elbows up, back straight, and flow. I was instantly a fan of this Bentley kid. (Speaking of kids. I was in middle school at this point. So, I was the real kid here).
In his rookie season, as a privateer, Shae would go onto finish fifth place overall in the 1998 125 East Coast Supercross Championship standings, leading more races and battling for podium spots most of the year. This meant some great TV time for me to study his style, lever position, etc. And, after that SX season wrapped, this meant the ’98 outdoor season would kick off at Glen Helen Raceway, just over an hour from where I grew up and I could get to see him ride in person. Hell, I could potentially meet him in the pits! Well, my dreams were cut short. In the early stages of moto one, Shagnasty would hit a kicker at the top of Mt. St. Helens and literally cartwheel from the top of this behemoth downhill and finish his decent about halfway down. If memory serves me right, be broke his collarbone and was KO’d? Nonetheless, he was out, and I only got to watch him do a handful of laps in person. I was crushed.
Bentley would bounce back and rejoin the series just after the halfway point at Unadilla and then come out and holeshot at Kennworthy’s and lead for a while and then earn a top-10 overall at the final round at Steel City Raceway in Delmot, Pennsylvania. These results and individual rides were enough to catch the eye of Mitch Payton, who signed Bentley to Pro Circuit Kawasaki for the 1999 season. I believe I’ve heard stories that Mitch actually signed Shae at Steel City, but deep industry insiders can fact check me as I maybe incorrect.
Okay, so, this is where it gets interesting guys and gals. In the 1990s, when riders and/or teams weren’t paranoid about injuries, the sport used to have these really cool invitational SX races/warm-up races in December. The Perris Invitational and the Glen Helen/Chaparral SX Invitationals were big, big deals in Southern California. It was an opportunity to see these guys up close and personal, shaking out the cobwebs before Anaheim 1. This also meant it would be a second opportunity for me to witness my guy ride in person and make his debut on a Mitch Payton steed at the Chaparral SX Invitational at Glen Helen Raceway circa December 1998.
This race was slightly unique. They had their 125 and 250 pro class and then they combined the top 10 from the 125s and 250s and did a final 125/250 shootout. The years prior to ’98, no 125 rider had won the 125/250 shootout. Now, they did give the 125s about five or 10-second head start but you need to remember this was the ‘90s. Two-strokes, really slow and technical SX tracks. These guys weren’t grabbing second or third out of a corner, doing a small seat bounce, and jumping an entire rhythm lane. The difference between line choice and ability to jump or not jump obstacles between the 125s and 250s was typically a lot different. So, even with the head start the 125 class would get, it still wasn’t enough to win the shootout. Anyways, I watched on as Bentley would win the 125 class main event on his number 47 PC steed. Not only was I watching him ride in person, but I got to see him WIN! Next up was the 125/250 shootout. Oh, who was in the 250 class you ask? Oh, nobody too big. Just Jeremy McGrath and Jeff Emig to name a couple. Ever heard of them? Bentley would holeshot the 125/250 shootout and proceed to check out. MC would holeshot the 250 start and begin his mission of carving through the 125 field to find, hunt, and dispose of the leader (Bentley). Welp, MC did all he could and Bentley rode like a man possessed. At the checkered flag, an essentially unheard of and unproven Shae Bentley won it all. He won the 125 main event and won the 125/250 shootout, beating all of the 250s and holding off the then four-time Supercross champion Jeremy McGrath. To this day, that is a record Shae still holds. Granted, I don’t think they’ve had that race since 1998, but uuuhhhh yeeeeeaaaahhhhh.
At the conclusion of this race, I went to the PC box van to wait for Bentley. Surely this would be my chance to meet him, get an autograph, or his goggles—something! Well, I suspect he was caught up in the celebration of it all and I didn’t get a chance to meet him. Hell, the guy never even appeared at the box van. I was stoked he won it all but bummed I still couldn’t meet him. By this point of my life, I was running 583 on my Yamaha YZ80, my clutch lever was bent up to the moon, and I studied the VHS tapes of the races to understand his riding style and mimic it the best I could. While MC was always a hero of mine, there was something about Bentley that I found fascinating and I became a super fan.
It’s funny how our memory works. I can remember so many details from these years, but others are foggy or completely forgotten. Example: after this race, somehow Shae’s brother, Brandon, found out about my story. He found out that I was rocking the number 583 on my bike, running my levers like Shae, trying to have the same riding style, and that I had missed my two chances to meet Shae. Again, I cannot recall how he found out about all of this, but he did. He managed to get my personal home address and, without me knowing, shortly before the 1999 season commenced, I received a package in the mail from Fayetteville, Georgia, with Shae Bentley’s name on it. Like a kid on Christmas Day, I ripped apart that package to find an autographed Shae Bentley Fox jersey from his rookie SX season with 583 on the back of it, a handful of autographed team Tacate Shae Bentley posters, and a small handwritten note from Shae thanking me for being such a fan, how much he appreciated it, and to keep kicking ass with my racing. As a kid in middle school, I was FREAKING OUT. I couldn’t believe a professional SX racer would take the time out of their day to do this for some kid living on the opposite side of the country. This was the first time I ever got a jersey from pro, too. Something my friends and I always thought would be the coolest thing to happen!
I have no idea exactly what I said, but I wrote a handwritten letter to Shae thanking him for doing such a kind thing, how big a fan I was, and that I hoped he won the 1999 championship. What transpired over the next several years is something that, to this day, truly blows me away.
Shae and I ended up becoming friends. Every couple of months, he would send me a handwritten letter with an update of how things were going for him, he would send me autographed posters, and every year, he would send me an autographed jersey. I had 583, 47, 104, HIS NUMBER ONE JERSERY from the 2001 season, and his 104 jerseys from outdoors 2001 and 2002. It even got to a point where we had exchanged phone numbers and every so often I would give him a call and he always happily answered and spent time talking on the phone with me, giving me riding advice, advice on girls, etc. Some of the coolest moments was during his 2000 title run against David Pingree. Throughout that SX season, Shae and I would write to each other or talk on the phone and would give me great insight into how he was dealing with the pressure of battling for that championship. He wrote me after his first-ever SX win in Houston, and then a month or two later when he won in Minneapolis and took over the points lead.
I remember that letter, too… Telling me how he was freaking out when he lapped Pingree and knew he had the points lead. I was just a kid who had randomly become friends with his favorite professional supercross rider and getting behind-the-scenes insight from a guy who was in the thick of it all.
In late 2001, shortly after I started my freshmen year of high school, I had some shit happen in my life. Things that I am not going to get into here, but because of certain circumstances in my life, I lost contact with Shae, and I lost contact with the sport as a whole for about a year. I lost all of my jerseys, letters, and posters. It was a rough damn year for a kid going into high school. I’ll leave it at that. I don’t think it was until 2008 that Shae and I would reconnect. And, since then, we’ve stayed in contact via social media. However, I did delete my Facebook account last year, so we have lost touch again. But, last I knew, he had his life in a great spot and all was how he wanted it to be.
Now, there is so much more detail I’m sure I could go into, but I think this covers the major points. And, it makes a point that I hope our current professionals can comprehend. There are many kids that look up to you. You are their favorite rider and fucking ‘eh they mean it when they tell you how you are their favorite. When I say Shae Bentley was my favorite rider. I mean it. I turn 34 years old next month, and I still rock the 583. It’s my number until the end. And Shae understood what a fan I was and went above and beyond for me and further solidified that I would be a fan for life. The guy was riding for Mitch Payton and in the midst of battling for a 125 West Coast Supecross Championship, yet he still took time out of his riding and training to sit down and write handwritten letters to some kid in California. He made sure to personally send me his autographed jerseys and posters. He made time to take my phone call and give me advice on my riding while going after his one and only supercross championship. I defy you to name a single professional athlete in our sport who is currently racing that would do this? Let alone do it while going after a championship. Perhaps Dean Wilson? Maybe I’m wrong, maybe our top athletes are doing similar things, but I find it unlikely. I know we had the saying, “Be like Mike” in the ‘90s. But I’m going to go ahead and rebrand it, “Be like Shae.”
I think we do look back on the pass with fond nostalgia. Recalling it to be better than it was. But you know what, for me, when I think about those days all these years later, I don’t recall it being better than it was. Honestly, it was absolutely fucking unreal. I knew it then, and I know it now. That was a genuine one-of-a-kind experience with a genuine one-of-a-kind human being. I don’t know if Mitch Payton pays attention to this website of ours and, if he doesn’t, I do hope that somebody sends him a link to this article. I’ve never met Mitch and I don’t know that he is aware of what his rider was taking the time to do for a fan circa 1998 to 2002. I’d like to think that if Mitch did read this, he’d smile and be proud that Shae Bentley was under his tent for four years. We may look back and judge a rider on their results or lack thereof, all of the injuries, and what could have been. Surely Shae had more than just that one title in him, but we will look back and judge him for what could’ve been without all of the injuries. For me? I could never.
I will forever judge Shae Bentley on the character of his actions which was kind-hearted, sincere, and taking time out of his days to go above and beyond to be a genuine and kind soul to a kid in California. If you ever read this Shae, thank you. You’ve forever impacted me. 583 will always live in my heart. And, to our current professional SX/MX racers, sincerely, I hope you already have or do find a kid and go above and beyond for them. That’s the real shit that makes a real difference. Be the change. Be the difference.
Main image: Pro Circuit