The object of any competitive race, whether it's running, cycling or motocross, is to win. On the track, victories and defeats are clearly defined.
Not so in life.
For a pair of young Long Island motocross riders, bouncing and bumping over a dirt course at rapid speeds is the easy part. When the engines are roaring, the dirt is kicking up and the bikes are flying through the air, the pursuit of victory is all that matters.
But there is life off the track, and sometimes it is a difficult road. For Benjamin Rio, 20, and JoJo Dashosh, 13, life interrupted by health setbacks and death has created challenges that cannot be fixed with tools and machines.
Yet motocross has provided a refuge, helping forge a connection so strong that the two often describe themselves as brothers.
If the goal on the track is to win, the goal away from it is to simply endure and overcome.
Dashosh was 8 years old when his father, Larry, introduced him to motocross. The time they spent at the track cemented the father-son bond until January of last year, when the elder Dashosh died unexpectedly.
"When my dad passed away, we were all upset," said his only son, who lives in Oceanside with his mother and older sister, Ariana, 16. "We didn't give up and just start falling apart. What we did was we kept moving forward with our lives and tried to get better. And every day, you get that inch better."
Five years ago, Rio, who lives in Brentwood, was well on his way to fulfilling his dream of turning pro in motocross. He won the East Coast Arena Cross series in his class and qualified for the national championships in Las Vegas. He finished third there, a strong enough showing to garner a sponsor to help Rio in his quest to rise to the next level. The sponsor put a $40,000 down payment on a $375,000 motor home with a trailer so the Rios could travel in comfort to races, and also provided $5,000 to cover expenses each month, according to the family. Until then, Rio's biggest sponsor had provided just $2,000 a year.
Given that motocross' major competitions take place outside New York State, sponsorship money is essential to advancing professionally.
"It was an incredible opportunity," said Rio's father, Mike, 48. "This was a chance for Ben to realize everything he had worked for. We had a full-time mechanic and we sent Ben to Florida to work with a private coach."
Once in Florida, Rio continued to excel at the track. Off it, though, he was becoming lethargic and complained of abdominal discomfort. His father flew him home to undergo testing, and doctors diagnosed Rio with ulcerative colitis, a chronic intestinal disease.
"Here is a 15-year-old boy and doctors are telling him he would never race again," Mike Rio said. "One doctor wanted to remove part of his intestine. Another one wanted to remove his colon. And this other doctor told Ben that he should find a municipal job because he's going to need the medical coverage. That's not what we wanted to hear."
Around the same time, Rio's sponsor, a Long Island-based IT developer, dropped him, but the family was responsible for the loan balance on the motor home.
All the Rios had left was each other, which is the way it starts for most youths when they venture into a sport.
Dads kick-started passion
Rio and Dashosh came to motocross because of their fathers.
"When I was about 9 years old, I asked my dad for a dirt bike," Mike Rio said. "He said, 'Are you out of your mind?' When Ben was around the same age, his cousin got a dirt bike. One day, Ben took a ride on it and he loved it. That night he said, 'Dad, can I get a dirt bike?' I remember how excited he was. I said, 'Let's go get one.' "
Larry Dashosh raced quads, or all-terrain vehicles, all over the tri-state area as a young man. When he became a father, he shared that passion for motor sports with his only son. They became regulars at Club MX, the Ronkonkoma motocross track owned and operated by Mike Rio.
"His father taught him everything," said JoJo's mother, Michelle Dashosh. "He's following right in his father's footsteps."
By the time the Dashoshes began showing up at Club MX, Rio had found a doctor who believed his ulcerative colitis could be treated with medication. Although Rio still has minor bouts with the disease, it has largely been in remission for five years and Rio is still pursuing his dream of racing professionally. The difference now is that the team consists of Dashosh and Rio and races under the name Adapt Improvise Conquer.
Mike Rio doubles as his son's mechanic and coach. They occasionally rent the motor home to bigger racing teams and take the family pickup to competitions. Their primary source of income is Club MX, a 10-acre spread with a beginner's track, an expert track and an ATV track. The track is open daily from 10 a.m. to sunset, and there are also weekly camps in the summer. Benjamin Rio is the primary instructor.
"It's pretty cool that you have someone who is trying to go pro helping you out, getting better and faster," Dashosh said. "It gave me a place to be, instead of home. It definitely made things better."
Initially, Dashosh wasn't sure he'd ride again after his father died.
"He asked me, 'Does this mean I am not going to be able to ride anymore?' Michelle Dashosh said. "I said, 'Daddy's always going to be there with you when you are riding. When you are on that bike, daddy's going to be right there on your shoulder.' He was happy to hear that."
'Like a gift from God'
Mike Rio extended a free, lifetime Club MX membership to Dashosh not long after the boy's father died, and a family friend, John Stella, drives him to practice twice a week during the school year.
"We didn't want to see him idle at home or hanging out on the street with the wrong kids," Mike Rio said. "We wanted to see him uplifted, feeling good about himself. He has every excuse in the world to act out. He has every right to be angry. But he's a very mature kid. He has a good grasp on things."
And a stronger bond than ever with his teacher and mentor.
Rio and Dashosh have described each other as brothers, and besides eating dinner with the Rio family, Dashosh has traveled out of state to watch Rio race. In the constant motion and action of racing, Dashosh's eyes always remain fixed on Rio, whether in competition or over the hills at Club MX.
"JoJo was always one of my favorite kids," Rio said. "He has energy, he pushes himself all the time. When we take a break he asks to stay on the track. I love helping the kids out, pushing them, because when they are my age I want them to be better than I am.
"The mindset I keep with myself is moving forward and doing better," Rio added. "That definitely has an effect on JoJo and the other kids at these camps."
Dashosh's mother said the motocross men in her son's life serve as surrogate role models who are "like a gift from God."
"I'm proud of my son that he kept [motocross] going and he kept that alive in himself," she said. "Because he would have lost, not just his father, but the one thing he really loved to do with his father. Every day he wakes up he's becoming more and more of a man."
Every day, an inch better, as JoJo Dashosh likes to say.
With staffer Chris Ware
Motocross is a year-round sport, with the outdoor season from March to September and an indoor season from October to February. The sport originated in Europe and came to the United States in the mid-1960s.
There hasn't been a major motocross on Long Island in more than a decade, but there are competitions in Walden, Modena and Broome County, N.Y.
There are three forms of racing:
ArenaCross: Set in indoor venues that can accommodate upward of 10,000 fans. The dirt is brought into the arena and a track is built indoors.
SuperCross: Set in large indoor and outdoor stadiums, where dirt is also brought in and a track is constructed. In March, a track will be constructed on the infield of the Daytona International Speedway for a SuperCross race.
Outdoor Motocross: Takes place outdoors on a natural terrain.
— ROBERT CASSIDY