SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Her shiny blond hair framing wire-rimmed glasses that look three sizes too big, Ashley Fiolek giggles and smiles as she signs autographs just beyond the steps of California’s golden-domed state capitol.
Petite and bubbly, the 20-year-old in neon colors looks more like a rock star than someone who spends her days in the dirt.
In a way, she kind of is.
Deaf since birth and one of the best female motocross riders in the world, Fiolek is an inspiration and role model on two wheels and two feet.
“She’s a great motorcycle rider as well as a great person to be a role model for kids, shows how you can overcome difficulties, with her being deaf,” Honda team manager Erik Kehoe said. “She shows that when you’re determined, you can do what you want.”
Fiolek flashed her determination at an early age.
Born in Dearborn, Mich., she was 3 when, after watching her dad ride, told her parents she wanted to race motorcycles. Her father was thrilled, her mother worried she’d get hurt, but she got her way and by 7 she was on the track, mixing it up in races.
Fiolek started winning, too, becoming the youngest Women’s Motocross Association champion by knocking off five-time defending champ Jessica Patterson in 2008, then backing it up with another title along with an X Games gold the following year.
Fiolek finished second to Patterson last season despite winning the season finale at Pala Raceway in Southern California and has been strong again this year, leading the points after opening with a second in Northern California and a win at Texas — not to mention starring in a new television commercial.
“My mom and dad were always supportive, like, ’just believe in yourself and you can do it,”’ Fiolek said through friend Brittany Sharp, using the sign language she relies on. “Once I finally got the hang of shifting, I went from there.”
The shifting is part of what makes Fiolek’s story so amazing.
While most riders listen to the engine to know when to change gears, she can’t hear the revving up and down.
When she first started riding, it wasn’t a problem; the smallest bikes don’t have gears. Once she moved up to the bigger motorcycles, the frustration level rose because she was having a hard time shifting.
She never gave up, though, using determination to learn how to shift by feeling the vibrations of the bike. Now, she can squeeze the clutch and flip the lever without even thinking about it.
“Most of her other senses must be that much stronger and I think her feel through the vibration in the bars is what helps her decide when to shift and when that motor needs a little more clutch or a little more throttle,” Kehoe said. “She can’t hear it, so she’s got to feel it, so it’s truly amazing that she not only rides and is competitive, but has raced to the top level that she has.”
Fiolek also can’t hear the riders behind her, so she has to hold her line a little longer and look for shadows to make sure she doesn’t run into anyone.
Being deaf does have one advantage on the track.
Because she can’t hear the riders over her shoulder, Fiolek doesn’t feel the pressure that comes with it. While other riders tense up from the I-need-to-go-faster sensation of someone bearing down, she can focus on the humps and bumps in front of her, not what’s behind.
“It’s a little less pressure because I don’t know they’re there,” said Fiolek, who now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. “I don’t have that in the back in my brain, I’m just looking forward. Nothing distracts me really because I can just focus on going forward.”
This season, Fiolek is going forward on her own, at least a little bit.
Since she first started racing, her parents were always with her, making sure she had everything she needed, translating sign language for her, providing moral support.
For the opener at Hangtown, just outside Sacramento, Fiolek decided to go without her parents, instead hitting the road with just Sharp, a friend she had met at Loretta Lynn’s amateur race about six years ago.
The trip went well and Fiolek plans to go parentless a few more times during the season, though it won’t be a permanent move.
“It’s a lot of pressure when my mom and dad are around,” Fiolek said. “They’re trying to help, but it gets in my head a little bit. I wouldn’t be here without them, but I think it’s a good idea for me to be out here on my own a little bit.”
Compared to the other obstacles she’s faced, this one should be easy.