The 17-year-old from Spring Hill lined up cockeyed because, really, he had no choice. A nasty spill had left one leg two inches shorter than the other. He leaned toward the right on his good leg. He draped his left leg over the saddle of the 450-cc Suzuki motorbike. The bum leg looked small and thin. It was capped in a boot with a 2-inch lift.
Engines from about a dozen riders crowding the starting gates growled around him. They had gathered on Easter Sunday to pay homage to their own gear-head religion. More than 150 riders from around the metro competed in the Midwest Spring Series Motocross event mostly for bragging rights. The day's top purse: $200.
Dennis had dominated the three races in which he'd competed so far. He took first in both the qualifier and the final of the 250-cc class, then another first in the qualifier for the 450-cc race. He promised nothing short of four straight victories.
Dennis outgrew turning in circles on small-time tracks like this one last winter. That's when he began road-tripping to national indoor American Motorcyclist Association supercross events in Orlando, Detroit and Daytona, competing in a division just below pro riders he used to read about, such as Ricky Carmichael. He placed well enough to make the night-show heats. He never made the cut to the main televised event, but it was impressive for a rider from the Midwest, where the weather prevents year-round practices.
The touring rider had returned, his skin darkly tanned, his hair short and bleached. He gave one-word responses to questions from riders with puka-shell necklaces or back tattoos. How was Daytona? Sketchy. How were the tracks? Dry.
Terry Jonon got his son interested in motocross and, like his son, nearly died in a horrific dirt-bike accident. He waited in his pickup's air-conditioned cab for most of the day and read a newspaper, emerging for his son's races. When Dennis loped away to banter with friends, Terry lounged in a camping chair behind the trailer. His opinion of his son's performance so far has been blunt: Dennis has been "just dicking around."
Across the track, Dennis watched a man hoist a card that indicated how many seconds remained until the final race began. When the man flipped the card to "5," the engine growl became a roar. Dennis stayed in his leaning position, eyeing the line of orange and blue gates near his front tire.
The gates dropped. He cranked his handlebars straight, shoved hard off his foot and pulled back on the throttle in one fluid motion. Dennis sat straight-up and pulled a small wheelie, spraying dust. He tucked his bum leg against the chassis, a reminder that, in this high-flying demolition derby, both father and son have wagered their bodies against success.
On a scorching winter day in 1990, Terry Jonon dropped 2-year-old Dennis off with a baby-sitter and headed for the harsh desert outside Tucson, Arizona. A veteran rider of desert endurance races, Terry opened throttle on a newly installed motor.
In about a month, he was favored to win the "old timers" class of a 150-mile race across a similarly endless sandlot of cactus and stones, from the Mexican border to tropical Puerto Penasco, Mexico. The 33-year-old was a production planner at the Tucson branch of Garrett Air Research (now called Honeywell), which made turbochargers for cars and planes. He credited his time as a Navy petty officer with teaching him the self-discipline that he needed to practice extensively before a race. Sometimes that meant riding alone.
Terry first piloted choppers on the busy streets of Orange County, California, as a teenager in the early '70s. His gang of buddies took off their side mirrors and added knobby tires to their Honda Mini Trails so they could canvass the beaches. He became addicted to the freedom of riding off-road without lanes or traffic laws.
When he and his wife moved to Arizona, they shunned suburbia for a house near the desert. On weekends, they explored the area on two wheels.
During his practice run, the barren landscape blurred as Terry accelerated. He sweated beneath his helmet and protective body armor. Four miles into the backcountry, he saw a place where the path dropped away completely into the bank of a wash. He'd jump down into the empty river bottom and run it like a walled-in obstacle course.
The next move was supposed to be routine. He had hit that jump more times than he could count. Approaching the gap at 20 mph, he pulled up hard on the handlebars and gunned the engine. His tires spun in midair. The bike pitched forward slightly. The last thing he remembered was diving toward the gravel below. The front tire must have hit first and twisted a move that would be like jacking the steering wheel of a car on a freeway. He and his bike rolled head over wheels.
Terry woke up on his back a few seconds later, the bike a crumpled pile of metal beside him. He struggled to breathe. He tried to sit up but couldn't. He passed out again.
When he awoke, he crawled 20 yards to a two-lane frontage road that bisected the desolate countryside. He raised his arms to flag down help. The first cars sped by with a wave. Thirty minutes passed before two motorcycle riders finally saw him and radioed for help. Next, he saw highway patrolmen there. He blacked out again, then awoke just as a medical helicopter descended toward him.
Doctors at the hospital told his wife, Diane, that he probably wouldn't make it. Both his lungs had collapsed. He had broken his hip and shattered 11 ribs. He had snapped five vertebrae in his back. Hours later, Terry awoke with tubes in his nose and mouth. A heart monitor beeped beside him.
When Terry came to, a priest stood over him, reading his last rites: May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up ... and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
He motioned for a nearby dry-erase board.
"No. I'll be fine," he wrote. He jerked his thumb toward the door.
"You want me to leave?"
Diane took Dennis to visit Terry in the intensive care unit the next day.
Doctors carved out a piece of Terry's hip to graft onto his spine, alongside a steel rod. He spent 11 days in the hospital. Four months later, Terry raced in another Mexican border run. He carried painkillers in a fanny pack. He felt slower, and he second-guessed his maneuvers.
It wasn't long before he noticed that he had an heir apparent. When Dennis was an infant, Diane would carry him in a chest sling while riding on ATVs. By 2, Dennis rode two-wheeled motorbikes in the yard. By 4, he rode solo on trails, following his dad, mom, brother and sister into the desert for family picnics. The next year, he was beating guys a year or two older. By 6, "he just clicked and started beating everybody," Terry says.
Dennis' brother, Russell, had already been racing dirt bikes (and had endured his own injury, a broken femur). But Russell suffered from muscular dystrophy, and when he could no longer ride, he became his younger brother's pit chief. He studied the tracks to make sure Dennis knew the fastest lines to take and how to approach jumps.
In 1997, the family uprooted to Kansas City when Diane, who also worked for Honeywell, transferred to its Olathe plant. Terry left the company and found a job driving special-needs students in Spring Hill so that he could take Russell to school. He also became Dennis' race chaperone and mechanic. It seemed like the best way for him to catch a contact high from the sport that had run him over.
"I love the morphine," Terry says of the rush from racing. "But I hate the pain."
Even before he hit puberty, Dennis felt that he'd arrived. On July 28, 2001, the 13-year-old was favored to win the 80-cc class of the Ponca City Amateur National Championships in Oklahoma. Team Kawasaki sponsored him with free bikes, a travel stipend and paid entry fees. He was chasing future big-name pros such as Mike Alessi and Davi Millsaps. Riding conditions were prime: early morning light, mild temperatures, acres of moist clay to carve.
Until that day, he also was a well-rounded seventh-grader at Spring Hill Middle School. He played Little League and ran track. But that would change dramatically.
During a practice heat, Dennis was stuck in middle-of-the-pack gridlock. Inside the mob, he rode offensively, passing other riders and merging without warning as he maneuvered into jumps and mud pits with bikes zooming by on all sides. He moved from muscle memory. When the inertia in a turn caused his back end to swing out, he shifted his weight to compensate. Driving at half-speed, he stood up in the saddle to survey the track ahead.
The course wound over 25 acres and was shaped in the outline of a dragon. In the center was a 30-foot jump, resembling a fallen freeway overpass, from which riders launched themselves over another lane of bikers passing below.
His father stood near the starting line. Russell had parked his wheelchair beneath a shaded grandstand in the center of the track for the best vantage point. Both lost sight of Dennis as he roared into the back stretch.
Dennis sped toward a ramp that rose into a 25-foot hump resembling a small mesa. He picked his landing zone, a rectangle of empty track in the distance. He flew up and over the extended plateau. Suddenly, another rider accelerated beneath him. The kid had cut the track and re-entered without looking up for oncoming traffic. It was too late for Dennis to change trajectory. He tensed for impact, a metal bomb.
His Kawasaki slammed down on the rear end of the other bike. The impact shot Dennis forward. He cartwheeled over his handlebars and toward the turf just as his father had 11 years earlier. Dennis landed hard on his left knee. The impact jammed his leg into his torso. He felt his hip shift and crack. He watched the other rider get up and walk away, uninjured.
He lay writhing as riders buzzed past. Dennis was already familiar with pain: In previous races, he had dislocated a hip and a shoulder and broken a finger. But now his leg wouldn't move. He tried to stand but crumpled back to the dirt.
Medics rushed onto the track and bound him to a headboard. Meanwhile, his dad and brother had been waiting for him to pop back into view. Finally, Terry's name was announced over the loudspeaker. He was being asked to go to the ambulance area. The medics carried Dennis to his team tent and cut him out of the uniform that outfitter AXO had provided as a sponsor. His father drove him to the hospital. Each bump in the road sent shocks through his pelvis.
Hospital doctors told him he'd suffered the equivalent of a head-on collision, but his knee had borne the brunt of the impact. His femur and leg ball joint had been jammed through his hip and into his pelvis. They predicted he'd recover with full mobility but cautioned against racing again.
Dennis didn't cry until the next day, when his friends called with updates from the races. His dad paced the hospital, frustrated.
"At that time, I was mad because I knew how hard he had worked, and he was picked to win," Terry tells the Pitch. He knew firsthand that many promising riders' careers end in a pileup, but he'd hoped for more for his son. "As a parent, you go, 'Well, maybe you should quit,'" he says. "But as a dad, I said, 'Man, you're not a quitter. What are you talking about, quitting?'"
At Grain Valley on Easter Sunday, Dennis' arms loosened as he found his high-speed rhythm. By the middle of the six-lap race, he hopped like a skipped stone over a huge slope. His bike bucked under him as he plowed through a series of oversized speed bumps. He kept his jumps low to minimize hang time and cover ground quickly. Soon, with a five-second lead on his boyhood friends, he started to showboat.
He launched off another peak and leaned sideways, hard. For a split second, the bike mimicked his action, tipping parallel with the ground. He straightened the bike out just in time to nail the landing.
On his final lap, he pulled on the handlebars while approaching a ramp. He came off the jump with his front tire floating above him an in-flight wheelie.
"I can't believe you guys do this shit," joked the track owner's wife, a modestly dressed woman in sunglasses, standing near Diane. Her son, in second place behind Dennis, had recently enrolled in community college to pursue a career in graphic arts. She said she was glad she didn't have to watch him do the entire national motocross circuit.
Diane caught her breath and watched the field.
Since Dennis got hurt, the Jonons have known two teenage riders who died in crashes and a handful of others who wound up in wheelchairs. After his injury, Dennis spent a week at the hospital in Ponca City and another undergoing surgery at a children's hospital in Oklahoma City. He returned home to spend three months in a body cast. He'd spend six months in a low-resistance, water-based rehab program at Olathe Medical Center and then take water-aerobics classes at a YMCA to relearn muscle coordination. He slowly moved from crutches to a cane to walking with a limp.
He also spent most of eighth grade at home with a tutor. "She kind of did my work for me," he says. "I just sat there and shook my head like I understood." In high school, his parents opted to home-school him so that he could spend more time riding. He's now in an alternative school so that he can graduate on time in July.
Less than a year after the injury, Dennis hadn't improved his mobility as much as doctors had hoped. He couldn't raise his knee or rotate his leg from side to side. Doctors later discovered that his ball joint hadn't healed properly. A lack of blood flow had caused the joint to fuse to his hip. In order to regain mobility, he'd need a hip replacement. He'd have to wait until he was done growing before surgery.
Meanwhile, Dennis decided that he wanted to continue racing. His parents agreed to put off the hip replacement while he raced, figuring there was no use fixing something that might break again.
Terry says not seeing his son race got to him. "I ain't kidding you, you go through withdrawals," he says. "It's like ... you got a weekend off, and what do you do? You start mowing." He laughs. "I can only go shopping with the wife so many times."
Russell never got to see his younger brother get back on the bike. On February 2, 2001, while Dennis was still recovering from his hip injury, Russell died of complications from MD. He was 21.
Pushing to prove to everyone that his injury and his brother's death hadn't slowed him down, Dennis tried to accelerate his recovery. He traded rehab time for saddle time, even though his leg still felt weak.
Dennis and his father don't usually talk about their riding injuries. "It's just part of it," Dennis says. "Everyone that races gets hurt. If you don't want to get hurt, don't do this sport."
Watching her son race at Grain Valley nearly five years after the accident, Diane rationalized their decision to put him back on a bike by pointing to the other kids on dirt bikes. "If all these people are doing it, it's not that bad," she said. When she worries about her son's safety, she tries to focus on the concerns that don't involve his health: Is the bike going to break down? Is he going to win? When she doubts herself, she looks at how her son's crash-molded frame still fits the bike's contours perfectly.
"It's really his life," she said. "We're doing it because he wants to do it, not because we want to do it. He's built for sitting down now. He can't run or play baseball, so what else would he do?"
Before his race on Easter, Dennis practiced at his usual training facility: a 5-acre dirt track behind the Spring Hill home of his friend Brad Arnold. The track is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and fields of grazing cattle. Arnold used to ride with Dennis but has since given up racing in favor of other boyish distractions, namely wakeboarding and girls. Dennis' new training partner is Arnold's 15-year-old brother, Brent.
Dennis rolled his bike out of the back of his Chevy pickup. He balanced himself against the truck bed so that he could throw his hobbled leg over the saddle.
Standing nearby, Brad caught a whiff of Dennis' muddy uniform.
"How do you stink up stuff so bad?" He asked.
"Because I ride hard. How about you?" Dennis replied. "Brad and racing: two words that shouldn't go together."
Dennis and Brent skirted the track. Metal poles covered in tires and orange construction netting marked a few tight turns. A stiff wind made nailing big air treacherous, so they rode slower and made low jumps. The dry and hard-packed dirt felt like asphalt when they landed.
Dennis was back on his bike just 10 months after his accident. With one leg two inches shorter than the other, he moved his foot gear shifter up so he could reach it. He also quickly realized that he'd have to change his style. To combat centrifugal force, most riders extend the leg that's inside the turn. But Dennis was scared to jam his leg again; he struggled simply to raise it to hit the right mark. Instead, he learned to compensate by leaning his body weight. Eventually, he began sticking his leg out again, but more sparingly. "I was scared to jump," he says, "And when I first jumped, I felt like I was going to fall over. I didn't know what to do, but it came back real quick."
In late 2002, a year after the accident, Dennis began competing once or twice a month in state races. A year later, he was near his old form, racking up a handful of finishes in the national amateur top 10. Last year, he nabbed second-place finishes at powerhouse races in Nevada, Texas and Tennessee. He also dabbled in the more technical indoor supercross division, which has narrower tracks and tighter jumps, emphasizing finesse. The top supercross finishers can earn more than $10,000 a race, plus sponsor contract bonuses.
When Dennis decided to start racing in pro events, sponsors seemed impressed. Soon, his fenders were affixed with brand logos from Pro Circuit Engines, Dunlop Tires, DC Shoes and Spy Sunglasses. He got a free road bicycle, which he uses to cross-train, from Free Ride Bike and Skate Shop in Shawnee.
Diane says the sponsorships are crucial but cover only part of racing expenses. "Let's just say I have a home equity loan and credit-card bills I'm paying off from it," she says of her son's career. "And now we're charging more. That's how we run it. It's expensive."
Insurance has covered most of the family's medical expenses, Terry says.
This fall, Dennis hopes to be one of the top 100 riders in his premiere season as a pro on the hard-knock, big-air-driven outdoor national motocross circuit. The races will require more endurance. Most are about 35 minutes, much longer than his 10-minute sprints at Grain Valley.
Chasing trophies without his brother, Russell, has been lonely. "It just tore me apart," he says. "It was just a really bad deal. Figuring out each racetrack by himself, he was reminded of the void. "Even traveling, it was just me and my dad," he says. "If you have a sibling, you get along better and you share the same interests ... it's just funner."
Harold Martin, who publishes Moto-Playground, a magazine based in Ottawa, Kansas, calls Dennis "one of the fastest kids in the nation." Dennis is the kind of outspoken and extroverted athlete that sponsors could love, says Martin, whose magazine covers amateur motocross riders. "The kid rips. He's fun, he's funny, he's a punk but a good punk," Martin says.
But his move to the pros has serious business obligations, notes Wayne Jones, a sales associate at Olathe Suzuki, which sponsors Dennis by discounting merchandise and repairs for him. "We expect a lot out of him," Jones says. "When we have big financial investments in pro riders, it's more than having a good time and being a good sport."
When he took a break at the Arnolds' track, Dennis reverted to being a teenager. "Hey, can you take that off any sweet jumps?" he asked Brent, quoting a well-worn line from Napoleon Dynamite.
He boasted that only real men have what it takes to race well on dirt bikes. Then, recognizing that he's still a minor, he backpedaled. "No, that's not true, because I'm not a man yet."
That was evident a week later, when the owner of the Grain Valley MX Park, who had given Dennis a key to the place so that he could train there anytime, requested his help to fix the track before his race. Dennis blew him off to go wakeboarding with his buddies.
On a Friday in May, Dennis strapped himself onto a wakeboard, clutched a tow rope and zipped across the water at 18 mph. The cables, suspended above the man-made lake at Kansas City Watersports in Spring Hill, pulled him toward an obstacle course of jumps.
Dennis learned quickly that wave surfing and dirt jumping differ completely. Here, he needed two good legs. He shifted his feet, putting his weaker leg behind him, and skimmed toward a 5-foot floating ramp that resembled a pitched rooftop.
Over a loudspeaker, Brad Arnold, one of the park's employees, bellowed: "Hit it!"
Inside the dockside control booth, Arnold could see apprehension on Dennis' face. "Look how scared he is!" Arnold said excitedly to a curly-haired employee standing nearby.
"Look how stiff his legs are," the other guy added.
Abruptly, Dennis veered off course.
He shouted and took one hand off the rope, throwing it behind him with exasperation.
The tow rope dragged him around until he was facing the ramp again.
"I'm too scared!" He yelled, loudly enough for everyone to hear.
Even though he's not particularly good at wakeboarding, he counts Kansas City Watersports as one of his motocross sponsors. Last year, Dennis e-mailed park owner Mike Olson to ask if he could add some Kansas City Watersports logos to his ride in exchange for free water time. Olson liked his spunk and figured it was a handy way to cross-promote.
"All the motocross guys know Dennis," Olson tells the Pitch. "I don't know that it's a huge payoff, but I like the kid."
When Dennis finally lost interest in surfing, he hit the dock to dry off.
Earl Ball, a suntanned park employee with long hair and bulbous sunglasses, approached, calling him Eminem. "Hey, Em. You going to prom today?"
"Me? Prom's tomorrow, isn't it? No, I'm going racing," Dennis said. "You couldn't pay me to go to prom. Maybe if Pamela Anderson was there or something."
By the final lap on Easter Sunday, Dennis had opened a 10-second gap on the other riders.
Both his parents stood near a cattle fence, covered in track grime, and beamed. "You see him accelerate on an outdoor track, and it looks pretty," Terry said. "Like a rabbit, he'll pin his ears back and he's gone."
Dennis rounded a sharp turn at the edge of the track and vaulted over a dusty bridge. About 30 yards from the finish line, he bore down on a straggling rider, threatening to lap him.
As Dennis swung inside to pass, he realized that lapping the kid meant the other rider would be eliminated and would have to leave the track. Dennis pulled alongside and let off the throttle. He waved one arm forward, letting the kid know he didn't want to lap him. The other rider slouched, turned toward Dennis and shook his head. Dennis sped by as the spent rider drifted off the track.
Diane narrated the race's final moments like an excited sportscaster struck by a racer courteous enough to encourage the last-place kid to finish.
"Dennis is pulling over to let him go, but he's too tired!" his mom shouted. "He just had to pass him!"
He revved his engine and blasted into a small jump across the finish line.
When Dennis exited the track, his parents stayed at the fence. They gave him space, remaining poker-faced about his performance.
He took off his helmet and pushed his cycle between the parked pickups.
A little kid in riding gear ran up to him. Dennis didn't know who he was, but the kid recognized him and pushed a manila envelope into his hands. Dennis opened it and pulled out a commercial photograph of the little rider. The kid said nothing. He looked expectantly at Dennis, as if waiting for approval.
Dennis held the print up high.
"Aw, that's awesome, dude," he said.
When the kid ran off, Dennis pushed his bike toward his trailer alone.