By Steve Bauer
When Tom White passed last week, he left behind a void that may never be filled. Tom was the embodiment of all that is good about motorcycling. For nearly two decades, Tom has been our sport’s most eloquent ambassador, articulate spokesman, dedicated caregiver and enthusiastic fan. There are many talented people whose contributions collectively shape our little two-wheeled universe, but no one gives back to the sport the way that “Non-Stop Tom” did. The legacy he left behind will somewhat temper and mask the impact of his loss to the industry, but nothing can replace the man in the minds and hearts of those who knew him.
I met Tom in the late seventies, when the company he co-founded with his twin brother, Dan, was building a reputation for building fast four-strokes and aftermarket suspension modifications. Tom was proud that White Brothers-built motorcycles had won several 4-stroke World Championships, but Marty Moates’ victory at the 1980 Carlsbad USGP on a White Bros-suspended Yamaha was his crown jewel. It was a watershed moment in MX history and he beamed with pride whenever he told the story. What I’d give to hear him tell it one more time…
Tom later bought out brother Dan’s shares and by the time he sold White Bros “for an undisclosed sum” in 2000, he had grown the little Garden Grove hop-up shop into a $40 million per year powerhouse that employed 200 people. In the business world, where winning is the prize and cashing out and moving on is the measure of success, this is usually where our hero takes the money and heads to greener pastures. But racing was in Tom’s DNA and there were extenuating circumstances, “family matters”…and nothing mattered more to Tom than his family.
Tom adored his wife, Dani, daughter, Kristin and sons, Bradley and Michael. During a tribute to her dad at the 33rd Vet World MX Championships held last weekend, Kristin recalled that a standing joke around their house was when one of them complained that he loved his motorcycles more than he loved his kids, their dad never argued the point. But they knew better than that and so did everyone else. Tom would have turned down a meeting with the pope if it meant breaking a date with Dani or the kids. His family always came first… I’m not sure which came second, motorcycles or his faith, but it was close.
In 1997, Brad suffered a catastrophic brain injury in a motorcycle accident behind the race shop. The doctors told Tom and Dani that if Brad managed to survive, he would live a non-functioning life in a medical facility. The family rejected that notion and with the help of Orange County’s High Hopes Foundation, Brad has lived a life filled with love, surrounded by family. Brad’s tragedy was the catalyst for Tom to sell the business when he did and Brad was also the one who had gotten Tom started in collecting and restoring dirt bikes.
Tom’s immaculate collection of over 170 bikes is legendary and is well documented online. If you never attended one of the many charity and industry events held at his “Early Years of Motocross Museum,” you can find it at http://www.earlyyearsofmx.com. His collection became an obsession and a quest to preserve the rich history of the sport he loved for future generations.
Tom respected everyone and when you talked to him, he made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. He always made it about you and never about him. A mutual friend, Patrick Johnson, used these words to describe White: “He made everyone he interacted with instantly comfortable, acknowledged and relevant. He was so ‘present’ to those he talked to, welcoming and interested.”
An inductee of both the AMA and Trailblazer Halls of Fame, in April Tom is slated to receive the Trailblazers Dick Hammer Award, their highest honor. I went to my first Trailblazers banquet a couple of years ago and wrote a column about it… two days later Tom invited me to be his guest at their next board meeting. That’s the kind of friend Tom was, both to me and to the sport.
Tom was diagnosed with cancer last April and two weeks later he was at the Blazers banquet, setting up bikes in the exhibit and never skipping a beat. Only a handful of his friends were aware of the devastating news he was dealing with, not because he was hiding it, but because he didn’t want to put a damper on the spirits of his dearest friends. Tom never stopped giving back to the sport and people that had made him wealthy.
I’m going to miss the long conversations we had in recent years, usually when one of us was driving. We discussed our families, friends, motorcycles and sometimes even politics. He worried about the declining sales of new bikes and the overall health of the industry. I will miss his Tuesday morning emails telling me how much he enjoyed a column I had written. He always knew the right thing to say to lift my spirits. I’ll bet there are many of his friends out there who had similar experiences with Tom. He was unburdened with pretense and a straight shooter. He had a way of letting me know when I was full of crap, without insulting me. I mean, who else can pull that off?
Chuck Miller and I visited Tom at his house a couple months before he passed away. We made plans to ride our Africa Twins from Chuck’s place over to Tom’s.
Being somewhat of a street bike newbie, I rode to Miller’s wearing shorts on the hottest day of the year. By the time I got there I was drenched in sweat and looked like I had ridden through a blast furnace. Miller saw me, laughed and said, “I can’t believe you actually rode over here in shorts!” We drove to Tom’s in his car and rang the bell. Tom took one look at me when we got out of the car, handed me a bottle of water and, in the kindest way possible, told me I looked worse than he felt. It was pretty funny and we all laughed at the irony.
It was typical of Tom, worrying about me, even as his own health was dwindling. We talked about so many things and he was incredibly candid about his situation and the preparations he was making to ensure his family’s well-being. Chuck and I were so honored that he had given us such a precious gift, his time. We said farewell and on the way home, although neither of us said it, I think we both feared that we might not see Tom again.
The next time I heard Tom White’s soothing voice was in a voicemail on October 14, a Sunday. “Hey Steve, sorry I missed you at Perris last week, I got out of there pretty early. It really took a lot out of me, not the riding part, but the heat and putting on the gear.” He talked about his newest grandchild, then closed with, “no rush, get back to me when you can. I just want you to know that you are special to me, buddy… Tom White, out!”
I played the message over and over. It was such a sweet message. By then, it was early evening and I figured he was probably asleep. Besides, he never took calls after 7:00 p.m. when he was home… that was Dani time. I didn’t call him the next day, telling myself that he did say no rush, while a voice in my head whispered, “What if something happens? Call him!” By the time I called him back a week later, the voice in my head was deafening. I left a message, then a text, then another. Kristin sent me a text a couple days later, saying she was going through his messages and Tom could no longer respond. He was in his final days.
Of course it isn’t easy to call someone you care about when they are suffering, but that is what friends do. I am ashamed that I made excuses and even used Tom’s own words, “no rush, buddy” to assuage my guilt. I have vowed to not beat myself up over it, because Tom would not want that. Friendships are formed over time, by our words and deeds.
My heart goes out to Tom’s family, friends and the entire motorcycle community. The world was a much better place with Tom White in it.
I’m sorry for not calling you back, Tom. You are special to me, too, buddy and I’m forever grateful to you for showing all of us what a real man can be. CN