Snuggling up on the sofa for a midweek afternoon movie is as precious to Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Angelle Sampey as cradling another Wally trophy in the NHRA winners circle on a Sunday. This time a sweet little nearly three-year-old girl is drifting off to sleep, oblivious to the animated characters on the TV screen, just secure in Sampey’s presence and the company of her new big sister Ava Jane, 6.
As if the manager for newly formed Team Liberty Racing isn’t industrious enough, Sampey and husband Seth Drago became foster parents right around the time the bike class opened its 16-race season. But just as the Sampey-Drago household rescued this tiny damsel-in-distress and expanded its circle of love, so did Team Liberty. And in the process, it took the stress from Sampey.
Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster
Safe in the reassuring refuge Cory Reed has assembled with former Pro Stock Motorcycle competitor and four-time winner Chris Rivas and veteran mechanic Ken Johnson, Sampey has been able to juggle team logistics and administration with her family’s business in suburban New Orleans, along with her own racing career.
The team is working so well together that I couldn’t ask for a better group of people. Everybody knows what to do and they do it.
“I’m the team manager, but everybody does such a good job, helping to run the whole team, that I don’t feel like it’s just me. Everybody’s working at it. I’m just the one that takes care of things, things that nobody else does,” Sampey said. “I’m the one who books the hotel rooms, books the flights, registers for the race. I’m just doing the paperwork side of it. I’m more like an office manager.
“At the race shop, Ken and Chris are doing everything. At the track, we’re all doing everything. The team is working so well together that I couldn’t ask for a better group of people. Everybody knows what to do and they do it. We don’t have a single person on the team that is the kind of person who says, ‘That’s not my job.’ Everybody just does everything. So when it comes to getting on the motorcycle, the management side of it is completely set aside and I’m just a full-blown racer,” she said.
“And so is Cory. He’s the team owner, but he’s a racer when he gets on the motorcycle. I’ve had such a difficult personal life in the past that this becomes second nature to me that when the helmet goes on, everything else goes away and the only obstacle in front of me is making a perfect run and getting down the racetrack, beating whoever’s in the other lane,” Sampey said.
“The job’s been pretty fun and easy. I thought that it might be a little difficult being a manager and trying to race, but it hasn’t at all. It’s actually been pretty pleasant,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, things I’ve never had to take care of before … managing things for the team back at home, where before I had my own personal life and my business and everything else I took care of in between races. But now it’s all of that AND the race team. So I’m a little bit busier out of the racetrack, but at the racetrack, not a whole bunch has changed.”
That’s because Reed, 22 years her junior at age 24, has crafted a far-flung team that couldn’t be closer spiritually. A top-drawer race shop at Cordele, Georgia, accommodates Johnson’s desire to live in the unincorporated Southwest Georgia burg of Cobb. But Team Liberty features Louisiana’s 42-time winner and NHRA leader in victories by a female, a fly-in crew chief from Fresno, Calif., in Rivas, and a team owner from Colorado who lives in New Jersey when he isn’t being what Sampey called a “road gypsy.”
He [Ken Johnson] stays there from bright and early in the morning to late, late at night. Sometimes he’s even stayed at the shop overnight. That man’s a workaholic.
Because of their experience, their love of the sport, and their love for one other, it works.
To show her fondness for Johnson and appreciation of his work, Sampey established a GoFundMe website page with the goal of raising $50,000 for a new prosthetic leg for him. Johnson lost his left leg following a June 2005 non-racing accident. Because prosthetics last only a few years and are expensive – a new leg can cost between $25,000 and $50,000 – Johnson has been using his extensive mechanical skills in the shop to repair and extend the life of his artificial leg. But Sampey said she wanted Johnson to have the latest and greatest prosthetic device – so he could continue his tradition (á la fellow amputee and former motorcycle racer Reggie Showers) of removing the leg in the winners circle and displaying it as the “leg that kicked everybody’s asses.”
Lately Johnson has been so busy with the Team Liberty motorcycles that he hasn’t had much spare time to think of his own needs.
“He stays there from bright and early in the morning to late, late at night. Sometimes he’s even stayed at the shop overnight. That man’s a workaholic. He just does not stop,” Sampey said. “Fortunately we have a toterhome now that’s nice and comfortable. He has spent several nights at the shop and he’s worked so late that he’ll just go to the toterhome and lay down and take a few hours’ nap and gets right back to work.”
“I love Pro Stock Bikes. I love the people. I love the fans. This is my life,” Johnson said.
Fans and even rivals, as well as racers from other NHRA classes, love him, too. Since the GoFundMe page opened March 26, dozens of contributors are on the brink of raising $10,000 of the $50,000 target.
Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster
What they all would love right now more than anything is to compile some elimination round-wins and victories. Sampey and Reed marked the halfway point in the bike class’ regular season with one single round victory; she is 1-5, Reed 0-5 as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour moves to Joliet, Illinois, this next weekend.
“We’re trying some new stuff to see what will work, and it seems to be going in a good direction,” Reed said. “We’re right there with all of them, and for a new team that’s really cool. It’s another step forward. We’ll start getting those round wins soon.”
Johnson and Rivas are the linchpins for Team Liberty Racing. Sampey said the team chose Cordele as the team headquarters because “we wanted it to be closest to him. He has only about a 15-minute ride to the shop. Ken didn’t want to move, and we wanted him on the team.”
She said, “Ken and I are like brother and sister. We get along like brother and sister: we might fight sometimes, but for the most part, it’s a very good relationship between the two of us. I’m the most comfortable with him working on my motorcycle. I don’t want to race a bike that’s not built by him. So I’m very appreciative that he came with us. I would’ve done it but I don’t think I would have been comfortable or maybe even stuck with it if it wasn’t for Ken. A lot of people don’t realize how big trust and comfort in the machine that you’re driving is. If I get on that motorcycle and have any doubt in my mind that I’m not safe, it would be very hard for me to drive it. And I don’t have that with Ken being my crew chief and my mechanic. He’s been working on my motorcycles for many years and working on them between rounds, and he knows exactly what to do with mine.”
Because Reed is 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds and Sampey, by contrast, is 5-1, 115, the Victory Gunner motorcycles are not identically prepared.
A lot of people don’t realize how big trust and comfort in the machine that you’re driving is. If I get on that motorcycle and have any doubt in my mind that I’m not safe, it would be very hard for me to drive it.
“The set-up on my motorcycle is different from Cory’s, and it’s amazing how they can make both of them work when we’re so totally different as far as stature: Cory’s tall and slim and heavier because he is so tall, and I’m so little. But the bikes are working exactly the same. We’re running right there with each other,” Sampey said. “If you look at the tune-ups on the computer, they’re polar opposites. It seems like everything they do to my bike, they have to do the opposite to Cory’s. It’s just funny how they make it work.”
She emphasized “they,” because Rivas is an integral part of the organization, although he maintains his family home in Fresno, where wife Linda and daughter Cayla live, and a rental home in Cordele. He travels back and forth, splitting each month tending to his two California businesses – Chris Rivas V-Twin Specialties and Rocket Cams Inc. – then spending two weeks at the shop across the continent.
Rivas operates an aftermarket Harley-Davidson performance shop that specializes in head porting, performance engine building, dyno tuning, and custom bike builds. His Rocket Cams Inc. features a Signature Series line of camshafts that Rivas designed to enhance the power delivery of stock Harley-Davidson motorcycles. (High-school athlete, cheerleader, and accomplished photojournalist-artist Cayla, by the way, is the proud owner of 12 land speed world motorcycle records.)
Photo by Ron Lewis
So his plate also is full. But, Sampey said, “He’s doing an awesome job tuning the motorcycles. We especially enjoy having him because of his past as a racer. He understands very well what me and Cory are thinking or need to be thinking and what we’re doing. It’s awesome to have a crew chief who knows what the driver is going through. That’s been a big advantage” … even in seemingly small matters.
“We went testing, and I wasn’t comfortable with my seat. I said, ‘I don’t like the seat, but I can do it. I’ll make it work.’ Chris would not settle for that. He wouldn’t stop working on the seat until I was 100-percent comfortable with it. I told him, ‘Thank you so much for making it a priority and fixing my seat. I really didn’t mean that you had to. I just wanted you to know that I wasn’t comfortable but that I’ll make it work.’ He said, “No. I’m glad you told me you weren’t comfortable. I want you to be 100-percent comfortable. If there’s anything you do not like on this motorcycle, I want you to tell me and we will fix it.’
“Chris said he didn’t care how little [the issue] was. He wants it to be perfect for me, that I don’t have to worry about anything but driving,” she said. “I just appreciated that so much. And that’s because he was a driver and he knows every little bitty detail can take away from your focus. I really appreciate having that side of him.
“He’s a really good leader for our team,” Sampey said. “Every weekend before we start racing, we have a team meeting. We all gather in the trailer and talk about anything that might need to be discussed. Then after we’re finished, Chris leads the whole team in a prayer. That’s another thing that has been awesome for us. It’s brought us together. We’re all bonding. We’re not just teammates. We’ve all become very, very close, like family. And I think Chris has a lot to do with that.”
Reed is the team owner. His parents, sportsman/Pro Modified drag-racing legends Jim and Annie Whiteley, sponsor the team with their Precision Service Equipment. Team Liberty announced June 30 additional funding from longtime Sampey backer Allegany Motor & Pump Service, Inc.
Cory just wants to race. He trusts everybody on the team.
“Ultimately, if you want to get real technical about it, the Whiteleys and Cory own it together. But it’s Cory’s team. He calls the shots,” Sampey said. “He does have to go to Jim and Annie when he has to make a really big decision and get approval for things. But they wanted him to have his own team. Everybody else has their own deal. He was motocross racing, and they were barely ever together. And Cory was traveling the country, doing motocross racing, and they [along with Pro Modified competitor son Steven Whiteley] were traveling the country doing drag racing. Annie really wanted him with them. So she talked him into checking out Pro Stock Bikes. He went to Frank Hawley Drag Racing School. And that’s how we met him. He was racing with us [at Star Racing]. After his first year of training, he said he wanted his own team. He started a Pro Stock Motorcycle team and asked me to manage it. He and I make all the decisions together.
“The amount of responsibility they put on me is not ‘overwhelming’ … I don’t know how to word this right … I’m proud, like I’m really proud of how much they trust me,” she said. “We’ll have a meeting, and somebody will ask Jim, and Jim will say, ‘Well, talk to her. Angelle’s going to deal with that. She’ll take care of it. That’s up to her. Whatever she wants to do.’ And that just freaks me out, that somebody will put that amount of trust in me.”
The reason for that specific structure simply is that “Cory just wants to race,” Sampey said. “He trusts everybody on the team. I’ll go to him and I’ll say, ‘This is what I’m going to do. I want to make sure it’s OK with you.’ He’ll say, ‘That’s fine. Whatever you want to do.’ He just wants to race. He doesn’t want to be at the shop. He doesn’t want to run the team.
Cory is a good combination of John Myers, Antron Brown, all those great teammates I had before. He’s a little bit of each one of them.
“He’s so giving, as well. A lot of people would think he’s some young punk, spoiled kid – and he’s totally the opposite. He’s so concerned with making sure everybody’s got what they want, what they need: ‘Are they comfortable? What can I do to make this better for you?’ He’s so awesome with that,” she said.
“Ultimately, he just wants to race. He’s so into the actual racing side of it and he doesn’t want to worry about everything else. So he’s really happy with how Ken and Chris are running the race shop and I’m doing the management side of it. He just shows up and has a good time racing with us. He’s happy and we’re happy, so everything’s working great.”
Back in 2015, George and Jackie Bryces let Reed compete in the Star Racing Riders Challenge to gain extra seat time, but he wasn’t eligible to win the contest because of all the training time he had had when the program began.
However, Sampey said, “He would have blown everybody away. We scored him, interviewed him just like everyone else, and he scored perfect.”
She was a fan of Reed from the moment she saw him on a bike.
“Cory is a good combination of John Myers, Antron Brown, all those great teammates I had before. He’s a little bit of each one of them. It’s almost like I’ve been knowing him all my life,” Sampey said. “He’s like my little brother, one of my best friends now. It’s just awesome how he came along and we jelled together so well. He has a personality very similar to John Myers’. He’s not as quirky as John, but he’s laid-back and reserved, the same sweet personality. It’s eerie when he’s on the bike in his leathers how much he looks like John. He’s got that same physique and riding style. It’s just really eerie. The way he cares for me and wants me to do well reminds me so much of Antron. I’m very lucky” – and secure.