For five straight years Eric McKinney sat atop the throne of Pro Extreme Motorcycle. From ADRL to PDRA, with the help of his father, Scott, and tuner, Ashley Owens, McKinney made winning look effortless. In the final runs of 2016, he came from behind to clinch his fifth championship in do-or-die, Hollywood fashion. The 2017 season started out with — not surprisingly — more wins. It seemed nothing could keep McKinney and his team from the top.
Not far into 2017, however, things started going awry.
“It was brutal,” McKinney confessed. “We tried two different motorcycles and different combinations and just couldn’t figure it out. We changed everything. And actually, the scenario was we had a bad batch of nitrous.”
The team figured out the problem at what was supposed to be the sixth of eight stops on the PDRA tour.
“We went to Tulsa and that’s where we figured it out. At that point, you’re in the points hunt and you need every round that you can get. I was running pretty good and we had the points leader first round when the race got cancelled. So we were pretty bummed about that. We’ll never know whether we would have beat him first round or if he would have beat us, but in the back of my mind I felt like we lost some valuable rounds there.”
You get to the end of the track and you’re watching your motorcycle burn. They’re putting it out. It was a kick in the face.
Undeterred, the team pushed forward with renewed hope, having put the nitrous gremlin behind them. They gained needed points at the next event at GALOT Motorsports Park with a runner-up finish. Then came the fateful decision to test before the World Finals.
“We pushed really hard and went back and did some more testing in Huntsville, Alabama. We blew the engine up and my motorcycle caught on fire. It burnt all the wiring off of it. You get to the end of the track and you’re watching your motorcycle burn. They’re putting it out. It was a kick in the face. The Finals at Virginia was only two weeks after that.”
After one of the most devastating incidents of his career, McKinney remained within shot of a sixth consecutive championship. So, the team rallied.
“Ashley Owens rebuilt that motorcycle in a week and a half. It was stripped to nothing and he completely rebuilt that thing in two weeks. My team’s the greatest out there. I’d put them up against anybody. My mom and dad supply the whole deal. My wife supports me one 100 percent. My uncle Steve and Noel Penny come and help us. This team is 110 percent the backbone of this operation. Thanks to them and our great crew of sponsors — Vance and Hines, Fast by Gast, Tin Soldier Race Cars, Lanco Machine, all the guys at our shop D&S Auto Parts, Drag 965 for sponsoring the class — anybody that’s helped out along the way.
“Thanks to Ashley and the incredible support we have, we made it to Virginia and were running really good. We had the points leader first round, knocked him out and I thought, Here we go, we’re going to do this again. I needed a round and two points and I got beat second round. So we missed [the championship] by 102 points.”
They say all good things come to an end and McKinney was fully aware his reign wouldn’t last forever. Still, after the valiant effort by he and his team, missing the championship by such a meager amount was disheartening.
When the fun is back, you’re usually on top of your game. When the pressure is on, you can start making mistakes. I’m looking forward just to having fun.
“It’s very humbling. The hard work does pay off, but we just got behind. Everybody worked their butts off this year. Travis [Davis, PXM champion] earned it. He was consistent throughout the whole year. We just got behind and ran out of time.”
McKinney rode his five-year high with grace and, when the tables turned, his character remained in tact.
“You don’t always forget where you come from,” McKinney reflected. “I started out in street bikes and stuff like that. I just got beat on and beat on and beat on. Then finally got to where I was winning. You get some serious confidence when you’re winning.
“It is hard to be down like that, but you always gotta’ think positive and just practice. I got a practice tree in the RV and I got a handheld one I carry around the house. So I stay on my game with reaction times. You never can forget where you come from. You have a five year streak and then you lose a year but it doesn’t make you want to quit. You just wanna work harder.”
It was a refining year for the team and one that’s led to changes for 2018 and beyond. Although McKinney is adamant the team will not try out the now-permitted turbo applications in PXM, he does have a new bike for this season. Most notably, he and wife Ashley are expecting their firstborn in June. This, among other reasons, has set McKinney on a different course for this year.
“I mentioned it to my dad right before Huntsville and then after Huntsville it was clear. I definitely didn’t want to chase points this year. I wanted to back off and bring the fun back. It’s fun to chase points and everybody works their butts off, but sometimes you want to get back to your roots. There’s an old motorcycle organization we used to race with and we hit a couple of them a year. They’re fun because that’s where I started. You see people you ain’t seen in a long time. Don’t get me wrong, the PDRA is awesome, but I didn’t grow up with them. I grew up with the motorcycle guys. So that’s where I want to go. And that could change. We could get into the first race and everything change, but right now that’s the plan. We’re staying on cruise control this year, try to really go fast, reset the record and just win races and just have fun with no pressure on championship.
“We still hold the eighth-mile record and I really want to lower that. They’ve been a little bit faster overseas and I want to outrun those guys. I really want to set the bar. The plan is to go in and knock ‘em out and be a spoiler like people have been towards us. Just kinda’ get a different look of it.”
After one of the hardest years of his career, and with one of the biggest events of his life on the horizon as the newest McKinney prepares to make his or her way, bringing the fun back may be just the fuel McKinney needs at this point in his career. After five straight championships, the team has certainly earned it.
“When the fun is back, you’re usually on top of your game. When the pressure is on, you can start making mistakes. I’m looking forward just to having fun.”