Dave Mirra changed my life.
He changed tons of people’s lives, sure. He was a legend in the world of extreme sports, from his time on a BMX bike to his later moves into rallycross (where I met him), boxing, and triathlon. Of course he was an inspiration to those who competed, or wanted to compete, in any of those sports, because of his combination of talent, drive, and determination.
But he would have never, ever been that kind of athlete if he wasn’t who he was as a person. And the Dave Mirra that I was so blessed to know personally was among the most kind-hearted, passionate, and determined people to have ever walked this earth.
The old cliché of “we’ve lost a far greater person than we have an athlete” holds true here, but take any language and try to come up with the adjectives to drive that point home for Dave and you will not find them. When we lose somebody like that, the only way to paint that picture is through the stories we have and the time that we spent with them. I could tell you through the clichés, or I could show you through the story.
So this is my Dave Mirra story.
It starts with the year when Dave and I grew especially close. It was toward the end of the 2013 season, my first with GRC, and the end of his full-time driving career. That year was a rough one for him, as the results just weren’t up to his own standards. When his team looked to cut down from three cars to two later in the year, Dave was the one to give up his seat, but he landed in another car for his hometown race in Charlotte and to finish off the season in Las Vegas.
This was my first year of working on a full-time basis in motorsport, meaning it was my first year of having access to speak with these guys whenever I wanted. But I was still fresh out of college—hell, I hadn’t even graduated after my first race. And the way I am wired is not to feel like I’m imposing anything on anyone. So the first couple of times I got to speak with Dave, the same way I was with pretty much every driver I grew up watching, I was still in that awkward, gawky teenager mindset. Uncomfortable. Trying to figure out how the hell I got here and why I deserved it.
And for me to go up to a guy like Dave just felt… ballsy. Here’s the thing: I grew up watching Dave at X Games as he worked miracles on his bike. But, as a kid who lived next to a farm in Massachusetts and had the hand-eye coordination of your friendly neighborhood drunk, I couldn’t have been more removed from that world. I pulled off one manual on a skateboard and attempted one jump on a BMX bike in my life, which ended with my face in my lawn. I may have become his colleague, but early on I felt like I could never be his peer. And coming up into the ranks of what I did as early as I did, trying to talk to my heroes as if I was important and they should give me their time was like taking the fear every guy has of asking a girl out for prom and dialing it up to one thousand. If your crush says no, you can always try asking again with another girl. But you only get one chance to make a good first impression on your hero.
In Munich we grabbed Dave for a series of fan questions and that’s when we really started hitting it off as friends. Or, well, I did. Dave could be friends with anybody. I was still shedding that anxiety. But I have a friend whose aunt lived next to Dave in North Carolina, and while my friend was growing up, Dave hooked him up with a bike.
When the Q&A was done, I asked him if he remembered any of that.
“Yeah, man,” he said. “Of course I do. That’s awesome.”
And that’s when I started to come out of my shell a little bit. Not just with Dave, in fact, but with pretty much all of our drivers. I like to think there’s a good amount of guys with fun Chris stories filed away somewhere.
Dave and I started talking more at the tracks, but at the time the management system was still to go through driver representatives for the off-site interviews and things like that. That changed when Dave changed rides. For the first time, they gave me his cell phone number and told me to call him directly.
We had a great interview, maybe 15 or 20 minutes of talking racing, and I got everything I needed on that front. I mentioned I was done recording and started to thank him for his time, when he said “Listen, man. Can I tell you something…”
We were on the phone for another 20 minutes. Just an honest, fantastic conversation about the sport and his new deal. It kind of hit me then that this wasn’t just someone who was friendly to people. This was someone who, when you took the time to talk to him, genuinely considered you to be his friend.
I got to be Dave Mirra’s friend.
How cool is that?
The offseason after that was one of the wildest times of my life. Dave and I were both at a bit of a crossroads: for me, after a year of working month to month, I was looking to join GRC full-time, while Dave was trying to pull together something to get back in a car in 2014. The Charlotte and Las Vegas races didn’t go as planned; in Charlotte, despite being the fastest driver out there all day, Murphy’s Law bit Dave in the ass all day, between a couple of mistakes, a jump start penalty, and contact during the last chance qualifier that knocked him out early. Then, in Las Vegas, he set the fastest lap in practice on lap one, before the engine blew on lap two. There was no spare. Figures.
We were on the phone all the time. Three to four times a week, I’d get a call around 9PM, and we would chat, usually for about an hour or so at a time. My girlfriend, Emily, would joke with me that I spent more time on the phone with Dave than with her, and I’d joke right back by asking her how many X Games medals she had. (In reality, there was no way I wasn’t putting her first in my life—that was the kind of example Dave set for me. But we’ll get to that later.)
But while I was working on my own deal with GRC to tie up my future, I was doing everything I could to help Dave with his. I called up one of my best friends, a big fan of his, and together we worked on a marketing deck that to this day is one of the projects I’ve done that I’m most proud of. Not to mention the custom Hot Wheels that we did for Dave commemorating his new ride before Vegas. There are only 19 of them in the world, and my girlfriend, father, and I hand-customized every single one. I still have the very first one, and I’ll always cherish it.
Sadly, another season wasn’t meant to be. We threw around every idea, every option that we could. And I’m sure that there were many more possibilities that I hadn’t heard about. But for Dave, the important thing was to be competitive, He wasn’t going to come back just to sit in a car that ran 12th every weekend, he wanted to have a chance to win. That’s just who he was. If he wasn’t going to be a legacy rider in BMX, where he redefined the sport and was known as one of its most important names of all-time, why would he do it in a car, where he felt he had so much left to prove?
After the 2014 race in Charlotte my buddy Matt Kalish and I decided to make the drive up to Greenville to catch up with Dave at the Mirra compound. I wanted a chance to see him even if he wasn’t racing, and knowing I could probably grab a day or two before heading back home, I jumped on it. But beyond that, I wanted to take some time to do a larger story than just beat writing about motorsports. I wanted to profile not just an athlete and his time switching from one sport to another, but the challenges therein and the person he needed to be to overcome them.
Turns out North Carolina is a way bigger state than we thought, and we spent most of the day driving, but we got there and so began 24 of the most incredible, meaningful, and surreal hours of my life.
We grabbed dinner at the local pizza place with family and friends. We watched Slaying the Badger, the documentary about Greg LeMond and the 1986 Tour de France—which had just come out the previous week, perfectly timed since Dave had just won the Race Across America as part of a four-man cycling team that also included Dave Zabriskie, Ben Bostrom, and Micky Dymond. I don’t know if I know how to characterize it, because I can never reduce Dave to the word “normal.” But that’s where the surreal part came in. He lived just like you or me. Maybe his house was a little bigger than yours or mine, but the humility he lived with made damn sure that his ego didn’t fill it.
The next day we spent time a good amount of time in the river behind the Mirra family compound, with me embarrassing myself on a paddleboard for the first time as he prepared for his daily swim. That’s when I got the bright idea to swim alongside him. Just to see how long I could keep up.
When he went, I went. I thrashed and thrashed, never having learned proper technique in my life. I’m sure watching us side by side would have been like watching a top fuel dragster taken on by a battered, rusted out 1970s hatchback. Dave always talked about his swimming being worse than his biking or running, but you’d never know watching him next to me.
And yet… I was keeping up. Splash after inglorious splash, I was looking to the left and still seeing him there. Every ounce of energy I had was pouring out of me, knowing that if I could do this, I’d have bragging rights with everyone I knew for the rest of my life.
My body, though, devoted fan of cheeseburgers and beer, had other ideas. Like, say, throwing in the towel about a third of the way across and lumbering through the water to my starting point on the shore. Dave lapped me coming back with ease, and we had a great laugh about it.
That was the day we did the interview.
We never published that interview, and I never will. Only a few people, the ones involved in its production, have seen it.
It took me a lot longer than I had hoped to figure out how I wanted to tell that story. My answer, in the end, was to cut myself out entirely and write the whole thing in Dave’s voice. I felt selfish back then for even trying to include myself in the story—unworthy of that place. I feel selfish now, writing as long as I am. The only reason I’m forcing myself to get every last word out is because I feel the need to show, not just tell, what kind of person he was. Even to those who looked up to him, idolized him, he was still their friend. Being Dave bleepin’ Mirra never seemed to get to his head. If you knew him, he was just your friend Dave.
The reasons we buried the interview were twofold. The first one was because we couldn’t find the right home for it. All of my connections are in motorsport, and it really wasn’t a piece about Dave’s racing career, it was about his next chapter. It wasn’t necessarily something that we thought made sense for GRC channels. We didn’t want to close the book on him getting in a car again, or make it sound too much like he had.
But the bigger reason was because Dave never, ever wanted to put a negative word out there about anybody. He was always trying to stay positive—sure, if he was angry in the moment, he would vent, the way any competitive person does. But he never wanted to speak ill will on any sort of permanent record. And if he did, it wasn’t long before he’d be apologizing to that person profusely.
Even though I don’t think he put anybody down, even though I think he was very candid about the end of his time in full-time motorsport and took almost all of the responsibility on his shoulders for how it ended, he didn’t want anybody to ever get the wrong idea. He wasn’t going to put his teammates or his friends in that position. Under any circumstances.
I’ll re-read it, sometime soon. What he said. I’m sure I’ll still feel that way, that he was just fine and totally fair in what he said. But he never approved it to go public. I plan to respect that.
The question everybody is going to ask for a long time is “why?”
I’m not here to ask that question. I don’t think it matters now. I think what matters is how we react to it. How we move forward, without him, but with him, too.
For some, the reaction to suicide might turn to anger. Anger at the perceived selfishness of the act, the perceived cowardice of not carrying on, or the perceived lack of gratitude for what the person has in their life. I don’t know if I agree with that. Anger is never, ever the solution here. And while I’m never going to fully understand it, I can’t be angry at somebody who motivated me to change my life, or at least try to, in so many ways. Somebody who took me under his wing. Somebody who, so many times, called me just to say hey and catch up. Someone who taught me so much.
No. If I was going to be angry at anybody, I should turn it on myself. I thought about Dave every day—every time I made a dietary choice, good or bad, every time I started working out when I really hated the thought of it, every time I looked at myself and wanted to be a better person.
But I reverted into that awkward teenager mentality lately. That social anxiety. I saw the life he was living and I never, ever wanted to feel like I was imposing on his time with his family. The thought of me pulling my friend away from whatever he was doing with his family made me feel selfish. I knew how long we could go on talking, and I knew how much he was doing with them, and I didn’t want to be a distraction. This is the guy who lived for “be a dad, not a fad,” after all. I took to heart how important family time was to him. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.
Our last phone call was a few days after Christmas, and I told him that as soon as life slowed down for me a little bit, I was going to give him another call to ask for his help on getting myself into better shape. My goal was, after my most recent trip to Los Angeles, to be all set and ready to get going. To ask for, draw up, and follow a plan. To give him that call.
It was a call I never got to make. A call I should have done so much more to make time for. Any excuse, any reason why I didn’t, seems hollow and meaningless. Even when I spent much of the end of January sick and coughing and sleeping tons on beds and couches, unable to speak without it hurting my throat, it doesn’t feel right to say couldn’t. The word in my mind will always be “didn’t.” And that’s on me.
But anger, still, is not my emotion. And in some ways, sadness feels selfish, too. For two and a half of the best years of my life, I got to think about my hero not as somebody who I had just idolized growing up, but as one of my best and most trusted friends and mentors. He didn’t inspire me by what he did on a bike, or in a car, or anything else. Honestly, I almost forgot about all of that when we saw each other or when we talked.
Dave inspired me by who he was as a person, as a husband, and as a father. He was deeply devoted to those he called close to him, and I got to witness that devotion firsthand.
I feel so incredibly grateful and fortunate to have had that in my life.
So now I have to figure out how to carry on my friend’s spirit. It was something I had already been trying to adopt with his devotion to his loved ones and to his craft, but now I need to find a way to add how I address depression to that mix.
Sometimes I wonder about myself. There are far too many days that I want to just stay in bed, or days that I climb back in a little too early. Days I have no motivation to do anything, and no real reason why. The return of the teenager mentality I mentioned earlier. Days I want to just be left alone, though I do have a bit of an introverted streak and tend to come back from those days with a lot more energy. Social anxiety. Reluctance to reach out to people.
But I would never, ever characterize myself as suffering from depression. That doesn’t sit right with me. Between the people in my life, led by my girlfriend of nearly three years, and the things I get to do with it, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love my life and where I am in it. I feel like I have no right to be unhappy, anyway. I’m far too fortunate. And, to be frank, I made up my mind when I was about nine or ten that death was way too frightening, and I was just going to live forever. (So far, so good.)
But there are people out there who, I know, are suffering from depression. I can think of far too many off the top of my head. And that’s where I need to change, in a big way. I need to do a better job of spending time with those people, and taking care of them. Trying to make them remember how loved and cherished that they are, and that they will always, always have something more to give as long as they are on this earth.
If I had any idea that Dave was going through those types of thoughts or feelings, I would have dropped everything to help him. And now, for the people who I know that are in the same position, I need to do the same thing.
That’s what I, what we all, need to take out of this.
Don’t wait for others to ask for help. Offer it.
Dave Mirra helped show me what it means to be the best man you can possibly be. Through him I witnessed firsthand the virtue of commitment, not just to his professions and passions, but more importantly to those he loved. He helped me realize that being happy with and grateful for what you have and striving to improve yourself on a daily basis can co-exist. And he made me want to be a better person tomorrow than I am today, every day. For his sake, I will carry that torch for the rest of my life.
I love you, brother. Thank you for everything. I’ll live with the lessons you’ve taught me at the front of my mind. With your spirit on my back.
And maybe, someday, I’ll find a way to change the life of some other scared kid out there. The way you did for me.