Learning to triumph on the racetrack and beyond

David L. Wells at home in Poulsbo with his 1975 Triumph motorcycle. Wells is the national points leader in an amateur racing circuit, but did not start racing until he earned his high school diploma, at age 53. - Brian J. Olson/Staff photo
David L. Wells at home in Poulsbo with his 1975 Triumph motorcycle. Wells is the national points leader in an amateur racing circuit, but did not start racing until he earned his high school diploma, at age 53.
— image credit: Brian J. Olson/Staff photo

POULSBO — When David L. Wells decided at age 53 to join the amateur motorcycle racing circuit, his wife Stephanie agreed to support him as long as he did something for her.

“She told me the conditions were, I had to get my high school diploma and at that point in time I had to take 45 pounds off,” Wells said.

Wells has accomplished both goals and then some. For the past two years he has raced his 1975 Triumph on tracks all over the country, and he is the national points leader in the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association’s Novice Historic Production Heavyweight class. But he didn’t have the confidence — or the permission — to do so until he got that little piece of paper.

“Graduating from high school, for David, was the realization that you can’t really go back and fix things in your life, but you can move forward on the proper steps,” Stephanie M. Wells said.

Wells’ love for motorcycles stretches back 40 years, to his adolescence in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“If you live in California, it really is an economical way of getting around, with the weather being nice,” he said.

Wells rode to and from work and school, until he dropped out from a lack of interest. After quitting school, Wells embraced his love for speed and the open road. He worked as an ambulance driver in his late teens before becoming a truck driver in his 20s. While his siblings attended universities like Cornell and Stanford, Wells drove through every state in the union and ran his own trucking business — Haulin A. Enterprises — through the 1970s. But he’s still not comfortable talking about some of the poor decisions he made along the way.

“I was one of those kids,” Wells said, “that sat in the back of the room and said, ‘Yeah, right, it’ll never happen to me.’ And it’ll happen.”

In the late 1970s, Wells trucked onto Canada’s Vancouver Island. Soon he drifted south to Port Angeles, before settling in Poulsbo. In 1980, he bought the three-cylinder love of his life: the 1975 Triumph he races today.

“His motorcycle is probably the thing he’s had the longest relationship with,” Stephanie Wells said.

Wells eventually got married and had a son, but his life’s path continued to meander up peaks and down into valleys. Soon his marriage and his motorcycle began to decay. The marriage ended and the bike sat unused, under a tree, for six years.

Then, in the mid-1990s, Wells put an ad in the Seattle Times asking for help restoring the Triumph. And things began to improve. An airline pilot based in Kent, Jerry Liggett, helped Wells get the bike back in working order. In 1997, Wells met Stephanie, a registered nurse, who saw the potential in him and pushed him to reach it.

“She has been a major driving force when I picked up the pieces of my life, literally from living in the car to where I am today,” Wells said.

Through Liggett, Wells met motorcycle mechanic Charlie Barnes, who works out of a shop in Long Beach, Calif. Liggett and Barnes are two of the top American experts on the three-cylinder British bikes.

“What happens is, you get to Europe, back to England, and talk about doing fun things with these motorcycles, and they say, ‘You need to talk to one of these two guys in America,’” Wells said of Liggett and Barnes.

Barnes still maintains Wells’ bike despite living two states away.

Life continued improving for Wells after he married Stephanie. In 2001, the couple founded their own millwright service in Lakewood. Today they overhaul and renovate bakeries all over the country.

“It’s a hard company to describe exactly what we do,” David Wells said. “But it’s one of those quirky little niche businesses that exists.”

Running a business that survives on contract work rather than a strict nine-to-five, five-day-a-week schedule allowed Wells to get involved with the racing circuit. In 2005, he and Barnes transported a bike from California to Daytona International Speedway in Florida. Wells continued to help on transportation and pit crews over the next couple of years. In 2007, he decided to get on the track.

“Having been around the racing stuff for, at that point, real close to three years, I kind of got this itch,” Wells said. “So at age 53, I asked my wife if I could go motorcycle racing.”

With encouragement from his wife, parents, clients and some friends on the Poulsbo City Council, Wells enrolled in a diploma program in the Sequoia Union High School District, in Menlo Park, Calif., where he dropped out more than 30 years prior. His work commute from Poulsbo to Lakewood was dwarfed by his once a week trips to the Bay Area. After six weeks of study, he graduated.

“That was all part of some confidence building that all led up to the fact that says, ‘You can get on a motorcycle like this. You can go out and race,’” Wells said.

His family, parents and a representative from Safeway Corporation, one of his clients, attended the belated graduation.

“Having his mom and dad cry for the right reasons made significant tracks towards him getting to do what he’s doing now with his motorcycle,” Stephanie Wells said.

Wells got his racing license in 2008 and joined the circuit in 2009. He won rookie of the year for his class and decided to keep racing in 2010, at least for the first two events of the season, which took place in Savannah, Ga., and at Daytona.

“The world could have fallen apart. As long as that track was open, I was going to be there,” Wells said of Daytona.

The race turned out better than Wells could have hoped. He placed second after the first day’s events, and first after day two. It’s the highlight of his racing career so far.

“A first place win at Daytona is a pretty big thing in the racing world,” Wells said.

Riding that high and leading his class in points, Wells decided to make a run for the series championship. The 10-race series, which began in February, reaches its midway point this weekend at the Road America Vintage Motorcycle Classic in Elkhart Lake, Wisc. Wells will then ride in Michigan on June 19 and 20.

The circuit includes racers of all ages, from all walks of life. Many are like Wells, who says his contract work supports his racing habit. With no prize money, the camaraderie on the circuit is at least equal to the competitive spirit.

“It’s every man for himself the minute that green flag drops. Until then, we take care of each other,” Wells said.

Both David and Stephanie Wells encourage young people to keep learning and working hard to reach their goals, no matter what their past looks like. For David, it’s a way of thanking the people who have helped him.

“I’m saved,” Wells said, “by the grace of God and the community around me that stopped and said, ‘If you straighten up, you can do good. And if you do good, life is good.’”

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