Photos by Disalvo archives/Scott Hunter
If you’ve been to an American Flat Track national in the last couple of years you’ve undoubtedly seen her. Find the #14 motorcycle of Grand National Championship contender Briar Bauman (arguably the fastest dirt tracker in the world right now) in the paddock or being pushed out to the racetrack for a heat race or Main Event – and there she’ll be.
From dawn to dusk on most days, and from dawn to way past dusk on Saturday nights during any AFT dirt track national, she’s been the primary caretaker of that #14 Indian. That motorcycle has been her baby, her responsibility, and in many ways her life.
And who exactly is this woman? Michelle DiSalvo, of course.
The professional dirt track circus has traditionally been a male-dominated environment, a loud, dusty and often greasy crucible that is – except for crew and competitor families – unfriendly in most ways to female sensibilities. But that’s changing, with women slowly but surely gaining a foothold. Racers such as Nichole Cheza Mees, Shayna Texter and Sandriana Shipman have made their marks – literally – on the racetracks of America, while Michelle DiSalvo has done it impressively on the mechanical and team-management side – helping Bauman and the Indian factory team win a Grand National Championship impressive fashion in 2019.
But DiSalvo is more than simply a world-class racing mechanic. She’s also a racer, and a very good one, her experiences in both amateur and professional dirt track competition surely buttressing her wide-ranging abilities as a factory mechanic.
DiSalvo, who hails from Montana but who grew up in Salinas, California (where Briar Bauman is from, ironically), got her first motorcycle at the age of nine. “It was a Suzuki TM 125 in a Champion frame,” she says, “and looking back, it was a little big for me. But I didn’t care. I rode that thing every day, and it broke about every three days!” Her dad told her that if she wanted to ride, she had to work on it, too. “So from then on,” she remembers, “I fixed my own bikes.” A hint of things to come, for sure.
Her dad wasn’t all that eager to let her go racing, but in ’85 at the age of 11 she rode her first flat track race in Monterey, California. From then on she rarely missed a race, eventually turning expert in ’91. DiSalvo earned her National number in ’98, becoming one of the very few women to achieve the honor, and in more than 30 years of racing has competed in everything from dirt track to Supermoto to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and more.
Besides riding, DiSalvo has always enjoyed working on bikes, and in 2014 that love turned into a career when highly respected team owner Dave Zanotti needed a mechanic. “Dave’s very particular about how the bike should be, and no one puts in effort like he does. I wasn’t exactly looking for it, but things just find me!
“Briar came to our team in 2017,” she says. “He was a good fit, and from that first race you could see he had something special.” All of which was proven when Bauman, Zanotti and DiSalvo were drafted onto the Indian factory team in 2019 and went on to win the Grand National Championship in spectacular fashion.
“Just because I’m not riding doesn’t mean I’m missing out,” she told Thunder Press. “Watching a rider live his dream and chase the championship is huge. I do a lot of work during the week to ensure he has the best on race day and watching it all come together is very rewarding.”
DiSalvo has advice for girls and women interested in a career in the motorcycle industry. “I’d just say get involved. Start on a lower level. If it’s something you truly want to do, it will come to you. And when others see that you can handle yourself, and that you love it, success will follow.”
DiSalvo is certainly proof of that. — Joy Burgess