The extraordinary and untold story of Michelle Disalvo, professional racer turned factory Indian mechanic for Grand National Championship frontrunner Briar Bauman
Words by Joy Burgess
Photos by Scott Hunter/AFT, Dave Hoenig and Tom Stein
There is no doubt: Professional flat track racing – which forms the roots of all American motorcycle racing – is a dangerous and unforgiving sport. Dubbed ‘America’s original extreme sport’ by American Flat Track, the sport is so physically demanding it’s been male-dominated for decades, with only a tiny handful of women able to compete successfully at the highest levels.
Walk through the pits at an American Flat Track race and, with the exception of girlfriends, wives and AFT Singles rider Shayna Texter, you won’t see women tending seriously to the motorcycles. That is, until you reach the factory Indian pit. There you’ll see three riders: twice-reigning Grand National Champion Jared Mees, Bronson Bauman and his older brother – and current AFT Twins points leader – Briar Bauman. Nearby will be Briar’s #14 Indian FTR750 racer, and you can be sure that his lead mechanic, Michelle Disalvo, isn’t far away.
While Disalvo spends most of her time behind the bike these days, her success as a mechanic for the factory Indian team is at least partially due to her own experience as a racer. Her racing career got its start in flat track, she was one of the first women to carry a National Number in the Grand National Championship Series, and in over 30 years of racing she’s competed in everything from Supermoto to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
She’d never tell you any of this herself, but Michelle Disalvo has quietly been making history for women in motorcycle racing for decades. Although she’s often seen alongside Briar on the track at AFT races, and her skills as a lead tech have been instrumental in Bauman’s dominance this season, few know her story.
The Early Years
Michelle was born in Montana but spent her growing-up years in Salinas, California. When you see her in the pits working on the Indian FTR750, she looks completely at home and comfortable, and that’s likely because she’s been around motorcycles nearly all her life.
“It was my 9th birthday when I got my first bike,” Michelle told us. “It was a Suzuki TM125 in a Champion frame and, looking back, it was a little big for a 9-year-old. But I didn’t care. I rode that thing every day, and it broke about every three days. My dad told me that if I wanted to ride, I had to work on it, too. So from then on I fixed my own bikes.”
Her dad wasn’t in a hurry to let her go racing, but she kept asking until he gave in. In 1985, at the age of 11, she rode her first flat track race in Monterey, California. And from that point on she rarely missed a race. She continued to work her way through the ranks in flat track, turning expert in 1991. Her first pro race was that same year, and she was riding hard to great results.
Blazing a Trail for Women
Long before Shayna Texter became the first woman to win a Grand National race, Michelle was blazing a trail for women in motorcycle racing, making history of her own in flat track. After earning her national number in 1998, Michelle headed to Daytona International Speedway to race, and from the moment she was on the gas and banging bars at the Speedway, she knew this was what she wanted to do. “That first time I went to Daytona, I knew I wanted to race the circuit. I intended to race the entire circuit, or get as far as I could.”
She went on to be the first woman to take a podium in the Grand National Dirt Track Series. In 2000, she became the first woman to win an AMA national title, taking the 883 Sportster Performance title in the AMA Hotshoe series at Zanesville, Ohio. Later, in 2006, she raced AMA Pro Supermoto, becoming the first woman to qualify for a 450 Main event.
But American racing wasn’t enough. “I was watching World Supermoto with a friend and kept thinking I wanted to do that someday,” Michelle says. “By chance, someone in England had a bike to ride, so I participated in my first race overseas in October 2006 in Mettet, Belgium. There I met my future sponsor. He watched me race, gave me his phone number and said, ‘You’re riding for me next year.’ So, I came home, quit my job, packed up, and moved to Europe.”
During her six years in Europe, she raced the Belgian Supermoto Prestige, FIM World Championship Supermoto and the Belgian Monobike Open, to name just a few, with excellent results.
Once back in the States, in 2013, Michelle set her sights on one of the most prestigious races in the country – the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Some call it America’s Isle of Man, a race where even the smallest mistake can be fatal. “Pikes Peak is a special race,” she says. “You race against the clock and the mountain. It’s really hard to go all-out because the consequences can be fatal. It’s truly the most challenging event I’ve ever done.”
The idea of racing inches from sheer cliffs on slick roads with non-stop twists and turns might seem daunting to some, but Michelle seemingly has no fear. “I’ve knowingly ridden on circuits with no room for error, and I loved it!” Her love for racing is obvious in her willingness to take risks in a sport where injury and death are always a possibility. And it’s that love and that rush that comes with racing that keeps her coming back.
“It’s similar to a drug addiction,” she says. “You go fast or rip a corner just right, and your brain releases endorphins. To get that feeling back, you try the same move again; only it’s not good enough because you’ve already done it. So, to achieve that feeling, you push a little harder. As you feel good about your skills, you compete. Then you get an even higher feeling when you cut the perfect lap and edge out another competitor. Over time, it builds up. You just don’t acknowledge the risk until after.”
Professional Motorcycle Builder and Mechanic
Michelle didn’t just start riding at nine years old; she started working on bikes then, too. “I have built everything I’ve ridden over the years. I wasn’t that good in the early years, which means I broke a lot of stuff before I learned how to keep it together. I love understanding why it works and seeing it.”
In 2014, the love of working on bikes turned into her next career move when legendary GNC tuner and team owner Dave Zanotti needed a mechanic. “I wasn’t exactly looking for it,” she says. “Things just find me. Dave’s very particular about how the bike should be, and no one puts in an effort like he does. Everything he makes is a work of functional art. For me, trying to grasp that vision was the hardest part. There’s a lot of extra work involved, but the end result is beautiful!”
It was while working for Zanotti Racing that Michelle met American Flat Track racer Briar Bauman. “I’d been working for Zanotti since 2014, and Briar came to our team in 2017. He was a good fit, and from that first race you could see he had something special.”
And he did have something special. He won the Lima Half-Mile in 2017, and then had some early struggles in 2018. But once he got aboard an Indian FTR750, he was fast. Not only was Briar consistently running up front, but he blazed to what would be a career-changing victory at the Williams Grove Half-Mile with younger brother Bronson right behind him.
Briar’s success didn’t go unnoticed, and near the end of 2018 Indian added both Briar and Bronson to their Wrecking Crew factory team. Indian also welcomed Zanotti as crew chief and Michelle as Briar’s mechanic. It was a package deal, and it’s one they’re all happy with. “Dave, Briar and I all came into it together, and I don’t think any one of us would have done it if the other two weren’t going.”
The Indian Factory Team obviously knows how much Michelle brings to the team. When asked about her contribution to Briar’s success this year, Indian head honcho Gary Gray told us, “Michelle is meticulous and detail-oriented. She triple checks everything to make sure the bike is perfect. She races herself, so she really gets the sport and the bike. She understands what Briar is saying when he gives feedback and gets the bike to work the way he needs it to work. All of this gives Briar an amazing level of confidence when he heads to the starting line. He knows the bike is perfect, so he can focus on his job, winning!”
And winning is what Briar’s been doing. He started the season with a runaway win at the Daytona TT, letting everyone know he was ready for a championship run in 2019. So far this season he has four wins, including a commanding victory at the legendary Peoria TT, 13 podiums, and leads the championship in points. Bronson isn’t far behind. Currently third in the points, Bronson raced to his first victory in the Twins class at the Laconia Short Track.
Did that first victory for Bronson change the dynamic between the brothers? Not according to Michelle. “I was so happy to see Bronson get his first win,” she says. “I think it gave him validation. I saw him racing when he was growing up, and he is very talented. There’s no animosity, and I see them giving each other advice all the time. They take care of each other.”
With the Indian Wrecking Crew currently holding the top three spots in the championship points, there’s a better than even chance that one of the Indian boys is taking home that championship ring this year. Could it be Briar? Michelle seems cautiously optimistic. “It would be amazing to see Briar win the championship. But anything can happen; that’s racing. We bring our best, and hopefully, at the end of the season we’ll be on top.”
There’s no doubt that the decades Michelle spent racing and working on bikes fuels her success as Briar’s mechanic. She spends a lot of her time working on Briar’s bikes and watching him race from the sidelines, yet she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out at all. “Just because I’m not riding doesn’t mean I’m missing anything. Being able to watch a rider live out his dream and legitimately 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.”
Dirt track, motocross, road racing, Supermoto and Pikes Peak – at some point Michelle Disalvo has raced just about every type of motorcycle race there is. She’s made history for women in motorcycle racing multiple times, spent years tearing it up in Europe, and today she’s a critical part of the Indian team.
It doesn’t matter whether she’s on the bike or behind it; Michelle Disalvo is a force to be reckoned with – an original, one-of-a-kind badass woman who’s raced on tracks with the guys and beaten them, stared death in the face for the love of racing, and who uses her vast racing knowledge and epic mechanical skills to help a rider live out his dream.
Now that’s a story that deserves to be told.