Art Is Long, and So Are the Odds Against Painter Gina Bovaird in Macho Motorcycle Racing

updated 05/12/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/1980 01:00AM

Gina Bovaird swapped-an easel for a Yamaha TZ 250-cc. She gave up idolizing Rembrandt in favor of a Californian named Kenny Roberts. And now the 30-year-old graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design has become the first woman ever to finish in the top 10 at an American Motorcyclist Association professional race or to compete in the prestigious Daytona 200.

"I had grand ideas of becoming a fine artist but I was bored. Everything I did was sort of abstract," Gina says. "In a race there's a winner and a loser. I like that."

The 5'6", 130-pound Bovaird is competing on both 250-and 500-cc bikes during a three-month racing tour of England and the Continent. Her best finish so far has been 23rd out of 28; she is the first American woman on the European tour. "I haven't set the world on fire," she concedes. "I've gotten into something that's very competitive."

Ranked the top U.S. female road racer by the AMA for the past two years, Gina is trying to break into a profession that worldwide supports fewer than 100 men and, so far, no women at all.

A cycle saddle is hardly the kind she was bred to. Granddaughter of a banker, daughter of an insurance company owner and his wife—her parents divorced when she was 7—Gina Durfee seemed headed for a life of intellectual pursuit and affluence. A graduate of Hinckley School in Maine, Gina was introduced to cycling at Rhode Island by a classmate, and liked its excitement immediately. She sold her 35-mm camera to buy a Honda 160-cc street bike and soon took up racing as well.

It is a sport where the aura of machismo hangs as heavy as track dust. In 1971, when Gina was crewing for a male cyclist at an AMA event in Danville, Va., officials tried vainly to eject her from the pits. A year later when she attempted to enter the AMA amateurs, officials declared her bike illegal, even though the same 125-cc Yamaha had placed second in the race the year before. Gina toughed her way in. (It also took a court challenge in 1972 by Kerry Kleid, a motocross racer, to gain women admittance to AMA professional competition.) Now Dale Singleton, the male 1979 Daytona 200 winner, says Gina conducts herself "in a workmanlike, professional manner and deserves to be on the racetrack like everybody else."

Since 1975 Gina has been married to Tom Bovaird, a former pro racer. They met when he rescued her from a "pretty revolting character" at a post-race party in 1973. Tom, now 35 (and a one-time doctoral candidate in Oriental studies at the University of Pennsylvania), has left racing to become a "tuner"—cycling jargon for a mechanic. "I didn't quit because she beat me, although she did—once," he allows. "I just never had that burning desire Gina has."

After racing eight years as an amateur, Gina turned novice professional in January 1978. The next year she recorded the fastest speed for a novice of either sex at Daytona (141.66 mph). In January 1980 she attained full expert professional status.

She has broken her collarbone in spills three times but says, "I'm not afraid before a race. I can't think about all the bad things that might happen. I just go over how I'm going to do it and get kind of quiet." Making a living at motorcycle racing in the U.S. has clear financial risks as well. The Daytona 200, richest of this year's six AMA road-racing events, paid its winner only $10,900—not very impressive when compared to golf and tennis purses. In the 16th lap of that 52-lap competition, Gina's new $15,000 Yamaha 500 skidded on a patch of oil into the hay-bale retaining wall. Her left little finger was caught between the handlebar and track, badly mangled and eventually needed a skin graft.

Corporate sponsorship helps some drivers. Gina is one of the two top cyclists sponsored by Goodyear tires (the other is Kenny Roberts, an international star and two-time world champion). "At $80 a tire, when you go through about four tires a week, it's a load off expenses," Gina explains.

In Europe, where motorcycle racing is second only to soccer as a spectator sport, top riders are paid $10,000 just for competing in a race. Both Gina and Tom are confident she can become one of those stars. "Rider-tuner communication is extremely important," notes Tom. "We have an advantage over everybody else. We're the only rider-tuner team that's sleeping together."

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