NEW PORT RICHEY — Darrell Ryals doesn't do much of anything that is safe.
The 46-year-old Pasco County Fire Department battalion chief and father of six is a professional speed bike racer in his spare time. Racing at tracks around the state and country, Ryals has crept his way back into the upper echelon of the super bike racing world. He recently competed in a Championship Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway, where he overcame two crashes to finish fourth.
"I hadn't been on a bike for a long time," Ryals said. "I got lucky enough to win a national championship and get back to expert status, and now I'm just trying to rip it up."
Ryals left the racing world 11 years ago, sidelined by a broken shoulder. But the biggest reason for his hiatus was on the home front: Ryals and his wife had trouble conceiving again after their daughter was born, but after eight years of trying, success came in bunches. Ryals and his wife, Julie, went on to have five kids in eight years. It became clear to Ryals that he needed to be at home helping his wife instead of on the track racing.
His passion for the sport was stirred up again two years ago when his brother-in-law purchased a new bike but was scared to drive it home from the store. He asked Ryals to do it, and Ryals happily accepted. Two weeks later, Ryals had a new bike of his own and was planning his return to racing.
Now Ryals is back on the track and doing some incredible things. In October, he clinched second in the Amateur Lightweight race at 8 Hours At Daytona. By November, he had scored enough amateur points to be upgraded to expert status on the racing circuit. Last month, he placed fourth in the Expert Ultra Light Superbike and Expert Lightweight SuperSport races in the Championship Cup Series, also at Daytona.
"I usually stick to the lightweight bikes," he said. "You don't do as much to the engine, it's more just working on the suspension and the geometry of the bike."
The family supports Ryals' hobby, although Julie struggles with the dangers of it.
"It helps that I ride now," she said. "I see him crash and of course it's scary. He took time off for us, though, and I know how much he loves it so I support him. I still worry but I don't let that be my focus."
Ryals has a wide variety of bikes: 17, to be exact. He purchased several of them at Motorcycle Enthusiasts in Spring Hill, where he bought his first bike more than 20 years ago. His relationship with owner Dave Bernard has grown over the years, and Bernard said Ryals has something to offer younger riders as a teacher.
"He can take kids under his wing and show them some things," Bernard said. "He's grown into a very smooth, mature rider. He's fast but he isn't just about going out there and laying on the throttle like he was when he was younger. He's a very smart racer, and to be doing this at his age should be an inspiration to the young guys out there and an example of what they should want to do."
Ryals' experience goes beyond just racing. The amount of work that goes into setting the bikes up to run in these races is considerable.
"The pit crew is really just guys that I know because I'm doing this privately without sponsors and team mechanics," Ryals said. "The guys that help me are people I have met over the years and done battle with, so they're really good friends. They're a big part of getting the bike ready, from getting the tires on to making the adjustments for every race. All the equipment is expensive, and the amount of work that goes into this on a race day is tremendous."
Joe Conforti once raced alongside Ryals more than 10 years ago. He now owns Moflow Porting, a business that installs engine air vents, and he works on Ryals' bikes. Ryals credits Conforti's work with helping get him back in the game.
"We've basically reshaped his bike recently," Conforti said. "He always goes in thinking he's an underdog and that makes it really challenging to go up against him. When race day comes, Darrell is incredibly focused. He has his head in racing, that's for sure."
David Rice can be reached at david [email protected]