After her divorce, Rebecca bought a Vespa scooter. Soon enough, she would trade up to a motorcycle and meet a welcoming community of riders, who encouraged her to start racing.
Tell us a little about your background…
I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and was the middle child in a family of five. We moved from a small house on Dupont Avenue to a large house on a dead end dirt road in Maple Grove when the Minneapolis police department allowed its officers to live outside of the city’s boundaries; my dad started as a beat cop (and later retired as a detective). I was sad when we drove away from the house because I forgot a stack of Partridge Family trading cards that I was hiding on the windowsill.
I was a dancer, beginning lessons at the age of three. When I was five, I sang “Aquarius” by the Fifth Dimension to a rather large audience while older women danced behind me. I remember being upset because my mom wanted me to wear a faux-fringed leather vest without a shirt. I won: Red shirt with dark blue vest.
I graduated from Osseo High School in 1982 with good grades and letters in cheerleading for both football and basketball without a clue about what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I attended Mankato State University but got itchy after my first year – I don’t learn from books but rather by doing. I was loafing around my parents’ home for a few months when they slyly coaxed me out of the house at the age of 19. I rented my grandparents’ house in Robbinsdale, MN, while working full time as the Computer Specialist at Herb Kohn Electric in St. Louis Park, MN, computerizing their manual systems.
All the while, I continued to dance. Being of drinking age, I went to First Avenue in Minneapolis Thursday through Sunday to be the girl “dancing behind the screen.” I drank water while creating a dancing shadow and loving the funky music screaming from the speakers. From this experience I got invitations to dance in a few of Prince’s movies (Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge) and a Jets music video. Oh, the ‘80s were grand!
In 1989, I met a boy while on vacation in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and ended up moving to Chicago in 1990 to be with him. There, I landed a job at a strategic management consulting firm, Sibson & Company. A few hops later, I became the business manager at RNW Consulting, a position I held for 15 years; I enjoyed being an entrepreneur with someone else’s money, and learned to build and manage every aspect of a business.
When did you think about making a change?
In 2002, after 10 years of marriage, I was 38 years old, had two babies, a full time career, and no real freedom to grow the person I was hiding behind my personal curtain as I took care of all those around me. I opted for divorce, believing my girls would be better off watching me interact in healthy adult relationships rather than an unhealthy relationship I had with their father. (Twelve years later, my oldest may disagree; however, she turned out to be an amazing, independent, and strong young woman in her own right. She will understand when she is older.) At this time I moved from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois.
Shortly after I got divorced, I bought myself a Vespa Scooter that I called Bella Vespa. She lightened my heart and brought me joy. I rode her all about Chicago in a sundress, sunglasses, and sandals and began to find the woman I had been hiding for most of my life.
One day, I was sitting on Bella Vespa under a viaduct in Evanston (at Church and Benson) waiting for the light to change when a “chick on a bike” pulled up next to me. We exchanged words and she pretty much told me to “upgrade my ride.”
Although it took me a few years after that encounter to take action, I bought my first motorcycle in 2007, at the age of 42: a 1975 Honda CB 360T—because I believe the more you can see THROUGH a motorcycle, the more beautiful it is. I had never driven a motorcycle but remember feeling the wind in my hair in my youth, while riding on the back of my father’s many motorcycles.
What is your next act?
I am a motorcycle racer. I focus on land speed racing, specifically, to hit 100 miles per hour. My last run at Bonneville in 2013 resulted in a 99.97 MPH run before a torrential rain ended the meet, so I believe the bike can take me there. Once I beat 100, I trust my husband will build a new bike that will take me to 120!
It may sound odd, but I love to road race motorcycles because it reminds me of when I used to dance. My race bike has become my lead partner who takes me around the track while I get to be the graceful rider who is smooth and fast and lilts with ease from one side of the machine to another to make it around the turns.
It is no surprise that I ended up racing motorcycles because I move fast in everything that I do. I think fast, talk fast, walk fast, type fast. Once I make a decision, I follow through to completion quickly then move on to the next act.
How did you get into motorcycle racing?
I am pretty much a do-it-yourselfer, which some may call stubborn, as I find it incredibly difficult to ask for help in any capacity. When I got my first motorcycle, I attempted to rebuild it myself, but the best I could do was rattle can it (spray paint) and design and fabricate a custom seat with one-inch checkers running right down the middle. While struggling in my alley to get the engine to turn over, I ran into a fellow motorcyclist who introduced me to ChiVinMoto.
ChiVinMoto stands for Chicago Vintage Motorcyclist and is an offshoot of VinMoto, which is the mother ship for all vintage motorcycles lovers across the country. I not only met the right people to rebuild my newly acquired motorcycle, I met the most kind and wonderful friends who became the community I had longed for since moving to Chicago. Toss out any stereotype you might have for motorcyclists. ChiVinMoto is made up of engineers, entrepreneurs, artists, mechanics, photographers…you name it! And the number of women in the organization has grown since I joined so there is a nice subset of women riders.
Big Bob Burns and his lovely wife, Jennifer, took me under their wing and gave me confidence to take my wobbly 360cc motorcycle on the track in 2008. This experience not only gave me the skills to be a better street rider, but it also increased my confidence in all areas of my life. Sufficient peer pressure was applied in 2009 by many ChiVinRacers and I caved in when I felt it would be an exciting experience that would take my street riding to the next level. In 2010, I purchased 2 ½ bikes worth of parts that would be my road race bike. Big Bob dismantled the heap of junk then expertly built a production 1975 Honda CB400F motorcycle.
My first road race was in June of 2011, when I was 47, with the American Historic Racing Motorcycles Association (AHRMA) and, although I have yet to make it to the podium, I continue to travel the United States to race in the novice class.
Remember that confidence boost I mentioned? I also sing the national anthem at all of the AHRMA races that I attend, with the largest audience being 70,000 attendees at the Vintage Motorcycle Festival at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. I plan to contact the Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Bears to see if I can help them with the National Anthem…in my spare time! I was also featured on the cover of American Motorcycles Magazine in July 2011 as part of an article, “All Bike All The Time.”
Returning to 2010, during the road race bike build phase, I was approached by my now dear friend, Daniel May, with a request to land speed race his production 1954 BMW r25/3. I set land speed records with the BMW on asphalt with the East Coast Timing Association (ECTA) in 2010 and 2011, then continued to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2012, where I set more records but, more importantly, let my heart go PING about Dr. Jarl Wathne, my now husband who actually has more land speed records than I do – not that there is any competition…
In the area of land speed racing, the BMW is now on display in my office, a beautiful reminder that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. I now race a 1990 Moto Morini Dart 350 under the team Officeheads Racing. I hold three records on this bike at the Bonneville Salt Flats, and one at the Ohio Mile.
Were you able to continue working at RNW Consulting while racing?
During this time of fantastic motorcycle adventures, I lost my job. RNW Consulting diminished in size to a point where I was no longer adding value. In May of 2008, one year after I purchased my first motorcycle, I was “released to the workforce.” Although I told one of the founders, my friend and mentor, Glenn Wolfson, that it was the right business decision, it took me a few weeks for the fog to clear. After 15 years, I never thought I would not work at RNW Consulting.
When reality sunk in, I believed that it would be easier to start a business than update my resume and go job hunting, so I began to freelance as an operations specialist. In my job, I ask small business owners, “What drives you the most crazy about your business and would make you the happiest if it could be made more efficient or delegated?” Then I help them solve that problem.
During Memorial Day weekend in 2008, I was trading emails with another great friend of mine, Don Reed, a comedian and tag writer in Hollywood, to come up with a company name. I have to give him full credit with the name Officeheads, and immediately thought, “Oh damn, I can’t just hang a shingle because Officeheads deserves to be on park benches and the sides of buses!”
Don ended up being my first client; I assisted him with the transition of his first one-man play, “EAST 14TH Street” from Hollywood to off Broadway’s New World Stages in New York. His show became an immediate success, and he not only wrote and produced more one-man shows, he became Jay Leno’s audience warm up comedian during his run on the Tonight Show.
My goal is to expand Officeheads brand and services to a national level. Officeheads doubled in 2013 and 2014 and almost met this goal in 2015. I am over-the-top passionate about teaching entrepreneurs to operate financially healthy organizations, and believe that Officeheads can impact the economy not only by creating jobs, but also by supporting entrepreneurs nationally to increase revenue and optimize profits.
How supportive were your family and friends with your new passions?
Ha! My parents stopped talking to me when I started racing motorcycles, but we are back on speaking terms now that they see how organized, safe, and well managed the sport is. My vintage motorcycle community became my foundation, so of course they were supportive in the racing. I am continuously learning to be better, and rely on the mechanics to keep my bikes in tip-top shape, and get many opportunities to participate. They actually think I work too much and should race more!
My daughters are now teens. Zoe is 19. She moved into her own apartment last August, and is working and attending a local college. She is an artist and a vocalist who is interested in psychology. Bailey is 17 and is about to be a senior at Evanston Township High School. She is a musician, focusing on drums with also skills on guitar, bass and piano. I used to take them to races, but the pits were boring for young girls, especially when their mom was more focused on the race than them. They told me, “Mom, we are glad you found something you love, but just don’t make us do it too.” They did learn to ride on 1965 Honda Passports during a motorcycle show. They have not shown keen interest in riding or racing, but I just acquired a Passport thinking they are old enough to commute to and from school.
My friends have been incredibly supportive and often remind me to slow down and enjoy some social time too.
What challenges did you encounter?
Time. Racing is a time-consuming hobby in that most races are held in other states and you have to drive in order to transport your bike. I would love to fit in five road races and three land speed events per year but, as Officeheads grows, I have less time for racing or practice track days to get more “seat time” (the best way to improve your skills.)
Money. Yikes! This is also expensive – but worth it!
Focus. When it comes to road racing, a racer has to have their head on the track or they become a liability to themselves and others racing with them. Again, as Officeheads grows, my mind, at times, becomes filled with C-Suite issues. I cancelled two races in 2015 because I simply was not mentally present and focused.
Balance. I continuously struggle with work-life balance—but when you love what you do it doesn’t feel like work, right?
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Because of time and focus, I considered giving up road racing in 2015 and went so far as to tell my fellow racers that I had retired. They understood and supported my decision to stop, but suggested I use the word “hiatus” instead of retirement. That way, I could return to the track when my schedule allowed. My racing leathers are hanging on display in my office and my race bike is on a battery maintainer in my garage in wait for that day.
Land speed racing is fantastic, and I have never considered a pause. But then again, I am only the racer on other people’s bikes. I doubt I will ever stop land speed racing since my husband is my mechanic and a fellow land speed racer. I’m sure I will always have a bike to race.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I cannot put into words the confidence that I gained by getting on the track. I have always been a confident person, yet the adrenaline rush of racing was like a nitrous boost to my soul that I carry with me in business and my personal life.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Jump, baby! JUMP! During our whirlwind weekend of Officeheads’ naming, my friend Don Reed and I talked about the word “jump.” He and I are incredibly similar in that we figure out what we want, then we just JUMP! We believe that successful people don’t let things like insecurity, lack of confidence, fear of failure, or fear of success get in the way of taking action. I quickly consider my options, compare the pros and cons (most likely sketched in boxes and arrows on a very large white board backed up with extensive Excel models to understand the financial mechanics), then jump! Without hesitation.
This has been my modus operandi since I was a child. Singing Aquarius, dancing in music videos, racing motorcycles, starting a business, singing the national anthem. Why not? What is the worst thing that could happen compared to the wonderful outcomes that could further add to the colorful story that my life tells?
I have been known to give my “Jump” presentation to women’s groups, in order to share my experiences but mostly to give them permission to jump! I still have the 3×5 index card upon which I doodled JUMP while conceptualizing Officeheads. It travels from my desk to my bedside table to my home office credenza. It shows up unexpectedly every month or so and stands as a wonderful and empowering reminder to always go for the gusto!
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing motorcycle racing?
Take baby steps.
- Select a racing type – I fell in love with road and land speed racing yet there are several more options depending on your interest. Check out this list.
- Partners – Find a mentor to help you select the right motorcycle and the proper gear, as it is imperative that you be safe.
- If you don’t already know how to ride, take a hands-on course approved by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.
- Get as much seat time on the streets as possible until you trust you bike and your skills. Find twisty roads in the country; they are the best!
- Find a track that hosts track days then sign up in a novice class.
- Select a sanctioning body to race with. For example, I road race with AHRMA, and land speed race with ECTA and AMA.
There are no age limits to motorcycle racing. Children begin when they are very young and AHRMA offers free racing for those over 70 years old! The AMA has a plethora of information for women who are interested in riding and racing.
What motorcycle riding and racing resources do you recommend?
American Motorcycle Association
Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic
Harley Davidson Riding Programs
Proficient Motorcycling: The Ultimate Guide to Riding Well by David L. Hough
Twist of the Wrist: The Motorcycle Roadracers Handbook by Keith Code
The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel by Garth Stein
Out of Nothing movie: I was at Bonneville when this was filmed and met the stars.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Absolutely! I just don’t know what it is yet!
Contact Rebecca Berneck at email@example.com
1900 Greenwood, #9, Evanston, IL 60201
Truly an inspiration! Rock on sister! Life begins in midlife! 😉
Thanks, Bren! I agree with you 100%!
I don’t see myself ever riding a motorcycle but applaud you. It takes guts.
Thanks, Rebecca! I think it takes guts every time you step out of your comfort zone to experience something new! For me, it just happened to be motorcycle racing!
Congratulations Rebecca! Love reading your story and how you found your passion for riding. Inspiring!