Luie Zendejas joined MotoAmerica this year as a season entry in Stock 1000 and Superbike. He was a club-racing standout for more than a decade and is finally getting an opportunity to race in MotoAmerica aboard his #93 Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP.
A retired special forces soldier who served for 25 years on various elite units within the U.S. Army, Zendejas has quite a story to tell…and quite a story that he can’t tell, too. We spent some time with him and talked about his passions, which include his country, his motorcycle racing, and his wife. Check out what this true American hero had to say.
Luie, you’re originally from California, but you live in Fayetteville, North Carolina now?
Yeah, that’s right. I was actually born and raised in Southern California. he first three years, we lived in Echo Park, which is just on the outskirts of downtown LA. We ended up moving to Southgate, which is a little bit further south near Long Beach. Then, we ended up moving up to Riverside for a year or two before I turned 17 and joined the military.
When did you start riding motorcycles?
My parents were really against me riding any kind of motorcycle, so I got a job and had enough money to buy a 1979 (Kawasaki) KZ650. One of my best buds had one already, and that’s what led me to that bike. Bought one for 800 bucks. It was super clean. We would go up to Azusa Canyon and ride our bikes up there. I think I was 14 or 15 years old when that was going on. That’s when I got introduced to the whole motorcycle thing.
That’s a pretty big bike for a first motorcycle. Is that what you learned to ride on?
No, let me go back a little bit. I think I was 13 or 14 years old, somewhere around that age. Back in the day, and even now, they send you these offers (in the mail) that say, “You’re preapproved for a credit card.” Those offers would always come to my parents. Well, one day, one showed up for me, and they were like, “Hey, you’re preapproved for $5,000, Luie Zendejas.” I’m like, “Man, this is too good to be true.” So, I filled it out and sent it off, but nothing happened. Discover had a regular card, but there was also a platinum card. Then another offer showed up in the mail for the platinum card and another $5,000. I’m like, “Well, I haven’t heard from the first one, so I’m going to sign up for the second one.” Well, lo and behold, both of these cards show up. So, now I have a $10,000 credit limit. I’m 14 years old, and my parents don’t know about it. My buds had dirt bikes, so we went to Bert’s Motorcycle Mall up in Azusa. They had a (Honda) CR250. It was used but it was in mint shape. It was like 2,000 bucks. My buds were like, “Dude, you’ve got to get it so we can all go to the Grapevine and ride these things. It’s going to be so dope.” The payments were going to be super-cheap, so I said, “Screw it.” I pulled out my credit card, and I bought that dirt bike. On the weekends, we would go up there and ride, and I would hide the bike at my friend’s house since my parents never knew. And then, it was time to make a payment on the credit card, and this old boy didn’t’t have a job. So, I’m asking my parents for 20 or 30 bucks, and they’re like, “We don’t have 20 or 30 bucks.” 20 or 30 bucks for my family and me back in the day was a lot of money. Five bucks, maybe, but 20 bucks? Go pound sand. It’s not happening. I figured out that you can do a cash advance off these credit cards, so I would use the other card and pull a cash advance at Sears, and then, I would make the payment the next day on the card that had the balance. I literally did that for 10 to 15 years going into my military career. That’s how I funded my whole motorcycle thing.
When was your first road race and what motorcycle did you race?
My first road race was in ’08 or ’09. I don’t remember. It was on the ’08 variant of the Suzuki GSX-R1000. It was a WERA race at VIR. I was actually there the day prior for a track day, and everybody was like, “Hey, you should try this road racing thing. Maybe you’ll like it. You’re pretty decent.” I went out there, and I think I placed third or second, or maybe won one of the races that weekend. After that, I was hooked.
That’s a pretty good first outing for you. So, you had done some track days or whatever. Since you were at VIR, at this point were you living in North Carolina?
Yes. I was finally stationed out here. I would come back to North Carolina and support the Fort Bragg area because that’s where most of our advanced skill schools were. Every time you come back for an advanced course, whether it’s military free fall, or a sniper course, or some type of shooter course that fell under the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center, you would come back to North Carolina. So, throughout my whole career, I would always come back here for a month or a couple weeks, and then go back to whatever unit I was at. But, when I got back here, I was actually stationed here from 2005, and I’ve been here since 2005.
Now that we’ve started touching on the military part, let’s go back. You entered the military when you were 17 years old, so had you graduated from high school? Tell us how you were only 17 when you entered the military.
I was going to school in Downey, California (close to Long Beach). When my parents moved to Riverside, I had to start high school out there, and I didn’t have any friends and didn’t dig it. I was kind of doing my own thing, so I just started ditching school and going surfing. My parents found out that I didn’t have enough credits to move on to the next grade and told me “You need to go to night school.” I started going to night school, and I enjoyed it. I told my parents I wanted to keep going to night school, even though I was back in school and had caught up. They were like, “Why do you want to go at night?” I’m like, “I just like it.” They didn’t think much of it. But the real reason I wanted to go to night school is because that’s where all the older girls were. Now I’m hanging out with the cool, older girls, having a blast, and just racking up school credits. I had so many credits that, when it came down to me wanting to join the military, the recruiter said, “You’ve got the be 17. You need a letter from your parents, and you’ve got to have a high school diploma or GED.” I didn’t quite have enough credits to have a high school diploma, so I went to the night school college, and I got my GED. I went back to the recruiter and showed them my GED and letter. “I’m 17. Let’s go.” Then he comes back and says, “They changed it. You now have to have a high school diploma.” OK, no problem. So, I went back to night school, and I kept jamming out all those credits and I got my high school diploma from that college. Ultimately, between my regular high school and the junior college, I had enough credits, but the counselors wouldn’t give me a regular high school diploma until I “walk across with your class”, but since I already had my diploma and a GED, I wasn’t going to stick around till June just to walk across, so the recruiter accepted everything. Literally, the month that my class was graduating, I started basic training.
Basic training where?
Basic training was in Fort Benning, Georgia. I had a contract for Airborne Ranger, which means if I passed all the gates, I’d have a chance to get there. The risk, of course, is if I didn’t pass, the Army can put you wherever they want to put you. I made it through basic training, and then immediately after to airborne school. As soon as we finished, the Ranger instructors picked us up and ran us over to the Ranger indoctrination program, which lasted three weeks. After successfully completing this, I went to Fort Lewis, Washington, my first duty station, and I stayed there for about one or two years before going to Special Forces selection. After successfully passing that, I went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for the Special Forces qualification course (Q course), which is one year long for my MOS. You learn your MOS for whatever position you’re going to hold on the team ODA, your language skill (which is driven by whichever Special Forces Group you’re going to be assigned to). Different groups cover different regions. The group that I was assigned to was 1st Special Forces Group, which is in Fort Lewis, Washington, and their area is the Pacific Theater, Southeast Asia, so the language I learned was Thai (read, write, and speak). Upon completion of training, I was on an ODA, which is called an Operational Detachment Alpha. They’re basically like the A-team you see on TV. I was on an A-team for four-and-a-half years. When I was there, we did a couple missions out in Thailand, the Burmese border, some counter-drug stuff, some humanitarian missions in Laos, to name a few. Went out to Bosnia and did a six-month tour out there with the Russians. Once I got back, and I got orders to be deployed to our forward battalion in Okinawa, Japan. I flew out to Okinawa, and I did another four years over there. I was on the special forces dive team. I was also on their counter-terrorist sniper team. By this time, I knew guys and teammates that started going over to the other side. The other side being the Delta Force. Moving forward, I’m not going to use that word anymore. I’m just going to say, “the Unit.” So, these guys start going to the Unit, and my friends started coming to Okinawa and doing recruiting trips. They’re like, “Why don’t you come over and try out?” I’m like, “I got a flat right on the ocean. I’m on the dive team. If the surf is up, my team sergeant says I can go surfing for my morning workout. Why would I leave this?” I had a GSX-R750 and a GSX-R1000. I ended up trading them in for the ’04 R1 when it came out. We had these roads up on the north side of the island that are just mint. Imagine Azusa Canyon but it’s not a canyon, it’s a jungle. Instead of rocks, it’s just beautiful, lush jungles. Then you’d get to the coastline, and it was just beautiful. You wake up in the morning and ride up to the north side of the island and come home and you’re all done by 1:00. You had the rest of the weekend to do whatever you wanted. Then I lived right in front of the ocean, in front of a point break, and the guys would come over. I’m like, “Hey, come to the house.” They’d come over my house, and the sun would set in the South China Sea. I’m like, “Why would you want to leave this?” I have it made here. They’re like, “Yeah, I get it.” Well, eventually, if you’re in special forces, if you’re a Green Beret for a certain amount of time, you’re going to eventually get orders to be an instructor at the schoolhouse. That’s basically what happened. I tried to extend my stay in Okinawa, but it didn’t happen. I’m like, “Well, I really don’t want to live in Fayetteville, and I don’t want to go to Fort Bragg, but I have no choice. So if I’m going to go to Fort Bragg, I’m going to try out for the Unit.” When I was in Okinawa, I was able to take a staff job for four months to train up, and I went out and did the selection and assessment. It was a month long, and I passed that. Then I got orders to start the operators training course. The word “operator” nowadays is a new term for the word “commando.” It’s a term that the Unit had when it was established in the late 1970s, and it’s now kind of trickled on to special forces, or anybody who wants to be cool and do commando stuff, they’re now operators. So, moving forward, when I reference “operator,” it’s just another word for “commando.” So, I started the operators training course. That’s another six months long. I passed that. I ended up going down the hall to a squadron, and I spent the last 12, 13 years of my military career in that Unit, which was pretty much the highlight of my military career.
So, when you were in school, and you started taking night classes, you were over-achieving as a 17-year-old or even before that. You over-achieved in order to get yourself in the military, and then your entire military career, you’ve been an over-achiever. You’ve been always at the sharp end of the stick, so to speak. That’s pretty incredible that you’ve done all these things. You obviously have some very special skills. What kind of skills do you have and what has led you to this? You must be a pretty amazing shot with a rifle, for one thing, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Tell us about what these skills are that have made you have this amazing career in the military.
Just to go back real quick on the comment you made about over-achieving. It’s kind of weird when you’re around these types of people that are like-minded. For lack of better words, we’ll call them over-achievers. When you’re surrounded by a group of over-achievers, you don’t see yourself as one. You see yourself as someone just trying to be average. You’re surrounded by these specimens and just intelligent and physically incredible beings, and the whole time you’re saying, “Please, God, just let me be average today.” There are days where you outshine everybody, and there’s a lot of days where you feel you just barely made it today. It wasn’t about trying to over-achieve. It was just constantly about surviving within that pool of individuals. Skillsets vary and grow; it all depends on the Units that you are in. So, when I started in the infantry as a Ranger, we learned basic infantry tasks, basic marksmanship, and things like that. When I went to Special Forces, you’re now learning more advanced skills, including a different language for the area of operation that you’re going to be working with. For me, I learned Thai. I learned a little bit of Indonesian. And of course, I speak Spanish. As a Green Beret, you learn unconventional warfare skills, how to integrate with indigenous forces, communicate and train them, in essence become a force multiplier. Within Special Forces, there are special skills. I was on a combat dive team, which required me to go to Key West, Florida, for a month and learn Special Forces underwater operations. Other advanced schools included military freefall, which is jumping out of airplanes; military freefall jump master, which you’re now the jump master. You’re the guy organizing and planning and conducting the actual jump from everything from your oxygen, your altitudes, your release points, where you’re going to release from the aircraft, how far you’re going to drift in the air and freefall, once you open your parachute, the wind drift of your parachute, to get your whole unit and staff to the designated area of impact. That’s another skill right there. Then, in the Unit, it is focused on counterterrorism and direct action. There’s just a bunch of other stuff I can’t really get into.
I want to go back to this over-achiever thing that you say you were just trying to be average. A lot of that relates to professional motorcycle racing. You probably feel that way now, but you’re on a level that’s higher than the average club racer or track day rider, but now that you’re in our series, you probably feel like you’re just trying to keep up with them. Is that the mentality?
Yeah. You’re 100% correct. There’s a lot of things against me. I started this sport late in my career. I’m older. My risk assessment when I get on the track is probably completely different from what the guys up at the front are doing. I have a business to run. There are a lot of responsibilities. There are a lot of people counting on me to make sure I get home on Mondays. One of the things that I tell people when they’re trying to start a business or trying to be successful in special operations or whatever it is, at least in special operations at that very top level, if you’re going to work and you’re always thinking about me, me, me, or this is too hard for me, or whatever. It’s not about you. This has nothing to do with you. It’s all about the Unit. It’s about the organization. When people finally get that, that’s when people start being successful. So, going back to what you said, yeah, it’s very difficult for me to be out there and check my ego because of what I’ve done and where I’ve been and the experiences and mentality I have, to only be running in 12th or 15th or 17th place. I know my target environment. I know what I’m doing with the series. I know where I’m starting, and it’s all about being patient and understanding what you’re working at and who you’re working with and slowly start moving forward. I don’t expect to immediately be right there in the top ten. It’s going to be a process, and maybe that process doesn’t take me there. But, it’s a goal. I like the challenge. There’s one thing I probably have over everybody on that grid, is my mind game is probably one of the strongest. From what I’ve gone through and what I’ve seen and all the suffering and achievements, my mind game is so strong. When I grid up, I’m not nervous. I’m actually having fun. I’m enjoying this. This is great. I take a look on the grid, and you can see the look on these kids’ faces, and it’s just nervousness with determination. It’s not funny, but it’s just like, I wish these guys would relax a little bit. “We’re riding bikes. This is awesome. This is a privileged sport. You should just be happy right now that you’re out here going to blow $500 pieces of rubber for a couple laps. This is amazing.” I think some people just take it way too seriously. With that said, I take this very seriously, but there’s got to be a thin line between not having fun and being too serious about it
It’s interesting with you and what you’ve done with your career, and you’ve been involved and are involved in a lot of pretty serious business, but one of the prime motivating factors for you to be a road racer is purely to have fun.
Yeah. It’s that, and not to get personal, but this sport is allowing me to kind of keep my demons in the closet. All of us that spent this much time and have done so many combat rotations, we all have demons, and we all have to deal with them. For me, in order to grid up with these guys who are half my age, I have to eat right. I have to work out twice as hard as them. If I’m doing those two things, my life in general is going to be better. I have a goal that I have to look forward to once a month or twice a month, depending on when the race weekends fall. It gives me something to keep driving for. At the end of the day, this is going to sound selfish, but it’s about me now, because I gave so much for everybody for so long. This is about me. This is how I’m controlling my life now. Road racing has helped me to stay mentally sane, physically fit, eating healthy, and luckily my wife and my little Frenchie (French Bulldog), they love being at the track. So, life is good.
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