On the right side of his belly button, one of the world's most
famous motocross racers sports a tattoo. It is a red-and-black
oval-shaped leaf, and of the dozens of images--big-eyed aliens,
his family crest, the emblem of a '37 Cadillac--covering his
body, this is the one Rob Van Winkle seems to embrace the most.
He looks at it often, circling it round and round with his right
index finger, never passing up the chance to explain its
significance to a newcomer. ¬∂ "It shows that I've found a better
purpose in life," says Van Winkle. "I don't need artificial
highs anymore. I'm sober. Like the tattoo says, I've turned
over a new leaf." Van Winkle smiles self-assuredly. We are
sitting in his silver BMW 745Li, a sleek vehicle the owner
describes as "Gucci, dude."
This is an article from the May 12, 2003 issue
He is immediately likable--warm, engrossing, the father of two
little girls. And yet, there's that...thing. That...past.
Wow, I say, you don't even smoke marijuana?
Van Winkle freezes like ice. "Well...um," he says, "I still
spark up every blue moon. But I've slowed down a lot. Now it's
only a couple of times per month."
And that's it? Just pot?
Again, a long delay. "I'll drink a little bit of Jagermeister
every now and then too," he says. "But I used to do heroin."
"Dude," Van Winkle says, "you have no idea."
Dude, I shoot back, of course I do. Any VH1: Behind the
Music-watching American knows way too many gory details of the
life of one of the world's most famous motocross racers, because
that racer is far more famous for his music than for his
motocross. He is, in fact, one of the most ridiculed musical
performers of all time, right up there with Milli Vanilli and
Rob Van Winkle is (egad) Vanilla Ice.
Please, put away the pitchforks. Yes, Vanilla Ice was a
weenie--from the shaved eyebrows to the baggy silver pants to the
enormous entourage to the "Word to your mother" refrain to the
appearance in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the
Ooze to, well, you get the idea. All that, however, is old news.
This is a sports story. A good one. As we chill in his Beemer,
the windows up, the engine idling, Van Winkle and I are routinely
interrupted by the roar of motorbikes flying past the vehicle. We
are stationed beside Fort Lauderdale's Pepsi/Air Dania Motocross
Park, one of South Florida's top dirt tracks and home to the
Summer Championship Series. It is here where Rob Van
Winkle/Vanilla Ice is a regular, known simply as Robbie, the pro
motocross racer who, like everyone else, gripes about riding
conditions, frets over the upkeep of his equipment and craves
When he is not touring in support of his most recent
rap/hard-core album--he still performs under the name Vanilla
Ice, but the shaved eyebrows and the balloon pants are long
gone--Van Winkle can be found at Air Dania three or four times a
week, zipping around the 8/10-mile track on his Yamaha YZ250 at
insane speeds. By whatever name, he is one of the fastest riders
here--a daring racer who casually soars 120 feet off jumps and
roars around curves with rooster-tailing recklessness. "This is
the ultimate rush," he says. "It's a great way to shut your mind
off to the real world and just ride and feel the explosiveness."
Van Winkle is 34 now, and except for the handsomely sculptured
face and ironworker's chin, very little of his early 1990s
Vanilla Ice image remains. Nearby, in his nine-room house, which
is surrounded by 90 acres of wilderness, there is a small office
in which sits a cardboard box. Here, dusty and ignored, are
Vanilla Ice dolls, Vanilla Ice posters, Vanilla Ice candy and
hundreds of other items of pop-cultural humiliation. He will
still talk about the dark ol' days--from his rise as a
break-dancer and rapper off the streets of Dallas to his tumble
into Saturday Night Live parody--but only if he can steer the
conversation to his passion, a subject so intensely joyful to him
that before long his words are punctuated with shouts and squeals
of delight. Yes, he cherishes music. But he lives for motocross.
Van Winkle began racing motorbikes as an eight-year-old in
Dallas, and over the next decade--splitting his time between
dance clubs, rap contests and the track--he emerged as one of the
Southwest's most successful teenage riders, winning hundreds of
trophies on the schoolboy-class circuit. At 15 he placed fifth in
the prestigious AMA Amateur National Championships at Loretta
Lynn's Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. From ages 15 through 17 he
won three straight titles at the Grand National Championships.
"There were a lot of fast guys from Texas at that time, and he
was definitely one," says Davey Coombs, the editor-in-chief of
the motocross monthly Racer X Illustrated. "Robbie was a very
legitimate racer, but then he fell victim to the machine."
By this Combs does not mean a dirt bike, of which Van Winkle owns
six. No, in 1991, fresh off the album To the Extreme, which had
sold more than 13 million copies, and atop the charts with Ice,
Ice Baby, which was en route to becoming the biggest-selling rap
single of all time, Van Winkle began to succumb to the hazards of
fame and fortune. "You're a kid, and everybody wants you," he
says. "The drugs, the women, the money--everything was right
there in front of me. It affected me. It would affect anyone."
Van Winkle also made the mistake of entrusting his career
decisions to others. In 1990, he says, his manager, Tommy Quon,
created and distributed a fictional Vanilla Ice press biography
that claimed the rapper had been born and raised in Miami, had
graduated from high school with 2 Live Crew front man Luther
Campbell (who is eight years older than Van Winkle) and--worst of
all--was a motocross racer with several national titles to his
name. According to Van Winkle, Quon was equally responsible for
an "official" Vanilla Ice autobiography, Ice by Ice, which stated
in an early chapter that Vanilla possessed "over 1,000 trophies"
for dirt-bike racing and later that he had "more than 400
motocross trophies." (Quon, who is again Van Winkle's manager,
said on Behind the Music that all the information came from Van
Van Winkle, though, swears he had nothing to do with the
falsifications. But once The Dallas Morning News brought them to
light, his reputation was ruined. Within a year he went from
winning a People's Choice Award and filling arenas to hiding in
his home, afraid to go out in public. Although he had cut back on
motocross racing to focus on touring, he now avoided the track
"Motocross is a brotherhood, just like cops and firemen," says
Kat Spann, the editor of Southern Dirt Bike, a Texas monthly
newspaper. "When Robbie first made it in music, we were all
thrilled. But as soon as he lied about his motocrossing, that
offended the community of racers. It offended us that just
because he thought he was something special, he could lie like
Despondent, Van Winkle spent much of the early '90s experimenting
with hard drugs. He suffered severe bouts of depression and says
that one night he wrote a farewell note, then consumed large
quantities of heroin, cocaine and ecstacy in a failed suicide
attempt. "I had millions of dollars in the bank, I had a
million-dollar home and a car and a boat," he says, "but I
struggled to find happiness." That began to change in late '94,
when Van Winkle--by now a dreadlocked, pot-smoking recluse--set
up some buoys in the ocean behind his mansion on Star Island off
Miami Beach. He had first tried Jet Skiing five years earlier,
but now it became a passion. For hours every day he would zig and
zag through the water. By the summer of '95 Van Winkle was the
world's No. 6-ranked sit-down Jet Ski racer, competing nearly
every weekend and earning Kawasaki sponsorship. It was perfect:
He was performing in front of thousands of people, only a few of
whom knew they were watching Vanilla Ice. "A lot of guys didn't
like racing against Robbie because he's so aggressive," says
Victor Sheldon, the U.S.'s top Jet Skier for the past decade. "He
wasn't afraid to do what it took to win."
Although Van Winkle tired of the sport by '96, it had provided
him with the boost he needed. Around that time he opened 2 The
Xtreme, an alternative-sports store in Miami Beach that sold
everything from Jet Skis to hang gliders. He also shifted musical
career paths. After his first post-To the Extreme album, '94's
Mind Blowin', sold fewer than 45,000 copies, he turned to
skate-punk music. In '98 he collaborated with Limp Bizkit
producer Ross Robinson on Hard to Swallow, a gritty, angry,
13-song collection that Van Winkle calls "my much-needed therapy
session." The best tune on the album is a hard-core remake of
Ice, Ice Baby entitled Too Cold.
As he regained control of his life, Van Winkle found himself
inching back toward motocross. Four years ago he moved to Fort
Lauderdale to be closer to Air Dania, and in 2002 he auditioned
for ESPN's X Games in the freestyle division. (Says Van Winkle,
who failed to qualify, "You've got these 16-year-old kids pulling
the hairiest moves you could imagine. I had no chance.") In
January he placed seventh in the Suzuki Crossover Challenge, an
annual Anaheim event that pits athletes from various sports
against one another on a supercross track. "The top 10 guys in
the race are really strong riders, and the rest are just guys
with bikes," says Coombs. "Robbie has proven himself." Vanilla
Ice is even a character in the PlayStation game Championship
With the recent explosion of reality TV, Van Winkle says he has
received dozens of calls from producers anxious to, say, put
Vanilla Ice in a house with six strippers, Hollywood Hogan and
the cast of The Love Boat. While insisting, "I've got too much
pride for that stuff," he did accept $50,000 from Fox in March
2002 to take on Todd Bridges on Celebrity Boxing. "I thought it'd
be easy money, just a show," he says. "I didn't think I'd have to
train. They told me it was an exhibition." The night before the
bout, Van Winkle says, he and Bridges went out on the town. Then,
a few hours before showtime, Van Winkle smoked a joint. "I get
out there, and Willis is throwing serious punches," he says. "I'm
like, 'Dude, what the f--- are you doing? It's me--Rob!'" Ice was
crushed in three rounds.
If nothing else, it was a learning experience. Van Winkle is
neither boxer nor Jet Skier nor cheese-ball rapper. He's
Robbie--the guy with a lot of tattoos and a need for speed.
"This is where I'm happiest," he says, pointing at the track.
"It's a special place."
Word to your mother.
DRUGS, THE WOMEN, THE MONEY--everything was right there."
Winkle. "Like the tattoo says, I'VE TURNED OVER A NEW LEAF."