by Lisa Moody Breslin | photography by Will Hutchison
Fans of 11-year-old Kayla Yaakov and 14-year-old Jenna Schulteis say they must have been born to race.
Kayla is smashing motorcycle records — and adult competitors’ lap times — while reaching speeds of 130 mph. Last year, Jenna captured 17th in a national motocross competition.
They both hit high speeds on their bikes before they were 4 years old.
And though Kayla breaks records on asphalt tracks and Jenna shines on dirt, both youngsters are flying down similar life paths that are capturing national and, perhaps soon, international attention.
While their mothers, Gracie Yaakov and Kim Schulteis, remain supportive, the fulcrums for Kayla and Jenna’s racing lives are their fathers, David Yaakov and Bert Schulteis — both former motorcycle and motocross racers with impressive records of their own.
With little prompting, both Kayla and Jenna expressed an interest in racing at such young ages because they were fueled by a combination of love and an “anything he can do, I can do better” spirit linked to their dads.
“If I can’t do something — win a race, anything — it makes me want to do it more,” said Jenna. “And anything my dad can do, I want to do it, too — and better.”
It helps that both girls have practice tracks around, and near, their homes. Weather willing, they can practice starts and corners over and over again. And they do.
When the weather is not willing, especially during the winter, the racers stay in shape with personal workouts and, when possible, trips to practice tracks in Florida or other states with warmer temperatures.
Jenna also followed her mother’s advice and joined the swim team at her school, Gettysburg High. She’s also split wood to help stay in shape.
“Sometimes we would tell her she had to split two trees before she can ride,” Bert Schulteis joked.
A favorite childhood memory that also highlights the father/daughter competitiveness is when 3-year-old Jenna’s parents gave her a battery-powered chain saw so she could “cut down trees” while her father did. But it didn’t take her long to figure out that the fake saw was not even taking a chip out of the real tree.
“She tried multiple times with hers and she quickly figured out it was not real,” Kim said. “She tossed that chainsaw in back of the truck and never looked at it again.”
That competitive spirit transferred quickly to the track.
Last year, Jenna qualified for, and then placed 17th, in the Loretta Lynn AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship. She’s determined to earn a coveted spot at the same competition this year, which requires her to be in the top eight in the area and top six in the region.
Jenna and her parents laugh that, at age 12, she won a women’s-class race, and the prize was a bottle of Fireball whiskey.
Kayla, who rides a Honda NSF250, has over 300 wins and just about as many trophies to commemorate those victories.
Get these girls talking about racing against adults, let alone boys and men, and their adrenaline ramps up.
“I prefer racing with girls, but I’d rather beat a guy,” Jenna said with a laugh. “I love beating them because it is so hard for them to race with girls.”
“When I’m racing with girls, I’m another racer. I don’t get the ‘Oh, it’s a girl!’ first reaction,” she added.
“I just think of men as obstacles on the track. So are women, and they are what I need to get around,” Kayla said.
Raised with racing backgrounds, the girls (who had never met before the photo session for this feature story) share a similar worldview, which is characterized by keen focus, resilience, appreciation for family and fearlessness.
“She has never been afraid to jump [on her dirt bike],” Bert Schulteis said. “At 5 years old, she was hitting jumps as fast as some motorcyclists. When she first started to ride, we wouldn’t let her open the throttle. But after kindergarten she had the throttle wide open and she would jump over and over and over again.”
“She has the go-fast genes from him,” Kim said. “If I said she had my genes, she would not be going so fast.”
Jenna’s childhood photos capture her fearlessness on and off the track. In one photo, a 3-year-old Jenna sits on her dirt bike in a line of other adult riders with the Happy Ramblers Motorcycle Club of Hanover. (Jenna’s bike has training wheels.) This is a girl whose life includes snakes, hunting, riding, splitting wood and paddle boarding.
Her parents noted that they go out of their way to expose her to as much as possible.
“She knows that there is nothing to fear if you understand how something works or thinks,” Bert said. “If she knows that most animals are afraid of people, and she helps them feel comfortable when she encounters them, she has less, if anything, to fear.”
For both racers, crashing is not a huge concern.
They think about the possibility and respect it, but their approach to crashing is as matter of fact as Jenna is when she talks about a photo that captures her holding a 6-foot snake while it digests a rabbit.
Crashing “is part of the deal,” David Yaakov explained. And, Kayla quickly added, “It’s crazier while watching, but the actual crashing is not as crazy as it looks.”
“Our bodies are protected in strong gear,” she said.
“She wears an air vest around her neck and torso that deploy if she detaches from the bike,” David said. “There is a full suit, but not in her size.”
Both Kayla and Jenna get pumped up for races by listening to music. While her parents wince, Jenna confessed that her love for country music faded when she realized rap music rallied her more.
Kayla prefers rock — Godsmack, to be specific, and the song “I Stand Alone.”
“That’s really how it is when racing, “Kayla said. “You are the one on the tracks. You have to come out to get your best laps in and stay focused.”
Just as other youngsters count down the days until the holidays, Kayla counts down the days to her first big race this year. “Forty days until the Talladega in Alabama!” she said during the winter interview.
Meanwhile, as she continues her workouts, Kayla will focus on the classes she aces in school (math and reading are her academic favorites) and her love for playing the saxophone.
“I stopped riding when it became less fun, when it felt like a job,” her father said. “And I want her to do the same.”
“I think it will be fun forever, especially when I have you as my sidekick,” Kayla added.
Jenna, too, continues to enjoy her workouts, time with her friends and Hoss’s salad bar.
She acknowledges that being a dirt bike rider shapes how she sees the world and joked that she sometimes hears announcers in her head throughout her day.
“I’ll be walking down the hall at school,” Jenna said, “…watching people in front of me and I’ll hear ‘She’s taking the inside … she sets up … and she passes!’”
“She is too young to know it yet, but because of all of this, she is already so much more aware,” Bert said. “Because of motorcross, you are aware of where others are at all times, who is behind you, what motivates them and what they will do next. That is a great skill to have in life.”