In 1963, on what was probably a warm summer day somewhere in Pennsylvania, 14-year old Frank Esposito swung a leg over a Sears All-State moped and learned to ride. That small bike and a big grassy field awakened a passion for motorcycles that would, over the next 50-some years, take Frank into the upper echelons of dirt bike racing, land him on the up and down side of the motorcycle business, and nearly kill him.
And not once did he consider spending his life doing anything else.
“I remember when my sister and my future brother-in-law took me to my first flat track race. My parents were very strict Catholics and they sent me along on those dates as a form of birth control. I was standing up against the rail and the first time those bikes came screaming toward the first corner, I was just in awe. I had to find a way to race.”
Over the next 15 or more years following that initial baptism by dirt, Frank managed to race in nearly every type of off-road event you can imagine – motocross, scrambles, enduro, and flat track. Once introduced to enduro racing, that became his primary sport.
“My parents were big on education so they sent me to a prep school and made sure I went to college. But all through those years I raced every chance I could get. If I could have done nothing else but race, I would have. So I ended up with a degree in mechanical engineering and was also building bikes on the side and got pretty good at it.”
Not long after college, Frank gathered up his racing and building experience and started his own dealership in the Philadelphia area. He called it Cross Country Cycle and he initially sold Ossas and built bikes for other people. A few years into it and he eventually added BMWs.
At one point, Frank said he had one of the most successful Ossa dealerships in the country and was even working with the company in their research and development arm.
But this was the late 70s and no one saw the Japanese coming. They started dumping bikes like YZs and RMs on the market that were selling at retail for half of what it cost to buy a European bike. Frank and other dealers like him took it in the shorts.
“I had over 600 bikes I couldn’t sell and owed my OEMs hundreds of thousands of dollars. I lost everything and my wife (Sharon) and I ended up having to move out of our home and into an apartment.”
Frank said he could have declared bankruptcy and kept his house, but his dad, who had a successful butcher and slaughterhouse business, steered him clear of that with a very simple and direct declaration.
“He said, ‘you declare bankruptcy, you’re not my son. Esposito’s pay their bills. You’ll find a way to make it out of this.’ So I said, screw this, I’ll make it work.”
Some may think Frank’s dad was too harsh, but that kind of toughness and line in the sand approach was more than likely what helped Frank reach the elite status in enduro racing and later some of the highest levels in the motorcycle business. It would also more than likely bring him back from the dead.
It was 1981 and Frank had been at JC Industries, a regional motorcycle parts distributor, long enough to have become their national sales manager. He was still racing on weekends, and that Memorial Weekend found him at the Moonshine Enduro event in Pennsylvania.
He crashed. Not a spill or a flip, but a hellacious shattering of his body that left his rib cage separated from his spine, bones sticking out where they shouldn’t, and blood leaving his body faster than the doctors could keep it in.
Frank also took a short trip to the other side.
“It took me 25 years to tell anyone about it, I thought people would think I was crazy. But I had a near death experience. I was removed from my body and saw Sharon, who was pregnant with our third child at the time, sitting beside me. But I had this incredible sense of peace, that this is who and where I’m going to be. But there was my wife, and I was thinking in the third person- ‘he needs to live. Just get back in that body and take a breath.’ And I did.”
Then the real pain of recovery began. Frank would spend three weeks in intensive care and three months in the hospital. Over the next two years, he had over 40 surgeries to mend his broken body. And there’s where you’d think the miracles would have stopped. But Frank’s life is not an ordinary one…and neither are the people who have been in it.
Once Frank could start seeing visitors at the hospital, John Cassis (the JC Industries owner) came to see him. At this point, Frank’s wondering how the hell he’s going to support his family since he has no idea when he’s going to be able to get back to work. J.C. solved that dilemma for him.
“He provided me with a steady income throughout my recovery. It was incredible, but as soon as I could get around, I had Sharon drive me to my sales calls. I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from doing what I needed to do.”
While Frank was still on the mend, J.C. sold his business to Bob Nickells who’d also bought Ed Tucker Distributing (which later became Tucker Rockey). Bob wanted to be sure Frank was part of the deal he eventually made with JC to buy his company.
Frank would go on to spend 20 years with Tucker Rockey, and he eventually became its president and COO. But not before another near death experience that would have kept most people down and potentially out for good.
See, Frank not only got back to work after that crash in ’81, he also got back into racing, and not just casually. He’s a competitive guy and casual riding just wasn’t his style.
By 1991 he was back to competing in races at an A level and in one particular event, he went down, hit his head on the ground, but didn’t think much about it. That kind of thing, he said, was fairly common. But he started getting severe headaches, went to a doctor, and what should they find but a brain tumor the size of a lemon.
It turns out it was benign, but it did require five separate cranial surgeries to rectify, and at one point the doctors didn’t think he’d live. When he did, they thought he’d be permanently brain damaged.
But as Frank said, “I had enough brain damage to make it into management.”
Again, Frank was faced with the stress of wondering how he was going to support his family of five and all three of his kids in their teens through his recovery.
“Bob Nickells came into my hospital room, just like J.C. did, and told me not to worry about it. He wanted to make sure my family and I were taken care of.”
That generosity also belied a directness that Frank saw on more than one occasion with Bob, but in ways that were highly beneficial to his career.
“Before Bob made me head of sales for Tucker Rockey, he invited me down to the company headquarters and offered me the job. He knew Sharon and I didn’t want to leave Pennsylvania, but he made it clear that if I turned it down, it would be the dumbest mistake I ever made. He did give me 24 hours to think about it.”
Later, Bob would promote Frank again by having him look in the mirror in the passenger visor of his car and tell him he was looking at the next president and COO of the company. To top it off, Bob paid for Frank to get his MBA from Wharton School of Business at Penn State to help him be the best business leader of the company as possible.
Frank did make another racing come back after his brain tumor, and he started participating in the Colorado 500 – basically a masochistic, multi-day enduro ride through some of the toughest riding in the Colorado Rockies you can imagine. It’s an invite only event, although there is a spot on the entry form for rookies to apply for those who feel up to it. About 300 or more riders participate, but only a handful finish. Frank’s participated in it 12 times.
And if one grueling, multi-day slog in the backcountry fighting rain, snow, heat and cold isn’t enough, Frank has also participated in the CycleWorld Trek. Last year was his ninth one. As you can see, it can take its toll.
Today, Frank lives in constant pain from the crash that happened 35 years ago, but he said he’s learned to manage it and is in terrific shape. He’s made a couple of job changes since leaving Tucker Rockey, and is now the head of marketing and sales for Scorpion.
His accolades and other positions read like the who’s who of the motorcycle industry:
- American Motorcycle Association Charter Life member.
- Dick Bettencourt Spirit Award for lifetime contribution to off-road motorcycling.
- Motorcycle Industry Council Board of Directors since 2002.
- Motorcycle Industry Magazine aftermarket leadership award.
- Joseph E Parkhurst award for motorcycling.
Frank is characteristically modest about his accomplishments, but highly appreciative of the recognition he’s obtained from his peers and the industry. But when asked about what seems like miracles in his life – the people like J.C. and Bob who helped him and his family when he needed it most, the recoveries he’s made when most didn’t think he would – he’s quick to point out a life lesson that directs his success to this day.
“I’m no hero and I don’t want to be portrayed as one…my wife and the people who supported and mentored me deserve all of the credit. I’ve learned that being of service to others is what really matters. There’s no greater purpose.”
This may be a lesson that some would think Frank learned the hard way, but it’s a lesson that’s stuck. And it’s one the rest of us can take note of and hope to come as close as Frank has to living it.