Late comedian Chris Farley created a memorable “Saturday Night Live” character — motivational speaker Matt Foley — who got laughs from, among other things, the fact that he lived in a van down by the river.
But living in a van is no laughing matter to supercross racer Travis Pitt; it was reality last year for him and his father, Brad Pitt, no relation to the actor.
The 22-year-old Pitt and his 60-year-old father, a retiree, traveled around the country to supercross events in a 1998 Ford Econoline van as Travis tried to break through to the big time.
“We hit that point where you either go all in with it or pretty much give up. We went all in,” said Travis, who will compete against the best riders in the world in Saturday’s $1 million Monster Energy Cup at Sam Boyd Stadium.
“We sold everything. We got rid of our house and his truck and just lived in a Ford van for a year, just racing all over,” said Travis, who grew up in Susanville, Calif., and now lives in Las Vegas. “It was tough times — just eating and sleeping in the van; we ate a lot of Little Caesars pizzas — but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“We were just having fun, just living that dream. That’s what my dad always taught me — let’s go chase this dream.”
Despite going all in, Pitt’s career was running on fumes late last year, when his father’s monthly retirement check wasn’t nearly enough to cover the sport’s many expenses.
In fact, Pitt and his father pulled tires out of the trash on more than one occasion and salvaged other equipment to keep him racing, but his future looked bleak when he arrived at the Sandy Valley Motocross track.
“Our money situation was almost to the give-up point,” Travis said. “It’s hard, especially when you get to the pro level. Nowadays, bikes are $9,000, boots are 500 bucks and gear is expensive. You just can’t do it without help.”
Enter Mitchell Libonati, who gained notoriety in the summer of 1997 when, as an MGM Grand employee, he found the piece of boxer Evander Holyfield’s ear that was bitten off by Mike Tyson.
Fifteen years after finding the ear, Libonati — who has previously worked with highly ranked supercross rider Kyle Lewis — found the hair, as in the shoulder-length locks of Pitt, who impressed Libonati with some fast laps at Sandy Valley.
“I saw this straggly looking, long-haired dude in a ratty van and I told him the first day I met him, ‘Give me two weeks and we’ll be ready for supercross season 2013,’ ” Libonati said. “He’s had a rough time and I’m down to help, so I started lining up some sponsors for him.”
At first, Pitt wasn’t sure whether to believe him.
“I’ve been promised so much from people and you never see anything, but Mitch has promised all this and he’s pulled through and then some,” Travis said. “He’s like family now. He’s just keeping us going.”
Pitt still doesn’t have the best of everything, but he somehow has managed to hold his own alongside some of the world’s top riders. He entered five supercross events this year and recently won two arenacross events, including one in Amarillo, Texas, last weekend.
“Without these guys, I wouldn’t be able to even make it to those,” he said of Libonati and his sponsors, which include Impelled Racing and Geib’s Garage.
Saturday’s invitational event — which will feature former Monster Cup champions Justin Barcia and Ryan Villopoto and top racers James Stewart and Ryan Dungey — will be the most prestigious one Pitt has entered.
“It’s gonna be really, really stacked, the best of the best,” he said. “I’m just pumped to have this opportunity.”
Libonati, whose brother Daren is the former executive director of Sam Boyd, the Thomas &Mack Center and Cox Pavilion, said it’s last-chance qualifier or bust for Pitt.
“He’s gotta go out and put some fast laps down and make the show,” he said. “That’s TV time and that’s making the (main event).”
Pitt, who started racing at age 7 after falling in love with the sport while watching it on TV, can watch himself on TV this weekend.
“I’m having so much fun, dude, just to make night shows,” he said. “I’m just ready to put in a bunch of work because I know what I’m capable of doing.”
Pitt and his father have lived in Las Vegas for the past year, sharing a two-bedroom apartment while still relying on their trusty van.
“We’ve still got it,” he said. “It’s got 260,000 miles on it.”
With a little help from his friends and sponsors, Pitt could have plenty of miles left in his career.
■ NOTES — Saturday’s competition begins at 6 p.m. Gates open at 12:30. ... The event will be televised on FS2 (319).
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.