As a professional motor sports competitor, you have reason to believe that your career is headed in the right direction when you have a pizza named after you.
That, at one time, was the case for Normal's "Flyin' Ryan" Oehler, who continues his quest for NHRA drag racing's Rookie-of-the-Year honors this weekend in the Jegs NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet.
Qualifying is at 6 p.m. Saturday and 9:30 a.m. Sunday with finals at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, all on Fox Sports 1.
After winning a pair of American Motorcycle Racing Association Pro Modified national championships, Oehler, 34, moved into drag racing's major leagues this season in the NHRA's Pro Stock Motorcycle class.
As a rookie continuing to learn the ins and outs of competing on the NHRA's Mello Yello circuit — drag racing's premier series — Oehler has already enjoyed a boost in confidence by knocking off four-time NHRA champion Eddie Krawiec in the first round of a recent event at Charlotte.
He's now working diligently toward a goal of outrunning the top motorcycle drag racers in the nation on a consistent basis.
"We're still learning and absorbing information and making our plans to be at the top," Oehler told The Pantagraph in a phone conversation this week. "Right now I'm continuously getting better and better, but being a rookie I have a lot to learn."
Oehler also has a steep hill to climb as a decided underdog, pitting his family-owned and operated motorcycle racing team against the likes of the Harley-Davidson factory-backed powerhouses.
On top of that, Oehler and his father/crew chief, Brad, are also busy running AirTec, Inc., a Bloomington heating and air conditioning business.
It was the HVAC business that brought Bloomington's Rosati's Pizza into the equation, leading to the creation of "The Flyin' Ryan Pie."
"One of the previous owners of the store, Phil Leptich, was a huge fan of NHRA drag racing," Oehler said. "We were on a service call there one day and we somehow started talking about drag racing. It turned out Phil was one of those super fans that had been following the NHRA for years and he wanted to be a part of the team any way that he could."
In addition to providing some sponsorship support and creating a pizza in honor of Oehler, Leptich is also listed as a crew member on the team along with Alexander Tutt.
Brad Oehler had earlier raced both cars and bikes at the NHRA level before turning his focus to Ryan's career. As a motorcycling enthusiast, a trait inherited by his son, he also established B&K Cylinder Heads, a small bike shop that deals strictly in high performance motorcycle parts.
Ryan Oehler's first racing experience came as a teenager in a Camaro in the amateur bracket ranks at Route 66.
He would begin competing regularly in drag racing's Super Chevy shows before gravitating toward motorcycle racing.
"My parents wanted me to focus on cars because of the concern for safety, but coming from a motorcyle environment it intrigued me," Oehler said.
He also found motorcycle racing to be an enormous adrenaline rush.
Now at the highest rung of the pro ranks, he concentrates on perfecting a competitive regimen.
"You have to turn the entire system into muscle memory," he said. "There's a process in rolling to the line and doing the burnouts, and you have to repeat that process in your mind over and over again to where it's something you don't have to think about. It just comes naturally.
"I've raced a bike similar to this the last five years, and I've done it so many times it's part of me."
Being successful in drag racing requires incredible reaction time and focus.
Oehler said any distraction at the starting line takes away a racer's ability to react when the light goes green and he or she experiences the "brain rattling" roar of the motor upon launch from a standing start.
"Then in six seconds you have gears to shift, you're running speeds of almost 200 miles per hour, you have to keep the bike as straight as possible and you have to hit a shift light for each of those gears every second and be within 100 rpms of your desired shift," he said.
Oehler said at the starting line, a rider will focus on a target that's beyond the end of the track.
"It might be a tree or something that's straight ahead a half mile away," he said. "Then you just drive toward where you're looking. Anytime you veer the slightest bit to the left or the right, you make the track that much longer and you're only racing for 1,320 feet. If you're fighting the bike, miss a shift or over-rev you're going to scrub speed and if the bike isn't set up right to begin with, it can be a handful."
Oehler and his father spend a huge amount of time away from the track trying to get the bike right, as well as running an HVAC business that's swamped with calls when the thermometer rises into the 90s.
Amid the hustle, Ryan Oehler will be getting married in July. His fiance, Laura Griffin, is a native of England now living in Peoria. While they met away from the racetrack, Griffin comes from a racing family. Her father was a MotoGP competitor in Europe.
Oehler enjoys the family aspect of his racing program.
"We're working on picking up where my dad left off," he said. "We're finally able to get there, and we're fortunate to be able to make the jump that we have."