Melissa Paris misses racing. You wouldn’t be able to tell initially while in conversation, or during the occasional cuts MotoAmerica TV coverage makes to Paris, standing in her garage, watching her team or her husband on track. She looks focused. Confident. Sometimes fierce. It’s not that she doesn’t love the work she is doing with her team, MP13, supporting two young riders in MotoAmerica’s Twins Cup and Junior Cup classes for 2023, or that she hasn’t enjoyed her role as a mentor to younger riders and working as chief mechanic when she can as well. It’s that she misses swinging her leg over the bike and pushing it, as well as herself, as much as she can. When you get a chance to talk to her outside of the garage, you can hear the longing in her voice.
It wasn’t a choice consciously made by the team owner. Paris had at least raced in MotoAmerica in 2019 and done some 24-hour endurance bike racing as well. The pandemic’s arrival in 2020, though, put a long pause on racing around the world.
She was later able to get some laps in with Royal Enfield’s Build. Train. Race. program, participating in the flat-track leg. And somewhere in there, she also welcomed a second child. It makes sense that her time and attention had been pulled more in the direction of her racing team and her family. Yet, her world still heavily revolves around the racing motorcycles. What’s harder to believe is that she didn’t even start riding until her 20s.
Paris’ origin story initially comes off like a stereotypical old-school parental nightmare of a girl meeting a guy with a motorcycle. Yet, the real narrative is so much more candid, where it ends up being more about the bike and just a little about the guy.
“If I could describe myself around the ages of like 15 and 20 — I was pretty lost,” Paris told Jalopnik in an interview. “I didn’t really know who I was, or what I wanted. And I was kind of adrift a little bit.”
Paris was attending San Diego State and happened to notice, in her words, “a really cute guy” living on the floor below her dorm, who also happened to have a sport bike. She had always seen motorcycles and thought they looked like fun, but had never known anyone who rode. Paris decided to make a friend, who she would also end up dating for some time. Another bonus: she’d finally get to experience a motorcycle. The thrill was enough that she quickly learned how to ride and saved up to buy her first motorcycle. Everything kind of clicked from there.
“There’s no way of describing it,” Paris said. “It’s like in The Wizard of Oz, when all of a sudden everything turns to color.”
You can hear the color in her voice as she begins to tell this part of her story — which is now moving as fast as her infatuation with racing motorcycles developed. School wasn’t all that fulfilling in the first place, so Paris ditched classes to ride any time she could. Then it was canyon rides, and the older guys she would eventually come to ride with thought she needed to be on a track. She went to a racetrack for the first time, and it was far from her last.
As a broke college student, she got into motorcycle school and worked out a deal with them to fix crashed bikes; as a trade-off, she could ride track days for free. Then it was club racing. Then she needed a job that could pay enough to keep her in competition. A friend “spruced” up her resume to help her land the full-time job she would work through her last two years as a full time student, so she could go racing almost every weekend.
“All I wanted to do was be at the track every opportunity I had. And I knew from the first time the flag dropped [that I] don’t want to do anything else,” Paris said. “And I don’t think I necessarily was like, ‘I want to race in the world championship one day.’ I was just like, ‘I just want to keep feeling like this. I want to keep feeling this way.’”
Paris’ racing resume shows her dedication to wanting to keep feeling alive. In 2008, Paris became the Lightweight National Champion. The next year, she was the first woman in history to qualify for World Supersport. She competed in the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Daytona Sportbike series and finished 15th. Then there were races in British Supersport bikes. To cap that small saga up, in 2011, she became the first female rider invited to test a MotoGP prototype bike.
Paris, at first, played that opportunity off as a fluke. Her husband, since 2006, is multi-champion rider Josh Hayes. Hayes had, at the time, just won the 2011 AMA Pro Superbike Championship for his second time with Yamaha. As a thank you, the bike manufacturer arranged to bring him to Spain to test the MotoGP bikes. Paris says it’s a common practice to invite people from the press or riders to try the bikes at the end of the season. Now, Paris was racing SuperSport at this time, and Yamaha suggested maybe it would be cool if they let her ride the Moto2 bike while she was there. The couple were going to have one hell of a ride.
But between the planning and the actual ride to take place at Valencia came the tragic accident at the 2011 Malaysia Motorcycle Grand Prix that would take the life of beloved Italian rider Marco Simoncelli. In that crash, Simoncelli’s bike had crossed into the path of Valentino Rossi and American rider Colin Edwards. Edwards came out with a broken collar bone, and the Tech 3 Yamaha MotoGP team was without a rider to compete in the season’s final race in Spain.
With Hayes already en route to Valencia, MotoGP tapped the rider to compete in Edwards’ place. He did well and finished seventh overall for the Yamaha outfit. But remember, this is Paris’ story, and we still have the test ride to get back to.
So, since Hayes would be busy preparing for and racing that week and weekend, Yamaha made the decision to put Paris on the prototype.
“I felt almost like in Wayne’s World where they have their backstage passes, and they’re sneaking in,” she said. “And I was like, someone’s gonna say, ‘You don’t belong here.’”
When Paris asked how many laps she could do, Yamaha just told her the tank was full. There were no limits, except the track’s. The garage door opened, with cameras going off all around and she set off, clicking through the gears. Rossi, then a seven-time MotoGP World Championship, was even on track with her.
Knowing the team was collecting data, she didn’t want to leave with any numbers that would leave any shred of doubt as to why she, of all people, was on that bike. Paris calls it “motivation by shame.” Sure, she never reached full throttle during those sessions, but she says her recorded top speed during the MotoGP bike escapade was higher than her husband had reached in his entire MotoGP race weekend.
Things didn’t slow down after the once-in-a-lifetime bike test; Paris went on to participate in FIM, MotoAmerica, the Bol d’Or 24-Hour World Endurance race and in 2017, started her racing team, MP13 Racing. Imagine also running your own business and team, while also preparing to run the Le Mans 24-Hour World Endurance Championship Race. Paris did both.
Now, it’s 2023. MP13 is starting strong this season in the MotoAmerica paddocks — a nice contrast to the team’s previous year, when Paris was resorting to selling personal items to keep a bike running every race weekend. She references a time when a bike crashed and she went home to sell one of the family’s jet skis. But being a smaller team and an owner, she’s learned how to wear the multiple hats required to keep the team going, successfully, as she gradually builds it up, while also making sure her two little ones stay fed.
“In our paddock... everyone’s having to wear a lot more hats, you know. ... Like, nobody gets to be like, Oh, [I’m] awesome at my job description, like we have to have like a willingness to pitch in and help where it’s needed. You know?”
The tough 2022 season ended with a major sponsor coming in for 2023 to make running the team a lot easier. It also allowed Paris to expand the team and hire two riders, 15-year-old talent Kayla Yaakov, running in the REV’IT! Twins Cup this season, and 14-year-old Aiden Sneed in Junior Cup. Yaakov is still recovering from an injury she sustained testing for the 2023 season and will be not be racing in this weekend’s event at Road Atlanta. However, Paris has optimistic eyes set for her young team and the rest of the racing season that lies ahead.
It’s difficult to sit on the other side of this conversation and not be in awe of all Paris has accomplished in about twenty years, from young eager college student to a full-time team owner, mechanic, mentor and mom. And she is far from done. There’s room to add more accomplishments. She wants to race. She wants to do the Four Hours of Suzuka, again! She wants to run more 24-hour races while she still can. She wants to do it all. Had I met her 20 years before, I feel she’d still react with much the same enthusiasm and dream.
“I just wanted to do it all from the day I learned how to ride a motorcycle. … it was really defining for me when I found that thing that I was passionate about, Paris said. “And I loved it so much. And I wanted to experience every piece of it.”