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The Zen Of Zendajas: A Soldier’s Story, Part One

Zendejas aboard his Edge Racing Honda at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta last month. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Luie Zendejas joined MotoAmerica this year as a season entry in Stock 1000 and Superbike. He was a club-racing standout for more than a decade and is finally getting an opportunity to race in MotoAmerica aboard his #93 Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP.

A retired special forces soldier who served for 25 years on various elite units within the U.S. Army, Zendejas has quite a story to tell…and quite a story that he can’t tell, too. We spent some time with him and talked about his passions, which include his country, his motorcycle racing, and his wife. Check out what this true American hero had to say.

Luie, you’re originally from California, but you live in Fayetteville, North Carolina now?

Yeah, that’s right. I was actually born and raised in Southern California. So, I think the first three years of my life, we were living in Echo Park, which is kind of just on the outskirts of downtown LA. We ended up moving to Southgate, which is a little bit further south near Long Beach. Then, I did some grade school stuff there and ended up moving up to Riverside for a year or two before I turned 17 and joined the military.

When did you start riding motorcycles?

My parents were really against riding any kind of motorcycle, so I basically got a job and had enough money to buy a 1979 (Kawasaki) KZ650. One of my best buds had one already, and that’s what kind of led me to that bike. Bought one for 800 bucks. It was super clean. We would just go up to Azusa Canyon and ride our bikes up there. I think I was 14 or 15 years old when that was going on. So, that’s when I got introduced to the whole motorcycle thing.

That’s a pretty big bike for a first motorcycle. Is that what you learned to ride on?

No, let me go back a little bit. I think I was 13 or 14 years old, somewhere around that age. Back in the day, and even now, they send you these offers that say, “Hey, you’re preapproved for a credit card.” They would always come to my parents. Well, one day one showed up for me, and they were like, “Hey, you’re preapproved for $5,000, Luie Zendejas.” I’m like, “Man, this is too good to be true.” So, I filled it out and sent it off. Nothing is happening. Discover had the regular card and there was also a platinum card or whatever. Then another one showed up, but the platinum one was like another $5,000. I’m like, well, I haven’t heard from the first one, so I’m going to sign up for the second one. Well, lo and behold, both of these cards show up. So, now I have a $10,000 credit limit. I’m 14 years old, and my parents don’t know about it. So, my buds had dirt bikes. We went up to Bert’s Motorcycle Mall up in Azusa. They had a (Honda) CR250. It was used but it was in mint shape. It was like 2,000 bucks. My buds were like, “Dude, you’ve got to get it so we can all go to the Grapevine and ride these things. It’s going to be so dope.” The payments were going to be super-cheap. So, I said, screw it. I pull out my credit card and I bought that dirt bike. On the weekends, we would go up there and ride and I would hide the bike at his house since my parents never knew about. So, now it’s time to make a payment on the credit card. So, old boy doesn’t have a job. So, I’m asking my parents for 20 or 30 bucks and they’re like, “We don’t have 20 or 30 bucks.” 20 or 30 bucks for me back in the day was a lot of money. Five bucks, maybe, but 20 bucks, go pound sand. It’s not happening. So, I figured out that you can do a cash advance off these credit cards. So, I would use the other card and pull a cash advance at Sears and then I would make the payment the next day on the card that had the balance. So, I literally did that for ten to fifteen years going into my military career. That’s how I funded my whole motorcycle thing.

When was your first road race and what motorcycle did you race?

My first road race was in ’08 or ’09. I don’t remember. It was on the ’08 variant of the Suzuki GSX-R1000. So, that was my first race. It was a WERA race at VIR. I was actually there the day prior for a track day, and everybody was like, “Hey, you should try this road racing thing. Maybe you’ll like it. You’re pretty decent.” I went out there and I think I placed third or second, or maybe won one of the races that weekend. After that, I was kind of just hooked.

That’s a pretty good first outing for you. So, you had done some track days or whatever. Since you were at VIR, at this point were you living in North Carolina?

Yes. I was finally stationed out here. I would come back to North Carolina and support the Fort Bragg area because that’s where most of our advanced skill schools were at. Every time you came back for an advanced course, whether it’s military free fall or a sniper course or some type of shooter course that fell under the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center, you would come back to North Carolina. So, throughout my whole career, I would always come back here for a month or a couple weeks, and I’d go back to whatever unit I was at. But, when I got back here, I think I was actually stationed here from 2005. I’ve been here since 2005.

Now that we’ve started touching on the military part, let’s go back. You entered the military when you were 17 years old, so had you graduated from high school? Tell us how you were only 17 when you entered the military.

Zendejas after another successful mission. Photo courtesy of Luie Zendejas.

I was going to school in Downey, California. Then my parents moved to Riverside, so that required me to move to Riverside and start high school out there, and I didn’t have any friends. I was going to school, and I wasn’t really digging the people out there. I was kind of doing my own thing. I just started ditching school and going surfing. Then, my parents hit me up and they were like, “You don’t have enough credits to move on to the next grade. You need to go to night school.” So, I started going to night school, and I enjoyed it. I told my parents I want to keep going to night school, even though I’m back in school and I’ve caught up. They’re like, “Why do you want to go to night?” I’m like, “I just like it.” They didn’t think much of it. To me, I wanted to go to night school because all the older girls were going to night school. Now I’m hanging out with the cool, older girls. I’m like, this is cool. I’m having a blast hanging out with older girls and getting my credits. I kept going to night school. I had so many credits that, when it came down to me wanting to join the military, the recruiter was like, “You’ve got the be 17. You need a letter from your parents, and you’ve got to have a high school diploma or GED.” I didn’t quite have enough credits to have a high school diploma, so I went to the night school college, and I got my GED. I went to the recruiter and I’m like, “Hey, here’s my GED. Here’s my letter from my parents. I’m 17. Let’s go.” Then he comes back and he’s like, “They changed it. You now have to have a high school diploma.” Okay, no problem. So, I go back to night school, and I keep jamming out all these credits and I get my high school diploma from that college. I’m still enrolled at my regular high school right there in Riverside. So, I’m still going to school and still doing all that stuff, and I had enough credits now from the junior college that the counselors at the regular high school were like, “You have enough credits, but we can’t give you a high school diploma because you have to walk across with your class.” He’s like, “Once that happens, we can give you your diploma.” Well, I already had my diploma. I had a GED. I wasn’t going to stick around till June just to walk across, so the recruiter accepted everything. Literally, the month that my class was graduating, I started basic training.

Basic training where?

Basic training was in Fort Benning, Georgia. I had a contract. The contract was Airborne Ranger. That’s, if I pass all the gates. All that contract is telling you is they’re going to give you a chance to get there, but if you don’t get there, they’re going to put you wherever they want to put you. So, there’s a risk, but I had a contract. So, I go to basic training. Pass that. Immediately after that, I walk across the street to airborne school. Pass that. As soon as we’re done with airborne school, the Ranger instructors come and pick us up and run us over to the Ranger indoctrination program. That was like three weeks. I passed that. I ended up going to Fort Lewis, Washington, which was my first duty station. I stayed there for about a year, and then I went to special forces selection. I passed that, and then I went to Fort Bragg where I’m at now for the special forces qualification course, which is about a year long. They basically show you your MOS. You basically go through your language skill, to whatever special forces group you’re going to be assigned to. Different special forces groups cover certain parts of the area. The group that I was going to be assigned to was first special forces group, which is in Fort Lewis, Washington, and their area is the Pacific, Southeast, Indochina. So, my language I had to learn was Thai. I had to learn to read it and write it and talk it. So, I completed that. I went to my first duty assignment up to Fort Lewis. I was on an ODA, which is called an Operational Detachment Alpha. You see the TV show the A-team, that’s basically what they are. They’re just A-teams. I was on an A-team for four and a half years. When I was there, we did a couple missions out in Thailand, the Burmese border, some counter-drug stuff. Went out to Bosnia and did a six-month tour out there with the Russians. Then I came back, and I got orders to be deployed to our forward battalion in Okinawa. I flew out to Okinawa, and I did another four years over there, which was a great time. Same kind of mission, everything from humanitarian to unconventional warfare to force multiplying other countries’ military. When I was over there, I was on the special forces dive team. I was also on their counter-terrorist sniper team that they had up there. At this time, I now had guys that I knew that I was a teammate of or knew that started going over to the other side – the other side being the Delta Force. Moving forward, I’m not going to use that word anymore. I’m just going to say, “the Unit.” So, these guys start going to the Unit, and my friends started coming to Okinawa and doing recruiting trips. They’re like, “Why don’t you come over and try out?” I’m like, “I got a flat right on the ocean. I’m on the dive team. If the surf is up, my workout, my team sergeant says I can go surfing or my workout in the morning. Why would I leave this?” I had a GSX-R750, GSX-R1000. I ended up trading it in for the ’04 R1 when it came out. We had these roads up on the north side of the island that are just mint. Imagine Azusa Canyon but it’s not a canyon, it’s a jungle. Instead of rocks, it’s just beautiful, lush jungles. Then you’d get to the coastline, and it was just beautiful. You wake up in the morning and ride up to the north side of the island and come home and you’re all done by 1:00. You had the rest of the weekend to do whatever you want. Then I lived right in front of the ocean, in front of a point break, and the guys would come over. I’m like, “Hey, come to the house.” They’d come over my house and the sun would set in the China Sea. I’m like, why would you want to leave this? I have it made here. They’re like, “Yeah, I get it.” Well, eventually if you’re in special forces, if you’re a Green Beret for a certain amount of time, you’re going to eventually come on orders to be an instructor at the schoolhouse. That’s basically what happened. I tried to extend to stay in Okinawa and they were like, “No, you have to go do your time as an instructor.” I’m like, well, I really don’t want to live in Fayetteville, and I don’t want to go to Fort Bragg, but I have no choice. That is when if I’m going to go to Fort Bragg, I’m going to go ahead and try out for the Unit. When I was in Okinawa, I was able to take a staff job for four months to train up, and I went out and I did the selection and assessment. It was a month long and I passed that. Then I got orders to start the operators training course. The word “operator” nowadays is a new term for the word “commando.” It’s a term that the Unit established when the Unit was established in the late ‘70s, and it’s now kind of trickled on to special forces, or anybody that wants to be cool and do commando stuff, they’re now operators. So, moving forward, when I reference “operator,” it’s just another word for “commando.” So, I started the operators training course. That’s another six months long. I passed that. I ended up going down the hall to a squadron and I spent the last twelve, thirteen years of my military career in that Unit, which was pretty much the highlight of my military career.

So, when you were in school, and you started taking night classes, you were over-achieving as a 17-year-old or even before that. You over-achieved in order to get yourself in the military, and then your entire military career, you’ve been an over-achiever. You’ve been always at the sharp end of the stick, so to speak. That’s pretty incredible that you’ve done all these things. You obviously have some very special skills. What kind of skills do you have and what has led you to this? You must be a pretty amazing shot with a rifle, for one thing, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Tell us about what these skills are that have made you have this amazing career in the military.

Just to go back real quick on the comment you made about over-achieving. It’s kind of weird when you’re around these types of people that are like-minded like you. For lack of better words, we’ll call them over-achievers. When you’re surrounded with a group of over-achievers, you don’t see yourself as one. You just see yourself as someone just trying to be average. You’re surrounded by these specimens and just intelligent and physically incredible beings, and the whole time you’re saying, “Please, God, just let me be average today.” There are days where you outshine everybody, and there’s a lot of days where you’re just like, I barely made it today. It wasn’t about trying to over-achieve. It was just constantly about surviving within that pool of individuals. Skillsets slowly vary and they grow, and it all depends on the Units that you are in. So, when I started in the infantry as a ranger, we learned basic infantry tasks, basic marksmanship, and things like that. When I went to special forces, now you’re learning a different language for the area of operation that you’re going to be working with. For me, I learned Thai. I learned a little bit of Indonesian. And of course, just my background, because my parents are Mexican, I know how to speak Spanish. So, in the schoolhouse you learn that skillset of another language. As a Green Beret you learn unconventional warfare, how to be able to integrate with indigenous forces, tribes, different cultures, understand how that culture works, their beliefs, and be able to change yourself around that target environment to be able to communicate and coordinate and get things done. More of a communication thing. Within special forces, there are special skills. I was on a combat dive team, which required me to go to Key West, Florida, for a month and be able to learn open-circuit, closed-circuit underwater operations. Everything from navigational dives under water, free ascents… just the basic combat diver type of profiles. Using the boats, how to set up the boats, how to put your rebreather together, how to operate it, how to do maintenance on it, basic tactical skills. Then another school would be military freefall. So, military freefall is jumping out of airplanes. Learning how to jump out of airplanes, learning how to jump out of airplanes with all your equipment, learning how to jump out of airplanes with all your equipment at very high altitudes with oxygen. Then there’s another school you go beyond that is military freefall jump master, which you’re now the jump master. You’re the guy organizing and planning and conducting the actual jump from everything from your oxygen, your altitudes, your release points, where you’re going to release from the aircraft, how far you’re going to drift in the air and freefall, once you open your parachute, the wind drift of your parachute, to get your whole unit and staff to the designated area of impact. That’s another skill right there. Then SERE training. Basically, it’s a POW course where you learn what it’s like to be a POW, how to survive on the land a little bit, what to say, what not to say, how to use your hands so it doesn’t look like they can manipulate your hands to basically use it as propaganda. How to stay within your circle. I could keep going on. Just basic counter-surveillance stuff. How to use the internet. What not to do on the internet. Just basic things like that. Then, in the Unit, it’s more of a counter-terrorist kind of unit so it’s more direct action, working in and around special operations helicopters. A lot of the special skills kind of move over there, too. Your sniper skills, your assaulter skills. Your assaulter skills are just taking down a house with multi-units, assaulting a building, hostage rescue, aircraft takedown, vehicle takedown, everything from planes, trains, automobiles. There’s just a bunch of other stuff I can’t really get into.

I want to go back to this over-achiever thing that you say you were just trying to be average. A lot of that relates to professional motorcycle racing. You probably feel that way now, but you’re on a level that’s higher than the average club racer or track day rider, but now that you’re in our series, you probably feel like you’re just trying to keep up with them. Is that the mentality?

A 25-year military career prepared Zendejas well for the pressures of MotoAmerica racing. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Yeah. You’re 100% correct. There’s a lot of things against me. I started this sport late in my career. I’m older. My risk assessment when I get on the track is probably completely different from what the guys up at the front are doing. I have a business to run. There’s a lot of responsibilities. There are a lot of people counting on me to make sure I get home on Mondays. One of the things that I tell people when they’re trying to start a business or trying to be successful in special operations or whatever it is, at least in special operations at that very top level, if you’re going to work and you’re always thinking about me, me, me, or this is too hard for me, or whatever. It’s not about you. This has nothing to do about you. It’s all about the Unit. It’s about the organization. When people finally get that, that’s when people start being successful. So, going back to what you said, yeah, it’s very difficult for me to be out there and, I want to say, check my ego because of what I’ve done and where I’ve been and the experiences and mentality I have, to be running in 12th or 15th or 17th place. I know my target environment. I know what I’m doing with the series. I know where I’m starting, and it’s all about being patient and understanding where you’re working at and who you’re working with and slowly start moving forward. I don’t expect to be just right there in the top five. It’s going to be a process, and maybe that process doesn’t take me there. But, it’s a goal. I like the challenge. There’s one thing I probably have over everybody on that grid, is my mind game is probably one of the strongest. From what I’ve gone through and what I’ve seen and all the suffering and achievements, my mind game is so strong. When I grid up, I’m not nervous. I’m actually having fun. I’m enjoying this. This is great. I’m actually having fun. I look on the grid, and you can see the look on these kids, and it’s just nervous. It’s not funny, but it’s just like, I wish these guys would relax a little bit. You just see the determination on their face. Like, “Hey, man, We’re riding bikes. This is awesome. This is a privilege sport. You should just be happy right now that you’re out here going to blow $500 pieces of rubber for a couple laps. This is amazing.” I think some people just take it way too seriously. With that said, I take this very seriously, but there’s got to be a thin line between not having fun and being too serious about it.

It’s interesting with you and what you’ve done with your career, and you’ve been involved and are involved in a lot of pretty serious business, but one of the prime motivating factors for you to be a road racer is purely to have fun.

Yeah. It’s that, and not to get personal, but this sport is allowing me to kind of keep my demons in the closet. All of us that spent this much time and have done so many combat rotations, we all have demons, and we all have to deal with them. For me, in order to grid up with these guys who are half my age, I have to eat right. I have to work out twice as hard as them. If I’m doing those two things, my life in general is going to be better. I have a goal that I have to look forward to once a month or twice a month, depending on when the race weekends fall. It gives me something to keep driving for. At the end of the day, this is going to sound selfish, but it’s about me now, because I gave so much for everybody for so long. This is about me. This is how I’m controlling my life now. Road racing has helped me to stay mentally sane, physically fit, eating healthy, and luckily my wife and my little Frenchie (French Bulldog), they love being at the track. So, life is good.

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