Beating the Odds

MARIETTA, Ga. | May 1, 2018

KSU student overcomes adversity to chase dreams on the race track and among the stars

At age 13, Caesar Gonzales stood 3 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 45 pounds.

He recalls living in a basement in Long Island, N.Y., and was fed a small bowl of macaroni once a day when his parents remembered to provide dinner. He often endured the “bloody head” treatment, which he described as a beating so severe that blood would trickle down the front of his face.

Through all of this, he maintained a dream. As a child, Gonzales said he opened magazines to read about famed professional motorcycle racer Kenny Roberts and envisioned himself on the race track, dragging his knee around tight corners on a motorcycle of his own. He also dreamt of space and the pioneers who built rockets capable of reaching the stars. In his free time, he crafted model rockets out of spare spark plugs, copper and tuna cans he found lying around the house.

This month, more than 40 years after his abusive upbringing and decades after launching a successful career in motorcycle racing, Gonzales will graduate from Kennesaw State University with a degree in mechanical engineering technology and join SpaceX, a company noted for designing and manufacturing advanced rockets and spacecraft.

“It’s surreal,” said Gonzales, 54, reflecting on his journey toward a degree. “It’s been so long with so many bumps in the road, but I’m finally here. It’s euphoric.”

Caesar Gonzales

Life on the track

In fifth grade, Gonzales was removed from his home by Child Protective Services and was placed in foster care. He credits his counselor, who was also a motorcycle enthusiast, for pushing him to pursue his passion, and at 15 years old, Gonzales started motorcycle repair school.

Arriving in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics, Gonzales began working as a mechanic in a handful of shops before opening Highside Motorsports in Lithia Springs, Ga., all the while feeling the itch to take his skills to the race track. Two years after moving to Georgia, he pulled together $300 to purchase a Kawasaki EX500 motorcycle and took his bike to Talladega Gran Prix Raceway in Munford, Ala., for his first WERA Clubman race.

“It was definitely enlightening,” he said of his first race. “The transition from riding the motorcycles on the street to the track is pretty stark. You learn how much you don’t know about riding a motorcycle. When you’re riding on a track, you become very intimate with a bike and you learn how hard you can brake and how fast you can corner.”

Gonzales would go on to race in more than 100 events throughout his career, winning a couple along the way. He found himself in rare company, being one of just a handful of people countrywide with an American Motorcyclist Association Pro Racing license. Oftentimes Gonzales would park his Ford Ranger with a popup tent next to multimillion dollar transport trucks on race days, but he found that the other racers treated him as one of their own.

After a few years on the racing circuit, Gonzales finally had a chance to meet Kenny Roberts, whom he had grown to admire for his unconventional and aggressive approach to racing and for his focus. Gonzales said he remembers approaching Roberts to thank him for giving him the drive to chase his dream.

“He looked me up and down and said, ‘You look like a racer,’” Gonzales recalled. “That validated everything for me. I felt, for the first time in a long time, that I was actually part of something. I was part of the racing community.”

Back to school

Once his racing days began to wane, Gonzales said it was time to start seeking alternative careers. His original pursuit of a bachelor’s degree began in 1989, but those plans were put on hold as he took up racing, ran a shop of his own and started a family. It wasn’t until he spoke with his children about attending college that he found a renewed interest in completing his studies.

“They said, ‘college is too hard; you never finished,’” Gonzales said. “I took it as a challenge. I said, ‘I’m going to go back and finish my degree.’”

He enrolled at Southern Polytechnic State University, now Kennesaw State, in May 2010 and immersed himself in the student life. A founding member of Kennesaw State’s Electric Vehicle Team, he continued to support the team financially over the years. Among his proudest moments with the club, Gonzales said, was taking a napkin drawing of an electric motorcycle, engineering it with his classmates and racing the vehicle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the span of two weeks.

When a different group of students wanted to fabricate metal components for a motorcycle, he donated a 1982 Kawasaki KZ750 that had been lying around his shop. The motorcycle, which now hangs in the Engineering Technology Center lobby on the Marietta Campus, contains the same front end and wheels Gonzales used on his first racing bike in 1998. When his phone rang with a job offer from SpaceX, Gonzales said he was in a lab with a few classmates prepping for a presentation. They celebrated together.

“I thought I would regret not finishing school when I was younger,” he said. “But technology has evolved so much that I didn’t want to miss out on the latest and greatest things. Things I could have only dreamed about when I started college in 1989, I can now do in computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing in a matter of hours, and we have all of that at Kennesaw State. There are a lot of naysayers who would question what I can expect with a bachelor’s degree in my 50s, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Gonzales said he credits his professors and their hands-on approach to education that allowed him to thrive as a non-traditional student.

“Coming from an adversarial background, I feel like Kennesaw State was the great enabler in my life,” he said. “My time spent on this campus with wonderful professors who interact with the students directly as we work to perfect our craft was vital. They gave me the key for my future.”

Reflecting on his life journey, Gonzales said he hopes to inspire the next generation of engineers by sharing his story, which he has written about in his book, Beating the Odds: An Autobiographical Rags to Racing Story. He now advocates for victims of child abuse and tells his story to local elementary schoolers in the hope that others will pursue dreams of their own.

“If you have anything at all, you have a dream,” he said. “Your dream is going to take you where you want to be in life. I’m living proof of that.”

– Travis Highfield

Photos by David Caselli

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