Gibson helmets create a splash on motocross circuit Teen designs headgear for style and protection

May 18, 1992|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

Barry Gibson's helmets get around.

At motocross racetracks from Budds Creek in St. Mary's County to Englishtown, N.J., and at Loretta Lynn's Dude Ranch in Tennessee, riders sport helmets emblazoned with neon stripes, three-dimensional designs, Bart Simpson, Mickey Mouse or the Grim Reaper.

Gibson can hardly keep up with orders from professional and amateur racers who pay up to $200 for one of his airbrushed designs. The Davidsonville entrepreneur can rake in $400 in a week -- not bad considering he's still in high school.

The 19-year-old with the boy-next-door looks can't quite explain the phenomenon.

"I guess they like the colors, so much different stuff," he says with a shrug.

Barry's mother, Beverly, his unofficial spokesman, offers her own view of what all the hoopla is about.

"You need something that jumps out at you," she says. "The impact of the design from a distance is as effective as it is close up. It's his strong suit."

She's no stranger to motocross, having accompanied her son to tracks just about every weekend since he started racing and bringing home trophies at 14.

To racers negotiating curves and hills on the way to a dirt track's finish line, the helmets are much more than protective gear, explains Barry.

"You want a helmet to project an image of the rider, so if you see a picture, you'll know the rider by the helmet," Gibson says. "It's part of the image."

Soon after he began racing, Gibson watched one of his friends try to paint a plain white helmet with an airbrush in the style of a well-known California helmet designer, a former pro racer.

Gibson, always artistically inclined, invested in an airbrush and designed his own helmet. Soon, he was painting neon stripes on his friends' helmets. Word got around at the track, and the helmets became hot items.

After two motocross magazines featured his designs about six months ago, phone calls poured in from all over the country.

That's when Beverly convinced teachers at South River High School to let her son, a senior, enter a work-study program to start his own business. It was something of an experiment for the school, but teachers agreed to give it a try.

Gibson formed Pro Artworks and began attending school half a day, then coming home to paint.

He paints two or three helmets a week. The ideas usually flow easily, sometimes when he's at school, itching to get home and start painting. Other times, though, he's plagued by artist's block, and no amount of staring at a blank white helmet helps.

Gibson says his business has taught him a thing or two about meeting deadlines, even if it means waking before dawn to finish a helmet before school or delivering one to a track in time for a race. And it's taught him the importance of meeting the right people, he says.

At tracks where he races each weekend, he makes the rounds, so racers know who he is. And he's counting on gaining an edge through friendships with young amateur racers from all over the country who will become the next generation of pro racers.

If a recent entrepreneurial youth award is any measure, Gibson's efforts have paid off. South River High School officials nominated the student for an award from the state Department of Economic and Employment Development, the state Department of Education, and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

From among 100 state high school students who run their own businesses, officials chose 10 winners, including Gibson and students from other counties.

Gibson hopes to attract the attention of a helmet manufacturer who would buy his designs. For now, though, he's considering going for a graphic arts degree at a university or technical school this fall, while continuing to run Pro Artworks.

But that doesn't mean he'll give up racing any time soon.

"Helmets are kind of a job, sometimes," he says. "Racing, that's just fun."

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