Brains, Bravery and Beauty...Tamara Raye Has It All.
Words Julia LaPalme Images Jeff Stockwell, Ben Zales, Matt Wignall and Jonny Wilson
Tamara Raye’s life is a complex, colorful kaleidoscope of passions and professions. She is a mechanical engineer at Disneyland, a vintage motocross racer, a stylish brand ambassador, and bassist in the band Wargirl. She is incredibly down-to-earth and friendly — and quietly, strikingly beautiful. She doesn’t parade about or use her gender to bring attention to her accomplishments, because she is too focused on what she knows and what she loves, unapologetically excelling at each of her pursuits. If you’re looking for a female motorcyclist to call an "inspiration,” Tamara Raye is it.
As she and I sit at a café on 4th Street in Long Beach on a sunny California afternoon, Tamara speaks softly yet confidently as she tells me about her life, past and present. Born in Phoenix, raised in Chicago, Raye’s family moved to Long Beach when she was a teenager. Tamara has a Midwest humbleness and charm, laced with the punk rock attitude typical of Long Beach —it’s a magnetic combination. From a young age, Tamara was picked on and bullied by classmates. Feeling isolated, she learned to rely only on herself for entertainment and direction. “I fell headlong into violin and did classical training as a violinist for 10 years. But it wasn’t cool ... I got made fun of a lot.” Then her older brother inspired her to pick up a guitar. “I had an all-girl band in high school that could not be more stereotypical: two fraternal twins, a drummer, and me playing guitar. We were called Sheer Pink.”
After a phase of spiked hair and shaved eyebrows, Tamara played trash rock, then chopper-inspired rock, and finally stumbled into the lineup of Wargirl, a band comprised of friends and former bandmates of fashion photographer Matt Wignall. “It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, musically. The caliber of musicianship in that group is so daunting.” Alongside a 22-year-old keyboard phenom, a classically trained jazz drummer, and a soft-spoken singer who completely opens up on stage, Tamara often feels humbled by her bandmates. Wargirl recently signed with a label in Germany and is now recording their first album; they will begin touring by the end of summer.
Band life is for nights and weekends. During the workweek, Tamara spends her days troubleshooting and safety-checking amusement rides and other heavy-duty equipment at Disneyland. She demonstrated a natural knack for engineering long before working her magic at the Magic Kingdom. She recalls dissembling the family’s VCR, only to learn the hard way that not everything goes back together as easily as it comes apart. Fascinated to learn how things worked, she became enamored with shows like MythBusters, and eventually enrolled in a college engineering program.
Being a female in a male-dominated field presented plenty of challenges. “My last semester, right before graduation, I was in a thermodynamics lab, and we had an inline-six hooked up to a control panel and throttle for demonstration,” recalls Tamara. “My classmates could not get it started. They just kept throttling it.” Despite Tamara’s warnings that they were flooding the engine, no one listened until the campus machinist showed up and delivered the news. Tamara had hoped to work for Disneyland but hints at another goal. “It was either Disney, or I wanted to work in MotoGP, and clearly one of those things didn’t happen,” she says with a laugh. “It wasn’t a natural progression from engineering to bikes. I wanted to be artistic and write music and lyrics and go all of these lovely artistic ways, but it just didn’t pan out in a professional way that I could turn it into a career.” (Her Wargirl bandmates might beg to differ.)
Tamara came to two wheels eight years ago, because many of her friends raced and rode vintage motorcycles. When offered a ride on the back of a friend’s bike, she refused. She decided that if she was going to participate, it would be in an active role, not a passive one. She got her M1 certification and her first bike, a 1975 Yamaha XS750 café racer with a lot of quirks. “I insisted on mid ‘70s and figured Japanese was the way to go for ease of parts availability and my minimal knowledge at that point, and the style was important,” she says. The Yamaha gave Tamara an introduction to wrenching on vintage motorcycles, but being surrounded by Triumphs — her boyfriend, Nate, owns BA (British American) Moto near Long Beach — Tamara soon wanted to join the British riding scene. “I’d always wanted a vintage Triumph, but I was really apprehensive to do so, because I knew I’d have to work on it. But the modern Triumph was a way out of that; it has the aesthetic, it has the style, it has the history that I liked.” Tamara bought herself a 2008 Triumph Scrambler. “I didn’t want to deal with EFI, and it’s the last year of the carbureted models. It’s finicky at times, but I feel more in tune with the bike that way.”
A few years after first throwing a leg over a bike, Tamara came across a rag-tag crew racing vintage bikes across the desert in overalls and half helmets. They soon became Tamara’s second moto family. “I started riding dirt four or five years ago, and immediately started racing. I’d never ridden any trails or gone to the track on the weekend.” A sucker for classics, Tamara found herself an early ‘70s Yamaha two-stroke. “For the first couple races, I let the flag drop, let everyone go, let the dust clear, looked both ways, and then I’d go. I knew I was going to come in last, no matter what I did.”
She graduated from the Yamaha to yet another Triumph, picking up a ‘66 Scrambler that she bought from a friend. “When I saw this bike, I said, ‘You have to keep it in the family ... it has to go to someone who rides in your circuit.’ The original idea was to turn it into a desert racer.” Tamara has since been part of BA Moto’s NORRA 1000 team, appreciating the opportunity to get out into the desert and disconnect from the world. “The secondary race — putting things back together at night — was more fun and more challenging to me," she explains. "It appealed to that problem-solving part of me that just can’t be satiated by anything other than engineering.”
Tamara is the only woman on her racing team and takes it in stride, finding other women to bond with when she can. These days she’s typically the only female racing in Cal BMX and American Retrocross, but has started racing alongside Anya Violet of ATWYLD and Babes Ride Out. When Anya co-founded ATWYLD, Tamara was an obvious — and natural — brand ambassador. Tamara admits to not wearing protective gear early on, but after losing her close friend Karla Munoz to a motorcycle crash, Tamara improved her wardrobe and began preaching the benefits of riding apparel. “If there’s one thing that’s pushed me to protect my body and learn how to ride the goddamn motorcycle, it’s Karla. There were things she could have done in so many ways to avoid what happened.”
Tamara is obviously special — intelligent, talented, bold, confident, ambitious, and beautiful. Her charming and humble demeanor makes her easily approachable, despite her mountain of accomplishments. What’s more admirable than anything, though, is her belief that she’s never done learning. She says, “If I’m not good enough at this, then what do I have to learn to do that thing?” As if she weren’t cool enough just the way she is, Tamara Raye always strives to be better. That’s why she’s an inspiration.
This article was originally featured in Issue 032 of Iron & Air Magazine.