John Kovachi didn’t invent the wheel. Rather, the Marietta native and former world-class bicycle motocross racer’s talent and technique for bicycle wheel building did give his Kovachi Wheels company-sponsored BMX racers a competitive and winning edge.
His youth mentoring and tireless support of area BMX competitions throughout Cobb County and the southeast United States sent dozens of racers to the winners podium since the company’s 1989 inception in the basement of his east Cobb County home.
Kovachi’s craft was unrivaled and impossible to duplicate by machine. To watch him hand lace a custom wheel set was much the same as watching a classically-trained harpist perform—each stroke as measured and exact as the last.
The individual weaving of spokes and their interconnection from a fixed-point hub fanning out to its wheelbase built strength and stability upon itself, which is how Shan Hatfield, 40, of Marietta a former world champion BMX racer who recently returned to professional-level racing on the masters circuit, described his life-long friendship with Kovachi.
He and Kovachi have been hosting youth clinics for the past few years at Noonday and Wlldhorse Creek parks on opposite ends of Cobb County, instilling their winning ways in the next generation of BMX racers, Hatfield said.
But you never had to be first across the finish line to be number one in John Kovachi’s eyes, said Hatfield. All it took was determination, good sportsmanship and a willingness to give it your all for Kovachi to give you a pat on the back and a leg up in the form of a bike tune-up, prized Kovachi logo stickers, a trademark bright yellow and hot pink colored team jersey, or for those who had the moxie a full sponsorship.
"If you were riding Kovachi Wheels you were riding the best," added Hatfield. "And he helped so many people achieve their best in the sport of BMX and in life.”
John Kovachi, 46, of Marietta, died from kidney failure early Wednesday morning at Emory University Hospital stemming from complications from a heart transplant he received there in the mid 1990s, said Kovachi’s older brother, David Kovachi of Marietta.
Kovachi had recently fallen ill and a series of invasive out-patient cardiovascular tests caused an internal infection that couldn’t be treated by traditional antibiotics due to his anti-rejection drug regimen, his brother said.
A visitation was held Thursday, Oct. 20, at Carmichael Funeral Home from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. A Funeral Mass will follow on Friday, Oct. 21, at Transfiguration Catholic Church on Blackwell Road in Marietta at 3 p.m. A graveside service is planned for Thursday Oct. 27th at Kennesaw Memorial Park at 2 p.m.
Kovachi was diagnosed in his mid teens with lupus, a chronic, hereditary and extremely painful autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack its own tissues and organs. While the disease didn’t kill him outright, it did over the course of years take its toll on Kovachi’s body as antibodies focused their wrath on his heart.
Spending years on a heart transplant waiting list, Kovachi finally got a life-saving call from Emory Healthcare that a match was found. Barely out of his 20s, Kovachi got a new heart and a new lease on life, his brother said.
“Lupus robbed John of his BMX racing career, but it didn’t stop him from being involved in it and doing what he loved,” his brother added.
Kovachi’s BMX racing star rose parallel to the sport itself. Having roots in dirt motorcycle racing, BMX manufacturers quickly caught on to the sport’s growing popularity in the early to mid 1970s. Dirt tracks featuring big jumps and huge embankments to carry riders faster around the tracks were popping up across the nation. And local supporters and promoters formed their own leagues and sanctioning bodies to keep things official.
With their standard 20-inch wheelbases and frames and components made from hybrid metals such as chromoly and other alloy combinations, the newer and better-handling BMX bikes were stronger and lighter than their clunky predecessors. The sport’s evolution quickly took hold.
Kovachi trail blazed the local BMX circuit. His winning streaks with attitude to match earned him full factory sponsorships from then-big name bicycle manufacturers like Torker and Robinson. He dominated the then largest national race sanctioning organization, the National Bicycle League, in the late 1970s with a #1 ranking at just 13 years old.
But two years later the lupus set in. And by his 16th birthday Kovachi’s pro-level racing days were over.
Kovachi then went to work for Free-Flite Bicycles in Marietta, where many aspiring bicycle racers from all disciplines have gotten their start, including Kovachi early in his racing career.
It was there in 1986 that Kovachi apprenticed a master wheel builder in the delicate art of spoke tension and lacing styles involving hundreds if not thousands of combinations and configurations that can wobble the mind as easily as a loose spoke will throw a wheel out of true, said former Free-Flite Bicycles co-worker Louie Jiles of Marietta.
“John elevated everyone’s awareness about how important wheels are and how they enhance riding experience,” said Jiles, who now owns and operates Bikeabout Bicycles a few blocks north of the Marietta Square. “Even back then John started promoting wheels as an integral part of the bike. Wheels were considered generic at the time. But then John came along and changed that mindset.”
In 1989, Kovachi struck out on his own, forming his one-man wheel building empire, Kovachi Wheels, in the basement of his house. He eventually built up enough capital to buy a large white van and outfit it with his bright pink, yellow and black logo and a matching trailer to carry all his gear to races across the southeast United States. He toured relentlessly and was fixture on the racing circuit up until about a month before his death.
He also patented his own line of BMX and mountain bike wheel hubs and branched out into the mountain bike racing circuit by sponsoring several world-champion riders, including downhill dual slalom champion Brian Lopes.
Kovachi eventually partnered his business with a long-time friend and father of one of his sponsored racers, Buddy Floyd of McDonough.
Floyd’s son Blake began racing when he was 8; he’s 18 now.
“John talked to the kids, the riders, like he was their second parent,” Floyd said. “He was a great mentor and just a world-class individual. That’s what I loved about him, when he talked to my son Blake. He really got through to young people.”
Floyd said he plans to continue running the business and fulfill Kovachi Wheels’ race schedule and sponsorship commitments indefinitely.
“He really believed in me as a person,” said retired and former Kovachi sponsored racer Valerie Keyser of Fort Myers, Fla. “John knew what it took to become an excellent rider. He would always bring any rider to any race. It didn’t matter who you were. He’d pile you in his old van and take you. That was how much he loved the sport and promoting it with everything he had.”
Other immediate survivors include a sister, Veronica Kovachi of Birmingham, Ala; mother, Dinah Dennis of Marietta; father, Jan Kovachi of Marietta; and a son, John Michael Kovachi of Marietta.
In lieu of flowers the family will establish a memorial fund to help pay for funeral expenses.