The growl of engines comes in short, sharp bursts as the motocross riders wait impatiently for the metal starting gate to drop. Once it does, they’ll be released out into the red clay of the track, where sharp corners and gravity-defying jumps await. Starter Jim Ley flips his board on its side, indicating that the gate will drop in somewhere between one and five seconds. The engine noise rises to a roar, the smell of burning fuel fills the air and the ground trembles ever so slightly. Finally, the red, white and blue-painted metal gate falls to the floor and the bikes scream forward, chunks of hard, red dirt raining down on spectators behind the chain-link fence. Welcome to motocross at Birch Creek Motorsports Complex in Sutherlin, 15 miles northeast of Danville.
The track at Birch Creek is an approximately 1.5-mile circuit of corners, jumps and bumps, in a timbered area of a Sutherlin forest. At this American Motorcycle Association-certified complex, riders compete in different classes—based on age, ability and the size of their bike’s engine—to complete a pre-determined number of laps and cross the line first. Motocross, or MX to those in the know, is loud and dirty, and the jumps look insanely dangerous. But in my weekend at Birch Creek at the close of the 2011 motocross season, I learned there is a lot more to this sport than meets the eye.
“Some people might think it’s a lot of yahoos out in the country, you know, kind of rednecks,” says Paul Fleming, a 41-year-old professional software consultant and amateur rider who was at Birch Creek to watch the action with Zion, his 8-year-old son. “But it’s not really that type of sport. It’s a lot of business people who are involved, and a lot of these guys travel all over the country.” And beyond. Because motocross actually arrived on these shores via France—“moto” being an abbreviation of the French motocyclette—after originating in the United Kingdom in the early 20th century.
It’s also a family sport. Rusty Reynolds, 46, is the co-owner of Birch Creek Motorsports Complex with Ken Ferrell, 55, and the owner of two motorbike shops: Triangle Cycles in Durham, North Carolina, and Triangle Cycles North in Danville. “If you’re really involved in motocross, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of resources, and it’s a team effort with the dad and the son and the mom,” says Reynolds. “The dad might work on the bike and get it clean and ready, the kid races it, and then the mother and daughter help with scoring and with making sure that they’re signed up in the right class and they’re at the gate on time. It’s a family effort. It’s also one of the few sports where you’ll see a 17, 18 or 19-year-old kid actually want to be with his dad every weekend!”
Indeed, it’s difficult to be embarrassed by your old man when he’s racing dirt bikes alongside you. John Perkins, a 48-year-old vice president of strategic account partnerships at MeadWestVaco in Richmond, spends most weekends at motocross events with his son Tyler, 15. “I had the privilege of racing sailboats with my dad when I was growing up,” Perkins tells me. “We raced competitively for a number of years and the family bonding, father-son time was just tremendous. So when Tyler wanted to start on dirt bikes I thought ‘OK, I’m going to get one!’” Together they form Team Perkins, with the name emblazoned across the truck containing their bikes.
Safety is high on the priority list for parents, who watch nervously from the hill, darting between vantage points to peer between tree branches and over hills, following their youngster’s progress around the track. Still, there’s no doubt that accidents will happen. I spoke to Dennis Wilson, 42, whose 8-year-old son Hunter four weeks ago had broken both his wrists at the track. “I worry about him all the time,” says Wilson. “But it’s a tough sport, and he can’t wait to get back on.” Everyone I meet tells me that motocross injuries are unavoidable. “It’s not if you’re going to crash,” says Chris Wales, 37, a Danville native who’s working as flagman at the event. “It’s when, and how badly.”
During the weekend I was there, I saw 18-year-old Conner Lester and his bike slide off the face of a jump. The track safety protocols were unleashed in a heartbeat: A cross flag was waved to tell trackside assistance, EMTs and other riders that a rider was down. Three ATVs arrived almost immediately, and Lester and his bike were moved off the track, out of further danger. The reaction time was impressive and the incident was dealt with efficiently. Lester was soon up and about.
I caught up with Lester afterward. He’s an open and friendly young man who was happy to talk about the accident, in which he broke his wrist. “I’ve broken my right wrist twice, my foot once, my collar bone once. I’ve torn my ACL and had a couple of concussions. But that’s about it!” What keeps him—and other riders—coming back for more? “It’s all about just going and going and trying to get better and better and better, so it’s hard to stop. When you keep progressing and improving it just makes it harder to give up.”
Despite—or maybe because of—the risk of injury, motocross isn’t so much about speed and aggression as it is about the technique and discipline that’s required to navigate the track safely. And to do so faster than your opponents and cross that finish line first requires a level of strategizing, decision-making and physical endurance that can only be achieved after years of practice and dedication.
I learned that maybe the biggest misconception about motocross is that it’s all about the jumps. The sight of a dirt bike hanging in mid-air is maybe the sports’ most iconic image. And understandably so, because you can’t help but stare in awe as riders leave the face of the ramp, glide serenely through the sky—throttle temporarily silenced—and land safely on the other side. That’s especially true when riders go up and over Mount Deacon, a 90-foot jump named after original Birch Creek owner “Deacon” Jones, which lands going downhill, meaning extra time in the air. But motocross isn’t about hang time and looking good; it’s about getting back down to earth as quickly as possible, because jumps are merely obstacles to maintaining speed. Which is why the better riders will reduce the height of their jump by “scrubbing,” a difficult technique which involves leaving the ramp at a slight angle and then straightening up in mid-air.
Winning a “moto” (as riders refer to each race) is mostly about taking corners: “The corners are where you make a lot of time,” explains Fleming. “A lot of guys get the jumps but corners are the key in motocross.” Birch Creek track promoter Carl Reynolds, 70, helped lay the track back in 1993, and he helped me understand the decisions riders make when handling corners: “Some of them like to cut inside tight, some of them like to run wide on the outside, some of them like to come in and cut it short.” Essentially the inside line is the shortest route, but requires the rider to slow down to accommodate the tighter turn, while the outside line means losing less speed but traveling a greater distance. The morning of every race day, riders walk the track, making decisions about going inside or outside. During practice laps, they begin the groundwork, riding their bike through the lines they plan to take, digging ruts with their tires as they go. Reynolds shows me a particular corner: “There will probably be at least three lines, maybe five, so everyone’s got a little different way they like to go through. They’ll go through practice and keep working it until they’ve got it the way they want it.”
Though there’s no denying the friendly atmosphere and family environment at Birch Creek, there is also some serious ambition on display. Once the gate drops, it’s all about winning. There was a $3,000 purse up for grabs the weekend I was there, including a pro-am event pitting talented amateurs against professional riders, providing the amateur riders with the opportunity to earn a pro license should they win enough points over the course of a season. One young man about to make that breakthrough is Jacob Hayes, a 17-year-old from Greensboro, North Carolina, who won the pro-am Open A event with apparent ease, gliding around the track to many an appreciative nod from seasoned motocross watchers. Hayes got the all-important “hole shot”—meaning he took the lead after the gate dropped and was first to disappear around the bend—then took every corner with noticeable verve. He wasn’t showing off, but there was a charisma to his racing style, perhaps born of confidence. After the race, Hayes tells me the ride wasn’t as error free as it looked: “I made a couple of mistakes. You can’t always go through a moto without making mistakes.” But if Jacob Hayes is not a pro rider by the time you read this, then he soon will be. Hayes seemed to enjoy the weekend, but the pressure on talented young riders can be immense. There are only so many professional teams and sponsorships out there, and one injury can end a once-promising career in an instant.
Neil Shelor knows all about those pressures; they are the reason he stopped riding. “In those upper classes, some of those guys are still hoping to go pro one day, sign up with teams and things like that. I know when I was racing as a kid, that’s how it was, and that’s the reason I didn’t enjoy it quite as much. I was so competitive, and winning meant everything. If I didn’t win I’d go home pretty pissed off at the end of the day, you know. So I quit when I was about 14 or 15 and didn’t touch it for about 18 years.”
Shelor, 33, is now a massage therapist by day and a bodyguard for the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice by night. “I’m kind of on both paths,” he says, smiling at his contrasting twin careers. Yet the two jobs say a lot about what motocross demands of its riders; the technique and attention to detail that comes with massage therapy, combined with the physical strength and mental discipline required to work as a bodyguard.
After 18 years away, Shelor returned to motocross just two months before the Birch Creek event, consciously deciding to ride for enjoyment instead of points. “I know I’m not going pro now, so it’s just all about having a good time. If I come off the face of the jump and I’m not sure I’m going to make it, I’ll just roll off. If the guy passes me, I’m fine with it.” Shelor’s relaxed attitude is evident in his equipment. While most riders wear colorful race jerseys with eye-catching graphics and sponsors’ logos, Shelor raced at Birch Creek wearing a white sweater. “It’s just whatever was in my closet this morning,” he shrugs. Shelor also goes against the grain by riding a bike with a two-stroke engine, increasingly rare as the sport is taken over by four-strokes. I won’t pretend to understand the mechanics, but essentially the output from a four-stroke engine is more reliable, making acceleration more predictable, meaning fewer surprises for the rider. The downside, Shelor tells me, is that four-stroke engines cost three or four times as much to maintain. “I can’t buy a $10,000 bike and have a $3,000 engine rebuild every year. My bike, I can get it for next to nothing and I can rebuild it for $200.”
And still win races, apparently. Because Shelor, riding his 2004 Yamaha YZ 250 two-stroke, finished first in the Open D class. He didn’t do anything flashy or risky, and even lost valuable time when accidentally slipping into neutral at the start, but caught up to the leader, Derek Ellis, just in time to overtake him as the finish line approached.
“I put a block pass on him with three turns to go and then edged him out in the end,” says Shelor. The block pass, I learned, means he took an inside line on a corner, while Ellis went outside. Shelor accelerated out of the corner quickly to get in front of Ellis, which killed the former race leader’s momentum, allowing Shelor to pull ahead.
The unexpected win was another reminder of why Shelor loves motocross, and confirmation that the decision to return to the fold was a good one. Did much change while he was away? “So much has changed!” he says. “Chest protection, neck protection, they didn’t have any of that 18 years ago! Also the kids are starting out at four years old, camps and such, and there seems to be a lot more money in the sport now than there used to be. I see all these Winnebagos out here! ... But the basic soul of the sport hasn’t changed. It’s still a family sport; families coming out together to have a blast. There’s a lot of really good people out here.”