Thursday night at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, as the sun goes down behind an industrial-looking steel building on the fairgrounds proper, a line of kids snakes up to a small wooden stand near a dirt track. Some of the kids are decked out in racing gear, others just in jeans and T-shirts, and they stand there or sit on bikes while beer-bellied dads in T-shirts and baseball caps fill out registration forms for them.
The night’s just beginning—some kids are suiting up near their parents’ cars, while others do freestyle tricks or just ride lazy circles in the parking lot. On the other side of the track, trucks full of families back into trackside spots, flip down their tailgates and crack open cold beverages.
The track itself is a series of mammoth jumps and turns, interspersed with smaller humps and a washboard section in the middle referred to as “the rhythm.” On the track, a former rodeo arena, kids of all ages are practicing their starts and strategies. The pressure gate comes down and groups of eight or so riders pedal furiously down the starting ramp, trying to pick up enough speed to thrust them over the first jump, then pumping their legs to gain momentum around the turn, a high, dirt berm that whips them around toward the next series of obstacles. Some of the kids literally fly around the track, like 18-year-old Danny Valine, who soars, seemingly effortlessly, over a 6-foot jump in one of his practice runs. Sitting on his bike a little later with a bottle of water, sporting a buzz-cut and a “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt, Danny talks about his love of the sport.
“It’s just fun. I’ve met so many good people out here. Plus it keeps me out of trouble,” he says. “I’m planning on going pro one of these days. I just need some more leg strength, some more endurance. I’m pretty much undefeated out here.”
The Silver Dollar BMX track has been feeding the dreams of young racers like Danny for 12 years now, since it opened in 1993 with almost no budget and a track that had to be torn down and rebuilt twice a year. These days Silver Dollar boasts a permanent track, a pack of nationally ranked riders and a devoted following. Run by a nonprofit company and sanctioned by the American Bicycle Association (ABA), Silver Dollar has become more than just a place to ride. For some, it’s a lifestyle. (There are even tentative plans in the works to move the track onto city property adjacent to the fairgrounds and construct a covered, year-round track that could host national events, which typically bring as many as 2,000 riders and their families together for entire weekends of racing.)
Track operator Larry Gables, who like every staffer at the track is an unpaid, parent volunteer, said no traditional sport can compare to BMX.
“It’s just a great sport for kids, a great thing for families. I’d rather have my son do this than play football. It’s like the ABA is always saying: No one sits on the bench in BMX.”
And that means no one. One of the highlights of the night turns out to be a race between a group of 4- and 5-year-olds, some of whose feet barely touch the ground when their bikes come to a stop. One kid in particular, riding a cheap-looking Spiderman bike, struggles mightily up some of the jumps, which to him must seem more like mountains. Several times he ends up going backward and has to get off his bike and push his way to the top. None of the little guys seem able to keep their eyes on the track, especially when riding by their cheering parents in the stands, and at one point there is a spectacular pile-up which causes an outburst of laughter from the bleachers. None of the kids are hurt—at their age they have neither the mass nor the speed to do any real damage.
The older kids do get hurt once in a while, but one of the things they all seem to take pride in is the ability to shake off injuries and get back in the race. This ethos extends to the girls who ride at Silver Dollar, and we’re not talking about flowery baskets and banana seats.
Ashley Morrison, 7, with her sunburned button-nose and Cindy Brady lisp, is about as adorable as little girls get. But ask her about BMX racing, which she’s been doing for a little over three years now, and out of nowhere, the freckle-faced moppet becomes a vicious athletic competitor.
“I’m pretty good. I won state champ three years in a row,” She says matter-of-factly. “I keep getting better. I used to not be so aggressive. I used to squat at turns, and if someone got near me I let them pass me. Now I learned to push and cut over and stick my elbows out.”
When asked if any of the boys who hang around the track give her a hard time, she nods her head and pops another fruit snack into her mouth.
“Mmm-hmm. They used to,” she says, working her jaw on the chewy morsel. “Some of them quit though because of me—because I beat them. I think it’s kind of cool that I’m better than them.”
Ashley, who is sponsored by several local businesses and who rides for the Silver Dollar Racing team, used to be shy and withdrawn, says her mom, Misty. Since taking up racing, however, Ashley has bloomed. Other girls at the track—there are four or five here tonight—look to her for racing advice and dream of one day being able to ride as well as she does.
“She just loves coming out here,” Misty says. “She even sticks up for people out here—other kids that might be getting a hard time from someone. If she hears about it, she’ll confront the kid.”
Misty and her husband Jeff support Ashley all the way. As she’s being interviewed, Jeff sneaks off with her bike to make a last-minute repair. This time it’s a set of longer cranks to match Ashley’s constantly growing legs. When she rides, Jeff stands by the finish line, clapping and cheering her on.
“Come on Ashley,” he yells. “Bring it home strong!”
Ashley wins her three-girl “moto” easily, and even looks to be holding back a bit, as if she doesn’t want to make the other girls look bad.
Ashley’s racing career hasn’t been all trophies and fruit snacks. Ashley suffered a broken hand from one wreck, and in another race, received a concussion from a multi-rider crash.
“I went over the handlebars and someone ran over me,” she says with nonchalance. “I get hurt sometimes but I just get up and keep going.”
Misty says she’s glad she wasn’t there to witness that particular accident. “I called to ask my husband how she did and he said, ‘Well, she got some marbles knocked loose.’ Thank God I wasn’t there. It’s what she loves to do though…”