Written by Arthur Treff | Photos by Anthony Harden
Inside the colorful, noisy, and thrill-seeking world of Indoor Motocross in Western North Carolina.
I’m a sucker for all things that consume gasoline and belch smoke, motorcycles in particular. I’ve watched Motocross and Supercross racing on cable and YouTube for years because the action is intense. How can anyone ride that well? I’ve never seen a Motocross racer pass by my house. Where do those high-flying men and women actually come from?
Did they wheelie out the door of some secret SoCal moto-lab run by Red Bull? Nope. As it turns out, they come from everywhere in the United States, mostly kids from rural communities. They come from places like Asheville.
The Western North Carolina Agricultural Center—or, as most people refer to it, the WNC Ag Center—in Fletcher, near Asheville, lures winter-weary moto addicts out of their cabin-fever stupor with the Victory Sports Indoor Motocross (MX) Racing Series. I’d never seen an indoor event live, so it was time.
If motorcycle racing conjures images of bearded, overweight men swilling beer and smoking astride loud motorcycles, grab your mental remote and change the channel. Picture instead: clean-cut, lean athletes in bright colors, piloting high-flying, high-tech dirt machines.
Inside the arena, the bleachers are filling with spectators clutching bags and blankets against the February chill. They huddle under the radiant heaters and chatter excitedly. A piece of heavy equipment is grooming the dirt course after the afternoon qualifying races. There is excitement in the air. Fluorescent clad youngsters clutching helmets run along the mezzanine, while older teens huddle with dads talking strategy and try to remain calm.
The first race, or moto in the lingo, is the 4-to-6-year olds on tiny 51cc motorcycles. The little guys are barely bigger than their helmets. Adorable doesn’t come close to how sweet these little bobble-heads look as they motor up one side of the large jump, pause, then motor down the back side, tires never leaving the ground.
They look like they could be riding bicycles, I think.
After a lap or two, I start paying attention to the kids in the lead. Coming out of corners, they’re actually gassing it, spinning the rear wheel to slide the bike around the corner, and accelerating quickly down the straight.
I admit it, I’m not a good patient when I’m sick, and I’m not a good spectator for the same reason: I want to get in on the action in front of me. I’m in the arena less than thirty minutes and I want to somehow become five again and rip around the course.
Fifteen Seconds of Fame
The checkered flag is out, and the tykes ride through a narrow passage leading them offstage. Meanwhile, the amped-up booth announcer is whipping the crowd, announcing the winner. I see one tiny rider taking giant steps to mount the winner’s podium. He is greeted by a fast-talking podium announcer who walks the youngster through a grown-up interview.
“Great race, Jimmy, what was it like?”
“It was fuuuuunnnn,” comes the small reply. (chuckles from the audience)
“I’ll bet it was! Where are you from, son?”
“North Car-o-linaaaa….” is the kindergartner’s reply. (more congenial laughs)
“Yes son, but where?”
“And who brought you here?”
“Mom and Dad….” (Could he be any cuter?)
“Right, but is there else anyone you want to thank?””
Oh… Bill’s Tractor Service, and my Uncle Jim!”
“And that’s all from the podium, let’s go racing!”
Everyone who wins a moto gets to practice his or her TV interview skills.
Within 45 seconds the race populated by 7-to-9-year olds on slightly bigger bikes is off with a roar. What a difference a couple years makes! These boys and girls are not only sliding through corners, but they’re getting airborne over the smaller jumps. Their body positions have them looking like clones of their adult heroes.
During the third lap, one racer gets airborne in a sweeping right turn, and crashes through the dirt bank on the outside of the curve. The bike slides into the wall, the rider face-plants into the soft dirt, and I jump out of my seat in a panic.
No need. Instantly he’s up, shaking his little fists in frustration. Corner workers run, frantically flashing yellow flags to keep other bikes from crashing into the lad. Meanwhile our hero rights his bike and works the kick-starter like a sewing machine until it bellows a cloud of blue smoke. A spray of dirt from the rear wheel rockets him back onto the course. These kids are tough…
“..surely I’d be tough if given a chance to re-invent my youth,” I posit to no one in particular.
How do the races in little old Asheville fit into the grand scheme of motocross? The Ag Center has hosted the Victory Sports Indoor MX for the last 24 years. This winter series is held in three other venues within a five-hour drive of each other, and most of the racers try to race in all of them. Motocross is mainly an outdoor sport, but indoor series give the racers an opportunity to keep their skills sharp in the winter months.
But… The Local MX Races are Small Time, Right?
Nope. Just as the Victory Indoor and Outdoor MX series are part of the Southeast region, there are similar amateur points-gathering series happening in the Southwest, Northeast, and Northwest. There are many championships throughout the season, but the Olympics of the sport happen in Tennessee during the week-long amateur championships held on Loretta Lynn’s ranch every August. Last year, more than 60,000 amateur MX racers attempted to qualify.
Doing well at Loretta’s opens doors, for riders of any age, and not just for those wanting to turn pro. Many a young racer has picked up a sponsor or two during the week-long event, which is heady stuff for a youngster. It’s important to note that all of the top United States professional MX and Supercross riders passed through this system on their way to the top—guys like Ryan Dungey, James Stewart, Ryan Villopoto, and Ricky Carmichael all raced here.
Age classes in amateur MX begin at four, go through the teens, and into the 50+year range. Adults race in some classes, but the predominant age group is elementary through high school years. When competitors reach their later teens, classes are based on motorcycle engine size and cumulative points. Accrue enough points, and you advance.
When a racer moves through all these classes they can turn professional and have a shot at making a few thousand dollars in a weekend locally. The jump to change classes and turn pro is a decision not taken lightly by those in the know. Timing is everything. Enough points get a racer into a higher performance class, meaning they have to face down tougher competition on possibly faster equipment. What if you’re not feeling ready? Then, racers intentionally keep their points count down, biding their time until they put together a more competitive bike or better skills.
If getting paid to race is your dream, then the holy grail for young professionals is securing a “factory ride,” i.e., joining a heavily sponsored team where the bikes are insanely tricked-out and riders actually collect a salary… salaries that can soar north of six figures. Few privately funded individuals are successful in pro Motocross or Supercross because it’s just too expensive.
How does the average kid from the country do it? The entrance door is Arena Cross, the gladiatorial motocross stage in front of a talent scout-rich audience. The racers I talked to agree that they’ll only have one or two shots at making a good showing for the scouts.
Where the Action Is
Unlike the team sports where the path to a professional career involves success with a winning team in high school, followed by the same in college, motocross racers can achieve success while still in high school, limited only by their talent.
Participating in individual sports like motocross, racers learn the importance of preparation and goal setting, the cornerstones of discipline. With that, riders achieve the satisfaction that comes from reaching goals as well as the flipside: working really hard but having to lose to their peers… gracefully. Learning these lessons at a young age brings a maturity not found elsewhere.
Athletic events are more enjoyable when you know a player or two, so before race night, I asked motorcycle oriented friends what to expect at the races, and there were a few talented locals to watch out for. Who knew?
In Friday’s 250cc B-class race, I watched brothers Joshua and Caleb Carter battle for first place. I had been told that of the two, Caleb had the talent and desire to make a living racing, but to me, they both looked amazing on the course. (Note: B-class is one step away from the top-of-the-heap A-class.)
Out of the start, the Carters had good positions for the crucial first turn, where 15 bikes cram into a space of around six feet to be the first through the corner. A few racers went down, and Caleb was blocked by Colby Morse (of Flat Rock, North Carolina) as brother Joshua took the lead.
Holy cow, this is just like the racing on TV, I think. These guys are amazing!
What a great race from the three young men. They rode so fast that they caught the rear of the pack after only one lap. (Race leaders who are trying to keep up a winning pace refer to slower riders as “traffic.”) Caleb was riding his heart out, trying to gain every advantage over brother Joshua and Morse. He was passing slower riders in the air and passing in the corners, but just when it looked like he’d overtake the leaders, traffic would block his path.
But, seconds before the finish, Caleb squirted into second place, putting Colby third. It was a clash of titans, a cliffhanger. The crowd went wild, but to give Caleb his due, earlier in the day, he bested brother Joshua in another race, finishing first… and he was riding with a separated shoulder!
No one was standing with head bowed in worship of a smart phone. These kids were fully engaged in life with what was happening in front of them, not absorbed in cyber space.
There are no bad seats in the Ag Center arena; from the front row, you’re only ten feet from the action. The noise thunders in your chest and rattles your fillings. Watching agile riders sail twenty feet in the air hit me hard: I want to be out on the track, but I also realize that the skills I’m witnessing come only from years of practice.
Where’s a time machine when you need one?
Next to the indoor track is a large parking lot filled with trucks, campers, and pop-up canopies. Parked next to each is a group of brightly colored dirt bikes. The atmosphere is of a friendly campground where everyone knows each other. Adults are chatting or twisting wrenches on motorcycles. Kids of all ages run, bike, and skateboard through the maze of vehicles, clad in neon race gear.
I see a gang of seven-year-olds on bikes roar out of the arena post race and park the bikes. Looking like small super heroes in their gear, they gather on a grassy hillside, chattering excitedly. They pull their helmets off and throw themselves to the ground rolling down the hill, giggling like the children they are.
The kids I talked to were amazing human beings; well-spoken, poised, polite, and dedicated. I’ve never been called “sir” as much in my life… but one thing was missing: No one was standing with head bowed in worship of a smart phone. These kids were fully engaged in life with what was happening in front of them, not absorbed in cyber space. Serious amateur motocross contenders spend hours each day on their bikes. I don’t think the kids rolling down the hill would call it work.
Size Doesn’t Matter
I find Joshua and Caleb Carter behind their trailer of bikes, which doubles as a workshop. Mom, Dad, and attendant girlfriends are celebrating the exciting race with the brothers and their mechanic.
The young men sitting across from me are still jacked-up from the race. Josh and Caleb are intelligent, well-spoken, and extremely polite. Their joy and enthusiasm for the sport is contagious, and it is obvious how much they care about each other. I immediately feel like part of the family.
“I tried out for baseball and football and was told that I was too short. I hated that,” says Caleb, “but when I race, it’s just me; no one’s telling me anything.”
The brothers came comparatively late to racing. They entered their first races around age ten, which doesn’t seem to have set them back much. Home-schooled by mom, they had plenty of time to practice their riding, which has probably given them an advantage. Additionally, their cousins live on adjoining land, and they race as well. The two racing families travel to MX races almost every weekend. The brothers agree that most of their close friends are the fellow racers they’ve been spending the last eight years with.
The Carters are from Leicester, North Carolina, where the family has enough spare land to house two motocross courses: One is sized to imitate the average outdoor amateur motocross track; the other is a scaled down to resemble the tight indoor circuits. The family business is paving and line painting, so there is no shortage of earth moving equipment on the property, which explains the MX courses.
Caleb, age 17, and Joshua, age 19, are very closely matched in riding talent, as evidenced in the race I just watched. When Caleb recently announced that he wanted to take a shot at turning professional, older brother Joshua decided to play a supporting role. Up until this point, their parents had been spending equal sums on the two boys. Josh asked his dad to spend all the money on getting Caleb better equipment to make him more competitive. The dedication to Caleb’s career showed during our interview, as Joshua began to answer some questions for his brother… just like a press agent.
“Caleb and I have always pushed each other on the track, it’s how we grew up,” says Joshua. “If he’s on the track, I feel like I can push more, and vice versa.” Caleb smiles broadly and nods his agreement.
It must be working, because people have noticed Caleb’s talent and have pitched in to help. Mary Strickland, owner of City Cycle Supply, sponsors him, as does Eurosport Asheville, the local BMW and KTM dealer. Their mechanic, Brad, is a talented engine builder who was so inspired by watching Caleb handle a bike that he contacted the family, out of the blue, to volunteer his services. Racing is a family.
Going for the Win
Back in the arena, I watch one of three professional motos of the evening. It has been said that MX races are won in the corners, and one rider, clad in red, is proving this theory. Each corner, he brakes very late and hard, then with one smooth motion, pivots the bike around an imaginary point. Feet never touch the earth, and the bike exits the corner leaning over so far that the handlebar grip appears to be less than a foot off the ground.
Over and over, the man in red rockets out of the corners, sails over the jumps, and floats over the three-foot-deep washboard. He’s so smooth, the bike appears suspended by invisible wires. He makes it look easy.
I catch up with Tyler McSwain, the aforementioned man in red, of Shelby, North Carolina. We’ve found an empty conference room where we don’t have to shout above revving bikes. Soft-spoken and polite, Tyler has a deep motocross history, which he’s sharing with me. I ask him what exactly is going through his head in the seconds before he rockets out of the starting gate. He fidgets in his seat and adjusts his cap.
“Winning,” he says.
“Okay, I get it because now that you’re 20 and a professional rider, it’s your job. But what about when you were a little guy?” I ask.
“Winning!” he counters. “I started racing when I was five, and I picked up my first sponsor at Loretta Lynn’s during my first year. I learned that coming in first has its rewards.”
He’s genuinely grateful for his dad’s support, which has been a 15-year commitment. Since he’s now a pro, and the fatherly funding has slowed, Tyler is learning how costly and time consuming it can be to sponsor a young motocross star. His days are full. Tyler makes sales calls for sponsors; his bikes always need attention; and he, of course, must ride daily to keep his skills fresh.
Out on the track tonight, he appeared to float, but don’t be fooled. MX racing is very tough on the human body.
“I’ve broken this femur six times, and this femur…”—he’s suddenly silent. The lack of noise from the arena breaks his concentration. “Will you excuse me, sir? I’ll be right back.”
Tyler bolts out the door and returns five minutes later. He had to help a friend into the start gate who showed up to the races without any support group.
“Sorry, I had to go help him. You need someone to kick the dirt around your gate, or else you don’t get a good start. You can’t do that for yourself.”
MX racing has been his weekend home—his extended family since he was five. Here, he’s surrounded by family and friends, and to the little guys he’s the successful big brother… so he works to set a good example.
We talk a bit about his next move on the pro circuit.
“Right now, I’m on an $8,000 bike. At Arena Cross, I’ll be up against factory guys on $50,000 motorcycles. You only get one shot, so I have to bide my time, and hope that I find enough sponsors who can help me build a better bike.”
Racing is how he’s spent his life so far, and Tyler is in his prime riding years. Despite the frightening crashes and debilitating recoveries, he wants to shoot for the stars and become one. He believes he owes it to himself and everyone who has supported him over the years. 2016 may be a pivotal season for the young man from Shelby; he’s another rider to watch for.
Where do they Come From?
No one starts this game wanting to turn pro. They are fueled by the fun of twisting a throttle on a lightweight motorcycle, many when they are just toddlers. Weekends in the backyard with dad and mom expand to weekends in a camper next to a motocross track.
Summers blur into years spent racing with friends, and suddenly you’re a teenager and everyone tells you that you’re good at motocross. So, yes those TV and YouTube motocross insaniacs come from right here, not some racer factory.
But, not everyone turns pro. Even though he rides well enough, Joshua Carter, when not working in support of his brother Caleb, will be working at the landscaping business he’s launching this year, while racing will remain his hobby. I talked to another competitive class B racer, Austin Johnson. He, too, has spent his childhood racing MX bikes, but this is to be his last year. He’s entering college next September, with plans to take it all the way to med school.
“I’ll always race,” says Austin, “I love the speed and the competition.”
All’s Right with the World
Driving home, I’m feeling exceptionally happy. I watched some talented athletes of all ages display great motorcycle handling skills, but it was more than that, I was touched by the humanity of the whole thing. Amateur motocross racing isn’t some big impersonal corporate machine; it’s families doing something that’s fun and active.
Competitors of all ages encourage each other on the track. If your bike is broken, your nearest competitor might be the one coming to your rescue with parts or tools, because it’s not just about winning. It’s about having fun and being with your friends. Isn’t this the kind of world we’d all like to live in?
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