A Day at The Races

Every few years I go to a BMX race to take the pulse on the stiff that brought me to this dance in the first place. The western USA is ABA country, so most of these refresher courses are managed by the sanctioning body that popularized the transfer system for amateurs and free cars for pros. The NBL—ABA's rival in bike-racing promotion—was born in my childhood friend's living room, so I've always been partial to the way this more philanthropic and less dictatorial governing body runs its program. Neither organization is perfect, and both have their flaws. I have never, for instance, agreed with the NBL's philosophy of inclusion and entitlement for beginners, intermediates, girls, women, and old men. I think the term "novice national champion" is an oxymoron, and I think girl's pro BMX racing is a cruel joke, like male ballerinas or hermaphrodites. If a BMX race is part of a national series, participation at it should be a privilege you earn by competing at local and state events. Once a competitor makes it to the big show, his races should be fun to watch for everyone—not just his parents. BMX nationals should be the sole domain of professionals and experts, and the tracks they race on should be so gnarly no one's baby brother or bull dyke aunt would dare to clip in on the starting gate. In short, I think the ABA and NBL should put the "motocross" back into "BMX."

There's a place in BMX for the right kind of girl

To see if any of my misogynistic ideals had trickled up to the sport's highest echelon, I drove to Goodyear, AZ, yesterday to watch boys and girls, moms and dads and a handful of juiced-up Eastern European pros bang bars at the NBL Coyote National at Estrella Mountain. My old friend Eric Rupe was there to manage GT's pit area and to race the Master class (not to be confused with Hitler's Master Race), so I staked my claim beside the ice chest and pigged off Big Daddy's snack bar for a day of NBL racing ten miles west of Chandler, AZ, the birthplace of the ABA.

I never found out why Estrella BMX organizers chose to host an NBL national in the heart of ABA country, but the meager turnout made the futility of that move painfully obvious. In the sport's halcyon days, rider counts of 2,000 or more weren't uncommon. At yesterday's Coyote National, there were 77 qualifying motos—barely more than 300 racers of all ages and proficiencies. Seven RV's occupied the dust-free dirt parking lot. The wait at the concession stand for a sandwich was less than 10 seconds, and every burger was piping hot. Except for the two fifth-wheel trailers for the Free Agent and THE factory teams, nothing made this event feel like championship points or money were on the line. Pet owners at the dog walk next to the track seemed to be having a better time, and all of them were picking up shit.

I wasn't the only guy at Estrella Mountain who felt betrayed by the state of the sport. 2008 Olympic silver medalist and GT BMX pro Mike Day voiced similar discontent in his typically blunt but friendly way. "This sucks. I don't know how anyone can get psyched about BMX." In the course of our conversations, Mike and I talked about sponsorship, prize money, young riders, track design, and motivation. On the latter topic, Mike told me about his plans for a summer BMX tour in 2009.

Before bike boxes, World Championships and frequent flyer miles, BMX racers used to jump into buses and drive coast to coast chasing girls, points and 20-inch glory. In recent times this BMX rite of passage has been rekindled by pro racers who like to spend more time on their bikes than they do at the gym. Three-time NORA Cup Pro Robbie Miranda did exactly that at the peak of his popularity five years ago, and Mike Day wants to do it again this summer. I met BMX legends Stu Thomsen and Scot Breithaupt at a clinic at my home track in Bradenton, Florida, in 1976, so I remember vividly how exciting and life-changing such an event can be for a young kid. I organized my own first summer BMX tour with friends in 1979, so I've seen the clinics and the couch tourism from both sides of the starting gate. When Mike told me his plans, I gave  him some basic advice and pledged my personal and professional support.

Mike Day is arguably the biggest name in American BMX today, so his quest to put the fun back into the sport is unique. After standing on the podium at last year's Olympics, No one could fault Mike for just taking those Red Bull and Nike checks to the bank. He isn't, and that's awesome. Let's hope new leadership at the NBL and ABA will take a page from Mike's playbook and put some fun back into the sport, too.