Riders with names like "Kamikaze," "The General" and "Slim Shady" zip, jump and skid their off-road bicycles over the dirt BMX track at Lions Park in Raleigh. At today's contest, contenders from 2 to 41 years old tear across the 1,100-foot-long track. Some crash. Others wobble on their landings, threatening to topple over. A sister zips past her older brother, and the rising star of CAPITAL CITY BMX (2000 Timber Drive, 834-4BMX, www.ccbmx.com), Cameron "Dirt Devil" Moore of Chapel Hill, jumps two consecutive earth mounds before fiercely pedaling to the finish line.
Anyone who spent summers playing in a youth recreation league can attest to the vibe of an outdoor sporting contest. Lions Park feels wholesome, summery. The aroma of sunscreen and bug spray hovers overhead. The racers' families and friends sit on hot aluminum bleachers to watch the races; other spectators haul beach chairs and coolers to the event. A giant wooden structure referred to as "the Tower" blasts someone's iPod mix over the sound system. I get caught up in the humidity, the music and the sweat, and before I know it I'm 11 years old again, and all I want in the world is a Mountain Dew and a hot dog.
The track is run by a nonprofit volunteer organization, Capital City BMX Association, which is sanctioned by the American Bicycle Association. One of three BMX tracks in the state (Burlington and Charlotte are the others), the Raleigh track was established in the 1980s, the first of its kind in North Carolina.
That's more than a decade before "Dirt Devil" Moore, the country's top 9-year-old BMX racer, was born. Capitol City BMX has been Moore's home track since he started racing two years ago.
His favorite part of the sport, Moore says, is "being able to race in the biggest races in the world."
However, there are only a few riders, such as Brandon "Butterman" Hopkins, who call the Raleigh track their home. Hopkins is rated as an AA-professional, an elite level of bicycle racing at which a contender is successful enough to earn a living off the sport. The track is also home to Bob "OG" O'Gorman, a veteran pro.
Yet at 9, that goal seems a bit out of reach. "I'm not sure I can make a living out of it," Moore says.
But maybe not that far. Moore has "skills out of this world," says Track President Shawn Pischke, adding that he is also a role model. "He does a lot to mentor the kids. A lot of them look up to him. We are really lucky to have him here, and for him to be such a great kid."
The first, anxious competitors lean their front tires against a metal gate at the starting line. A recorded voice announces ready, set, and then—bang!—the gate gives way and frenzied cyclists dart onto the earthen roadway.
Several daring racers, pumped up on adrenaline and bravado, pop wheelies over the dirt mounds. Other hard-hitters cycle at such intense speeds that their bodies appear parallel to the ground as they whip through quarter-pipe turns.
Pischke watches from the Tower and provides the crowd with a diligent play-by-play: "Oh, watch out there! What a shaky landing, but don't worry guys, he straightened it out!"
Random park visitors wander over, lured by the lively commentary booming out of the Tower. A family of five joins the spectators and stays until the end; people playing tennis nearby sprinkle their matches with curious glances toward the track. After a missed serve, one player finally relents and props his racket against the fence to devote his attention to the screaming fans and bodies flying through the air on tiny bikes.
I chat with the convivial fans, who invite me to practice with them over the weekend.
"Just wear some pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a helmet. I'll provide the bike," Pischke says.
If they had asked me to participate before I watched the race, I would have promptly declined the invitation. I mean, come on—do I really have any business flying through the air on a youth Schwinn? But I'm a sucker for enthusiasm, and something about the furor expressed by the racers as they pump their pedals around the track provokes me to give it a whirl.
The next Saturday I show up ready to ride. At first, it's nerve-wracking, what with the metal gate, the nearly vertical jumping mounds and the borrowed tiny bike. After being accustomed to my trusted road bike, I found the 20-inch, single-speed youth bicycle hard to control at first. After the second lap though, I was ready for my wheelie (which, by the way, I successfully popped at the end of the next lap). After that personal triumph, I was hooked.
So are thousands of other people. BMX will be included in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where it will replace baseball. But if you don't want to wait until next summer's Olympics to watch a BMX competition, head over to Capitol City BMX and catch a race. The track hosts races every other Thursday and some Saturdays and Sundays. Admission as a spectator is free (Mountain Dew is $1).
If you want to ride the track, the course is open for practice every Tuesday and Thursday, and the trial ride will only set you back $1. For liability purposes, riders must either obtain a license from the American Bicycle Association or sign a waiver before practicing.
Want to check out other spectator sports in the Triangle? Here are a few places to try: