Name a sport in which Olympic medalists in their 20s can compete in the same event – and on the same course – as 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds.
Can’t think of one? Don’t have to go far. It’s BMX racing, with tracks located in Raleigh, Charlotte and other N.C. cities.
BMX racing bills itself as a family-centered sport, with parents and their kids often striving for the same finish line but in different races based on age and skill levels.
BMX stands for bicycle motocross. Racers on compact bikes with small, 20-inch wheels sprint around an S-shaped dirt track with series of rounded hills or berms and banked corners, often jumping high into the air as they bound over the berms. First to the finish line wins.
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During the USA BMX Tarheel National races in Charlotte in May, kiddies spun down a 1,150-foot track along with teens, adults and pros during two days of races. Competitors included 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Maris Strombergs of Latvia, 2012 silver medalist Sam Willoughby of Australia and U.S. Olympic team member Alise Post of St. Cloud, Minn.
The event drew 1,000 top riders from across the country. Among the competitors was Jaime Ortiz of Raleigh, riding in the 36-40 Expert class. He finished eighth of 15 riders the first day and sixth of 14 the second. Pretty good for a 40-year-old who only got into BMX racing four years ago.
Father and son racers
Ortiz joined the sport after he took his son, Kevin, now 15, to the Capital City BMX track at Lions Park in Raleigh to see what it was all about. Now father and son are among Capital City’s most active racers, competing weekly at Capital City as well as at tracks in both Carolinas and Virginia.
Kevin races in the 15 Expert class, working his way up through novice and intermediate. He ranks third in points at Capital City; Jaime ranks fifth. Riders win points in races; the more they race and win, the higher their point total.
A BMX race provides a 25- to 40-second burst of speed with X-Games-type thrills. Eight riders spring from the starting gate and pedal furiously on lightweight, 20-pound bikes. Bikes soar skyward as they hit double-hill berms. Mistakes can turn into a tangle of legs, arms and frames.
“It’s like being in a drag-racing car,” Jaime Ortiz said last week. “Your engine is you. You’ve got to train hard and be dedicated to the sport.”
Dedication means exercise and practice runs. Ortiz said he and Kevin train 20 hours a week to keep a competitive edge.
“Yourself is the whole team,” he said. “You’ve got to train and be disciplined. Other than that, it’s all about having fun.”
Toddlers get early start
BMX fun can start young. Toddlers age 2 and up start on no-pedal bikes. Adults gently push them along the track. The bikes help striders learn balance and steering. Boy and girl striders can graduate to BMX bikes to ride in the 5-and-under group, the youngest competitive classification. From there, age categories run through 41 and above for men, 31 and above for women.
Cousins to mountain bikes, the 20-inch-wheel BMX bikes are designed for fast acceleration. They have one gear and no front brakes, the latter to keep riders from flying over the handlebars in sudden stops. Taller riders can opt for bigger but less-jarring 24-inch-wheel bikes called cruisers and compete in separate classes.
Riders wear full-face helmets, often with visors or goggles, and long-sleeve jerseys, padded long pants and gloves to prevent road rash.
Governing BMX racing is USA BMX, headquartered in Chandler, Ariz. USA BMX organizes regional races and national championships, posts points earned by riders and sanctions tracks, including the nonprofit Capital City BMX track.
Track operator Chad McCoy said he’s watched BMX racing grow, particularly after it became an Olympic sport in 2008.
“It’s more of an awareness thing,” McCoy said. “The Olympics has helped a lot.”
Membership costs $60 a year, which allows access to any of 370 USA BMX tracks in the country. McCoy said Capital City BMX riders range in age from pre-schoolers to women up to 52 and men up to 66. The track holds races weekly year round except for the last two weeks in December.
McCoy said his son, Ty, 12, got hooked on BMX racing when, as an 8-year-old, he saw kids on BMX bikes in a Christmas parade.
“It was all ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs,’ ” Chad McCoy said.
Ty is now an expert rider and stands ninth in points.
“It’s family-oriented,” McCoy said. “Some of the parents are riders too. The kids want them to get on the track and (the parents) find they like it too.”