Hell On Wheels At the TOP GUN MOTOCROSS SHOWDOWN, dirt bikers aged four to 69 tried to dust each other

November 03, 2003

Motorcycles weren't really jumping over cows in the hills outside
Blountville, Tenn., during the third weekend of October, floating
like ET over hay bale and dale. It just looked that way to anyone
who happened to take a drive in the country a few miles outside
the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, where, tucked in among the barns
and ancient oaks, the Muddy Creek Raceway was hosting its 16th
annual Top Gun Motocross Showdown, the culmination of a 16-race
United States Mega Series. It was a scene both pastoral and
surreal, a hillbilly setting with a Star Wars cast.

The raceway, a 1.3-mile dirt track carved out of the rolling
hills of northeastern Tennessee, had more curves than an acre of
snakes, and elevation changes, both natural and man-made, that
propelled the motorcycles high and far into the crisp fall air.
Tents, campers, trailers and pickups surrounded the raceway, and
campfires from the previous night smoldered in the adjacent
fields. Competitors, who ranged in age from four to 69, strode
the grounds in mud-caked storm trooper garb: heavy boots,
upper-body mail, knee and elbow pads, dirt-bike gloves,
decal-festooned helmets and goggles in hand. When they climbed
onto their dirt bikes and cranked the throttles, the farmland
shook.

The action was dizzying. More than 700 competitors qualified for
the Top Gun finals on Oct. 19, and race organizers, operating
with machinelike efficiency, sent wave after wave of them to the
starting gate in 28 heats, divided according to age, skill level
and engine classes. As many as 35 motorbikes competed per race,
and the first turn--a hairpin at the end of a full-throttle dash
up the hill from the starting gate--was the scene of dozens of
wipeouts. "You don't want to get run over there," said Dillon
Clayton, 19, of Jackson, Tenn. A competitor in the 4-stroke
professional division, Clayton was making his first trip to Muddy
Creek, which was recently rated by Dirt Bike magazine as one of
the top three tracks in the U.S. "It's real loamy and grippy and
wide," Clayton said. "Just a real fast track, without a lot of
extreme jumps. It's the best track I've ridden on."

"It's rider friendly," said Randy Kelley, a 50-year-old
electrician who'd driven with his family from Polk City, Fla., to
race. His wife, son, daughter and son-in-law all compete in
motocross some 40 weekends a year, and Kelley has put more than
400,000 miles on his van driving from track to track. "Some
families fish, some play soccer," he said. "Ours does this. We've
all qualified and ridden in the amateur nationals. It's hard to
make a track a challenge for the pros and rider-friendly for old
guys like me and the kids. But this one does it. It's a fun
track."

Indeed, the four-to six-year-olds riding 50-cc peewee motorbikes
(rounding the first turn, the pack sounds like an angry swarm of
bees) race the same course at Muddy Creek as the pros in their
growling 250-cc bikes. It just takes them about two minutes
longer to complete a loop. This year's Top Gun field included
2001 national champion Mike Brown, who grew up in nearby Gray. "I
started my career right here," said Brown, 31. "I got an 80-cc
bike on a Friday and came to Muddy Creek for my first race that
Sunday. I was 13. All I did was race here for two years. The
dirt's really good, and it's wider than most tracks. They also
change it up, so it's not always the same."

Part of a long motor-sports tradition in Tennessee (the Bristol
NASCAR track is just 11 miles away), Muddy Creek opened in 1977,
some 10 years after motocross, which originated in Europe, began
appearing in rural areas of the States. Sam Gammon, who raced for
15 years before an injured shoulder forced him to give the sport
up, started running the Muddy Creek races in 1986. He has been
expanding his operation ever since, and today his U.S. Mega
Series comprises 16 races in six states. The American
Motorcyclist Association says there were 477,000 entries in 1,570
motocross events last year, up from 370,000 entries in 1,438
events in 1999. Sponsorship money is flowing into the sport,
following stars like Ricky Carmichael, Jeremy McGrath and James
(Bubba) Stewart. Supercross events--professional motocross held
in big-city stadiums, both indoors and outdoors--have begun to
attract crowds of 60,000 to 70,000. "We've been on a big growth
curve the last six or seven years," says Gammon. "A company can
sponsor a motocross team for a fraction of what it would have to
spend on NASCAR, and the TV coverage is increasing every year."

But if the big-city venues represent the financial future of
motocross, rural tracks like Muddy Creek are its lifeblood. At
this year's Top Gun, competitors came from 21 states, including
Alaska and California, in addition to England and Canada. And if
you're picturing a gathering of Hell's Angels, put that image
away. Muddy Creek positively reeked of wholesome fun. No beer
sales. No boom boxes. No drugs. "These people are here for a
serious race, they aren't here to party," says Gammon. "We don't
tolerate it. We don't ban alcohol, but take a look around.
Seventy percent of my riders are under 18. We let them camp here
for free, and at 10:30 p.m. the campground goes quiet."

Reverend Johnny Shepherd holds a Sunday-morning worship at the
track at 6:30, then it's rev up your engines and race. The whole
family gets in on the action. "I got tired of watching my
husband, dad and brother race," said Bridget Prevatte, 27, of
Lakeland, Fla., who injured her knee as a ballet dancer and then
picked up motocross at age 21. "I've been around it my whole
life, and finally it was like, 'I'm sick of watching. Honey, buy
me a bike.' [The media] think dirt bikers are hoodlums, but
there's no fights at the track. You fight, you're out. They don't
tolerate that at all. It's dangerous enough out there."

Prevatte, who weighs about half as much as her 208-pound 125-cc
Yamaha, usually tucks her long blonde hair into her helmet so the
rednecks in the field don't go out of their way to run her off
the track. In June 2001 she was doing a practice run at her local
track and suffered a dislocated shoulder, a common injury in the
sport. In her first race back more than a year later, she took
off on a series of jumps and landed hard on an upslope,
shattering her left wrist. (Motocross riders have been known to
break both ankles absorbing similar impacts.) "I didn't even
fall," she says. "I needed surgery, and I still have a plate and
seven screws in there. That kinda scared me." Not enough to keep
her from racing some 40 weekends a year, traveling the circuit
with her husband, Jim, and her parents. "I'd love it if my kids,
when I have kids, raced with us, as close as it's kept our
family."

"My boys are scared of horses but not of motorcycles," says Ted
Turner of Pulaski, Tenn., a former rodeo cowboy who spends about
30 weekends a year driving his 10-year-old, Gus, and
five-year-old, Bleu, to races throughout the Southeast. "It blows
my mind."

Bored with baseball, Gus was watching TV three years ago when he
came across a motocross race and decided it looked like fun. "I
asked my dad if I could try motocross, and he was all for it,"
Gus says.

Bleu, whose motorbike is number 98, for the year he was born,
learned to ride a motorcycle before he could ride a bike. Asked
what he likes best about motocross, he says, "Holding it wide
open."

It's a thrill that never seems to go away. The oldest competitor
at Muddy Creek was 69-year-old Jim Tallent of Spring City, Tenn.
He's been racing since 1973. "I still get a high when I'm on the
starting line," says Tallent, who built elevators and escalators
for 33 years before retiring in 1990. "And I still want to be
among the leaders at that first turn. I can't seem to get that
feeling out of me. The way I look at it, every time I make it to
the line and start that bike up, it's a victory."

SI.com
For more about sports in Tennessee and the other 49 states, go to
si.com/50.

This is the 16th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Kansas

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GARY BODGON CHILD'S PLAY Bleu, 5, races almost weekly. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GARY BODGON HIGH STAKES Some 700 riders flew around the hilly 1.3-mile layout at the Top Gun, the culmination of a 16-race motocross series. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GARY BODGON JOY RIDE The thrill of racing is something many, like 69-year-old Jim Tallent (right), can't get out of their blood.

If big-city stadiums represent the financial future of motocross,
rural tracks like Muddy Creek are its lifeblood. This year,
racers came from 21 states.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)