A rider was down. His slight body, encased in bright clothing, was sprawled on the dirt like a broken doll. A few yards away lay the motorcycle that had pitched him off and mercilessly deposited him in the middle of the crude, undulating track.

A heavy man in a surfer's T-shirt knelt over the rider while a youth fitfully waved a yellow caution flag to ward off the swarms of motorcycles that yowled past within inches of the supine form. He was not the first to fall in the Golden State Nationals motocross races, nor would he be the last before the sun fell beyond the scrubby hills of Carlsbad, Calif., and into the Pacific beyond.

Falling is as much a part of motocross racing as getting tackled is a part of football, and no one who gets involved in the sport is unaware that pain and suffering are part of motocross heroics. In the dusty pits behind the track, the lanes between the motor homes were cluttered with tanned men hobbling on crutches or displaying various portions of their muscular bodies wrapped in plaster. One heard repeatedly that in a recent race a rider was thrown off his bike, dislocating his shoulder. He jammed the errant bone back into its socket and soldiered on to finish.

Adults have inalienable rights to do things like that, and I use one set of values to judge them. But I use another set of values when I see children attempting to mimic dangerous stunts performed by their elders. The unnerving aspect of the accident I had witnessed was that the fallen rider was only 14 years old.

Motocross racing is becoming something of a national craze, though we are not nearly to the point of adoration displayed in France and other Western European nations. Washington is ringed by motocross tracks where races are held nearly every weekend. In Southern California, both Anaheim Stadium and the Los Angeles Coliseum have been filled to overflowing after the playing surfaces were covered with artificial motocross courses.

Carlsbad is more typical of motocross tracks than the artificial courses built in stadiums. Most tracks are dirt pathways that take advantage of difficult natural terrain -- through woods, over steep hills and across creek beds. A typical track is ground by the motorcycle tires into fine, sandy loose soil that promotes spinouts. With the slightest dampness in the air, a track will turn into an even more slippery mud bath. Carlsbad is typical in that it is not so much a track as a serpentine ditch routed out of the sandy hillocks. Punctuating its entire course are dozens of humps and drop-offs that send speeding riders sailing through the air for nearly 50 feet before crashing back to earth. Driving a bike there requires an uncanny combination of balance, strength, courage and endurance -- the slightest lapse in concentration exacts great penalties.

The best motocross riders come from Southern California. When the European stars visit, they are sent home humbled and spattered with dirt from the spinning wheels of aces like Rick Johnson, a laconic 24-year-old from El Cajon who spends his off-hours surfing and driving fast cars. His contract with Honda is said to make him more than a million dollars a year. His arch rival, the fireplug-shaped Jeff Ward from Mission Viejo, is an Olympics-caliber bicycle racer and all-around athlete whose income from Kawasaki is also astronomical.

The major Japanese motorcycle manufacturers -- Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha -- all support motocross competition, and each has a stable of high-paid young aces who ride their specially designed single-cylinder racing bikes with an abandon that makes bull riding look genteel.

A 24-year-old who can make a million dollars a year riding a motorcycle is an attractive model to a teen-ager. And the motorcycle manufacturers, apparently eager to form brand loyalty early on, have developed midget machines for youngsters. No one would let a 10-year-old drive on a public highway, but he can drive a mini-bike in a sanctioned race on a motocross track. In less formal settings, 6-year-olds tear around neighborhood fields in stiff competition with one another while their parents wildly cheer them on.

The 14-year-old writhing in pain on the track that day at Carlsbad was racing in a class called 80 Expert, a division for youths 12 to 16 years old. The engines on their bikes are only a little larger than those on some chain saws. But over the years, manufacturers have developed these engines to a point where they generate nearly 25 horsepower, offering impressive power-to-weight ratios when all they are really trying to move are lightweight bikes with kids on them.

What once were low-power, unsophisticated motorbikes are now major-league machines, and the kids who ride them need maturity beyond their years. Many of them hope to emulate Ward, who was a star on mini-bikes at age 10, when he was known as the "flying freckle." Almost none will ever be as good as Ward, and nearly all will risk injury and death.

As the lad in the dirt was being dragged onto a stretcher, I learned that his right leg was badly fractured. To others around me it seemed a meaningless incident. More than 1,200 riders, crewmen, moms, dads and girlfriends were on hand to watch the races, and this was merely the price of glory, a badge of honor that would mark the 14-year-old, as a broken nose marks a boxer. Perhaps, in this rugged world of dirt-bike racing, it's supposed to be part of growing up: A young man keeps his spirit intact even though his body is broken. It didn't seem very noble, though.

As the young rider was carried off to a waiting ambulance, I silently wondered: Where are the minds of parents who allow their kids to do this? Do they actually think their children will end up as the next biker superstars, with millions in endorsements? What are they thinking when they lay out thousands to plop Bobby on his overpowered motorcycle? Why can't young people have at it in less spectacular games without the presence of overweaning parents? Isn't it crazy for children, in the name of sport and competition, to participate in activities that break their bones? And why do 14-year-old boys have to act like men, anyway? ::