With a tradition that dates from the 1920s, motocross bills itself as the original extreme sport.
Rider Josh Grant sneers at such a claim.
“It’s beyond extreme!” he laughs.
The sport’s dark side is etched on Grant’s left arm, covered in tattoos of angels, crosses and the numbers of fellow riders who have died, while his right arm bears witness to the light of his life: his family crest, his father’s favorite Bible verse and his 2-year-old son’s name.
Much like his sport, Grant stands as a mash-up of a daredevil child and driven professional athlete, competing with a joy that pays no heed to the scars.
“The energy and the feeling you get, with all the bikes lined up at the start and the noise from the fans, you just get this crazy energy,” says Grant, 27, reared in Riverside, Calif., son of a motocross mechanic. “You almost feel invincible. You don’t even think about all that negative stuff. I look at it as grasping the moment and holding on to it.”
Grant will be among the riders in Saturday’s Budds Creek National, the fifth stop on the 12-race Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championships that spans mid-May to late August. He and teammate Justin Brayton, 29, compete for Joe Gibbs Racing Motocross, founded and run by the coach’s younger son, Coy.
Like their father, former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, J.D. and Coy Gibbs grew up playing football and riding dirt bikes. But as they approached college-age, common-sense dictated that they play only one high-risk sport at a time. Football won out, with J.D. enrolling at William & Mary and Coy at Stanford.
It was only after their college-football careers ended that they rekindled their engine-fueled passions of childhood, following their father’s career arc. J.D., 44, competed in motocross for a time, then joined Joe Gibbs Racing. Today he’s the company’s president, responsible for the NASCAR operation that has won three Sprint Cup championships.
Coy worked as a mechanic on the Gibbs drag-racing operation, then drove in NASCAR’s Nationwide ranks before joining the Redskins as an offensive quality control coach during his father’s second coaching stint. When that ended, he started the motocross team in 2007.
“I always wanted to try coaching, but I missed racing,” Coy said by telephone.
Even though the motocross operation is modest, with a full-time staff of six compared to the 400-plus who work on the NASCAR side, starting a new team as the economy sputtered proved a challenge.
Joe Gibbs’s Hall of Fame credentials helped land sponsors such as Toyota and Interstate Batteries, longtime backers of the company’s NASCAR teams. It helped land quality riders, too.
“It was my dream to race for them,” said Brayton, an Iowa native. “I just thought for sure they were going to do everything first-class. And Coy is very passionate about the sport and passionate about winning. Growing up in the Gibbs family, that’s all you know: Winning and doing well.”
Says Coy: “We picked the worst economy to start this team, so it took a lot of hard work. But as far as keeping me excited about getting out of bed each day, it definitely does that. When you get out of football, what you miss is the team. This fills that void.”
Budds Creek Motocross Park is a fan-friendly venue that rests in a deep valley in southern Maryland’s rolling countryside. Its mid-June pro race draws families as well as motorcycle enthusiasts, who watch from grassy patches that line the course — close enough to the action to end up dusted in dirt. But the track stays busy most weekends of the year with amateur races among riders sorted by age and ability.
The motocross course looks like a child’s fantasy — something a 6-year-old might build in a sandbox for a fleet of toy cars. It has steep hills that launch riders into the air and flying over ravines; it also has sharp descents that send them airborne again, as if propelled from a ski jump. It has hairpin turns; wide, sweeping turns and tricky, off-camber turns. And it rises and falls throughout, snaking in and out of tree stands and back around.
Built of sand and clay, the track lends itself to multiple racing grooves, or “lines,” enabling riders to battle side-by-side. And it’s physically grueling, demanding complete concentration, total commitment and masterful bike control, lap after exhausting lap.
Saturday’s field will consist of former world champions from Europe, such as Marvin Musquin, 23, a tall and lanky Frenchman who competes for the handsomely funded Red Bull KTM team. It also attracts a handful of local racers, known as “privateers,” who tune their own bikes in hopes of qualifying.
The fastest 40 riders in qualifying earn spots in the two races, known as “motos.” Each moto lasts roughly 35 minutes. Riders line up 40 abreast behind a metal starting gate. The moment the gate drops, the bikes rocket into the first turn. That’s the most dangerous moment, when 40 riders jockey at full speed to squeeze into a tiny piece of real estate.
Their four-stroke engines let out a fierce roar, like 100 lawnmowers mowing a single lawn.
“It’s pretty silent for me,” Grant says of the din at the start. “You’re so in the zone, you can’t really think of anything else.”
With no pit stops (barring calamity, like a blown engine or flat tire), it’s virtually impossible for a rider to gain ground on the leader, which makes the opening laps critical for establishing track position.
And with no radio communication, the only way a rider knows what’s going on is by reading whatever message his mechanic scribbles on a pit board and holds up as he passes by each lap. The message might be his lap time or number of laps remaining; or it might suggest the rider take a different line around the track.
That’s the job Coy volunteered to do when J.D. raced at Budds Creek in the 1980s.
“He was horrible,” Coy jokes about his brother, whose third-place, Class C Amateur trophy from his best Budds Creek finish is displayed at Joe Gibbs Racing’s Huntersville, N.C., shop. “So I’d write stuff like, ‘YOU’RE DEAD LAST!’ or ‘PLEASE QUIT! YOU’RE EMBARRASSING US!’
“It was a blast!”
A father of four, Coy says he and his wife have spent the last few years of their lives chasing their children around on BMX bikes. The kids have PW50s, too — tiny motorcycles just 28 inches tall, with half-gallon tanks and roughly one-tenth the horsepower of the Yamahas, Hondas and Suzukis ridden by the pros.
It’s too soon to tell if there’s a budding stock-car or motocross racer among them. Then again, they are Gibbs.
“It’s definitely competition that motivates our family,” Coy says. “It always has. It keeps us going.”