BMX-ing the Metro
When Eric Minor accepted an offer to manage an auto parts store in Overland Park, Kan., and move his young family from its lifelong home in Alton, Ill., last spring, he just wanted to settle into a small, peaceful town like the one they left.
“When I got to the Kansas City area, (my co-workers) told me that Louisburg, Kan., would be a good place,” Minor says. Louisburg, due south of Overland Park in Miami County, still has the small-town feel of a rural community, but the effects of sprawling Johnson County are beginning to wash up against its borders.
Minor didn’t know it at the time, but his longtime love for BMX (Bicycle Motocross) was going to make him think about things he may never have before. Becoming a hopeful BMX track developer just months after moving to Louisburg, he was confronted with questions about light, noise, and dust pollution — issues he didn’t realize other BMX track developers around the country face. But other issues arose as well: proper use of public parkland and public resources’ benefiting private enterprise.
ABA helping hand
“My son did (motorcycle) motocross racing in Illinois, and when I found out that really wasn’t an option here (Louisburg), he wanted to get involved in BMX. I raced BMX when I was a kid, up until I was about 17, when an injury forced me to quit,” Minor says.
Minor’s family, with a boy age 8 and a girl age 6, is a typical “BMX family,” as they call themselves — young couples in their 20s and 30s, with one or both of the parents maybe having raced as children. Such families usually have one or more children racing, as do the Minors. As the Minor family made friends in Louisburg, several other families got their kids involved in the sport as well. “Bryce (Minor’s son) would be riding around the neighborhood in his racing jersey, and as he met other kids and they would ask him what he was doing, more kids got into it with us. I think there are at least 10 kids in Louisburg racing now,” Minor says.
In searching for a racing outlet, Minor found two American Bicycle Association (ABA) sanctioned tracks in the Kansas City area: a new track in Raytown and a 14-year-old facility in Blue Springs. Although there is a NBL (National Bicycle League) track near Buckner, Minor says he chooses the ABA because “they are well known and stand behind their racers.”
The ABA, a for-profit sanctioning body of BMX racing, traces the first BMX races to the early ’70s, when a few kids in California modified some bicycles and created the first track in a vacant lot. When the kids were caught on film for the movie Any Given Sunday, word of the sport spread across the country. By 1977, pockets of loosely organized races were developing nationally and the ABA was created to “establish the rules of racing that provide fair competition and fun family entertainment for all of its members.”
The ABA maintains that BMX is a family sport, and its Web site states, “ABA BMX is a sport of youthful achievement and the American family. While the young boy or girl BMX racer develops skills at an individual pace, they are learning about winning, losing, and trying again. The racer’s family learns that time spent together is in support of the racer and the individual achievement is quality time.”
The ABA is also a business, and like all businesses, it wants to grow. Helping developers and would-be developers, such as Minor, is part of the business plan. The organization offers not only moral support but also the labor necessary to build the track.
“We will provide a promotional package, which contains information about ABA, information about insurance, and 501c3 form samples and sample letters to present to local city councils or park boards. We will also do an artist’s rendering of the track based on photos or video of the proposed site,” Shannon Gillette explains during a telephone interview from the national ABA track director’s office in Chandler, Ariz. His office provides technical advice and maintenance to the 250 sanctioned tracks in the United States and Canada. “When the local developer has secured land, filled out the application, and we have received a certificate of insurance, we will send a professional track builder to help design and build the track,” says Gillette.
The ABA recommends that the developer have at least two to five acres of land for an average 900- to 1,300-foot track. Several tons of packed dirt are needed to create the hills, jumps, and turns on the track, which is designed by the ABA office, usually with input from local developers.
Local tracks generally are set up as separate nonprofit organizations, although some operations are for-profit businesses. “It just depends on the circumstances,” says Gillette. “We don’t tell a developer how to set up their business; we are in the business of sanctioning only.” Besides buying the land, local developers are responsible for purchasing the dirt, fencing, P.A. systems, bleachers, and any other equipment necessary to build a track.
Although there are exceptions, BMX tracks are usually set up on public land, often in parks. “It is usually just easier for a developer to try to secure land that is not being used by a community for a sport that is good for kids, like baseball or soccer,” says Gillette. “Of course, some developers may want to use their own land or buy their own land. That is up to the individual.”
However, the ABA does point a would-be developer toward public land. On its Web site, the organization encourages developers to present the argument to local officials that parks should be put to use and that BMX is a family sport that would encourage use of the park. According to the site, many parks are “underutilized” and not set up for youth entertainment.
On the page titled “Getting Land,” a sample letter to parks and recreation departments says that parks should reflect the needs and desires of young people. “When the last vacant lot is gone, where do these young people go to spend their vast energies? And when they have nowhere to go that offers a challenge, how many of them will become involved in vandalism, drinking, stealing, or drugs for excitement?” asks the letter.
“We don’t buy the land for the local tracks,” explains Gillette. “We want the local developer and community to have a vested interest in the success of the track.”
ABA’s interest in new local tracks has to do with expanding its current list of 60,000 members, paying $35 each in annual fees. An ABA membership buys members secondary health insurance, meaning that if a rider isn’t covered by his own medical insurance policy, the ABA insurance will provide some coverage for injuries. Membership also includes a one-year subscription to ABA’s official magazine, which lists racers’ standings throughout the country.
The local track organization also pays a sanctioning fee per race to the ABA; the amount depends on the points given to each race. A single-point race, which usually runs weekly, generates $20 for the ABA plus $3 per rider entered. State and gold-cup qualifying races can generate up to $500 for the ABA, plus $3 per rider. Each time a race is run, the track must also pay $50 for liability insurance coverage, which releases local municipal parks and the developers from suits.
Bringing light to Louisburg
“One night the kids were just sitting around the table talking about racing,” says longtime Louisburg resident Jeri Groves, whose son got into racing last fall. “We were talking about the distance to the tracks in Raytown and Blue Springs, and the kids asked, ‘Why don’t you just build us a track here?’ I thought about it and I got with Eric (Minor), and that is how this whole thing got started.”
Groves started talking to people she knew and inquiring about land that could be used for the track. Minor, with his golden-boy, next-door demeanor, put his salesmanship skills to work. Together they requested a promotional package from the ABA and proposed to the Louisburg Park Board a site in Lewis-Young Park.
The park board requested more information during two board meetings, starting in February. “We told them to organize,” says Steve Towns, Louisburg Park Board director. During the second meeting, the following month, a member of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City (ASKC) heard about the proposal. The society, a nonprofit, volunteer organization of amateur and professional astronomers, operates the Powell Observatory on an acre of leased land in Lewis-Young Park.
When Minor and Groves’ plans became known to the ASKC, controversy erupted because the land the park board initially proposed for a possible site was just 500 yards south of the observatory’s property line. Because observatories use the southern night sky for viewing, members feared that the track’s lights and dust would shut their operation down.
Lewis-Young Park was donated to the city of Louisburg in the 1970s by Esther E. Young, to be used as a “public park and recreation area for the benefit of the general public and in particular, the citizens of the city of Louisburg.” Many town residents feel a BMX track fits Young’s dictate.
Also, Groves says she believes Louisburg citizens feel that anything in the town, especially in the city park, should be run by the people in the city. She resents the “eminent domain” status she feels the Astronomical Society has had over the park for 18 years. “I think people resent the fact that only five of the people in the Astronomical Society live in our county. The way our (BMX) organization will be set up, a portion of the people on our board will have to reside in this city,” she says.
Groves adds that the residents with whom she has spoken about the track have been “very positive about it, while I haven’t heard too many positive things about the observatory. I think there is a need for places like Powell, but this is just a start to things that are coming to Louisburg, and if it hadn’t been us, it will be someone else threatening their existence.”
BMX proponents say that the sport is a healthy outlet for kids and their families to enjoy time together. Groves says she didn’t feel that her son’s interest in the sport was a fad he would outgrow. “When he got his new bike, he put it in his room next to his bed and slept with his arm over it,” she says. “It gives kids a sport that they can actually participate in, and their success is based on their own performance — not that of a team — and they don’t ever sit on the bench.”
Local business owners also feel that the track would offer the area more economic traffic. At least one business owner in Louisburg attended the April meeting to lobby the board for the track’s approval. However, Nick Reuss, who is on the Astronomical Society’s board and lives in Miami County, says the group has a vested interest in the community. “We have a multimillion-dollar research facility located there. Powell Observatory is the only concrete asset we have, and Louisburg is its home.”
Reuss concedes that the society is made up of volunteers and hasn’t been actively involved in community projects or Louisburg politics, but he says the observatory brings visitors and visibility to Louisburg as well. “We aren’t against BMX or anything that is good for kids; we just don’t feel that our two interests are compatible being right next to each other,” says Reuss.
Park board members thought they had interpreted Young’s will to accommodate everyone, letting the observatory lease land there in 1982 and allowing baseball and soccer fields into the park about 10 years later. The park has walking trails, and although a master plan has not officially been put into place, some of the park is slated to remain in a natural state.
Elected officials and residents have raised this question: Why should a municipality allow a structure to be built in a public park to help support a for-profit organization? Others argue that “recreational use” has many different meanings. Still others object to building sports facilities in parks, because they disrupt wildlife and destroy natural scenes.
Controversy surrounds a proposed BMX track in Jackson Park in Asheville, N.C., because the American woodcock has chosen fields in the park for its courtship flight each spring. Wildlife and bird enthusiasts in that city and state have lobbied to have the local park board decision overturned. But in Arlington, Texas, the park board was criticized for fencing off an area of Meadowbrook Park and threatening to issue citations to young BMX enthusiasts who had carved out an unauthorized track in the park.
In a third meeting in April in Louisburg, Minor presented the park board with an artist’s rendering, supplied by the ABA, of the proposed site. Several kids wore their jerseys and brought their bikes into the meeting for visual effect. And although both sides seemed to want an amicable agreement, some members of the ASKC felt that the BMX group had an insider’s advantage with the Louisburg government. Meanwhile, Minor resents rumors that, he says, charge he came to Louisburg specifically to build a BMX track. “Nothing could have been further from the truth,” he says. “Although this has been a dream of mine, I didn’t come here with that in mind.”
The sometimes-heated debate over the proposed BMX location raged for two hours before Towns announced that the board would look at alternative sites. He proposed a closed meeting with representatives of the board, the BMX group, and the ASKC. “I just wanted a meeting with the parties involved to see if we could come to an agreement,” says Towns. “Myself, park board members, and representatives from both groups were present. We did discuss the results of that meeting at our next park board meeting, which was held May 8.”
The private meeting from the two groups yielded two alternative sites for the track in the park. One site was farther from the observatory and to the north. “Those were better sites for us anyway,” Minor says, “because they already have water and electricity hookups. I just wanted to have another spot that wouldn’t cause so much controversy.” The Astronomical Society says that any site other than the southern site would be better for them, but they are still concerned about the lights, dust, and traffic.
The controversy may have all but died with Ted Hoppe, who passed away last month. Hoppe was the only Louisburg resident who publicly supported the observatory and was on the Miami County Planning Commission lobbying, unofficially, for the ASKC.
“I am willing to sign any agreement with them (the ASKC) that will make them happy,” Minor says. “We are willing to use shielded lights and to turn the lights off by 10 p.m. and schedule practice during daylight hours. I think a row of trees could also be planted between our property and the track to help block the dirt and light.”
What remains unclear is how Minor and Groves will acquire the money necessary to get the track operational, since they have not presented a formal business plan to the city. When asked, Minor is vague, simply stating that the money will be secured through donations and fundraisers. The only company that Minor named at the park board meeting that would help the project was Bike America in Overland Park. “We have committed to provide sponsorships and mechanical support for racers at the track,” says Nick Alberts, whose family owns the store. “We have also talked about providing some other prizes besides a trophy, but nothing in the way of cash for getting the track started.”
Although the ABA supplies plans for the track and labor to have it built, the Louisburg BMX group would have to secure all the funding.
“It is difficult to say how much a track costs,” Gillette says. “I mean, it is like running any other business. They could spend money on top of the line for things like parking lots, sidewalks, bleachers, and lights, or they can build what they have the money for.”
Groves says she has talked to an attorney about setting up a nonprofit corporation, and Minor says he has talked to several companies about donating funds. But when asked in the April park board meeting how much the entire project would cost, Minor said, “I really have no idea.”
Towns says that on May 8, the board approved taking the BMX track recommendation to the city council, which eventually will have a final say in the project. Although Towns says the BMX group still hasn’t offered a business plan or cost for the track, he has talked with other area park board directors about their tracks.
“We aren’t taking any recommendations that the city fund the project but are just taking the idea to the council,” Towns says. “I suppose if it is approved, a short-term contract would initially be drawn up to see how the project goes.”
Been there, done that
Over the past 15 years at least two BMX tracks have opened and closed in metro Kansas City. Tomahawk Ridge School on West 78th in Overland Park sits on a site that once held a track. “I just don’t think there was enough interest in it,” says Jim Cox, director of parks and recreation for the city of Overland Park. “I haven’t heard of BMX in a long time.”
Lee’s Summit also had a track in an old rodeo arena where a recreation center now stands. “I think the track was started by a grassroots organization, and when the Blue Springs track was built, I think the people here weren’t getting the ridership that they had hoped for, and there were some safety issues,” says Tom Lovell, administrator for Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation.
In both suburban cities, memories have faded as to exactly why the BMX tracks failed. Like any other project, says Minor, the success of any track probably depends somewhat on the track’s quality and the developers’ commitment. Gillette says that the closings in Overland Park and Lee’s Summit happened during a lull in BMX participation. “A lot of things have changed since that time. The ’80s and early ’90s were tough because of insurance. The tracks were expected to carry the liability insurance, but we now provide the insurance at a low cost to the track, and our membership and number of tracks have steadily improved over the last few years.”
BMX tracks require moving huge amounts of dirt to build the jumps, slopes and turns. Towns, in Louisburg, admits that no studies or research have been conducted to see how the site could be returned to its natural state if the track fails. “I guess we would just take the dirt and move it to other parts of the park,” he says. Because buildings were constructed on the old track sites in Overland Park and Lee’s Summit, neither city had to worry about restoring the area.
According to the ABA Web site, tracks usually require 2,000 yards of dirt to be brought in and packed, creating jumps, turns, and hills. “I suppose if you knew you were going to have to return it to a natural setting, it could be managed,” says Cox. “But it would never be the same.”
Up and running in Raytown
Planning for the Raytown BMX track began at least two years before final approval in the fall of 1998, according to Rick Lowderman, director of Raytown Parks and Recreation. The area was a plot of land that actually sits within the Kansas City, Mo., city limits but is owned by the Raytown School District. “The driver’s education was housed in a building on the land, but that program had just shut down and the school board was looking for the best use of that land,” Lowderman explains.
Lowderman says that a master plan for a sports complex was drawn up for the property and presented to the Raytown School Board in the summer of 1998. “The BMX track was only supposed to be a small part of the project,” says Greg Walters, Raytown city alderman. “I saw plans that contained other uses for the park, such as ball fields.”
The Raytown School Board then decided to lease part of the land to the parks board for a period of 30 years for the sum of $1; the school district would use the remaining section for an outdoor science lab for students. The land leased to the park board was to be used for a multirecreational park. “I had a vision for a multiuse sports complex park, and the BMX track was part of that plan,” Lowderman says.
Raytown BMX is set up differently than in most cities because the park board has an operating budget separate from the city’s. Unlike the Louisburg Park Board, which will take the BMX proposal to the city council, the Raytown Park Board presented plans to the board of aldermen, but action on the track did not require their approval. Approval would have been necessary if city and state sales taxes were to be collected at the site. The Raytown Park Board oversees the park through its nonprofit status, while BMX enthusiasts direct day-to-day operations and races at the track.
Gordon Robinett operates the Raytown BMX track and has been into BMX for about eight years. “I volunteered to be part of the track board at one of the public meetings,” says Robinett. “When the track director moved, I told them I would direct the track.”
Raytown holds its weekly point races on Thursday nights, with an average of about 90 riders per week. There is parking for about 200 cars, which is one reason Lowderman thought the site would be appropriate. Temporary latrines are set up on the site, but no permanent restroom facilities are available. “That is one improvement the BMX group will make later when funds allow,” Lowderman says.
Bleachers hold about 300 people, and the walkways and common areas are all paved. “We will add more bleachers as we make further improvements. This is an ongoing process,” says Robinett. Massive 65-foot lights brighten the track area and provide enough light for the rest of the fenced-in spectator area and part of the parking lot. Raytown BMX is an impressive track by BMX standards.
“We have a 1,200-foot track with one of the biggest start hills in the Midwest,” Robinett says. “I think Rockford, Ill., is the next largest around here. I don’t know exactly how much dirt was used to build the track, but I know that they moved a lot of it. The ABA was here for three weeks helping with it.”
After racers verify their ABA memberships and pay their nightly entry fees, they must prove they have the proper safety equipment. Racers must have a 20-inch-wheel bike without reflectors or kickstands, long-sleeve shirts and pants, padded bars on their bikes, and helmets. They start their race at the top of a 15-foot start hill, which provides momentum for the rest of the race. Eight racers compete at a time, first by age groupings and then by racing skill — novice, intermediate, or expert, which is determined by the number of points the racer has accrued.
The first set of races qualifies riders for later races. Riders who place advance to the main event. “Riders can start racing at age 3,” explains Robinett. “And we have riders who race through adulthood.” Between the qualifying and main event races, there is an intermission, when toddlers can ride down the start hill on Big Wheels. “It is really fun, and everyone gets up and cheers them on,” Groves says.
The older children’s races are faster-paced and competitive. After a racer starts down the hill, he has a 22-foot-long jump and a 26-foot-long set of double jumps. After that, racers face a 28-foot-long set of triple jumps, a sharp turn, and finally, a 14-foot-long set of double jumps before heading into a straightaway to finish.
Shane Banks is 10 years old and has raced for six years. “I really like it because it is extreme but it also a family sport. Right now, I am sixth (in his class) in the nation,” he says proudly.
Lowderman says the ABA spent between $20,000 and $25,000 to build the track and the parks board spent about $50,000 for fencing, a concession stand, bleachers, pavement, and other equipment. “We then loaned the BMX group $50,000 for lighting, which is to be paid back to the park board.”
The Raytown Park Board budget for this year shows that the BMX track will incur $37,652 in expenses and take in more than $60,550. The income will be collected from racers’ fees; $5,000 from the ABA for a national competition to be held at the track over July 4th weekend; projected concession sales for that weekend; and camping fees of $5 each for out-of-town racers who wish to camp on the grounds over the three-day period.
Gillette says the ABA schedules nationals in different areas around the country, although some standing races take place at certain tracks every year. “We may schedule races at a new track or a track that needs a boost in membership,” he says. “We always try to support our local track operators.”
National events, such as the one Raytown will host, will draw national attention. Fox Sports will carry the event through the weekend, and several BMX and sports magazines will cover the event.
“This is really an argument over the proper role of municipal governments,” says Greg Walters, an alderman for the city of Raytown who opposed the BMX track. “I think it is our job to take care of the nuts and bolts first. Roads and capital improvements are needed in different areas of the city, and we are competing with the private sector in building these parks.” Walters had similar complaints about the Super Splash Park in Raytown, which is a municipal swimming pool and water park setup similar to the BMX track. “The other question I have is: How many of these people who are utilizing this facility are actually Raytown residents?”
Robinett lives in Lee’s Summit and says that most of the riders are from within a 10-mile radius of the track.
Lowderman defends his department’s involvement in the BMX track. “I think it is a model,” he says. “We have our own budget and are responsible fiscally if we succeed or fail. We are motivated to succeed because all of the money we generate is put back into our department for more improvements and not allocated somewhere else.”
He takes credit for the idea of building a BMX track in Raytown. “There are a lot of kids who feel alienated by team sports. In this sport, everyone gets to participate and no one sits on the bench. It is a great family sport that is growing in popularity,” he says.
Kansas City Councilmember Becky Nace sat on the Raytown School Board when the BMX track was approved. Her council district surrounds the park. Nace says she was the lone dissenting opinion on the school board when it came up for approval.
“I opposed the BMX project as a school board member for two reasons,” says Nace. “I thought that it was a dangerous sport and I also didn’t think that as a school board, we should be supporting a sport that would keep children out until 11:00 on a school night.”
When Nace became a councilmember in Kansas City, she had other track-related problems to work out. Nearby residents contend that the city of Raytown never notified them of the track and that they didn’t find out about it until March of last year, six months after the park board approved it and when construction had already started. “Because the residents in that area are actually in Kansas City and this was a Raytown project, many of the residents didn’t know about it,” Nace says. “We also had to get them past the fact that these were bicycles racing, not motorcycles.”
Raytown BMX is located at the end of Frost Road, a narrow residential street just off of 350 Highway and Noland Road. About 20 houses line the narrow street, which was a dirt road in a rural area in 1970, when Luann Reese moved into her home. Reese complains she never knew about the track.
Lowderman contends he personally spoke with at least one resident on Frost Road during the open meeting process discussing the track, which began in 1996. He says nearby residents didn’t complain about the proposed track until construction started, which was too late. “I have talked with residents over there recently, and they said it isn’t as bad as they thought it would be,” Lowderman says.
But residents interviewed for this story disagree with Lowderman and say that although the noise may not be as bad as they initially thought, the traffic, litter, and crowds have affected their quality of life and property values. Reese and other residents along Frost Road say that they didn’t complain because they weren’t aware of the track until last March, although the park board approved plans for the track on Sept. 21, 1998. “We were very upset that we were never notified about this,” Reese says. “The meetings were publicized to Raytown residents, but we are Kansas City residents, so why would we have been reading Raytown papers?”
Lowderman says he didn’t know exactly when and where notices about meetings were publicized, but he says it would have been in at least the two Raytown papers, the Raytown Post and the Raytown Tribune, and would have been on Raytown’s cable TV channel.
The Raytown Post is a free paper, supposedly thrown to every house in the Raytown School District, which would have included the houses on Frost Road. But Nace says residents would not have been receiving the Tribune unless they subscribed, nor do they get the Raytown cable channel.
“It was a sneaky move on the part of Raytown,” says Dan Porrevecchio, who describes himself as a community leader in the Little Blue Valley area and lives about a mile from the track. “That was land that was in Kansas City and was used by the Raytown School District for driver’s ed. Kansas City residents don’t read Raytown papers. They complied with the minimum notification requirements with no thoughts to the neighbors of the property.”
Porrevecchio says that although he lives about a mile from the track, he can hear the P.A. system as if it were in his backyard. “We have no objections to BMX tracks for the opportunity that they present to children and their families for good, clean fun. But we find it unconscionable and objectionable that this has presented a major intrusion on people’s lives without their knowledge, participation, or consent,” he says.
Lowderman acknowledges that he didn’t think anything was done to notify the residents directly but says it was reasonable to assume that they would read the papers the notices were printed in.
“People complain about kids riding their bikes in parking lots and hanging around the malls. Everyone wants parks and places for kids to go, but no one wants it in their backyard,” Lowderman says defensively. “There were only one to two homes there (on Frost Road) when the school district bought it. It was empty land. If the residents who have since built and bought homes there thought it would stay empty forever, they were just kidding themselves.”
“We may not have thought that the land would stay empty,” counters Reese. “But we sure didn’t think it would be used for that purpose. We aren’t against having places for kids to go, but a residential area is just not the place for that track. They have taken a piece of land that was zoned agricultural and made a commercial use of it.”
Walters says he thinks the land is actually zoned residential, but since it neighbored agricultural property, it could have been initially zoned agricultural. “I don’t think it is important what the zoning laws are,” he adds. “The point is that this type of facility does not belong in a residential neighborhood.”
The races usually take place every Thursday night through the spring, summer, and fall months, with practices scheduled for several other evenings each week. During the three-day national event, which will be held at the track June 30 through July 2, the BMX track operators expect about 750 riders and 3,000 visitors, including the media and spectators. Local residents say they were aware of the national event but didn’t know that a special permit would be issued that weekend for people who pay to camp on the site for the duration of the event.
“Raytown should be ashamed for dumping something like that on us,” says Walter Beyers, who says he spent his life savings to build a home on Frost Road in 1995. “Developing land usually doesn’t mean bringing in a spectator crowd of people into your neighborhood.”
Someone will always be inconvenienced when a city moves forward, Lowderman says. “These people will come and spend money in our community, and it will be a source of community pride for us. It is only for three days, just this one weekend. We have done everything to try to accommodate these people, and they just didn’t want the track there, period.”
Nace says she only recently became aware of the camping option during the nationals weekend and says that she has already submitted a request to Kansas City parks and codes to inquire whether their city zoning laws even apply to the property. Nace also is checking whether the Kansas City Police Department and Raytown police have been notified about increased traffic and people in the area. Still, Nace recognizes that the land is under more than one government entity. “Do we (Kansas City) have jurisdiction?” Nace asks rhetorically. “I don’t think so.”
To try to accommodate the crowd, some have suggested moving the camping location — for example, to Little Blue Trace Park, which is “just around the corner,” Nace says. “This would seclude the campers from the residents of the area.” So far, that suggestion remains just that.
Nace says she has worked to help relieve some of the other problems, such as organizing some residents to cut some bushes on an elderly person’s private property to help drivers see better around a 90-degree curve on Frost Road, just before it heads into the park. “They had talked about wanting the road widened, but then we are talking about having to take their property for road, and I don’t think that they want that,” Nace says. “But if we need to do a road, we could partner with Raytown.”
Nace adds that eventually the city will have to conduct a traffic study on the road, but because of the five-year capital improvement plan in Kansas City, it will be at least that long before any improvements take place. “Putting in other accesses to the park is just not possible off of any other street because of other recreational fields and homes located there,” she says.
The risks of racing
Knowing about the possibility of injury to children involved in BMX racing hit close to home for Nace. “My nephew is a very good racer and has had numerous injuries since he has been racing,” she says. “He has had broken ribs, a broken collarbone, several bad leg wounds, and has had teeth knocked out.”
Nace adds that she thinks most of his injuries have occurred because he uses a strap on the pedals of the bike to help keep his foot from slipping during a race. “This keeps him from getting away from the bike when he falls, and I suspect that there are a number of collarbone and rib injuries simply because they usually go over the tops of their bikes when they crash,” she says.
Gillette, with the ABA, says that he is in his 30s and has been racing since he was a kid. “The only thing I have ever broken is my collarbone,” he says.
The U.S. Product Safety Commission’s 1998 national injury statistics place bike-riding as the second most dangerous sport, falling only behind basketball. It is unknown how many of the 577,621 bicycle-related injuries occurred while racing bikes in BMX events. Gillette says he didn’t know of any statistics available, except for ABA promotional material that claims BMX is safer than other sports youth participate in. The ABA does require racers to wear protective gear and follow practices that kids riding on nonsanctioned tracks or in neighborhoods usually don’t follow. ABA rules state that riders must wear a long-sleeve shirt, long pants, and a helmet. A full-face helmet and gloves are recommended, but they are not required. However, riders’ parents are not required to be at the races. Track operators contacted for this story would not provide injury statistics, though they say such numbers are provided to the ABA. The ABA, without disclosing figures, claims injury numbers are minimal and injuries usually are not very serious.
“BMX is a high-risk sport,” admits Lowderman. “But the injuries are usually not life-threatening.”
Nace says she didn’t know how the track operators tally their injury figures, but she suspects that they count only the injuries that require an ambulance. “I think my nephew has only gone to the hospital by ambulance once, but all of his injuries have been serious. I wouldn’t allow my own children to participate in the sport. As a parent, I believe I have to draw the line somewhere,” she says.
Nace also contends that although the ABA advertises the sport to be an inexpensive form of family entertainment, in reality a lot of costs are associated with it. Besides the annual membership and nightly entry fees, BMX safety equipment can be costly. Also, if racers get good enough to compete in regional, state, and national competitions, families have travel expenses associated with getting their kids to the events. “We have bought my nephew things as gifts for his racing, and it can get quite expensive,” Nace says.
Although riders can wear any long-sleeve shirt and pants, many riders feel peer pressure to have an official race “uniform.” Bike America says that at their store, jerseys start at $40, pants start at $70, helmets range from $50 to $250, pad sets for the bikes are $15 and up, and quality bikes start at $200 and go into the thousands of dollars.
Gillette says that not all good racers need high-end equipment to get started and that many of the items can also be purchased secondhand to help save money.
Standing the test of time
Blue Springs BMX has been in operation for 14 years. The track is located on parkland. It’s operated as a nonprofit organization separate from the park board, which leases the track’s land on a year-to-year basis. Smaller than the Raytown track, it’s about 1,000 feet in length with at least 17 jumps. “We charge the same fee to riders as Raytown does, which is $8 per rider,” says Eric Snyder, track director for Blue Springs BMX.
“It started out as a three-year experiment,” explains Roscoe Righter, director of Blue Springs Parks and Recreations Buildings and Grounds. “It is an alternative sport for a lot of kids. We have gotten a lot of good press out there and even had a movie filmed there once.”
Righter says there is a residential area at one side of the site and that the area has been used as a recreational sports park since the 1970s. “The people around there are used to the lights and activity,” he says. “We have had complaints during some of the national events held there, and it does cause some headaches, but I think it has been well worth it.” Snyder says it has been at least two years since a national event has taken place at the Blue Springs track.
Economic impact studies conducted by the city estimate that about $175,000 is generated for the local economy during the three-day weekend national events, which includes fees paid to the local KOA campground because the park board doesn’t allow on-site camping, even during national events.
“We went around to the local businesses and asked them about their sales during the weekend period,” Righter says. “All of the hotels in the area were sold out during the weekend, and we had businesses estimate their sales by giving them the times that the races ended each night.”
The Blue Springs track was built at a time when the local organization was charged with coming up with all of the money and dirt necessary to build the track. Righter doesn’t think that the ABA contributed to the construction. The Blue Springs Park Board recently paid for better lighting on 65-foot poles, like the ones in Raytown, with a grant awarded to the city. “The grant allowed for more points (money) if we made improvements to existing parks, so we did several things, like putting a new roof on the concession stand and adding the lights,” Righter says.
Snyder is not the original track director; he has been into BMX for only about three years. He stepped into the position when the second set of directors retired two years ago. Snyder says he believes that the worst injury at the track involved a broken back, although he estimates that five or six injuries per year require a trip to the hospital.
Recently, rumors surfaced among local BMX enthusiasts that another track had been planned and approved in Smithville, Mo. “I can confirm that there is a track planned for there,” says Gillette, who adds that the plans are in the preliminary stages. He says he thought an ABA representative would visit the site while in Kansas City to oversee changes to the Raytown track. “When a national event is held, we will usually go and make some modifications to the track to help relieve some of the ‘home field advantage,’ so to speak,” he says.
The Louisburg track, if approved by their city council, would be the fifth track in the Kansas City (including the NBL track in Buckner) area and the sixth track, including Heartland BMX in Topeka, in a 50-mile radius.
Considering that competition was cited as one possible reason the track in Lee’s Summit didn’t make it, how many tracks are too many in one area?
“In southern California, there are about 40 tracks between Los Angeles and San Diego,” says Gillette. “We do the scheduling at the national office and stagger the races so everyone can have a chance to race at each event and the tracks aren’t competing with each other.”
But Kansas and Missouri are not states with high ABA membership, unlike California, Texas, and Arizona.
Gillette confirmed that the proposed track in Louisburg has been assigned races for Monday nights, while Blue Springs holds races on Tuesday nights and Raytown on Thursday nights. He doesn’t yet know which night the Smithville track would race.
Given the assumption that racers may travel to the different local tracks and race once or twice a week, the six tracks in and around Kansas City would need at least 100 riders per race night to financially support the track.
Snyder says his track in Blue Springs averages about 125 racers per week (racing one night a week) and the area has about 350 members total for all of the tracks. He adds that his track wouldn’t profit without the help of the park board, and he didn’t think any tracks in the metropolitan area could make it without the help and support of the municipalities they reside in. “I don’t think there are enough racers right now, but if it keeps growing, there will be,” he says.
Although some of the tracks are located in large cities, most tracks are in smaller bedroom communities that surround large cities. “If we say that a race is going on in L.A., it most likely is happening in one of the outlying areas. The bigger cities usually don’t have the green space, and they are usually bogged down with more red tape than the smaller communities,” Gillette says.
Of the controversies surrounding track openings on park land, Gillette says that the national office usually doesn’t get involved in local politics unless it is to help the track developer by writing a letter. “We will do anything we can to help and support our sanctioned track operators, so if we have to sit down and write a letter, we will do that. We have been dealing with controversy for years. Our first track right here in Chandler, Ariz., was built years ago in the middle of farmland. Now that the housing additions have started going in around it, the homeowners want the track to go away. The controversy hasn’t gone away, but we won’t either. We have a lot of community backing; there is a lot of history there.”