“Thank You For Coming”

Having come from another race in northern California the previous Sunday, we picked up our new rig in Phoenix, drove eighteen hours to the heart of Texas, made a quick stop to pick up groceries, and ambled down a dirt road that seemed to lead to nowhere, before we arrived at the world-class national track of Freestone County Raceway Texas Motocross.

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Exhausted and exhilarated, we watched the sun rise over the track, skies melting from midnight blue to pink to gold creating a brilliant backdrop for the eighty foot tall flags—one for Texas, one for America—that rippled in the dawn breeze. “This feels like pro motocross,” I whispered. The track was eerily quiet, the calm before the storm. You could feel all around you that Freestone was ready for it.

We hadn’t been alone in our mad dash to get here. We heard more stories from other families who had pulled their sons and daughters out of school, hopped in their motorhomes and driven through the night across country for the chance to earn AMA titles at the James Stewart Freestone Spring Championship. They came from Florida, California, Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, and all over the country. We even met people from New Zealand!

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Over the course of the day, once more as before we encountered that strange sensation of seeing familiar faces thousands of miles away from the last place we had seen them, this time in the midst of the backroads, family farms, and cow pastures of rural Texas. “I call them the traveling circus!” the announcer, Don Collings, said with a laugh, and we nodded, because the label fit.

The sun brought with it the day’s action and promise of glory. For every child who stepped proudly onto the podium before the flashing of cameras and cheering of fans, a dozen more trudged away from the track disappointed, even crushed, but with the hope that the next moto would yield better results. “The highs and the lows,” we always say to ourselves. Because in every corner of this wild circus, from the people who race to the people who support them—parents, families, mechanics, sponsors, fans, promoters, and track owners—there are the highs and the lows that lead to this strange moto addiction that simply cannot be explained.

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By the end of the day, still sleep deprived from the drive and running on fumes we began packing up our booth and debating what to cook for dinner. Something quick and easy, we decided. Almost as if we had summoned him, some unknown individual pulled up on a quad and said, pointing in a general direction, “We’re barbequing ribs. Come on by, we’ve got plenty of food.”

We followed our noses to the barbeque, pausing sheepishly on the outskirts of their pit, scanning the scene for a familiar face. “I don’t think we know anyone here,” I mumbled, but someone on the inside caught our hesitance and summoned us over, offered us a plate, and encouraged us to “Eat up! This is real Texas barbeque!” So we did, and those ribs were so melt-in-your-mouth delicious I can proclaim with honesty they were the best I had ever tasted. We loaded our plates with chicken and sausage, macaroni & cheese and salad and we ate until there was no room for more. We mingled through the group, shaking hands, trying to figure out who to thank for the food, but it seemed that everybody was host, and yet nobody was host. Maybe it was Jimmy, maybe it was Paul, but they were all from Texas, and they were all proud to say, “Thank you for coming.”

 

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When Rain Came to Loretta’s

We had heard many stories about Loretta’s, but they varied mostly by degrees of heat. August in Tennessee: one could only imagine it as a smoldering place. And since my good moods are sometimes held hostage by humidity, I thought only of heat as the event approached.

So when I pulled into the Hurricane Mills Wal-Mart parking lot in Tennessee at 2:00am and jumped out of the truck and shuddered with cold, well naturally I was incredulous.

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The day after our arrival, it rained. And rained. And rained some more. Some people vaguely remembered a year here or there when it had rained. But in 32 years, they had never seen the likes of a storm such as this.

By day two the races were postponed due to rain. Golf carts teeming with teenagers hydroplaned through the backwoods. Flooded camps produced inflatable boats captained by tenacious moms. All manner of mud-fights between crews of rascally kids ensued.

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When the racing resumed, we watched as bikes piled up in the mud on the holeshot; otherwise experienced riders sought speed hopelessly in the slop; tiny kids on 50’s came off the track with hot tears streaming down their faces; vet riders peeled steaming gear from their bodies and dumped buckets of cool water over their exhausted, muddy faces. Miraculously, rarely a complaint was heard.

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By Thursday the rain stopped and the sun returned to bake the track. Friday brought blue skies. But the storm was scheduled to return on Saturday—the day of the first ever live broadcast of the AMA Amateur National Championship on NBC.

The rain arrived once more in a steady drizzle, followed by the rumble of engines on the starting line. Between the morning races, tractors resumed their tasks of plowing and scraping the track, searching for a dry layer beneath the puddles. More scraping. More plowing. When they discovered a crushed drainage pipe that would have served to drain the track, when they had scraped so low that they were almost to the water table, when they saw the clock counting down what little time remained, the situation appeared truly hopeless.

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It was then that the heavens stopped their crying. Forklifts were enlisted to bust open the blocked drainage pipe. The track received its final grooming. Cameramen assumed their positions. The best amateur racers in the world took their places at the gate. Hearts pounded as the long-awaited moment approached, when the Loretta Lynn’s AMA National Champion would be crowned.

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Watching, I remembered something that I had heard once, that though today might bring rain—it might bring grief or pain, challenges, or even death—

Tomorrow, we race.