In the rural, relatively quiet east Orange County community of Bithlo, all you can hear right now is the roar of motorcycle engines. It's Saturday night, and like every Saturday night, the Orange County Raceway is hosting a motocross race in which dirt-bike racers blast around a hill-laden, often mud-drenched mile-long track, soaring sometimes 20-feet in the air and reaching speeds of more than 40 mph.
As racers jockey for position in the current moto -- motocross-speak for a race -- Noah Woods sits impatiently in the starting blocks, his dirt-bike engine pumping black soot into the air, his brown eyes locked in a determined stare. In a few seconds, the race on the track will end, the gates will drop and he'll be off.
In motocross, 80 percent of the race occurs in the first few seconds, in what they call the "holeshot." Simply put, it's the first five seconds, maybe 100 yards, of straightaway before the first turn. Whoever emerges ahead has the clear, often decisive, advantage.
With little warning, the gates fall and Noah shoots past the starting line, his tires spitting dirt into the eyes of those behind him. Unlike the throaty roar of the bikes exiting the track now, Noah's 50 cc KTM emits more of a high-pitched whine. The bike and the engine, after all, aren't very big.
Neither is Noah. He is, in fact, the smallest racer out here, standing about three-feet tall and weighing in at almost 36 pounds.
He turned five two weeks ago.
There are nearly a dozen kindergarten-age kids racing tonight -- and about 1,000 involved nationwide. This is a sport with soaring popularity, which prides itself on being "extreme." To outsiders, seeing a four-year-old race a motorcycle is, well, weird. In Bithlo, however, it's perfectly natural.
"People out (at the track), they think it's okay," Chuck Woods, Noah's father, says. "Everyone else, the people that come to visit, they think we're bad parents or something."
"It's not your daddy's Bithlo anymore," declares the raceway's website motocrossworld.net. It's right. Tonight, the dirt-poor trailer-park crowd so commonly associated with Bithlo is nowhere to be found. This sport, after all, takes money. Still, there's a definite, prevalent blue-collar element here: kids with long, ratty hair, dads with dirt under their fingernails, pickup trucks everywhere you turn.
Nice pickups, though -- not the kind found at the many buy-here-pay-here lots in east Orange. These rednecks have bucks. But it seems there are more landscapers, like Chuck, than there are, say, attorneys such as Lee Barrett, whose two kids race.
To be sure, it's not just little kids on the track. There are more than a dozen motocross divisions racing in Bithlo, from oil-injected pee-wees (four- to six-year-olds with the least powerful engines) to a 40-and-up division for older riders. The divisions are based on age, engine-size and ability; and the crowd ranges in age from gray-haired grandfathers to baby boomers to teen-agers to, well, Noah.
His parents, who live in a one-story, middle-class home in Altamonte Spring, pay about $400 a month in practice, racing and admission fees to keep Noah and his sister Devon on the track. That's not counting the bikes, which (even for pee-wees) start at about $1,100. Between Chuck Woods' pay and what his wife, Kristen, makes in a salon, coming up with that much money isn't easy.
"I was gonna get him into T-ball," Kristen says. "But he was like, no." Indeed, Noah eats, sleeps and breathes motocross. And to hear his parents tell it, his love for the sport is nearly genetic. His first exposure to motocross racing, at Bithlo raceway when he was two, left him awed and wide-eyed. "Let me tell you," Kristen says, "when it was time to leave, he was kicking and screaming."
Afterward, trips to the 7-11 would find Noah perusing the magazine racks for the latest issue of Cycle Trader. Soon after, he could differentiate dirt bikes from street bikes and would yell "motorcycle!" anytime one appeared on television. His toys became racing toys; his video games were racing games.
By last Christmas, Noah was telling his family that Santa was going to bring him a dirt bike. Santa (read: Chuck's father, Brent Woods) came through, not only with a $1,400 Honda but also -- a short while later -- with a homemade dirt-bike track at Noah's grandparents' Chuluota home. A few months later, the grandparents exchanged the Honda for a slightly bigger KTM. The Woods began taking Noah out to the pee-wee track, a small, oval version of the bigger track that hosts the races every Saturday night.
The pee-wee track has no big hills and Noah tackled it quickly. He'd gun his engine, as fast as the 30-mph governor would allow, and speed around the track. He'd fall, of course, only to get right back up and ride again. Then, after a few months, Noah decided it was time for him to go on the big track.
His new passion caught on. Not to be outdone by her baby brother, 10-year-old Devon took to the track, as well. "She's got a crappy bike," Chuck says, "and this huge competitive spirit." But, he confides, she doesn't have the natural talent Noah does. Like most of the other kids his age, Noah wants to be the next racing superstar, a la Jeremy McGrath or Ricky Carmichael, professionals with multi-million dollar endorsement contracts. But, as with any professional sport, Noah's odds aren't good.
For the racers in Bithlo, they odds are even worse. That's because the country's biggest motocross organizer, the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), has distanced itself from Florida events in part because of safety reasons. To have an AMA-sanctioned event, a promoter must have an ambulance at the track.
But many promoters, including Orange County Raceway owner Lou Banka, say they can't afford to pay for the ambulance. They also claim it's not necessary given the transport helicopters that many of the area's hospitals have. If Banka paid for emergency vehicles, he says, he wouldn't make any money, and there would probably be few races in Central Florida.
The discouraging thing, Banka says, is that the kids who are "seriously gonna compete need the recognition by big factories. If you're gonna race, you need sponsors."
Indeed, if racers are good, manufacturers will pay them or at least give them free gear to ride a company's bikes. But to get noticed, racers have to participate in AMA-sanctioned regional and national competitions, which means traveling outside of the Sunshine State. Without the attention that comes with big races, kids whose parents don't have the means to travel can get overlooked.
Banka says his goal is one day to bring the national championships, which take place next month at country legend Loretta Lynn's Tennessee ranch, to Florida.
Banka takes the development of his track's racers almost personally. Three years ago, he bought the track and spent $100,000 to import drier, more motocross-ready dirt. Before each race, he gathers the riders and prays for their safety.
Yes, he makes money, but to him, running the track is more a labor of love than anything else. He's a motocrosser. Members of his family ride as well.
The track itself has been around since the 1970s, but before Banka revamped it, it had a sand surface and didn't attract a lot of riders. Now, riders from all across Central Florida refer to the Orange County Raceway as the "local" track.
Motocross dates back to 1924, when French and English racers participated in scrambles. Participants were awarded points for riding over rough terrain without putting their feet down. As the scrambles grew in popularity and spread across Europe, the French redubbed the events motocross. The name stuck.
It wasn't until the 1950s, however, that motocross began heading west. In 1951, Dave Ekins became the first American to score points in a European race; in 1963, his brother performed a fence-jumping motorcycle stunt in the hit movie "The Great Escape."
Then, in 1971, a film by Bruce Brown did for motocross what another of his movies, "The Endless Summer," did for surfing. "On Any Sunday" was released, and, according to Racer X magazine editor Davey Coombs, motocross took off. Fathers passed it to their sons, who passed it to their sons (even sons as young as Noah).
From 1990 to 2000, the number of motocross riders nearly tripled, according to AMA sports manager Roger Ansel, from about 179,000 to nearly 424,000.
When Yamaha built the first pee-wee bike, it wasn't intended to race, Ansel says. It had a small, automatic engine designed simply to allow kids to ride with their families. But, he adds, "if it has wheels and a motor, somebody will want to race it."
Kids seem to have a natural affinity for the wheeled machines, Ansel says: "If you put a golf club or a motor bike in front of a kid, which one do you think he'll go to?"
Noah is near the front, edging for the inside track on the first sharp left-hand turn. He goes a bit too far in: His moto, the first of two he'll run tonight, is the seventh one run on the track this evening. Everything from 250 cc bikes to the three-wheel quads have ripped deep ruts into the track.
Noah's tiny bike sputters, and he topples over. Chuck rushes over, righting his son and sending him back on his way. By this time, however, Noah has lots of missed ground to make up. Normally, Noah likes to take it easy on the big hills. He's not quite ready to gun his engine and fly into the air.
But for him to have a chance, he'll have to be aggressive.
Ansel considers motocross a family sport and he quotes something a mother once told him: "Where else do you know of that a 19-year-old college student spends the weekend with mom and dad?" Then, Ansel adds, "It starts when they are little kids."
The races indeed have a sort of communal family atmosphere. Even the teen-age and 20-something competitors are often surrounded by supportive parents, brothers and sisters; it's almost like a little-league baseball tournament. Motocross also has its share of bad apples, overly aggressive fathers trying to live their dreams vicariously though their children's racing.
The difference, as Chuck Woods points out, is "it's a little more extreme, cuz kids can get hurt"
Indeed they can. Just last week, an 11-year-old boy was rushed to Orlando Regional Medical Center after a serious collision. The boy fell on the backside of a hill and the next rider, coming off a jump, plowed right into him. That type of accident isn't uncommon.
Noah's best friend, 13-year-old Justin Bighouse, had a similarly bad spill about two months ago. Again, while jumping, he landed on his back wheel and fell over. The force of the crash caused his teeth to cut through his lip -- his upper lip was completely torn off and had to be reattached with plastic surgery.
When asked, Justin responded without hesitation that his crash wouldn't keep him off the track. Though more reserved, his parents said the same thing.
As the fire-rescue crews pulled the 11-year-old off the track, Brad Holm was asked if the wrecks gave him second thoughts about allowing his six-year-old son, Ian, to race. "Yeah, all the time," he said. In the same breath, Holm, himself a long-time rider who recently had surgery on his wrist after a spill, continued to extol the sport's virtues.
"It's all for fun," he said, adding that Saturday nights in Bithlo have everything a kid wants: dirt, loud engines, and delayed bed times.
The real danger comes when parents push their kids beyond their ability levels, and the kids take turns too fast or attempt to jump hills they're not ready for. There's a lot of it out there. On the pee-wee track, a mother and father literally chase their six-year-old around the track, screaming at him to ride faster. Another father shoves a dirt bike at his pre-adolescent son who is already crying after what his father deems -- loudly -- a lackluster performance.
Once, when Noah falls, a parent standing just a few feet away doesn't move a muscle to help him up, instead continues cheering on his own son.
The intensity of the competition varies with the age groups. With the pee-wees, some of the kids have yet to grasp the concept of winning and losing, and every child gets a trophy at night's end. In the older groups, and especially in the rare money races, it's balls-to-the-wall, full-throttle, winner-take-all motocross.
That's what really scares Kristen Woods. Her daughter, Devon, races with much more skilled, carefree boys. "I get really nervous," she says. "I'm relieved every week she doesn't get to race. There's really no class for her. The guys she races with, they're so outrageous."
As for Noah, she says she'll probably worry a little more as he develops, races faster and jumps higher. But even then, she won't pull the plug. "This is what he loves," she says. "I can't deny him that."
While the older divisions are more reckless, at least some of the pee-wees care about winning. With pre-school attention spans, they just get over it faster. "It's funny," lawyer Lee Barrett says. "You get these kids out there elbowing and shoving each other, then the race is done and they all go build sand castles together."
So you'd think the parents of pee-wee division racers would be more laid back. You'd be wrong. "If your kid's winning," says pee-wee parent Brian Ward, "they don't like you. There's a lot of static among pee-wee parents."
"[Winning] is more of a parent thing," adds Holm. "But the kids are getting [a competitive nature] bred into them earlier and earlier." The overly aggressive parents, he says, put so much time and effort into preparing their kids to be superstars that they don't realize their child would just as soon be chewing bubble gum or playing in the mud.
But negative stuff aside, the Woods still say motocross has made their family closer. And for them, that's the best part. "As we grow older," Kristen says, "it's gonna be the only time [the whole family is together]. It gives all the family something to focus on, to look forward to as a family."
Right now, she says, Noah and Devon are working up ways for their parents to buy bikes. They're talking about having a garage sale, and the kids are offering to pitch in their toys. Devon wants a new bike, and she has volunteered to do just about anything to get the money to buy it.
"The kids have to have the family involved," Kristen says. And when they get older, she points out, the sport may well keep them out of trouble, as they can't drink or do drugs and stay competitive. That, and they'll be next to mom and dad on Saturday nights.
Noah is better at tricks than actual racing. Though he's a bit more aggressive on the track tonight than usual, he finishes the moto in fifth place. (The official rankings place him sixth, and though Chuck disagrees, he finds the idea of protesting a pee-wee race's results silly.) As Noah crosses the finish line, he kicks out both of his legs, doing a sort of split on his bike.
Brent believes that Noah showed a lot of progress tonight. "He passed a lot of kids on the holeshot and stayed ahead of them. That's the best I've seen him do."
Noah knows he's done well. He spends the next hour strutting around the raceway. For his sheer cuteness, he's a favorite of the many teen-age girls at the track.
Beaming a bright smile as he sits in the grass watching the older kids race, he asks me, "Did you see me jump?"
It's about 9:30 p.m., an hour-and-a-half past his normal bed time, and he has maybe a half-hour before his next moto.
"Yeah," I respond.
"Did I go high?"
Without a word, Noah gets up and wanders off, trying to track down his father so he can get back on his bike again.