The suffocating July heat lingers in the air. It is one of those hazy Southern summer afternoons that send most people inside for air-conditioner relief. A 1-year-old Saint Bernard lolls on the grass, panting. Only her eyes move.
Everything is still. Everything is silent. And then.
The rattling of an engine interrupts the silence.
Ken Knable glances to the dirt mounds, his eyes temporarily off the stopwatch.
A motorcycle flies above the hills.
Only air surrounds the rider and the revving 170-pound machine.
The wheels slam down, spraying the rider with dirt and Alabama’s red clay. Knable waves the rider to stop.
Unstrapping the white helmet, Haley Knable’s sandy blond hair flows free. Sweat flows from her temples. She sets down a white riding boot on the ground for balance.
She defies the typical motorcycle rider image.
“People are surprised when I tell them I ride. Some are impressed, others are actually a little intimidated,” the 15-year-old Austin High School sophomore said. “I love to ride. I don’t care what they think.”
The sport doesn’t care either. The only thing that matters in the high-flying, power-induced sport of Motocross is skill.
Rooted in 1926 England, the sport that tests balance, strength and courage found a home in the United States in 1966. With the emergence of ESPN’s X Games in the mid-1990s, Motocross gained a wider audience. In 2005, the sport attracted a then 8-year-old soccer-playing, church-going pianist.
“It’s Sarah’s fault,” Haley Knable said, smiling at her friend. “She was riding and I wanted to ride, too.”
Sarah Taylor looked up from her cellphone and grinned.
While other girls played with dolls, danced and threw softballs, Sarah and Haley rode motorcycles. Sarah’s mother, Penny Taylor, introduced the sport to the families.
“We were neighbors and the girls spent all the time with each other anyway. Motocross was something they did together,” Ken Knable said.
Seven years ago, Haley Knable straddled a motorcycle for the first time.
“It was actually easier for me when she was younger because she wasn’t going as fast or going through the air,” Ken Knable said.
At every practice and every meet, Knable walks the track before his daughter rides. He checks for difficult passes and the quality of the dirt.
Any unexpected obstacle could lead to an injury.
“Being an overprotective Dad, I like to walk the track,” Knable said. “There are some parents who tell their kids to go faster. I just want her to be in one piece at the end — not broken up like me.”
A meeting of riders rarely ends without a rehash of injuries and comparing of scars: a displaced shoulder, a punctured spleen, a tip of a finger cut off when it got caught in the clutch.
Except for a few bruises, Haley Knable has escaped injury.
“No, I’ve never been seriously injured,” Haley said reluctantly.
“Don’t say that out loud,” Ken Knable said with a hesitant laugh.
“ ‘No’ is an uncommon answer. I can’t name all the injuries that my friends have had,” Haley said. “I’ve been lucky.”
An element of risk and danger comes with riding a two-wheeled motorized machine through twists, turns, jumps and bumps.
Despite the danger of broken bones and punctured organs, Motocross does not rank in the top five dangerous youth sports. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s report based on emergency room visits, that label goes to football, biking, soccer, basketball and baseball.
The commission points to the lack of safety equipment in those sports. Not so for Motocross.
Before every race, Haley Knable suits up in knee pads, gloves, boots, helmet, goggles and a chest protector.
“It’s a lot of stuff, but you definitely need it all,” Haley Knable said.
Even with the equipment, safety is not guaranteed.
“It’s a dangerous sport. Something could happen at any race,” Haley Knable said. “You have to be smart and focused. You can’t try to ride above your skill level. You have to stay comfortable.”
Along with “smart” riding, many riders rely on prayer for safety.
Haley’s pre-race ritual includes stretching and praying.
“I always say a prayer before the race. Every single time,” Haley said. “Most riders pray. If you see a rider with their head down on their handle bars, you know they are praying.”
“I say my prayer at the gate,” Ken Knable added.
“I am praying in the stands all the time,” said Haley’s mother, Beverly Knable. “This sport can make you real religious.”
Each track presents unique obstacles. Even the consistency of the dirt matters. To get accustomed to different set-ups, Haley practices on a variety of tracks.
“This is a long track. It goes all the way back into the woods,” Ken Knable said after his preliminary walk.
Morphing into Motocross lingo, Knable explained the obstacles to his daughter.
“There is a Ten Commandments section, a couple of six packs, some table tops and jumps in the back you can probably get over,” he said.
Haley nodded, pulled down her goggles, grabbed the handles and rotated her wrists.
The 105cc bike revved to life.
“Alright, go 15 minutes and then we will add on two more laps,” Ken Knable said.
On this August afternoon, Haley is working on bike fitness. In two weeks, she will head to Loretta Lynn’s Amateur National Motocross Championships. Yes, that Loretta Lynn. The country singer with 16 No. 1 singles built a track on her ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn.
Affectionately known in the Motocross community as Loretta’s, the annual race represents the pinnacle for amateur riders. Think the BCS National Championship or Little League World Series.
“I started training seriously three years ago with a goal to make it to Loretta’s. Everyone wants to make it to Loretta’s,” Haley said.
Thousands of riders compete in regional tournaments across the country to earn a spot at the race. After finishing one spot out in the Southeast regional, Haley qualified in the Northeast regional. She would be the only girl from Alabama to earn a ticket to Tennessee.
She finished the tournament in 24th place.
For the Knables, the race was not about winning. It was about gaining experience and fun.
“I hear parents say this is not about fun, it’s about riding. No, it is about fun and that’s why we do this. Once it starts not to be fun, we won’t do it,” Knable said.
After Loretta’s, Haley traded in her 105cc bike for a 225-pound 250cc bike. Two weeks ago on the more powerful motorcycle, she earned first place at a race in Russellville.
“I’m really excited. Since I already accomplished the goal of making it to Loretta’s, I just want to keep getting better and improving and having fun. I always want to do better than I did before,” Haley said.
|High School Sports||@DecaturPreps|