Three-year-old Jake Dollar sits in the stands, helmet on head, snack in hand, cheering for his big brother, “Go, Johnny, go!”
Johnny zips through turns and flies over jumps on his pint-sized bike. The 5-year-old first noticed the track when his older sister Julia was dropped off at a summer day camp at Elings park. He was immediately smitten. When he learned to ride a two-wheeler in only one day, his parents realized biking might be more than just a passing interest. They now spend at least two evenings a week at the track.
Though he’s too young to race alongside his big brother, Jake is every bit a part of the crew at Elings. A unique group that spans from toddlers kicking dust clouds on the sidelines, to men with decades of riding experience. They all share a common love of and respect for BMX, and for each other.
Many kids come to Elings to ride recreationally. They may participate in camps, clinics, and practices but decide not to ride competitively. Hank Sarria, mentor, staff member, and self-appointed track historian said, “A lot of kids in Santa Barbara aren’t that interested in racing, but we want them to come out and ride, have fun, be healthy and stay out of trouble.”
Seth Weiner (age 9) is beaming as he pedals up to his grandmother Janie Taylor for a quick drink. Seth is among eight riders participating in an afternoon clinic run by coach and track operator Brian Mohr. The clinics are offered weekly and focus on building skills in a safe, noncompetitive environment. Janie loves the support offered to her grandson and the other riders during this time. “There’s someone watching and teaching him and it’s a smaller group where he can get comfortable,” she said.
Brian keeps the atmosphere light, “Just have fun, that’s my main thing,” he encourages.
Seth is having no trouble on that front. It’s his fourth visit to the track and his smile grows bigger with every lap. He’s already psyched about the sport and currently trying to convince his grandmother to buy him a faster bike. Janie is confident that Seth will continue riding, “I have no doubt he’ll move into racing.”
While many kids at Elings enjoy less-structured riding, some take BMX quite seriously. Official track owner Lia Helfrich said, “Everyone wants a NAG plate, that’s the ultimate goal.” NAG stands for National Age Group. Several of Elings’ regulars travel out of state for the opportunity to compete and the chance to win a national title.
Marissa Birdsall, a 15-year-old sophomore at San Marcos High School is among the most competitive riders at the park. Her interest in racing began as simple curiosity. “Whenever we would drive by the track I would check it out, I really wanted to try it,” she said.
Though she was a bit intimidated by the experienced riders when she first pedaled onto the track, she was welcomed and ultimately found her passion: “Everyone helped me…I came out and tried it and fell in love with it.”
When Beth Parker-Brown signed her son Josh up for the Elings BMX summer camp, she never guessed that her children would become serious about the sport. “We started him at the summer camp just to keep him busy,” she explained. “Then first thing he said was, ‘Can I go racing?’”
This year Josh (11) and his sister Sammie (13) have participated in 11 national competitions and traveled as far as Delaware and Kentucky to race their bikes. In a few weeks they’ll be packing their things and squeezing into a car with friends to head to the Grand Nationals in Oklahoma.
The Cost of Competition
Like any competitive sport, BMX comes with costs. The time commitment can be huge for parents shuttling their children back and forth to the track and even bigger for those traveling to events outside their area. But the time and the financial costs of travel, gear, and race fees are easier to deal with than the physical costs. With an increase in speed and jump height, along with the sheer number of hours spent on the track, injuries seem almost inevitable. Mostly they’re minor, but occasionally they’re more frightening.
Beth recounts her daughter’s recent injury, “Sammie actually had a pretty horrific accident. She knocked out two teeth.” The incident did not deter her, “I’m sure she could tell you the number of days exactly that she was off her bike,” Beth smiled. “As soon as the doctor gave the okay she was back out there.”
Marissa has also had to battle back from injuries. She broke her collarbone during a crash at Elings. The injury required two metal plates to stabilize the area. When she had healed sufficiently and was cleared by her doctor to ride again, she suffered yet another setback when she fell in the same place on the track and broke her other collarbone.
“I was really scared for awhile that I might crash again,” Marissa said, but her love for the sport overcame any fears. “I slowly got back at it and started going for it again.” Her persistence and dedication have paid off. She is currently ranked third in the state and second in her district.
Come as You Are
Forty years of riding BMX has given Hank Sarria a broad and inclusive perspective on the sport. He strives to make sure everyone who comes out to the track feels like they belong, “Kids in T-shirts and shorts can come out with a $100 bike from K-Mart and feel comfortable and ride.”
Gavin Victor and his good friend Jordan Mia are at the track almost as often as the staff. “Every time there’s practice, and every weekend,” said Jordan. Despite being competitive riders and regulars at the track, they warmly invite beginners, “There are a lot of people around the track willing to help you out and give you pointers,” Gavin said. “If you’re interested, come out and try it,” added Jordan. “Everyone’s really nice and welcoming.”
A Hidden Gem
Stone Saunders is among the pre-K set at Elings. He’s been rolling around on two wheels since he was only 2 years old. His dad, Erik, is an avid cyclist, and while he supports his son’s right to choose his own hobbies, biking has been an obvious passion from the beginning.
Fortunately, BMX is open to riders of all ages. “It’s one of the few sports that kids can do at a very young age,” Erik said. “It’s been really great to see Stone begin to work on mastery of a skill even at a young 4.”
Because its largely an individual sport, unlike Little League or soccer, BMX does not require young riders to follow a specific schedule or routine. “All it takes at first is track time, so the young riders can acquire a lot of skill quickly just by riding around at their own pace–and there’s the fun and confidence that goes with it.”
Erik feels fortunate to have a high-quality, local track. He is hoping more parents will become aware of the program his son has enjoyed so much. “I would call Elings park BMX one of the hidden gems of the community.”
After meeting the amazing staff, dedicated riders, and caring families, I would, too.
Elings BMX Information:
Wear long sleeves and pants.
Cost: clinics $10; practice $5; practice plus racing $10.
Riders must pay $65 membership fee annually to use the track (with the exception of the first visit).
Clinics are each Monday, 4-5 p.m.
Track is open for practice Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 5-7 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Races are Fridays, 7 p.m., and Sundays, 1 p.m.
Spectators are welcome at no cost.
Track is affiliated with U.S.A. BMX.