The sight from the starting tower is enough to take one's breath away. Kids as young as 4 stand on their bike pedals and thrust forward against a metal gate waiting for the signal.
Their faces are hidden under helmets, their small bodies decked out in colorful bike outfits. The signal sounds, the gate folds down and the kids are off — down a steep dirt path that soon curves upward to several clay hills and then down again. Older children might soar over both hills in one leap.
The 1,200-foot-long BMX bike racing track in Oldsmar, built in 2001 and renovated in 2009, resembles a clay roller coaster with fewer dips and inclines. BMX, the symbol for bicycle motocross, involves racing on an obstacle course of clay or dirt, patterned after off-road motorcycle racing.
"This track is at the high end of BMX tracks in terms of degree of difficulty," said John Sawyer, director of the track located just off Tampa Road in Oldsmar.
The races draw large crowds, including local fans of the sport who don't race themselves. Riders practice each Tuesday evening and race on Thursday and Saturday evenings. About 150 riders participate on a typical evening at the Oldsmar track, which the USABMX, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the races, leases from the city of Oldsmar.
The track's biggest event of the year begins tonight — a national championship that consists of a series of races slated for tonight through Sunday. The extensive list of races, which bikers from other nations also may enter, is available on the organization's website, oldsmarbmx.org.
"We're looking at about 1,500-2,000 riders for this one," Sawyer of this weekend's event, "and about 10,000 viewers."
Prize money from USABMX begins with slightly more than $2,000 for the top, or "elite" prize, with other monetary prizes down to 16th place.
The sport is growing in popularity and is now in its second year as an Olympic event.
"The Oldsmar track is one of 18 BMX tracks throughout the state of Florida," said Sawyer. "The only other one in Pinellas is in St. Petersburg."
Run by volunteers, the track's regular races are organized by age and type of bicycle. Riders are ranked by number of wins, ranging from a "novice" with fewer than eight wins to a "pro" with 25 wins or more.
"Each race lasts just under a minute," said parent volunteer Mark Henderson, a board member for the local USABMX branch. "The kids complete about 25 races in an evening."
BMX racing carries a price tag for families. The rules are strict in terms of apparel and type of bicycle, and a family can expect to pay about $100 for a biking outfit and several hundred dollars for a helmet. Some professional helmets go for $600. A used bike with regulation dimensions might cost about $200, a new one about $1,000.
All of the purchases can be recycled, Sawyer said. "Kids can bring their outgrown clothes here and put them on the fence for sale," he said. "They also can sell their bicycles."
Then there are fees. Participants pay $45 a year for membership to the parent organization, the American Bicycle Association, as well as $3 per practice session and $8 per evening for a series of races.
The risks of riding
The sport also is a risky business. Though major accidents appear to be rare, soaring over clay hills and clinging horizontally to clay walls around a bend can be dangerous.
"Bumps and bruises are common, but the kids get up and keep going," said Henderson, adding that more serious accidents, involving broken bones, might happen once in 200 races.
Some longtime riders have suffered those serious accidents and have gotten concussions as well. Josh Meyers, a 23-year-old Treasure Island native, has had more than his share.
"I've had roughly 10-12 concussions since I started biking at age 6," he said. "I also broke my ankle three times last year."
Meyers is in a league of his own among local racers. He is one of eight Americans currently vying for three spots on this year's U.S. Olympic team. Most of the time, he trains at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif. There he races at 35-45 mph, and scales a starting hill three stories high. His jumps, he said, are about 45 feet long.
A passion for this sport appears evident among participants and their parents. Meyers understands that feeling in spite of the many injuries he has sustained.
"There is no sense in giving something up if you have a passion for it," he said. "If you love something that much, you want to keep doing it forever."