Robbey Ruffner is a gifted, versatile athlete, a standout in any sport he has tried. Baseball, golf and soccer consumed most of his time growing up.
Motocross was not on his radar.
That changed six years ago when Ruffner was invited to attend a practice at the Dade City home of professional rider Tim Ferry, a family friend. It was an intoxicating thrill with astounding jumps and flips.
"They were flying all around and jumping over my head," Ruffner said. "It was the coolest thing ever. I knew right then that's what I wanted to do."
Soon after, Ruffner was hopping on super-tuned dirt bikes and navigating challenging obstacle courses. The Clearwater High graduate has become one of the best young riders in the country.
Starting Tuesday, Ruffner, 18, will compete in the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championships at country singer Loretta Lynn's ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn.
The event is one of the most prestigious in amateur motocross, a sport made up of racing and stunt riding with offroad motorcycles on dirt tracks. Several professionals have won AMA Amateur National titles, including three of the best-known riders from Florida: Ferry, Ricky Carmichael and James Stewart.
Ruffner qualified in three classes but is allowed to race in only two, 250C limited and 450C.
"I'm excited about competing in such a big event," Ruffner said. "I want to be a pro rider someday. I'm progressing pretty quickly, and I feel like I can make that goal happen in a few years."
Though he has been tearing it up on local tracks for years, Ruffner still is considered a late bloomer.
Most top-level amateurs have been riding since they were 5 and have family ties that have helped them gravitate toward the sport. None of Ruffner's family members were involved in motocross before he tried it.
"I really didn't know anything about it, to be honest with you," said Ruffner's father, Rob Ruffner. "But this was something Robbey really wanted to do. His focus never wavered. So we jumped right into it as a family. It's now become more than a sport. It's a lifestyle for us."
The Ruffners have devoted themselves to Robbey's success. They secured sponsors and spent weekends in training sessions or tournaments.
Robbey has made up ground against more experienced competition. In 2011 he was the Supermini champion at Dade City Motocross. This year he finished second in the Ricky Carmichael Daytona Amateur Supercross 250C race.
Still, the chase to ride in the big leagues often has as much to do with luck and pluck as skill. There's no guarantee that a rider, regardless of resume, is going to be around at the end of a race. Injuries are always a concern, mechanical problems pop up, and there are simply a lot of bikes flying around.
Not much has gone wrong for Robbey in his climb. He has suffered only one major injury, a broken arm this year. His ability to avoid most injuries during crashes can be attributed in large part to extensive training. Three nights a week, Robbey is bouncing over obstacles while his knobby tires spew soil at the Dade City Motocross track.
"It's pretty amazing to see how far Robbey's progressed, especially in the last year or two," Ferry said. "He's such a good athlete that he was able to adapt to the sport pretty fast. And to think all this started by watching me race in my back yard."
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or ( 727) 445-4169.