There are some things that never seem to change over the years, and a summer night at the motocross track is one of them. It's been a few years since I've attended an afternoon of racing at I-40 Motocross, but the sounds and smells are the same as they ever were.
When I pulled into I-40 Motocross on this sunny Saturday evening, it was just like I remembered it the last time I was there a few years ago, except better. The crowd was quite a bit larger, and the track looked to be in much better condition.
As I pulled off of the road and rolled down my window to buy my ticket, I could hear the sounds of bikes revving up in the pits, and idling through on their way to the track for practice. I found an open grassy spot to park the truck near the back of the pits and got out to walk around. The smell of race gas and pre-mix hung in the air and mixed with the dust from the track that floated by. Racers and their families sat in lawn chairs under E-Z Ups, or in the shade of their trailers, and waited for their turn on the track. There was a constant background noise of dirt bikes and the track PA system.
I-40 is the definition of a local motocross. There are no semi rigs and mega-dollar teams at this level. Common sponsors are the family business, or just the family. The biggest budget operation may have a large enclosed trailer and a couple of bikes, but many racers just have their bikes in the back of a pickup. You always have a few fast teenagers who have thoughts of moving on to the big time, but most of the people are here for just for the love of racing dirt bikes, not because they think they can be the next AMA champion.
While no form of racing is cheap, motocross is probably one of the least expensive forms of racing you can get involved in. A new bike, spares, and gear can be had for less than 10 grand, entry fees for races are only $25, and since you can race locally, you don't spend too much on travel.
It's also one of the easiest ways to get youngsters racing at an early age. There are over 24 different classes, and eight of these are for kids. Kids as young as 4 years old line up to race, and dream of being the next James Stewart or Chad Reed, (or maybe their parents do). Just like any other little league sport, if they start young, they will probably have better skills when they get older, as long as they don't get burnt out. As on any little league field, the dreams have to be the dreams of the kids, not the parents. You see kids who already have their "Race Face" on, and you see some who are chasing each other around the pits with squirt guns. Either way is cool with me. You see moms and dads helping kids get ready for their next moto, and then shouting words of encouragement from the chain link fence as they race past.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the men who have never burned out. There is 35+ class that is supposedly for the old guys who still want to race, but can't compete with the young guns. Yeah, right. Instead of a bunch of old dudes just wanting to get in one more race before the retirement home, what you have is a bunch of guys who have been racing their whole lives. Young guns, old guns, it doesn't matter, they're still guns, and still fast.
I-40 has its own championship, The Volunteer State Championship Series. This is a 23-round series that ends in October, and at the end a Champion is crowned in each class. To be eligible for the big championship trophy you must race in at least 19 of the 23 rounds. Each weekend the top 5 in each class get a plaque.
Jill Varnell is the owner and manager of I-40 Motocross and on this night she was as busy as you would expect any owner/manager to be. I was able to catch her between practice and the start of the races and she graciously shared some time with me. Jill told me, "This is the first ‘good weather' weekend we've had this year, it's rained nearly every Saturday since we opened, and we've got a great crowd." When I asked if she knew the attendance numbers, she said, "We've got over 200 riders, and way more than that in spectators." I commented on how the track looked much better than the last time I was there. Jill told me that, "We've got a new person who is taking care of prepping the track, and he is doing a great job. We have lots of improvements planned for this year. We want to keep making it better for the racers and their families."
I-40 Motocross is located just off of I-40, next to what use to be Atomic Speedway. To get there from Knoxville, take Exit 364, turn right towards Melton Hill Dam, and then turn left on Buttermilk Road. Racing is every Saturday night except for July 4th. Practice starts at 5 p.m. and racing starts at 6 p.m. Admission is $5 for kids, $10 for adults.
Russ Townsend has been riding on and off road motorcycles for over 25 years. He has been active in promoting new legislation for OHV users, is a lifetime AMA member, former racer, and current Secretary of the Volunteer Riders dirt-bike club.