Motocross is the epitome of a live-in-the moment sport.
To thrive — heck, just to survive — requires complete focus.
Still, when Mike Smith arrived at the starting line for his first national championship races at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn., the Vancouver man couldn’t keep his mind from floating back about a dozen years.
“I was reliving a lot of childhood goals and ambitions,” Smith said.
Smith qualified for the nationals, held July 29-Aug. 4, by advancing through local and regional races. But it has been a lifelong quest.
Smith started racing motorcycles over dirt tracks at the age of 3. With his father, Scott, and an uncle passionate about motocross, it was natural that Mike would jump into racing. His mother, Natalie, remembers Mike winning races almost from the start.
But when the 30-year-old Vancouver man raced to ninth place in a 30-and-older classification at the 2012 AMA Amateur National Motocross Championships, it was his first taste of a of motocross major annual events.
Smith reached nationals by winning an area qualifier at Washougal MX Park, then finishing second at a June regional race at Honey Lake Motocross Park in Milford, Calif.
Then came a bigger challenge, arranging the resources to get to Tennessee. Smith said it wouldn’t have happened without assistance from more than a dozen sponsors, friends and family. For example, an Idaho family that Smith knows through his job at Motosport.com transported his Honda motorcycle to Tennessee.
Smith said that, unlike local and regional races, at the nationals he had competitors with him throughout each of the three motos.
“You have 42 of the best riders heading towards the same spot,” Smith explained, describing the chaos at the start of each of his three races.
The weather added to the challenge. Smith said racing for 20 minutes in 100-plus degree heat was “like trying to breathe through a snorkel when you are running.”
A downpour muddied his only 20-minute practice opportunity. And Smith drew an outside starting gate for the first of his three motos, starting in 39th place and working his way up to 12th.
That finish got Smith a better starting position for the second moto, and he finished sixth among the 42 riders.
In the final moto, Smith was running with the top five racers until a flat rear tire midway through the race. He managed to ride through the unpredictable handling of his bike to finish 12th in that last moto, which put him ninth overall.
“That was a little bit of a letdown,” Smith said. “But we were safe. No hospital visits. So it was a good experience.”
Hospital visits derailed Smith from making a run at competing professionally. In 2000, during his senior year at Evergreen High School, he said he was ranked as high as 34th in the nation. He had a growing list of sponsors and big dreams.
Then a series of injuries to his collarbone, foot and back knocked Smith off track. The ensuing medical bills contributed to financial struggles that prevented Mike and his family from continuing to chase big-time motocross.
This year, the Smiths pulled off the challenge of funding their first trip to the nationals. The event, held from July 29-Aug. 4, included 1,386 amateur riders competing in a variety of divisions on a wide range of budgets.
In its 29th year, these nationals are one of the main launching pads for young riders pursuing a professional racing deal. Top pros such as James Stewart, Ricky Carmichael and Travis Pastrana won national amateur titles at Loretta Lynn’s before turning pro.
Mike Smith once dreamed similar dreams. At 30, his motocross dreams have changed, not disappeared. Now that he’s raced in his first national championship event, he is ready to get serious about chasing a national age-group championship.
“Now I definitely know what it takes financially, physically and emotionally,” he said. “I have a year to put pennies away and to be in tip-top shape.”
A year to focus on turning a life-long dream into a memory of a lifetime.