They gathered as they do every time this year, from pre-kindergarten youngsters to globe-trotting professionals, riding everything from tiny mini-bikes to souped-up rockets. Some of them pitched canopies next to their pickups, others lounged in giant luxury RVs.
Motocross racing always draws a wide spectrum of participants and fans, and they were all on display Tuesday night for the first evening of motor sports entertainment at the Cass County Fair in Pleasant Hill. And even on a hot and sticky evening, the grandstands set up along the half-mile winding dirt track were packed with fans thrilled by every close pass and soaring leap.
It’s been this way for a long time said R.J. Wohlberg, who owns and operates a motocross track in Kingsville, Mo., and organizes the Cass County Fair races. He’s been doing this for 16 years at the fair, and every year he’s seen the races attract a healthy number of riders and spectators.
“We’re just below the (demolition) derby,” said Wohlberg, who also ran ATV races on the track the next evening. “They get a really good spectator crowd. We’ll fill the bleachers here and it’s a very good turnout.”
Wohlberg said he had more than 140 entries this year in 19 classes determined by age and ability. Kids as young as four raced on 50cc bikes; older ones competed on 65cc and 85cc models. The big bikes – the 250cc and 450cc machines – had racers in Beginner, Novice, Intermediate and Expert classes and a sprinkling of professional riders.
All of them took their turns in five- or eight-lap races on a circuitous and hilly half-mile layout that had to be completely rebuilt before the fair after a pipeline replacement project tore apart the old layout. The biggest hill – a 15-foot tall mound right before the finish line – became a launching pad for the power bikes.
“It’s just a neat sport,” Wohlberg said. “These guys, their dads rode or their grandpas rode and it just kind of seems to trickle down. Once you get it, you really get hooked and it’s hard to get out.”
Chris Thies is definitely hooked. A former Lee’s Summit resident who now lives in Pleasanton, Kan., Thies, 24, started riding when he was four years old. Now he’s a professional rider who has competed in Europe and will race in Denmark next month.
“I can’t find anything else in life that I get the feeling with riding a dirt bike,” Thies said. “It’s the funnest thing I’ve attempted to do so far and I enjoy it. There’s just a passion I feel for it.”
Even though he’s raced all over, Thies still likes coming back to the fair, where he ran his first race when he was five. The familiar surroundings aren’t the only thing that brings him back, although that is a big draw for him. There’s also some money to be made.
“For us pro riders, it’s a good incentive because they usually throw a pretty good payout for the winners,” Thies said. “The main thing that attracts me here is to make a little money and have some fun riding dirt bikes.”
Jack Lambert of Lee’s Summit put up half of the $2,000 purse the pros were vying for that night. And at 53 years of age, Lambert still takes to the track on his 450cc Yamaha and go up against the youngsters.
“As long as I can stay injury free I’ll still do it,” said Lambert, who started racing as a 10 year-old. “I figure that’s what’s going to keep me young and keep me in shape.”
Lambert, who owns Midwest Heating Cooling and Plumbing with his brothers, also enjoys coming back to the fair after traveling all over the country in their bus-sized RV. A five-week stretch of racing took him to California, Texas and Michigan and he was glad to be back close to home.
“It’s fun because you know a lot of the local people,” Lambert said. “All your friends come out because it’s close. You go far away and there’s a lot of riders, but you really don’t know them that much and they don’t know you.”
Motocross has always been a family affair for Lambert, whose son James also raced in the 450cc class Tuesday. That holds true for almost everyone else on the track or in the stands.
“It’s fun, family friends … you can’t really beat it,” Thies said.