Just as the green flag dropped, the bike to my left wheelied and launched the rider from his seat. Another went down in the first corner. Now there were only three of us. I made up time around the far turn and was gaining on the guy in first when the water balloon caught me in the crotch. God, I wish it had broken. I’d take a wet crotch over these stars I’m seeing any day. I shook off the cobwebs and made it around, only to low-side in the chicane. Twice.
In any other set of circumstances, I’d be writing this from a hospital bed. Luckily for me, I was racing a four-horsepower Briggs & Stratton-powered minibike. Yes, it’s purple. Still curious about the water balloons? Let me explain.
The chaps at BA Moto of Long Beach, Calif., make their living keeping the Triumphs of Southern California — retro, retro-looking, and current — running awesome and looking stylish. They also happen to love racing. They recently put all their bikes in a container and sent them to Japan so they could participate in flat-track racing, and you can always find their tent at any of the Hell On Wheels or other local bike events in the area. I was super bummed my schedule prevented me from tagging along for the Japan trip, but it’s a mistake I won’t make again.
I had the photos from Japan on my mind when I saw they were hosting minibike races in their parking lot. Determined not to miss out once again, I text Nate Hudson, the shop’s head cheese, (that's him at the right, with the infamous water balloons) to see if he may know anyone with a spare bike, so I could participate. I made all sorts of promises about making him look really sexy in the pictures I would take and he said to show up and he would have a bike waiting for me.
The next week passed very slowly. I woke up Sunday morning both anxious and excited about the race. It looked like a blast, but these guys also like to do some crazy stuff. Sure, they’re just minibikes. But pavement still hurts, right? As I walked out the door, I grabbed my dirt bag and an old pair of Alpinestars race boots, just in case things looked like they may get hairy.
The race was supposed to start at noon, but I arrived a little early to sort out the bike situation. When I pulled up, I could see a few guys in the lot distributing old tires to create turns while they argued about which route would cause the best crashes. Meanwhile, Nate and some of the guys were inside trying to get a few more bikes running while a few other guys began to set up the BBQ. Nate first words were, "Skinny legs is here! You ready to crash?! Don’t worry, we tapped the keg before worrying about any of this other shit."
Nate led me over to Mike, the only guy lounging while everyone else worked. He was sitting under a sun-shade with three minibikes in front of him. Mike had torn up his knee in a previous race, and was just here to share in the fun and help create more addicts. He told me to take them all for a spin and ride whichever one I liked. Obviously, I went straight for the zebra-striped one until I realized it didn’t have brakes. The purple one was manageable but had pretty bad brakes and no suspension, but the orange one wouldn’t stop wheelieing, so it seemed like the purple people eater was the beast for me.
Riding a pit bike is unlike riding anything else, really. The bike is always in its only gear, so trying to accelerate feels sort of like driving a golf cart. You’re far better off giving it all gas, all the time, rather than trying to use any kind of throttle control. The “brake” is attached to the rear wheel, but it barely scrubs off a little speed before sending you into a high-side. The tires are ridiculously wide, which gives you some room before scraping the pegs, and the low height and lack of speed mean it usually doesn’t hurt too bad when you do high-side.
The day’s race classes included the minibike class, the Briggs & Stratton class, the mini MX class, and the women’s class. When they called for the Briggs & Stratton class, I lined up against five other guys. The course was a large straight down one side of the lot, around a cone, and then back up the other side through some turns made from tires, over a jump, and then back around.
My first lap was pretty timid. I’d only had enough practice to learn the bike wasn’t going to kill me, and adding other riders and racing lines, all while trying not to crash, was proving a little intimidating. By lap four, I’d gotten the hang of things and was starting to make passes. It’s a little hard to tell, but I think I made it into third place by the end. More importantly, I was absolutely obsessed.
I couldn’t wait for the second race. So much so that all of the down time between races while people chatted actually began to bother me a little. This little four-horsepower monster had won my heart in five short laps and I couldn’t wait for my next fix.
Finally, they called for our second race and we lined up. One rider was out because his bike wouldn’t start. As soon as they waved the flag, the guy who had borrowed the orange wheelie monster I’d chosen not to ride flew off his bike as it took off from underneath him, shedding its tire and seat as it cartwheeled through the air. We had a three-horse race now. Feeling much more confident, I started really working on my lines. This was my race to win or lose. The pink bike my friend, Marty, was riding was much faster, but I had the lines down and could turn sharper.
Then the water balloons started.
They began raining in as we made our way round the final turn, both from kids in the bed of a truck inside turn, as well as from the crowd standing around the outside. Nate was throwing these monsters and, after successfully dodging two of them, connected with one straight to my crotch. It didn’t break. I’m not kidding when I say I think I saw stars, but I wasn’t going to quit. By the time I got back to the chicane, it was soaking wet and I low-sided pretty good in the second turn. I still had a bit of a lead, so I jumped back up and got back in the race — only to crash again in the same turn the following lap. The two other guys flew past and, knowing that I could no longer win, I took it a little easier the last two laps. Packing all that gear had definitely come in handy. Unfortunately, forgetting to turn on the GoPro and missing both the epic orange-bike crash and my two crashes had not.
The third heat is where things really got interesting. Instead of just having a championship race for each class, they lumped everyone together for one massive disaster. I lined up near the back, determined not to get caught in the initial crashing. Laps one and two stayed pretty competitive, but by lap three it was obvious the MX guys were going to walk away with this one. My mission for the next two laps was to take out Nate in retribution for the water-balloon incident. Unfortunately, he managed to crack the frame on his little minibike before I got to him and was out of the race. With mini MX bikes flying past me, I just decided to enjoy the end of the race. Those last two laps were like a first date you never want to end, and I tried to savor every second.
With the racing done for the day, the majority of the people turned to the BBQ and the beer. Blown away about the amounts of fun I’d just had, I asked Mike — the guy who’d let me borrow a bike — how to get one so I could come back to more events. Mike said his wife had been bugging him to get rid of some of them and, if I promised to keep coming back to race, he would give me one.
Mini bike racing is the most fun I think I’ve ever had. The bikes have enough power to be quick and things like your lines and braking matter, so it actually is competitive. But it’s also light-hearted enough that you’re not bummed when you crash or lose. The spirit of the event was perfect, and it was incredible to see a bunch of guys hosting an event purely to celebrate having fun on two wheels.
The purple beast is going to get a ZLA orange paint job and some brake updates, and will be race-ready for the next round. If you’re in the greater Southern California area, come on out. I’ll be there with my new bike, ready to take on challengers.