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A wail of mud is thrown into the air, small rocks pelt the spectators, and the rear becomes deafening as the cyclists rocket pest the crowd. Going into a hairpin turn one rider doesn't quite make it and goes careening off the embankment and through the bales of hay. Racing on, the rest of the pack is confronted with a jump that causes them to land in a mudhole. There's another curve, but this time it's filled with sand, and the 40 racers begin to string out because there's only room for six of them to ride abreast. The two leaders begin to battle for the lead Faster and faster they go, reaching speeds of 85 m.p.h. But suddenly there's a ditch in the road, and the cycles go flying into the air.
This is motocross, or two-wheeled insanity as its called by some observers, and according to the World Sporting Authority only soccer demands more from a man. The most grueling version of motorcycle racing, motocross requires that besides fighting the myriad obstacles along the one-and-a-half to two mile track, the rider must also battle gravity and centrifigul force in order to keep his bike upright. The result, says American motorcycle Associaties (AMA) efficial Don Woods, is that "you spend almost as much time in the air as on the ground."
The 36-year-old Woods, dark haired and rattilly dressed, becomes animated when he talks about motocross. "The young people are really interested in this sport," he said in his mild Southern accent. "A motocross race is the kind of place a young couple can go out and drink beer and have a good time."
Although he admits that many of the people who come to see a motocross race own motorcycles themselves. Woods said: "More and more just come to watch it. It gets bigger every year."
Statistics bear him out. A motocross race at Daytona drew 25,000 last spring, while "The Superbowl of Motocross" held in the Los Angeles Coliseum this summer drew close to 30,000.
The L.A. and Daytona races were unusual, though, in that they were held on manufactured courses that were easily accessible to the public, while the usual motocross race is held away from cities on naturally rugged terrain. But if attendance is rocketing in the United States, it has already reached astronomical levels in Europe, where crowds of 190,000 have turned out to watch men and machines battle mother earth.
Like most sports, motocross has developed an international litany of stars that competes for purses often running as high as $20,000. International champion in Joel Robert, 26, of Belgium. First winning the title at 19, he has continued to take it four educational times. His smooth style and grace are indicates of the type of riding that has allowed Europeans to dominate motorcross.
One of American's better racers is Dafry Higgins, a 25-year-old son of a motorcyclist. He loves his sport and is quick to defend it against detraction. "Its not what people think it is," he explained. "It's a good thing--it keeps kids off the streets."
He might also have added that it sometimes keeps them in the hospital. Higgins, for example, has at one time or another broken both collar bones and a leg while racing. AMA officials any the sport is safe, however, and that they've had no fatalities. But money cures wounds, and Higgins receives a $50,000 salary to ride the bikes of the Yankee Motor Company of Schenectady, New York. Living in a luxuriously appointed 24-foot motor home. Higgins hauls around his bikes in a 16-foot trailer that includes a complete workshop.
One interesting group of part-time professionals is the Ruscitto Team, an independent racing outfit from Sun Valley, Idaho. Head driver for the team is 27-year-old Jim Ruscitto, an architect: he is joined by his cute, blonde, green-eyed wife, Leslie. Jim says racing is "sort of a hobby," and without the big money of a factory sponsorship, he and his wife are unable to afford such luxuries as a house-trailer.
Traveling from race to race with their two bikes and two mechanics, the Ruscitto's lives are gradually becoming enmeshed with motocross. Asked if she had any children, Leslie smiled, pointed to the motorcycles and said. "Yeah, two of them."
"My old man started me riding." Leslie explained. "He said, 'Let's go riding motorcycles,' and I got hooked." Leslie wants to see more women race motocross, but says "they've got to get serious." She refuses to race "powder-puff," insisting that she compete against men; but so far she hasn't won a race.
Jim, who continually sustains injuries while riding, confesses that at 27 he is a bit old to be participating in such a demanding sport. "I feel real old when I race them," he said, referring to the younger riders.
Most professional motocross racers are young men in their late teens and early 20s. Tall, thin and lithe, they straddle their bikes with a sure-fired brashness made possible only by youth. In the pits before the races they dress slowly as the smell of gasoline wafts through the air and the drone of the motorbikes drowns any conversation. With long hair often past their shoulders, they are indistinguishable from their fans. Voluptuous young girls run through the pits, their bosoms overhanging as they reach out with the screwdrivers and wrenches that are requested by drivers' mechanics. Akin to the grouples of the rock music world, the girls are attracted by the male and his motorized symbol.
Jump-suited mechanics reminiscent of those at the finest European auto races supervise work on the bikes as the young jockeys prepare for their 15-minute ride. When they return from their ordeal, they resemble claymen. Drenched in mud and grime, their cycles clogged with girl, they quickly set about washing their machines for the next "moto."
They train hard for their races, very hard. Following a pattern similar to the training for professional football players, the riders usually wake at six, run five miles, do 15 minutes of calisthenics, eat breakfast, bicycle for ten miles, work on their machines for five hours, ride a motocross course for one hour without a seat, ride an additional two hours with one 15-minute break, eat dinner, and then go to bed.
But the rigorous training pays off, according to Marty Tripes, who at 16 is the youngest and most promising of the pros. Tripes, who began riding when he was 11, has been racing professionally for three years. Hooked on motorcycles since the day his next-door neighbor took him for a ride on his Honda 50, Tripes earns in excess of $15,000 a year. In tenth grade, he finds that school interferes with his racing, and he thinks he could earn a lot more if he could race full time. "Some of the people at the school think I'm crazy," he said, his black hair glistening and his brown eyes alive. "But it's better than hanging out in the streets and getting busted for dope.
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