Motorcycles weren't really jumping over cows in the hills outside Blountville, Term., during the third weekend of October, floating like ET over hay bale and dale. It just looked that way to anyone who happened to take a drive in the country a few miles outside the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, where, tucked in among the barns and ancient oaks, the Muddy Creek Raceway was hosting its 16th annual Top Gun Motocross Showdown, the culmination of a 16-race United States Mega Series. It was a scene both pastoral and surreal, a hillbilly setting with a Star Wars cast. The raceway, a 1.3-mile dirt track carved out of the rolling hills of northeastern Tennessee, had more curves than an acre of snakes, and elevation changes, both natural and man-made, that propelled the motorcycles high and far into the crisp fall air. Tents, campers, trailers and pickups surrounded the raceway, and campfires from the previous night smoldered in the adjacent fields. Competitors, who ranged in age from four to 69, strode the grounds in mud-caked storm trooper garb: heavy boots, upper-body mail, knee and elbow pads, dirt-bike gloves, decal-festooned helmets and goggles in hand. When they climbed onto their dirt bikes and cranked the throttles, the farmland shook.
The action was dizzying. More than 700 competitors qualified for the Top Gun finals on Oct. 19, and race organizers, operating with machinelike efficiency, sent wave after wave of them to the starting gate in 28 heats, divided according to age, skill level and engine classes. As many as 35 motorbikes competed per race, and the first turn—a hairpin at the end of a full-throttle dash up the hill from the starting gate—was the scene of dozens of wipe-outs. "You don't want to get run over there," said Dillon Clayton, 19, of Jackson, Tenn. A competitor in the 4-stroke professional division, Clayton was making his first trip to Muddy Creek, which was recently rated by Dirt Bike magazine as one of the top three tracks in the U.S. "It's real loamy and grippy and wide," Clayton said. "Just a real fast track, without a lot of extreme jumps. It's the best track I've ridden on."
"It's rider friendly," said Randy Kelley, a 50-year-old electrician who'd driven with his family from Polk City, Fla., to race. His wife, son, daughter and son-in-law all compete in motocross some 40 weekends a year, and Kelley has put more than 400,000 miles on his van driving from track to track. "Some families fish, some play soccer," he said. "Ours does this. We've all qualified and ridden in the amateur nationals. It's hard to make a track a challenge for the pros and rider-friendly for old guys like me and the kids. But this one does it. It's a fun track."
Indeed, the four-to six-year-olds riding 50-cc peewee motorbikes (rounding the first turn, the pack sounds like an angry swarm of bees) race the same course at Muddy Creek as the pros in their growling 250-cc bikes. It just takes them about two minutes longer to complete a loop. This year's Top Gun field included 2001 national champion Mike Brown, who grew up in nearby Gray. "I started my career right here," said Brown, 31. "I got an 80-cc bike on a Friday and came to Muddy Creek for my first race that Sunday. I was 13. All I did was race here for two years. The dirt's really good, and it's wider than most tracks. They also change it up, so it's not always the same."
Part of a long motor-sports tradition in Tennessee (the Bristol NASCAR track is just 11 miles away), Muddy Creek opened in 1977, some 10 years after motocross, which originated in Europe, began appearing in rural areas of the States. Sam Gammon, who raced for 15 years before an injured shoulder forced him to give the sport up, started running the Muddy Creek races in 1986. He has been expanding his operation ever since, and today his U.S. Mega Series comprises 16 races in six states. The American Motorcyclist Association says there were 477,000 entries in 1,570 motocross events last year, up from 370,000 entries in 1,438 events in 1999. Sponsorship money is flowing into the sport, following stars like Ricky Carmichael, Jeremy McGrath and James (Bubba) Stewart. Supercross events—professional motocross held in big-city stadiums, both indoors and outdoors—have begun to attract crowds of 60,000 to 70,000. "We've been on a big growth curve the last six or seven years," says Gammon. "A company can sponsor a motocross team for a fraction of what it would have to spend on NASCAR, and the TV coverage is increasing every year."
But if the big-city venues represent the financial future of motocross, rural tracks like Muddy Creek are its lifeblood. At this year's Top Gun, competitors came from 21 states, including Alaska and California, in addition to England and Canada. And if you're picturing a gathering of Hell's Angels, put that image away. Muddy Creek positively reeked of wholesome fun. No beer sales. No boom boxes. No drugs. "These people are here for a serious race, they aren't here to party," says Gammon. "We don't tolerate it. We don't ban alcohol, but take a look around. Seventy percent of my riders are under 18. We let them camp here for free, and at 10:30 p.m. the campground goes quiet."
Reverend Johnny Shepherd holds a Sunday-morning worship at the track at 6:30, then it's rev up your engines and race. The whole family gets in on the action. "I got tired of watching my husband, dad and brother race," said Bridget Prevatte, 27, of Lakeland, Fla., who injured her knee as a ballet dancer and then picked up motocross at age 21. "I've been around it my whole life, and finally it was like, 'I'm sick of watching. Honey, buy me a bike.' [The media] think dirt bikers are hoodlums, but there's no fights at the track. You fight, you're out. They don't tolerate that at all. It's dangerous enough out there."
Prevatte, who weighs about half as much as her 208-pound 125-cc Yamaha, usually tucks her long blonde hair into her helmet so the rednecks in the field don't go out of their way to run her off the track. In June 2001 she was doing a practice run at her local track and suffered a dislocated shoulder, a common injury in the sport. In her first race back more than a year later, she took off on a series of jumps and landed hard on an upslope, shattering her left wrist. (Motocross riders have been known to break both ankles absorbing similar impacts.) "I didn't even fall," she says. "I needed surgery, and I still have a plate and seven screws in there. That kinda scared me." Not enough to keep her from racing some 40 weekends a year, traveling the circuit with her husband, Jim, and her parents. "I'd love it if my lads, when I have kids, raced with us, as close as it's kept our family."
"My boys are scared of horses but not of motorcycles," says Ted Turner of Pulaski, Tenn., a former rodeo cowboy who spends about 30 weekends a year driving his 10-year-old, Gus, and five-year-old, Bleu, to races throughout the Southeast. "It blows my mind."
Bored with baseball, Gus was watching TV three years ago when he came across a motocross race and decided it looked like fun. "I asked my dad if I could try motocross, and he was all for it," Gus says.