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The most coveted sports trophy is not the elegant $4,000 silver creation that goes to the winner of horse racing's Triple Crown. It is not the $40 gold medal that symbolizes an Olympic triumph. Nor is it the $10,000 jeweled gold Hickok belt that goes to the professional athlete of the year.
The most fought-over trophy just has to be a little mass-produced plastic and base metal statue, worth about $5 at most, that goes to a new American breed, the more than 10,000 children who race undersized motorcycles at some 1,500 to 2,000 tracks around the country. The kids spend their waking hours thinking about the trophies, and their parents will do almost anything—including spending thousands of dollars and in some cases flouting the rules—to get the trophies into the house.
In the modest Downey, Calif. home of a machine-shop worker there is a bedroom that in many ways seems typical of a 15-year-old daughter. The bed is canopied and covered with stuffed animals; there are nail polish and other cosmetics on the dressing table. But the girl is a minicycle racer. Her trophies fill every inch of table and shelf space in her bedroom and spill over onto the floor, indeed spill over into the adjoining hall, the den and the living room.
The girl and her family are up to their ears in trophies, and the proud father can tell how each was won. "This was our first," he will say. 'This one's just for third; we didn't do so good that time. But this one we got in the Winter Nationals in Florida. My daughter's pretty famous, you know. We've gotten a lot of fan mail for her."
A father, mother and two boys who live in a nearby neighborhood have almost 200 trophies and have run out of room for them. Every time they win a new one, the boys send an old one to their grandparents in Colorado. Eventually even the grandparents will probably have to call a halt and send some of the trophies to casual friends.
Kids may shoot marbles for fun, may play catch for fun, may shoot baskets for fun—but in bike racing it's the trophies that matter. One racing father recalls: "We got our son his first bike when he was six, but he just didn't get anywhere. He was never even close to the leaders. Then we heard about a track where they gave 100% trophies, a trophy for every kid who entered. So we drove up there one night—80 miles through rotten traffic—to get us a trophy.
"Of course, that was just breaking the ice," the father says. "Now my son is nine and he's got 72 trophies. My daughter, who is 12, got into it, too, and she's got 16. She could have a lot more, but you know how girls are. They get spells. She quit it for a while after she dumped her bike and then she got dumped again when she was hit from behind, and quit some more. But I think she's coming along all right now." The little girl tends to agree. "I've been thinking that maybe I'd like to be a pro racer when I get old enough," she says. Her father beams.
The children's racing circuit is a form of Little League for rugged individualists. There are tracks from one end of the nation to the other, and any kid on a motor-driven pair of wheels can enter any race anywhere for a fee of from $2 to $10. At most tracks there are races for babies, ages 2½ to 6. There are other races limited to 7-and 8-year-olds, others for 9-to 11-year-olds, others for children 12 through 16. (At 17 a child is considered too old for the miniature machines and has to graduate to the big motorcycles if he wants to keep racing, which most of them say they plan to do.) The winner in every class gets a trophy. So, usually, do the second-and third-and even up to fifth-place finishers. In the 100%-trophy races a youngster takes home a prize just for showing up at the starting line—even if, as often happens, he falls off at the first turn or the bike quits running long before the checkered flag.
How many little bike racers are there in the country? Nobody really knows, but there are enough to make the manufacture, sale and servicing of minicycles a big business and to justify a thriving magazine named MiniCycle, which now appears every month fat with ads for manufacturing companies like Attex, Chaparral, Gemini, Hodaka, Honda, Indian, Kami, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Rupp, Simplex and Steen. The magazine descriptions of the new bikes tell a lot about the fiercely competitive world of miniracing: "Hell on wheels." "This one's deadly." "Goes straight for the jugular."
The quest for minitrophies is no mini-game, financially speaking. Even a pee-wee bike for the 2½-to 6-year-olds costs around $250. Protection against the inevitable falls costs the racing family almost as much. A crash helmet and a set of leathers—a rugged, form-fitting suit to keep the skin intact—runs about $160: a pair of heavy boots, $40.