There’s a certain intensity that washes across the face of every 8-year-old who slips on a brightly colored polyester jersey and sits behind the handlebars of a sleek aluminum motocross bike. You can see it in the steely squint of their eyes, and in the serious, no-nonsense expression that hides any hint of a smile. Imagine Steve McQueen as a third grader, then imagine about 500 of them, barreling along a hilly dirt track like a squadron of half-pint Hilts hopping barbed wire in The Great Escape.

Photo credit Ross Mason
That’s roughly the image that greets the uninitiated upon walking through the gates at the Black Mountain BMX racetrack on the outskirts of north Phoenix to take in the weekend-long Winter Nationals races. It can be a confidence-shaking experience for any reasonably self-assured adult to descend on a village of little people who are unquestionably cooler than you. Add to the effect that nearly every parent and older sibling at the event is pretty much relegated to the role of pit crew and posse for the clearly in-charge kids. “You ready, Boss?” a dad asks his knee-high son as he hands Junior a helmet and watches him stoically take his spot on the starting hill.

While the whole experience can be a bit dizzying, the scene this morning at the finish line of Black Mountain’s twisting track is oddly reassuring. Somehow at this heavily sponsored national event, a pair of PR reps for Sharkies organic fruit snacks have pitched camp at the end of the track and are handing out samples to every kid the second they cross the finish line.

It’s a paltry prize, considering the bruising competition each of the kids has just gone through. All those bumpin’ barspins and gnarly grinds just for a little blue bag of shark-shaped gummies? Nevertheless, almost every kid politely accepts the candy. Most even manage a “Thank you” from behind their full-face helmets.

Beaudie Tradup, 8, is a second-generation BMXer at Black Mountain BMX. His father, Mike, was a regular at the track 20 years ago. Photo credit Ross Mason
“They’re still kids, after all!” says Debbie Kelley, the track’s operator and the native Arizonan pretty much considered the granddame of bicycle motocross in the state. A staple at the track since she and her late husband, Pete, helped build the facility off of 7th Street just south of Happy Valley Road back in 1981, Kelley has been kind of a second mom to hundreds of adrenaline-addicted kids who found little league and after-school soccer simply too tame, and who are now raising their own kids in a world where extreme sports — from mountain biking, skateboarding and snowboarding to rock climbing, surfing, kayaking and even skydiving — are looked upon as perfectly acceptable activities for their youngsters.

“I’m almost on my third generation of kids now,” she says with a bemused smile. “The first generation of kids who used to come here in the ‘80s, they’re grown up with kids of their own who are at marrying age now, and soon they’ll be bringing their kids. God willing I’ll still be out here in my 90s, watching them grow up, too!”

Mike Tradup and his sons Austin, 15, and Beaudie, 8, are perfect examples. Twenty years ago, Mike was a regular at the track — he hung out there so much, Kelley says, that he eventually took to calling her “Mom.” Today he’s one of the volunteers who regularly maintains Black Mountain’s perfectly sculpted dirt track, and his two sons, along with an even younger daughter who’s just beginning to show an interest in the sport, come to race.

“Three times a week,” Tradup says. “I still ride on occasion, too.” In fact, one of the coolest things about BMX, say the parents, is that there’s no age limit on the sport, so the entire family can participate. Kids as young as 1-year-old can now ride a pedal-less variation on the BMX bike called a Strider (“If your toddler can walk, your toddler can ride,” promises the manufacturer), and the Winter Nationals even features a 61 and older division. “Yesterday we had a guy race who was 73,” says Tradup.

The Black Mountain BMX track allows willing riders to catch some pretty good air. There is no age limit in BMX racing, a fact some parents say is one of the "coolest" things about it. Photo credit Ross Mason
Kelley acknowledges that BMX racing can be a rough sport — in fact, while she’s treating Beaudie to some Sharkies, another family friend comes by looking for a first aid kit to treat a nasty chin scrape Austin just suffered during a bad fall on a turn. “Hey, part of the sport,” shrugs dad, thanking the friend for stepping in to help. But she counters the perception that the kids who get into extreme sports are the reckless and rebellious offspring of unconcerned parents.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is the parents are so involved in this,” she says. “Out here, the kids can’t get away with anything but their best behavior, because 90 moms’ eyes are on them at all times!”

Kelley, who admits she’s found her spiritual calling in running the nonprofit dirt track on the state-owned land she leases and staffs with other parent volunteers, quotes the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” to describe the BMX community.

“Up here, we are the village,” she says. “It’s everybody taking care of each other’s kids. And if they’re doing something dangerous or something bad, we’re on ‘em!”

Rollin’ With the Punches

Kristi Bravo gets her own share of parents at the Tuesday and Saturday junior sessions she teaches at the Arizona Derby Dames’ practice warehouse in west Phoenix. But Bravo, who goes by the name Rowdy Roulette as captain of the Derby Dames team the Schoolyard Scrappers, says parents who enroll their 7- to 17-year-old daughters in beginning roller derby are not exactly your average doting soccer moms.

Members of the Schoolyard Scrappers, a team in the Arizona Derby Dames league of roller derby, practice at a warehouse in Phoenix.
“In the beginning, I was a little nervous about teaching this class,” says Bravo, who began leading the junior sessions just last October. “Because it’s rough. They hit, we train them to hit, and we teach them to be aggressive. Of course, we also teach them when they come off the track to pull the aggression back and be sisters again. But these girls are gonna get hit and fall down. And they won’t know if they want to cry or get back up. And I’m thinking, now I’m going to be on this platform with all these parents watching us? Am I gonna do this right?”

Bravo’s first test came when a couple of “drama queens” hit the floor and began acting “super dramatic” about their injuries. “I got to a point where I was like, ‘You know what, I don’t see a bone popping out, and I don’t see any blood. Either get back up and skate or take your gear off.’ That’s the way I handle it. And I had parents come up to me afterward and say, ‘This is the best thing that’s every happened to her!’”

Like Bravo, parents who enroll their daughters in junior roller derby classes, many of whom are into the sport themselves or friends with a Derby Dame, are typically fed up with the overly delicate and unrealistically even-handed treatment kids often receive from coaches of school sports like softball or basketball.

“I’ll be honest,” she says. “I have three boys, and I’ve never coached anything besides derby. But I’ve sat back and watched my boys get babied sometimes in the sports they’re playing, and I’m like, ‘C’mon, man!’ I mean, we definitely want it to be fun. But at the same time, we’re like, ‘This is competition, and you’re training to be an athlete.’ I want these girls to be athletically minded, and to understand that this isn’t easy, and we’re not all gonna get equal training time. We’re going to work hard. And those that work a little harder are probably going to be seen a little more. That’s just the way it is.”

Bravo maintains that extreme sports like roller derby fill a need for kids who feel like square pegs in the more traditional school sports circles.

“I hear the same story often: ‘We put her in cheerleading, that didn’t work. Tried her in basketball, that didn’t do it. But we brought her here, and she fits in.’”

Jett Eaton practices on the half pipe his father, Geoff, built inside of his gymnastics studio, Desert Devils Gymnastics. The idea has caught on and several parents drop their kids off allowing their sons to skate while their daughters practice gymnastics. Photo credit Matthew Price
Roller derby moms also appreciate the fact that, unlike softball and girl’s basketball, this is one sport that hasn’t been softened and sized down from a boy’s activity to let the girls in.

“There’s a lot of pride among women in this sport,” says Bravo, who adds that the traditional R-rated accoutrements of roller derby style are tastefully omitted from the junior squad, and are even beginning to fade from the big girls’ arsenal as the sport gains more legitimacy. “We were the ones who got it recognized and known. And these girls are very proud that they have something to do with carrying that on.”

Cool School

Geoff Eaton started his junior skateboarding school, Kids That Rip, initially just to give his young boys and their friends something to do inside the more girlie world of his family’s women’s gymnastics studio, Desert Devils Gymnastics, where he was working as a coach.

“My sons were 7 and 5 at the time, and one weekend we decided to build a small quarter pipe in our garage,” says Eaton, who had been into snowboarding and skateboarding back when he was a preteen. “And the kids really enjoyed it. They got their first taste of skateboarding and they had a really good time. Then I started thinking, if they enjoyed it so much, I might as well build a little tiny skatepark in one corner of our gym, so that when I’m there coaching every day, my sons can have something they can work on that they’re passionate about.”

The idea caught on, and before long Eaton began noticing more families dropping off their sons to skate while their daughters trained to become Olympic gymnasts.

Jagger Eaton practices rail slides at the Desert Devils Gymnastics studio. Photo credit Matthew Price
“We got an immediate bite from families who were in the same spot I was, where they wanted their kids to skateboard, but they really had no place to take them,” he says. “If you’ve ever been to a local skatepark, you know it’s really not a place where you want your 5- or 7-year-old to hang out. It’s really not built for kids of that age group. And the big guys certainly don’t want the little guys to be running around and getting in the way while they’re trying to learn tricks. What we were providing was basically a safe, positive, healthy environment to learn the fundamentals of skateboarding.”

Surprisingly, Eaton says, few other facilities in the country were providing such an academically based launchpad for young skateboarders. So, together with buddy and fellow skateboarder Jeff Jewett, Eaton began developing a formal curriculum modeled after the same one his late father, Mark “Stormy” Eaton, had used to train notable alumni like Sandy Woolsey and Elisabeth Crandall for the Olympics and World Gymnastics Championships.

“We put together a curriculum for skateboarding so that a 5-year-old could start learning the basics and fundamentals of all the disciplines of skateboarding, from street skating to transition skating and beyond, and maybe eight years down the road we’d be producing top-notch skateboarders who could really compete professionally.”

Kids That Rip has already beat that timeframe. This year, Eaton’s eldest son Jett, at only 13, was tendered an offer to compete in the X Games, and 11-year-old Jagger is also in consideration.

The rock star-named siblings, who were also homeschooled at Kids That Rip during its inception (Eaton’s original plan, since shelved, was to have accredited teachers handle the three R’s in the morning while he and Jewett handled the fourth — ripping — in the afternoons), now lead the pack of some over 400 skateboarders who attend the afterschool classes each week.

“Out of those 400, probably about 20 are seriously skilled skateboarders,” Eaton says. “But the majority of them are just kids who haven’t found a spot in baseball, they don’t really want to be football players, and they don’t enjoy soccer. But in skateboarding, they’ve found something they can do anywhere and any time they want, with no limitations on their creativity or individuality. There are no rules.

“When I was growing up, if you were a skateboarder you were definitely not a jock,” Eaton adds. “But today, even the football players and baseball players respect skateboarders. If you can throw down a skateboard in your room and do an Ollie, you can be cool with the jocks. That’s pretty good for a kid’s self-esteem.”