Michael Hotchkiss – August 25, 2016

Giddy anticipation. The memory of a place that helped frame my youth. An event that was uber cool and I was part of it. Knowing good friends who excelled at something extremely difficult. The distinctive smells. The noise that was music to my ears but most neighbors still despised. A Happy Place.

For me, this place is a Motocross race at a track in  Southwick, Massachusetts. I was fortunate to relive this experience a couple of weeks ago. Love or hate social media, it was through a Facebook post that I learned an old high school friend, Mark Bowman – one that dabbled in Motocross back in the day – had never shaken the speed bug. He and his nephew, Don along with their collective one-man pit crew, Don Sr. were to race at Southwick! My brother Steve, who was a member of the MX brotherhood, obviously read the same post and sent me a text to see if I wanted to go watch. Hell yes!

Steve and I and his son Scott arrived in the morning to one of those places that one never forgets despite the 35 years or so that have passed since my last visit. The Happy Place was only changed by a larger parking lot and a new pit area. The familiar sound of two stroke engines revving at 12,000 RPM; a cacophony that spoke the language of speed to me. The rich loamy sand of the track that makes Southwick as well-known to dirt bikers around the country as it is the foundation in which famous Connecticut Wrapper tobacco is sown just a few miles down Rte 202. A place were my 53 year old friend, on a borrowed Kawasaki, was as eager for the race to start as his teenage nephew, riding a tricked out KTM, in his first stab at a  professional grade track; the Augusta National of Motocross.

The day went by quickly. I roamed around the track with my Nikon and 400 mm lens. Shutter setting was “CH” which meant 8 images per second would click off at competitors going by in the same amount of time that was needed to pass someone…or wipe out in a plume of that sandy loam. I was surprised at the all the areas I was able to gain access. The casual atmosphere was the same I remembered. A bunch of people fabulously absorbed in a weekend passion. There were rules of course, but as long as you didn’t do anything stupid or dangerous you were free to roam. A liability attorney’s nightmare was my playground for a day.

Mark made a few laps around each one of his motos in admirable style. Newbie Don acquitted himself equally well. Mark got reminded of, in one case, and Don learned, in the second, how friggin’ hard it is it ride an MX bike at a track like this. It’s soft dirt, it’s deeply rutted, it’s hilly and it’s long. Competitors a mere inches abreast going 50 mph vied to enter the same berm ahead of the other guy. Starts that began with a buzz-saw of 2 and 4 stroke engines abruptly taking 20 riders down a 30 yard funnel, racing for the hole-shot. Some say that the sport is more physically demanding than playing soccer. I wouldn’t argue. Not only for the strength and stamina needed, but riding in a herd of very fast motorcycles while your body is being treated like a paint can mixer at Sherwin Williams.

At the end of the day, no trophies were won and no one got famous. Observers, Steve, Scott and I along with team Bowman just sat around after the last race  recounting each moment as if it was the most incredible experience ever. And we laughed at fates good and bad and we smiled from ear to ear, because that is what you do in your Happy Place.

Photo Gallery from a Day at the Races:

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