Playing in the Sandbox

Hawai`i's BMX riders get down and dirty
Story by Hunter Haskins. Photos by Ryan T Foley.

The first race of the season is still a few hours off, but the tailgating at the Sandbox—a bicycle motocross racing park carved from a scrubby patch of Sand Island’s industrial landscape—is well under way. The smell of barbecue hangs in the air as parents pass out sports drinks and racers warm up on the track. The scene is similar to that of a local Little League tournament, except the kids are on wheels and they move a lot faster.

In the eyes of a kid behind a BMX bike’s handlebars, the Sandbox is the ultimate playground. But to the uninitiated it looks more like an abandoned construction site, filled with artful piles of dirt and repurposed shipping containers. Concrete pilings used as traffic barricades lie around
like fallen trees. Straw bales covered with banners serve as crash barriers. An old lifeguard stand gives the finish-line judge a place to sit. On weekend race days and Wednesday practice days, a thriving BMX community gathers here. Its members come from all walks of life, but they share a common credo: It’s fun to ride bikes fast.

The racing season lasts about ten months, with a break in December and January. The racers are a little rusty today, and everybody’s taking it easy on their pre-race practice runs. Most of them are kids who haven’t yet hit puberty, but there are also teenagers, twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings and even a few guys in their forties. “I think they are finding their youth again,” says Zed Escalera, who talks about the older guys as if he’s not one of them. “I can see some of them are driven by that.”

Zed’s pickup is parked at the edge of the track, and he’s sitting in the bed in a lawn chair smoking a cigarette. He wears an ear-mounted microphone like a pop star might use. If the Sandbox has a celebrity, it’s Zed. He is the fast-talking announcer and joke-cracking color commentator rolled into one. An electrician by trade, he announced his first race six years ago. “He hasn’t stopped talking since,” jokes Matt Yoshihara, another one of the older riders. Zed shrugs. “They’ve been trying to fire me for years,” he says. “But they don’t pay me, so here I am.”

The heats that BMX riders race in are known as “motos,” which is where bicycle motocross gets its name. Up to eight competitors at a time race in each moto. Above, five riders balance on their bikes behind the starting gate; when the gate drops, the race is on.

Zed clues me in on the racers to watch, such as Will Dunn and Zayne Young, seasoned pros not quite in their teens. And there are the Mitchell brothers, a 13-year-old and his 11-year-old twin siblings. The brothers wear matching jerseys and they ride like Day-Glo-green lightning. “You would think Hawai‘i is a backwater, but these guys all place well in the nationals,” Zed says. “Back when I raced BMX, you went nowhere from Hawai‘i. Now you can go to the Olympics or the X Games.”

Matt asks if I’m racing today. “I want to, but I think I need to upgrade my health insurance,” I say. Matt and Zed laugh. I tell them I’m impressed by the older folks who still put their bones and joints on the line for minor bragging rights. I ask Zed how many bones he’s broken riding BMX, and he shoots me a look. “I don’t like to say,” he says. “BMX is not about that. If that is all you talk about, then people think that’s all it is.” Obviously, he’s spent some time in a cast.

A bicycle motocross track isn’t just a random collection of bumps and jumps and high-banked turns. Like golf courses, there are expert designers and strict rules for the size and grade of obstacles. The layout of the Sandbox is like this: The starting line is at the top of a hill, where there’s a hydraulic gate that drops automatically, releasing eight riders at once. The first few feet of the starting hill are concrete. Feel free to pedal hard. The first straightaway has a trio of big dirt humps three to five feet high, which lead to a high-banked 180-degree turn. The second straightaway is much like the first, with a roller coaster of humps leading to a second high-banked 180-degree turn. If you have good momentum after that second turn, you can pump your bike through the third straightaway without having to pedal. This is called the Rhythm Section, and it’s a favorite.

The third and final high-banked 180-degree turn leads to a decision: You can either stay left and take a big jump or gamble by going right, which can be faster but only if you pedal like mad and have enough energy to beat the racers who saved energy but lost time by jumping. Then comes the finish line and the inevitable desire to do it all over again.

I drop by the Sandbox for Wednesday practice and spend a few hours watching the riders whip through turns and fly off the jumps. Wipeouts are common, but most are something akin to riding a beach cruiser into a sand dune. Nothing catastrophic. I see only one noteworthy crash. A twenty-something takes the first straightaway too fast and face-plants. He is up in a second, guarding his arm. Other riders circle to check him out. There are at least two Honolulu firefighters and a few off-duty paramedics riding that day, but their services are not needed. After a few minutes Mr. Wipeout carefully rides off.

Sandbox rules require riders to wear helmets and long pants. Other safety gear is optional, but lots of riders exercise all their options, which include slim, football-style body armor and NASCAR-like neck braces that serve a dual purpose: In addition to doing their obvious job of protecting necks, they also help to focus attention. “The young ones look down or look around as they ride,” says David Katsumoto, a BMX dad who can’t resist riding the track himself sometimes. “They should be facing forward, and the neck braces help with that.” Gloves are a good idea, too, he says, along with long sleeves and elbow pads. Their purpose is simple: saving skin.

Shipping containers, bought for cheap from the ocean shipping company next door, give the Sandbox its indoor space. One serves as a storage garage and another is the generator room. A container with a large window cut into it and stacked on top of the generator room gives race officials a bird’s-eye view of the track. Another container houses the pro shop, where bike gear is sold and flat tires repaired. Jim Darlow, a BMX dad in his mid-forties, runs the shop.

“I mostly just adjust brakes and talk story,” he says. Jim isn’t riding today, but you can tell he loves the scene. His son helps with the business, and when Jim hands me a business card, it’s got his son’s name on it. “Josh and I go to trade shows,” Jim explains. “He is my prime salesman, so he gets the card with his name on it.” Josh peers out from the back of the pro shop. He’s ten years old, and he has spent half of his life on a BMX bike, winning some races and suffering just one notable injury. “I sprained my jaw,” he says.

Another Jim I meet is Jim Drake, a key player in the founding of the Sandbox. He’s an airline pilot who flew regularly from San Diego to Honolulu. During layovers in Honolulu he would pull his bike out of storage and ride the BMX tracks at Wheeler Army Airfield and Campbell Industrial Park. After those tracks closed, Drake began searching for a site to build a new track. On the approach to Honolulu International Airport, he couldn’t help but notice an empty patch of dirt on Sand Island. He investigated, learned that the state owns the property and—as luck would have it—that it’s designated as park land. “It was a long process after that,”
he says.

Soil testing and liability were major concerns, but the BMX community rallied behind Drake, worked out solutions and kept the pressure on the state. When they finally succeeded, BMX riders and parents began pouring their own sweat and dough into building the track. Although a lot of the BMX dads know how to operate a bulldozer, the community opted to bring in a mainland bulldozer operator named Billy Allen, a renowned BMX track builder. “Billy is the bulldozer guru,” says Drake. “He built this track in three days.”

Maintaining the track is another matter. It’s an ongoing job and a constant topic of discussion. Over the winter break, wind and rain did a number on the riding surface. But among the equipment the Sandboxers have scrounged up is an old steamroller. And once it was coaxed back to life, the track was was returned to its top form. Before each race or practice session, volunteers groom the track with brooms and hose it down to reduce dust. But dust isn’t always the issue. With a sudden rain squall the Sandbox can become the Mudbog. “It slows the track,” says a kid who understands the relationship between weather conditions and track conditions.

This kid, who’s about five, recently graduated from the Sandbox’s “strider” track, where the little tykes run along on tiny pushbikes with seats and handlebars but no pedals. While the main track intimidates me, the strider track looks inviting. If one is a PGA course, the other is miniature golf. When I enter the striders’ realm, I find parents with camera phones cheering as their kids scoot along over gentle obstacles. One parent is Joey Legler, a bodybuilder with a fierce face and two cute kids. His daughter is four, and Joey patiently coaxes her around the track. His son’s legal name is Racer. Racer hasn’t actually raced yet, but his day will come.

My day will come, too. In fact, I know I can’t leave the Sandbox without experiencing the ride. Matt and Zed had told me, “Everyone starts somewhere.” I figure that the Sandbox on a practice day is a pretty good place for me to start. I sign a waiver and pay $1 to rent a bike and a helmet. The bike feels three sizes too small, and I am well aware that I haven’t been on a BMX bike since before I started shaving. Conspicuously unarmored, I line up at the start. I’m alongside seven-year-olds and thirty-seven-year-olds who all have more experience than I do. This isn’t a race. This is just a practice run. But my brain, Mr. Brain, tells me this is a race. The gate drops and seconds later I’m in last place. Mr. Brain is not impressed.

Racers at the Sandbox come in all ages, from baby boomers to toddlers. For the youngest riders, no pedaling is required; children competing in the "strider class" (above) scoot along the track on pedal-free strider bikes.

One young rider who leaves me in the dust sports a long ponytail. I find out later she is Kennedy Manamtam, an eleven-year-old district champ. Little kids who look like they just graduated from the strider track today edge me out. But I survive the ride and make it all the way to the finish line. Dead last. And then I go again. And again. And—why not?—again.

The high-banked turns are the most fun. Getting the Rhythm Section right so that I can complete the third straightaway without pedaling is a fun challenge. I experience no injuries or pain other than some mild soreness in unfamiliar leg muscles. I’ve heard old dogs can’t learn new tricks. But after joining the old dogs riding alongside the young pups at the Sandbox, I’m convinced that old dogs might at least be able to remember some tricks from their youth. HH

Story by Hunter Haskins. Photos by Ryan T Foley