From toddlers spinning their legs Fred Flintstone-style on Strider bikes to middle-aged dads giving it their all, racing BMX at Heartland Park truly is something the whole family can enjoy.
Since the early 80s, bikers have taken to the dirt track at 4801 SW Shunga Drive in Crestview Park to compete among friends and build up an underground scene around BMX racing. Joshua Spangler, the current track manager, took over the track a year and half ago with his wife, Sarah.
“One of the biggest surprises to me is how I’ve talked to different people and they have no idea this place exists. It’s like a little hidden gem right here,” Spangler said.
The Capital-Journal visited a novice single-point race on Sept. 16 to get a picture of what racing is like on a normal day. The season started in April and runs to the end of November with the BMX Nationals held in Tulsa, Ok.
The nature of the sport, being outside and participants spaced (for the most part) has meant a lot of interest has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our slogan is nobody sits on the bench in BMX and that’s really true,” Spangler said. “I think one of the benefits of the sport is they don’t have to learn that much. We’re a pretty simple thing to jump into.”
Classes range from the Strider division, which are balance bikes for small kids, which encourage them to pedal quicker and with better form than training wheels, to aged classes and everything in-between.
Sydney Allen, a third-grade teacher at Perry-Lecompton elementary school, was out racing alongside her 10-year-old son, Karson.
“I went out and tried one of our girl clinics and just never quit,” Sydney said. “Its fun. We compare a lot and we work with each other a lot and kind of motivate each other to keep going.”
The history of the sport in Topeka isn’t something to take lightly, and Spangler said he’s looking for even more progress moving into the future.
“This is an Olympic sport,” Spangler said. “One of the big events they have is BMX so we’re actually getting into that aspect locally here. It’s a little more developed on the coast but you know, it takes more time for stuff to come to the inside here. So as things are going on around here, more and more schools and universities are recognizing that aspect and adding those teams.”
Spangler said universities in California offer scholarships for BMX and hopes local universities could see the benefit of adding the sport to their program.
The draw for riders to come to Topeka is also something Spangler says is worth considering. At this years Sunflower State Games, over 200 riders competed with some traveling in from outside the state.
“To see people travel from Arizona to come up and say hey we love the way your city runs a race track, we love the way your town does this stuff. That’s big,” Spangler said.
For riders locally, Heartland BMX is the only place they can go, but talks with Shawnee County Parks and Recreation may make for changes in the future.
Show up to a race at Crestview Park and you may not find parking in the lot adjacent to the track thanks to the roughly 100 riders who continually compete each week. Plans to build a new track at the proposed Family Park at 21st St. and Urish St. may in the works but nothing will be solidified until the plans are submitted to Shawnee County commissioners at the end of the year.
“After a survey and initial public input, the planning team led by HTK Architects has developed three concepts for what could ultimately be included in a master plan for Family Park. The team will conduct another round of public input and, based on the additional feedback, will develop a final concept to present to the county commissioners,” said Tim Laurent, director of Shawnee County Parks and Recreation.
“We are not ready at this point to discuss any specific features that are included in the concepts. We are seeking broad public input and the public will have a chance to see what is in the concepts during the next round of public engagement,” Laurent added.
Michael Brent, who managed the track for the previous six years and currently the vice president of the Heartland BMX board, has been around long enough to see the progression of riders and has high hopes moving forward.
“I think its a growing (sport), especially with COVID,” said Michael Brent, former track manager. “We just want to keep continuing to grow it.”
Races have always been free to watch and for those wishing to compete, you can register online here or on race days at the track.