Many North Dakotans who take part in motocross race up and down a hillside west of Mandan each summer in what’s essentially the Peters’ backyard.
Tom Peters and sons, Ryan and Daniel, have spent countless hours at the facility next to their house practicing, racing and maintaining the dirt tracks that zigzag across the grassy slope. All that time helped 23-year-old Ryan qualify for one of the biggest races of his life in late July.
And soon, over Labor Day weekend, the tracks will welcome dozens of other families who spend their weekends traveling the state to take part in motocross events. It will be the second race of the year at the Mandan Motocross Track, which was built in 2007 by a designer from Oregon. The Peters family owns the facility and leases it to the Mandan Motocross Club.
The families will roll in on RVs, park at the Peters’ property and stay for the two-day competition as kids, moms and dads race.
“You couldn’t find anything more family oriented in terms of sports than this,” Ryan said.
Motocross wasn’t always such a family affair.
When Tom got his start in the late 1970s, races attracted roughly 100 competitors over a single day. Today, the two-day events draw closer to 250.
“We’d just drive a pickup to a race on a Sunday, race, and then went home,” Tom said.
Ryan and his brother Daniel, 21, got their start at a young age while watching their father race.
Tom began riding alongside his brother, as well, thanks to their own father.
“Dad got us into riding because he would give us rides on his motorcycle,” Tom said.
Ryan and Daniel say they weren’t very good at first. But they watched the pros on TV and got hooked.
“Everybody’s first year is nothing spectacular because you’re figuring everything out,” Ryan said. “The first year is always a steep learning curve.”
Young kids participate on an easier track with smaller bikes than adults, working their way up through various classes as they grow and improve. In any given race, competitors undergo two “motos” or rounds through the track, which consists of hills, drops, jumps and turns. Along the way, they rack up points that contribute to their rankings at season’s end.
Ryan, lately, has come out on top in North Dakota, with Daniel not far behind.
The past few years, Ryan has had his eye on a higher level of competition: a U.S. pro national race.
“It’s the best in the country,” Daniel said.
Ryan made it through to one last year, but not quite the way he’d hoped. First, he needed to qualify at a preliminary race by finishing in the top 36. He finished outside that threshold and ultimately was named an alternate. Luck was on his side that day, however, because another rider couldn’t make the main race and he was let in.
This year, he was determined to go a smoother route. He competed in late July at a pro national race in Washington state and qualified in a preliminary race outright with room to spare in 29th place.
“It was kind of a relief to go straight through this time,” he said.
The next two motos went just like any other race -- except the riders were much faster than he’s used to. He finished in the same spot he qualified, 29th, out of 42 racers.
Ryan said he felt he could have done better, and he hopes to get another chance. Some of his competitors on the national stage do this sport for a living, making money from sponsorships and by placing well at races.
“That would be the all-time goal,” he said.
Ryan is a student at the University of Mary. To pursue his motocross dreams, he said, he needs to pick up speed and attempt to qualify at every national race he enters.
While Daniel doesn’t have the same aspiration to race at that level, he’s been helping his brother get there. He was his brother’s mechanic at the recent race in Washington, making sure Ryan’s bike was race-ready.
Tom hasn’t raced in several years, but he too used to compete at the same national level as Ryan. Now, he’s busy helping the next generation of motocross racers.
Kids as young as 4 race around the smaller of the tracks in his backyard. The best part, he said, is when they line up at the starting line.
“You see the fun and excitement in their eyes,” Tom said.