Two wheels make youth a big wheel!

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 11, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

By the age of seven, most children are still learning how to ride a bike. Joel Smaltz, on the other hand, was already burning up the fields on his Honda XR50 motorcycle.

Back in the fall of 2001, the then-Suffolk youngster was practicing his biking skills in Currituck, N.C. New to the sport of motocross racing, the elementary school student wasn’t quite ready to take on the hills, berms (upturned turns) and whoop trails (rows of constant jumps) of bike racing; instead, he was exercising on a long, flat field.

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Little did little Joel know, however, that standing nearby was his newest source of motorcycle racing knowledge. Rick Wendelken, himself a former pro biker, also of Suffolk, was out watching his own son practice when he noticed Joel.

&uot;The kid was riding on a race bike, and he was racing well,&uot; Wendelken recalls. &uot;I found out we were neighbors, and we started going to races together.&uot; Wendelken, who helped build a two-mile biking track in Suffolk, took Joel under his wing, and the youth started racing twice a week.

Now a resident of Windsor, Joel’s house is filled with trophies from District 13 age 7-8 race victories (he recently turned nine, but will continue to race with seven- and eight-year-olds for the remainder of the season, since he was eight on Jan. 1, 2003).

&uot;I was nervous because I was afraid I’d get hurt, but it wasn’t that hard,&uot; Joel says. He no longer has any reason to fear being injured; after fracturing his foot in late May, the child was back on the tracks less than five weeks later.

&uot;He really improved fast,&uot; Rick says. &uot;He was a little slow starting out, but his jumping has improved tremendously, and his cornering skills are getting better every week. Two of the most important things about biking are learning how to control your bike in the air, and only using enough brakes on corners to get through them; you have to get right back on the gas.&uot;

On Aug. 31, Joel (who competed in the ArenaCross events at the Hampton Coliseum in January), showed his improvement to the rest of the state. Heading up to the starting line of the Virginia State 50CC Moto-cross Championships (his Honda has since become a 50CC Polini, and his sponsors include Jarman’s Sport Cycles of Charlottesville and Scott Goggles, a national goggles company) at the Sussex County Speedway, Joel prepared to motor through the rest of the state’s top young bikers.

In such a championship, riders complete the track twice. After the first race (or moto, in racing jargon), they select in order their starting places for the second contest, which decided the championship. Joel spent the entire first moto in front of the pack, winning by 10 seconds.

&uot;I picked Gate Four to start in, because it wasn’t as muddy as the others,&uot; he remembers (just as in horse racing, riders start in a straight line). His second conquest was much more difficult, because a good friend of Joel’s sudden became his toughest rival. Jake Birtch of Virginia Beach, who often races with Joel at the Suffolk track, was on his back wheel for the entire battle.

But Joel still managed to hold him off. &uot;I was trying to think about not crashing,&uot; he says. &uot;Every time he tried to pass me, I just went faster. I did a lot of single-double jumps.&uot; That’s when a biker flies across a gap between two hills, landing on the downside of the second one.

His plan worked; by 10 feet (less than a quarter-second), Joel became the 50CC state champion. He now hopes to finish first in District 13 racing, which season ends in early December. Joel’s currently second, due in part to the time lost by his broken foot.

Next year, Joel hopes to head to the elite spot for youth bike racing; the ranch of country music legend Lorretta Lynn, where the Amateur Nationals are held every year. The top 42 young racers in the country are selected to compete in the Tennessee event.

&uot;I don’t know how I’d do,&uot; he says. &uot;I guess I’d be nervous, but I’d ride really, really fast!&uot;