In the last decade, “wheel-friendly” parks and plazas have exploded across the country, whether intended for bikes, skateboards, or both. Skateparks in particular are showing up in communities from St. Cloud, Minn., to Poplar Bluff, Mo., as more parks departments realize the benefits of dedicating public space to individualized action-sport activities.
The action-sport landscape now has another under-realized newcomer gaining ground in public parks: sanctioned BMX race tracks. Until recently and much like skateboarding, BMX racing had little public awareness as a “sport,” leading many municipal parks departments to assume it appealed only to small groups. But with the Olympics having successfully added BMX racing to its docket in the 2008 Beijing Games, awareness—as well as demand for facilities—is on the rise.
From Humble Beginnings
BMX, an abbreviation of “bicycle motocross,” got its start in the early 1970s in the birthplace of action sports: Southern California. By 1977 the American Bicycle Association—now under the name USA BMX—was established as the official sanctioning body for the sport. For the next three decades, particularly as the X Games grew in the late 1990s, the sport became more popular but never rose to a “mainstream” level.
“BMX has been a sport of peaks and valleys,” says Nick Adams, Director of Business and New Track Development at USA BMX. “It would seem to get its legs and then plateau for several years.”
Then came the 2008 Olympics. “The advent of BMX in the Olympics has changed the face and culture of the sport,” Adams says. “In addition to the Olympics, BMX is now on college campuses throughout the U.S., and the amount of new facilities being developed to support this growth has been incredible.”
Cities and towns across the country are now starting to realize the untapped potential of BMX in their communities—for a number of reasons:
1. Momentum. With more people exposed to the sport, more interest is stirring, particularly for nontraditional sports that appeal to all ages. “Parks and recreation directors and city officials see the need for programming that differs from the traditional stick-and-ball sports,” Adams says. “Children as young as 2 through adults in their 70s are racing BMX.”
2. Organization. Unlike skateboarding, BMX racing is an organized, competitive activity with a point system, rankings, and a sanctioning body Included in that organization are insurance, administrative support, expert resources, other guidance, and assurance for communities interested in adding a BMX track to their offerings.
3. Revenue. Because BMX racing hinges on competitive events, there is built-in revenue opportunity for track owners and operators. The fees for events and practice time are typically enough to maintain and operate the park, often with some money left over. Added to that are the intangible benefits that hosting larger-scale events at a track can bring—from out-of-towners visiting local businesses and restaurants to increased need for lodging—and these tracks have the potential to be major economic drivers.
The City of DeSoto, Texas, recognized this potential when officials set aside funding for a BMX track. Since the Metroplex opened in 1999, the number of hotels in the area has doubled, and the city saw its return on the investment in just a few years.
With its reputation and history as a cycling venue, the city of Rock Hill, S.C., is also seizing the opportunity to become a national hub for BMX racing. Now in construction, the Novant Health BMX Supercross track is transforming an abandoned brownfield site along the city’s Riverwalk into only the second Olympic-caliber Supercross track in the U.S., and the first built specifically for the general public. The Rock Hill track includes a 32-foot-tall starting hill for professional and Olympic training uses, as well as a smaller starting hill for beginners.
Built with money from a special tax district established in a 2009 bond as well as a naming-rights contribution from Novant Health,
the park joins the award-winning Giordana Velodrome and Rock HillOutdoorCenter in putting the city on the sports-tourism map. Beyond the tourist draw, the city expects the park complex to attract permanent residents as well as serious racers seeking to live near an Olympic-level training facility.
A similar effort is in the works in Austin, Texas, where ESPN has relocated the Summer X Games for at least the next 4 years. Already home to a freestyle BMX park in downtown Austin, the county saw the potential of capitalizing on the growing link to BMX, putting forth nearly $3 million for a new, world-class racing track. Owned by the county but operated by a local nonprofit BMX organization, the new track is also designed to meet varying skill levels.
According to the numbers, it doesn’t look like interest in BMX will be cooling any time soon.
“We have grown to over 70,000 members, and had 650,000 participants compete in nearly 13,000 events last year,” Adams says. “With these high participation numbers, a self-sustaining program, and turnkey facilities being constructed, BMX racing is no longer a secret.”
So, assuming the community interest is already there, how can a city or town determine if a BMX track might be a good fit?
1. Evaluate the competition. How close are other competitive tracks? If the city is seeking to become a BMX hub, being one of five in the area may not be advisable.
2. Assess the land available. Lot size, zoning regulations, accessibility, and many other factors will determine whether a BMX park can work in a given area. Having professionals on board to help with that determination can streamline the process since they know the ins and outs of track design.
3. Assess funding options. As with other public projects, funding for BMX tracks can come from a variety of places, ranging from special bonds and city budgets to private investment.
4. Get help. There are teams of experts who, as former racers, park professionals, and city officials, understand the specific needs of BMX tracks and the passion of those who race and guide track developers through the process. Visit www.usabmx.com to get started.
Mike McIntyre is a former expert BMX racer and now principal for the Action Sport Design team at Stantec, who has been designing BMX race tracks for over a decade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.