Haley LeClair picks the path less traveled—the route with only a few tire ruts. The 14-year-old motocross rider’s gloved hand twists the handle of her Yamaha YZ125 dirt bike. She revs the engine.
Four other motocross bikes growl beside her. The Jon Myrick Memorial Race is about to begin at the Off Road Ranch in Norfolk on June 3, 2018.
A small metal gate drops. The competitors bolt. Only fumes and dust linger behind. LeClair switches to third gear and feels the heat from the motor on her thighs.
A helmet covers her long brown hair, jersey pants protect her legs, and a thick long-sleeved shirt clings to her sturdy 5-foot-8-inch frame straddling the black-and-blue bike.
Leading the pack out of the first turn, LeClair is off to a good start in the five-lap race. She glances behind her. Shatterproof goggles protect her green eyes from sweat and flying debris.
She accelerates, faster and faster.
A Motocross Family
LeClair recalls a time when shifting seemed difficult. She discovered the sport two and a half years ago when a family friend invited her to watch a race in Lincoln.
The chill and happy environment immediately appealed to her. LeClair already loved fixing cars with her father, so being around bikes felt natural.
Plus, LeClair has always been a tomboy, ready to take on sports dominated by males. In elementary school, she played football as a nose guard and center. In the Best of the Midwest Motocross Championship Series, she estimates there are about 10 female riders compared to more than 40 male riders.
“I wanted to prove a point that girls can do it,” LeClair says.
She didn’t have to convince her mother, Carrie Novak, who supported her right away.
Within a week, the teenager soon learned how to shift her new 2003 yellow Suzuki RM125, but not without some hiccups along the way. LeClair didn’t shift correctly on a sketchy gravel road, the bike died, and she wiped out.
A gravel rock stuck in her knee, requiring urgent care and four stitches. Although LeClair couldn’t ride for two weeks, she hopped back in the saddle as soon as she could.
Then, during the 2016 Best of the Midwest at Abbott Motocross Park in Lincoln, LeClair struggled to start her bike on a cold October day. She met her soon-to-be stepfather, Dan Salmons, who showed her how to kick start it.
Salmons asked Novak out for a date and soon LeClair was part of a blended biker family. Salmons’ son, Jakob, races and helped LeClair pick up a few tips and tricks. Her 10-year-old brother now has a pit bike, too.
Last June at the Jon Myrick Memorial Race, at the end of the second lap, Kyla Blumenschein passes her on a bigger bike. LeClair—tired and hot—is left behind in a cloud of dust. Nevertheless, she celebrates her second-place finish with hugs from her mother and stepdad.
LeClair’s next race ends her ambitions for the day. On a jump, she knocks into another racer.
Novak watches from the sidelines; her stomach drops as LeClair tumbles to the ground. Salmons rushes to check on his stepdaughter. Novak expels a sigh of relief as her daughter stands.
“I would never have dreamed of doing what she is doing,” Novak says.
LeClair wants to finish the race, but her bike is wrecked. The throttle cable is trashed, the bars are bent, and the air box is gutted from the other bike’s handlebars.
Repair of her motocross bike becomes another learning opportunity. Salmons teaches her how to fix up the Yamaha. Being mechanically savvy enough to repair your own bike is another critical part of the sport.
Risk of Injury
Although concerned about the risk of injury, Novak realizes accidents could happen even if her daughter played sports such as softball, volleyball, or soccer. The most common injuries in motocross are concussions, breaks, and tears.
The motocross athlete’s chest protector stops a handlebar from smashing into ribs, a gray and green neck brace ensures a neck isn’t snapped, and kneepads keep broken bones at bay. A 10-year study by a Pennsylvania trauma center (presented to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ national conference in 2016), however, concluded that many injuries on the rough terrain could be life-threatening even with safety gear.
“It’s not if it happens, but when it happens,” LeClair says of injuries. Thankfully, she has never suffered a serious injury from the sport.
As a 15-year-old sophomore at Papillion-La Vista High School, LeClair conditions herself for motocross with shot put and discus. She hopes the exercise will strengthen her riding to the next level.
“It’s so much fun. It’s such a rush every time I’m on the bike,” she says.
LeClair has no qualms about taking risks, even in a male-dominated sport like motocross.
“I’m down for girls stepping up and doing what they want to do,” she says. “We don’t want boys to define who we are and what we do.”
Visit bestofmidwestmx.com for more information.
This article was printed in the May edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.