Pre-race practice started promptly at 8:00 am Sunday morning of race day. The beginner MiniMotos were up first. Slowly, one by one, chainsaw-like sounds cut through the air as diminutive motorcycles and their space-alien looking pilots scooted on to the racetrack. This race day was the opening round for the MiniMoto USA 2013 race series.
My 8-year-old daughter, Emi, would be in the next practice group for Mini GP 50 Modified Jr class—that’s a mouthful to say, junior racers on mini bikes. This year she’s racing a Cobra CX-50 Sr, a top-end, 50cc water-cooled dirt bike fitted with PMT slicks. As she left our pit on the Cobra, I reminded her to take it easy with cold tires and a cold track. Off she went onto the go-kart track; I set about preparing her air-cooled DM Midi-moto for the MiniMoto Jr. class practice session.
What is MiniMoto racing?
Ever wonder why the best racers in the world are from Italy and Spain? Have you noticed the new crop of American talent from California—Cameron Beaubier, Elena Myers, and Anthony Alonso, to name a few? Well, there’s a not-so-quiet revolution happening in California where, just like in Italy and Spain, kids start out by racing MiniMoto. In fact, in Italy and Spain MiniMoto racing is as common as little league is here.
MiniMoto racing is road racing with small-displacement motorcycles. The term “mini” is used since the bikes are smaller, the engines are smaller, and the race courses are smaller—typically go-kart tracks. While popular with adults, MiniMotos are really well-suited for kids.
Kids Racing Motorcycles
Kids on motorcycles?!? Isn’t that dangerous—and at the same time cool. While the common perception that motorcycling is dangerous can be true—especially for new adult riders on the roadway, this isn’t the case for kids racing on closed circuits. Let me explain:
All sports are dangerous whether it’s baseball, football, gymnastics, swimming etc. If it’s a sport, it’s dangerous. No one pitches an 80-mile-an-hour fast ball at a six-year old. Just as a little leaguer starts out with T-ball and gradually moves up to faster pitches, a beginner rider starts on a small and low-to-the ground motorcycle, like a pocket bike or Yamaha PW-50. These are 40-50cc air-cooled, two-stroke motorcycles. In baseball, helmets and pads are mandatory. Same in motorcycling: helmets, armor, and protective clothing such as leathers are used.
While there are many cheap pocket bikes on the market, MiniMoto-ers tend to go with well-known and reliable brands such as DM, GRC, Blata, and Polini. At MiniMoto USA, the organizers have taken this a step further by creating spec classes covering beginner, junior, and pro riders. The specifications are for allowable certain motorcycle brands, cylinder heads, exhaust port restrictor plates, and tires. The goal is to put kids on equally competitive machines where horsepower becomes secondary to racing skills. A side effect is that the same machine can be used for all three classes where a simple change of the restrictor plate enhances the engine’s performance.
I’ve seen kids as young as three on motorcycles. And have seen competitive four-year olds. In Europe, you must be eight to race a MiniMoto. I started my daughter at 6 1/2. Adults can ride MiniMotos too, so there is no upper age limit in the Unlimited and Vet classes. Typically, kids ride MiniMotos until 10 or 11 when they move on to Honda NSRs or NSFs. Another goal of MiniMoto USA is to keep the kids on the MiniMotos for as long as possible, mirroring how European clubs run their series. In Europe, kids don’t move out of the MiniMoto class until they are eleven. For MiniMoto USA, kids up to 15 years old can compete in Junior and Pro classes.
If you want your son or daughter to ride a motorcycle, he or she will need to know how to ride a bicycle—without training wheels. It’s best to start kids on a balance bike that’s pushed with both feet flat on the ground. If your child is old enough to walk, he’s probably ready for a balance bike like a Strider.
Beyond the MiniMoto classes, there are other classes for bigger bikes: Mini GP Stock for NSRs, NSFs, and YSRs; Mini GP Modified for 50cc two-stroke water-cooled or 100cc four-stroke air-cooled bikes; GP65 for 75cc two-stroke water-cooled and 150cc four stroke air-cooled bikes; Formula Moto for 110cc two-stroke water-cooled, 150cc four-stroke water-cooled, and 230cc four-stroke air cooled bikes. There are also classes for 125cc two-strokes, 250cc and 450cc four-stroke engines for riders 12-16 years and up.
So What’s it Cost?
For $200, your son or daughter can learn to ride a MiniMoto motorcycle through MiniMoto USA. This is what I did with Emi. This fee covers the cost of the motorcycle, safety equipment, fuel, and instruction. What’s great about it is that you don’t have to invest in a motorcycle and equipment just to find out that your child loves finger-painting instead. Some 90 percent of kids who go through the program really enjoy it.
What’s it like for a first-time rider? “I didn’t think I’d like it,” Emi said. “But dad wanted me to try it, so I did. And you know what? I really liked it!” The truth is that she enjoyed the sense of freedom that she got from riding on the track. At first, she wasn’t interested in racing—just going around the track.
To be honest, this is not a cheap sport. If you’ve done track days or club road-raced with an organization like AFM, CCS or WERA, you know that maintaining a track bike isn’t cheap. New MiniMoto bikes start around $1,300 and go upward from there. While used bikes are cheaper, you’ll need to be mechanically capable of getting them in running and reliable condition. I purchased Emi’s bikes new through Mid-South MiniMoto (818/219-3880). Talk with Mid-South’s Stoney Landers before you purchase, so you can be sure your purchase fits your needs. (Stoney also runs MiniMoto USA.)
Other expenses include race and practice-session fees—not to mention a van or trailer to get you and your equipment to your destination and sleep in. When I started, I had a Subaru Outback, a 10-by-10 canopy, a tent, and a pocket bike. Over time that’s morphed into an R.V, trailer, a larger canopy, plus a handful of bikes. Together with another family we are called EZ Racing. This year we picked up our first sponsor, Tidemark.
One aspect of MiniMoto racing that keeps me coming back is the community. While from various walks of life, families are bound together by our kids racing. We do get quite a few adult racers too, and camaraderie is built between racers young and old, both on and off track.
Back to the Action
This is the second full season that my daughter is competing in MiniMoto. Last season, she took the Overall NorCal Junior Championship. So this year, she’s definitely the kid with a target on her back.
That Sunday, Emi won all three of her races. She won two MiniMoto Jr races, and the real excitement was in the Modified 50 Jr race. Emi got the hole shot on her Cobra. A boy named Errol on a KTM SX50 quickly moved into second and chased her all race looking for an opportunity to pass. It never came. Going into the final corner, Errol charged, closing to within a foot of Emi’s rear tire. Emi kept her pace and got on the throttle early enough and opened a small gap heading onto the straight. While Errol charged again, he didn’t have enough speed to pass. Emi took the checkers and the race win.
So, if you’re wondering if your kid is the next Rossi, or just looking for a great father-daughter / mother-son (mother-daughter!) bonding experience this summer in a sport you love, why not give MiniMoto a try? If you do come out for a visit, be sure to swing by the EZ Racing pit and say hello.
Paul Van Cleave lives in San Francisco. He introduced his daughter, Emi, to motorcycling: first aboard his VFR, and then with her own minimoto. His background is software—not racing. Since then he’s earned the moniker pit dad.