by Mitchell Kirk Pharos-Tribune
---- — Before this weekend, the loudest engine you were likely to hear at France Park would be that of a lawnmower.
On Saturday, however, the park was roaring as it held its first all-terrain vehicle and off-road motorcycle races, an event park staff, competitors and spectators are calling a success they hope will return next year.
Zach Abram and Joe Patton, cousins who traveled from Bloomington to race Saturday, rested underneath an awning set up near their trucks and bikes after their race was over.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had on a bike,” Abram said of the 8.5-mile track that took him through France Park. “It was really fast, some technical stuff, some sand and a lot of rocks. They kept some logs in the trail, which I really like.”
Patton praised the track for its variety.
“There were a lot of hills and rocks and creeks,” he said. “It was really ideal.”
Abram took 13th place in his race and Patton took eighth. The two said they do it for fun and are glad they’re able to split gas when traveling to take part in their mutual hobby.
Patton said he wished more parks would open up to races like the one at France Park.
“Half the time, we’re out in a big open cornfield,” he said. “This is nice. Families can come out and enjoy it, and people can stay the weekend.”
France Park Superintendent Lucas Beach could hardly contain his excitement over how the event was going.
“I can’t even explain it,” he said. “It’s larger than I ever dreamed possible. Actually seeing all 400 dirtbikers in one spot, the sound, the enthusiasm from the crowd, it’s not something I could have envisioned even if I wanted to.”
With an estimated 1,400 to 1,800 people coming out solely for the races, bringing total park attendance to around 3,000 people Saturday, Beach went on to say it was the largest event he’s seen in Cass County.
“It’s blown everything I’ve seen out of the water,” he said.
Beach said he is looking forward to bringing the races back next year and would like to explore turning it into a two-day event with the possibility of having it televised.
Chris Douglas, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based professional dirt bike racer with FAR Husqvarna, could be found sitting on the edge of his bike trailer after his race, his face caked with dirt and sweat.
The 25-year-old said he has been racing for the the last 10 years and currently travels in a national series with venues in New York, Florida and other states east of the Mississippi River.
Douglas said he found the track at France Park to be “pretty fast,” with wide trails and a lot of straight-aways that created little separation between riders.
Although he had to quit the race after losing his rear brakes on his third lap, he seemed grateful he got to experience at the park and is looking forward to his race in Attica today.
“I really like this property,” he said, looking out at the park. Like Patton, he said most of the tracks he races on are on farms.
Gary Cunningham, owner of Cunningham Racing in Greensburg, watched his 22-year-old son, Kevin, race his ATV from the sidelines. From a spectator’s point of view, he said the park was “awesome.”
“I hope they let us come back,” he said. “Couldn’t ask for a nicer joint.”
Among the rows of trucks, cars, semi trailers, RVs and tents, racers and spectators crowded around clipboards hanging from PVC pipe decked in racing flags to check the results of the races. Not too far was a tented command center set up by AMA MAXC Racing, the company that organized the race. Inside, employees called the race from a P.A. system.
Cassie Howard, who works in registration for AMA MAXC Racing, said employees called course marshals follow competitors on the track and report real-time updates via radio to those calling the race in the tent. They also call in when riders are injured and when their bikes and ATVs break down.
Howard went on to say she though the park was a qualified venue to hold the races.
“The property is really taken care of,” she said. “We’re really blessed we found this place. We’re hoping to come back.”
Before the final race of the day, Joshua Strausbaugh, an 28-year-old ATV rider out of Cincinnati, Ohio, sat watching on the mass of ATVs on the parking lot that overlooks France Park’s swimming lake. He said he’s been riding since 2008 when he got out of the military.
“I’ve been addicted ever since,” he said.
Strausbaugh went on to say his strategy would be to get his first lap in, guaranteeing him points, and then go as fast as he could from there on out.
“Mainly just watch out for trees,” he said.
Brian Bennett, owner of Unabiker, a dirt bike parts shop outside of Walton, participated both as a sponsor and as a racer in the event Saturday.
“It’s awesome we’re able to do this here,” he said, adding that he grew up visiting France Park frequently. “It’s awesome I’m able to do this in my backyard.”
Mitchell Kirk is a staff reporter at the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5130 or email@example.com.