Take 5: Simon Cragg, amateur AMA Nationals racer and proud new papa
At just nine weeks old, Bear Cragg already knows the rumbling hum of a dirt bike engine.
“When he was in the womb I’d watch motocross on the television and my wife was always around, so I think he got used to the sound of motocross before he was even born,” Bear’s father, Simon Cragg, told me while driving solo across the flat, hot plains just east of the Colorado-Kansas border in late July. “He’s young (and) still keeping us awake.”
Sounds like he’s taking after dad. At 40 years old, Cragg is a first-time father from England who gave up motocross racing for about 15 years to become an attorney. He moved from New York City to Summit County with his wife in 2011, and, after falling in love with all things Colorado, the two never left. A few years before then, he rediscovered his love of moto racing and soon started training for the big show: the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship, held every August in hot-and-humid Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.
This week marks Cragg’s first trip to Hurricane Mills, also home to country singer Loretta Lynn’s ranch — one of the most exclusive motocross tracks on the continent. When racing begins today, he faces a fierce field of just 1,500 amateur racers, whittled down from a collection of more than 20,000 hopefuls after dozens of local and regional qualifiers.
Bear won’t make it to Nationals — the car ride is about 20 hours, Cragg estimated, thanks to a bulky combination gear trailer-bedroom towed behind his truck — but he’s already seen his dad race. He was there at the Thunder Valley AMA Regionals in Morrison earlier this June, when the elder Cragg qualified for the men’s 40-plus division at Nationals and barely missed qualifying for the 30-plus division.
Cragg pulled into Hurricane Mills last weekend, just in time to get a few practice laps before races today, Friday and Saturday. During his first extended absence from home, he talked with the Summit Daily sports desk about his baby boy, the always-changing motocross scene and why training in a super-heated garage is the next-best thing to living in Tennessee.
Summit Daily News: You’re on your way to Nationals right now. Are you traveling solo?
Simon Cragg: Yeah, I am. My wife is back home, Claire, and we just had a baby boy, Bear. He’s not really ready to make the trip. It would have been very difficult to travel all that way and then be in the heat and humidity with him. I’m traveling on my own now, but there are a few other guys who have qualified for this race from Colorado. This race in the amateur motocross world is the biggest competition in the world. It’s based in America, and you have to go through the local qualifier, then the regional qualifier, then you get to go to Nationals. All of those are in the U.S., but we get lots of overseas riders, lots of international riders.
SDN: It’s huge, true, but it’s not the only large-scale race in the U.S. Why did this one make your bucket list at 40 years old?
SC: There are other events, but they’re one-offs, right? You can show up and try to qualify, but if you don’t you have a long drive home with nothing to show. I think there are over 20,000 entrants across all the ages in the area qualifiers, and then that gets whittled down through the months to about 1,500 entries. There are 42 riders in each class and I’m one of the 42 in the 40-plus class. I turned 40 last year, and this has been one of those races I’ve wanted to do ever since I first heard about this.
SDN: This race is huge in the moto world. Talk about the track: no one else gets to race on it during the year, right?
SC: Yes, the other reason this is a unique race is that they only hold one race on this track. It’s a very level playing field — no one gets to practice on this track. And, of course, it’s at the home of Loretta Lynn, the country western singer. This is the 36th edition of the race, and 36 years ago the founders were looking to set up a unique course on a level playing field. (The founder) wanted it to be hot, humid and nasty, and he found this place in Tennessee. I think in the past she (Loretta Lynn) would hold small state fairs, but she has everything there: swimming pools, a creek, everything. It seemed like the perfect place for this.
SDN: You’re hardly new to motocross. How did you go from racing overseas to racing in Colorado?
SC: When I was a kid growing up racing in England, I raced in the schoolboy — the amateur — nationals. Then I left and got a job, became an attorney, moved to London and then moved to New York, and I didn’t have a bike for 15 years. A few years ago, Claire and I moved with our dog to Breckenridge. It was typical — we stayed for the winter, then stayed for the summer, then stayed forever. We ended up buying a place in Breckenridge and realized in the summer time that everyone has dirt bikes on the back of their trucks. I was wondering, “Where do they ride?” I wanted to know.
SDN: How long did it take to get back in the groove of racing? Fifteen years is a long time to be off the bike and track.
SC: A friend of Claire’s introduced me to a chap in Breck and he rips. He loaned me his bike a couple of times and I was hooked all over again. I wasn’t racing at the time, and then I met someone at Thunder Valley, the national track out in Morrison. I was out there just messing around on a training day — it’s so much fun out there, with cookouts and everything — and I saw that there was a race happening. I figured I’d get back into racing in the end of 2014 and ended up winning it. I was hooked all over again on racing.
The following year, I heard about the Loretta Lynn Amateur National Championships. I figured that would be a real experience to make it to that, like being able to enter the Dew Tour. If you’re a regular skier or snowboarder and you make that, it’s a big deal.
SDN: Had the sport itself changed from the time you were racing in England?
SC: I found a riding coach and he got me on the right track. And yes, motocross technique has changed a lot since when I first started. He showed me what to do with some one-on-one training, and I was all set last season, in 2015, to qualify. Unfortunately I was trail riding and had a nasty cash: I tore my rotator cuff and ended up with knee surgery, so it was lights out on motocross for the rest of the season. My wife and I love to get out — hiking, mountain biking, all of it — and I couldn’t do any of it. I had a fairly miserable summer last year, and then the snow came and I couldn’t ride much. The tracks around here are closed most of the winter.
SDN: Talk about living and training for motocross in Summit. Are you able to train much locally, or do you have to travel for the right environment?
SC: You couldn’t ask for more perfect weather in the mountains — low 70s, no humidity. But, unfortunately, I looked up the weather for the Nationals and they have 90-degree weather with 90-percent humidity. There’s just nowhere I can ride that has that humidity, even in the Front Range. My garage gets pretty warm in the summer, so I put a whole house humidifier in there and cranked it to the max. Through the winter I was training on a bike trainer — it was a mountain bike that I converted to be a stationary bike — and so I’d crank out an hour and a half on that every day in my garage. It’s a little hokey, but that’s what I came up with.
SDN: How long is the motocross season in Colorado? I can’t imagine there’s a ton of time to race when you’re recovering from injury, even when you have a garage humidity rig.
SC: It happens again in the spring. I was biking in the garage to stay in shape, but I still wanted to qualify for the Nationals and get out to Tennessee, and I needed to race more. Thing is, you can be a practice-track hero until you’re blue in the face, but you need to be training with people. It’s just that raw, raw competition that pushes your body a little harder, pushes your mind a little harder, and it’s hard to simulate that on your own.
SDN: Did you expect to qualify for Thunder Valley?
SC: I think I did, just based on my local state races (in Brush, Colorado). I recognized the guys in class and was placing in top three for almost every race. I always had a good chance of placing top six in the area qualifiers to get into regionals, which I was happy about.
But, once I got to regionals, to be honest, it was a crapshoot. The guy who ended up winning there was actually from Mexico — he drove all the way from Mexico to Thunder Valley for that race. It was an unknown for me, really. You had so many guys coming from out of the state, so you had people coming from Texas and Wyoming, even a few from California and Utah — the neighboring states. There were 30 or so in my class and the race format was a three-moto format, with three races over two days. They add the total points together and that’s how you qualify.
SDN: Talk about the first day of regionals. You were still racing in the 30-plus and 40-plus divisions, right?
SC: Yes. The morning of the first day I was in fourth place for the 30-plus and had a bad crash. Luckily nothing was broken, but I was very badly winded. It was a horrible crash. Sometimes, you pick up, you run to your bike, you start it up and you’re ready to go. You’re just frustrated with yourself. A crash like this, well, I over-jumped a single jump — I mistimed the thing — and got tossed. These bikes have about a foot of suspension travel, and I stayed on the bike until I got hit with the rebound. The crossbar caught me in the chest and knocked my wind out.
By the next day I felt like a new man. I took second in the 40-plus and then won the next 40-plus. In the 30-plus, in my first two races, I was like 20-something. I didn’t even know where I was because of that large crash. In the second day, I think I started in fifth and faded back to 12th or 13th, and then the last one I finished 8th. Although I would have liked to qualify for two classes that wasn’t going to happen, but the goal was to make one, and that’s what I did.
SDN: Regionals was a big race, but Nationals is a whole different animal. How are you preparing for that on your long drive to Tennessee?
SC: You have unknown competition, the track might be prepped or groomed different, and then everyone is on edge. Everyone wants to do well, and even in the older classes people put a lot of pressure on themselves. They’re taking risks they wouldn’t otherwise take. There’s a fair degree of chaos, especially on the opening laps. You have 42 riders on the line and everyone is riding elbow to elbow — you can imagine 42 bikes roaring into a turn that only accommodates eight or 12 bikes. It’s interesting when you have all that on the track at once.
SDN: Any nerves yet?
SC: Well, I remember when I was a boy I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well. I’m sure I’ll be tense on that first race, but really, today, I don’t have anything to prove out there. I’ve already made it. The thing with these is that anyone can race here. I went through the entry list and recognized 15 names of guys in my division who used to be professional racers. Back in the day, they were lightning fast. They might not ride professionally, but they still ride every day. A lot of them are riding coaches these days, or they have practice track facilities. There are so many ex-professionals here, so if I finish in the top 20 I believe I’ll be doing exceptionally well.
SDN: And finally, shout-outs to your sponsors.
SC: Coco Ridge, based in Breckenridge and Denver, they’re my title sponsor. I’ve been drinking it personally for 10 years and it really is better than Red Bull or Monster. It’s a coconut alternative to energy drinks.
I also ride for Novik gloves. This is my second season with them, and I was using their gloves before I got sponsored. I love the fact they’re based out of Silverthorne. Motocross itself is really based in Summit, California, so it’s nice to see a company like Novik step up and compete from Silverthorne, from Summit, Colorado.
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