Hell on Wheels

Breanna Brand rides out the legacy of Frog Town and family splits in her feisty race toward the BMX finish line

Much closer to home, Breanna entered a race at a Pearland track and whipped her male counterparts. One of the spectators was a 32-year-old metal processing equipment salesman, Dwayne Ivy, who had started racing at 13. Despite his salt-and-pepper hair, his lean racer's frame and broad shoulders show the guy is still at home on a bike.

Ivy had formed the Hurricane Racing team, drawing 16 of the best bikers from the area for an American Bicycle Association competition. It was ranked eighth nationally out of 61 division teams going into the Grands.

He liked what he saw in the young woman's racing abilities. When he found out that she had two skilled riding sisters, that only sweetened the deal. Ivy made his offer for the three Nixon girls to join.

Cindy Nixon says she gets her home decorating ideas from magazines.
Troy Fields
Cindy Nixon says she gets her home decorating ideas from magazines.
Misty (top) and Mandy show off their awards in the cramped trailer.
Troy Fields
Misty (top) and Mandy show off their awards in the cramped trailer.

And their mother flatly rejected it.

In negotiations that could make an NFL agent envious, Cindy insisted that Ivy also pay for their uniforms. He agreed. She demanded that the team pick up the costs for their bike parts and even their national race entry fees. Ivy accepted.

Breanna was on her way up the BMX riding circuit.

Thirty-one years ago, filmmaker Bruce Brown set out to capture the spirit of motocross racing, interviewing celebrity daredevils like the late actor Steve McQueen for a documentary, On Any Sunday.

While the film was made to show the thrilling motocross lifestyle, the opening images of Southern California kids imitating their heroes on 20-inch Schwinn Stingrays had an unanticipated effect. These racers had been competing on dirt tracks for several years, calling their sport "bicycle motocross," or BMX.

On Any Sunday did for BMX what Saturday Night Fever did for disco. Before the film left the theaters, boys from Seattle to Sarasota had their own trick bikes, and BMX was no longer just a SoCal thing.

In 1973, the National Bicycle Association formed to sanction races. It attracted the national media, sponsors and rival organizations. Founded in 1977, the American Bicycle Association remains the largest sanctioning BMX organization, with 60,000 members. They compete year-round, with thousands arriving for the premier event, the Grand Nationals, held in Tulsa since 1998.

But while female racers have been around for years, BMX remains largely a boys' club. With only 4,000 females in the ABA, women tend to be overlooked by big sponsors. At the pro level, there's virtually no money for them. Alice Jung, the top female pro, won $700 at last year's Grands, compared to the $15,000 purse that went to the male champ, Warwick Stevenson.

Yet most male pros don't make much, either. Only a handful have the potential for $100,000 a year, according to Transworld BMX associate editor James Ayres. The rest are "getting by -- and 'getting by' is probably being generous," he says.

To supplement their pay, a lot of pros compete in the more television-friendly downhill racing and freestyle events. "You definitely don't turn pro to become rich," Ayres says. "If you're a girl and you turn pro, the last thing I would think about is the money."

Kim Fisher, a Scottsdale personal trainer and BMX fan, has been fighting the gender inequities. She created the Racegirl clothing line, selling her shirts at races and attracting a strong female following.

Fisher founded the first female league, Racegirl BMX. She created a red-carpeted Racegirl pit area at the Grands, open to all female racers. Girls pass through beaded curtains and lounge on beanbag chairs between races.

Fisher met Breanna at a recent race and was impressed enough to become her co-sponsor. She also made Breanna a Racegirl Ambassador, spreading the good word about BMX "girl power."

Breanna's membership with the Hurricane racers helped offset the costs of the sport, but the 16 riders compete against some teams that have twice the budget and sponsors who provide airfare as well as free equipment. Initially, Hurricane riders looked like urchins until the $3,000 arrived for the team's 65 jerseys. Bikes cost about $1,000 each, and each girl races two kinds: those with standard 20-inch wheels and the cruiser category's 24-inch models.

The deal that Breanna's mother brokered with Ivy worked out well -- the team owner counted the girls among his best amateurs. Going into this year's Grands, Breanna and Misty ranked third in their age groups. Mandy ranked sixth.

For these girls, the challenges extended far beyond the course. While the extreme biking crowd banks on the tattoos-and-piercing rebel image, BMX views itself as a wholesome sport that can have parents racing alongside their children. As their teammates would find out when the Grand Nationals approached, the Nixons hardly nurtured any notions of pristine, predictable family life.

Ivy says he steered clear of the family's problems. Regardless, with the Nixons shunning telephones, he couldn't have contacted them at home. "They're the only people [on the team] I can't get ahold of," he said a few months before the big race. "And they're probably some of the people I need to get ahold of the most."

He lives more than an hour away from their home and has never been there. But even those nearby haven't ventured into the strange place called Frog Town.

Pink painted words on a defunct metal water tank tell visitors they've reached Frog Town, population one million.

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