Hell on Wheels

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

Outside the Tulsa fairgrounds, 4,500 racers competing in the 2002 Grands pass by the gigantic yellow legs of the Golden Driller.

The 76-foot-tall plaster-and-concrete behemoth has one work-gloved fist pressed into his ribs and the other atop an oil derrick. Kids play on his work boots, adults slip between his legs for a smoke. This icon of the oil industry would look out of place straddling a giant Golden Bicycle, although his stature lends the Grands proper weight. Fitting for the ABA's 25th season, this year's Grands are the biggest ever. There are 584 qualifying races, called motos, on Saturday, before the semifinals and finals on Sunday.

Breanna prepares to blast out of the starting gate.
Troy Fields
Breanna prepares to blast out of the starting gate.
Mandy, Misty and Cindy Nixon take a break between practice races.
Troy Fields
Mandy, Misty and Cindy Nixon take a break between practice races.

Inside the fairgrounds' cavernous tin-roofed building, bulldozers molded 4,500 cubic yards of red dirt into an 1,100-foot M-shaped track. Thousands of racing moms, dads, sisters and brothers line the bleachers on the gray concrete floor around it. Although officials water the track regularly, the air inside the building feels like 10 percent oxygen, 90 percent dirt. Enormous overhead fans on full throttle can't remove the reeking smell of boiling dust, rubber and funnel cake.

Walking becomes hazardous here. When racers aren't competing, they ride their bikes in endless interior loops, colliding into other riders, skidding to avoid spectators balancing camcorders and chili dogs.

The announcer's voice revs to auctioneer's pace in describing the motos. Riders form rows a few yards behind the starting gate on a dirt hill. In qualifying rounds, officials start one moto before the preceding one is finished, providing constant motion. Riders feed off the momentum, knowing that once they hit the gate, they won't have to wait long for the green light.

All that changes when Breanna takes her starting position to qualify for her fifth Grands main event appearance. A girl in the moto before her flips her bike on the first turn and crashes onto her back. Three workers in blue scrubs grab a stretcher and scramble toward the girl. With the crowd hushed for the first time, the only noise comes from the overhead fans. For Breanna, the wait is excruciating.

Finally, the crew slides the girl onto the stretcher and slowly carries her off the track, signaling that she's okay. The audience cheers and the announcer starts up again.

Breanna is in her first competition in the 17-27 age group, pitting her against more riders than she's used to. She's also sick. The previous day, she woke up with a sore throat, and her voice was gone by that afternoon. But when the gate drops, sounding like a shotgun blast as it slaps the dirt, she's the first one out and the first to finish, qualifying her for Sunday's main event on the 20-inch wheels.

She arrived here three days earlier, driving nine hours in an RV with her friend's family. They're staying in a camper colony on the fairgrounds' expansive parking lot. Her mother and sisters are in a nearby hotel, but Eddie is back in Angleton. It's the first time he's ever missed a race.

Cindy won't say what happened. In fact, she refuses to talk to a reporter at all, and she has instructed Misty and Mandy to do the same. "Everything is perfect" is the last thing Mandy says about her family, a statement as sincere as it is true.

For Breanna, the Grands are a hunting ground in her quest to turn pro. That means she'll have to pay up to $100 to enter races, but she could walk away with about $500 each time. That's not much, but it would help pay for college. She hopes to go to Montgomery County Community College next year for a physical therapy degree. She just needs to find a team that will let her ride pro.

She thought she had a chance to be picked up by the Hardcore O'Neal team, but now she's heard rumors that possibility is out. Word quickly spread about Cindy's outburst in Pearland the weekend before. Manager Glen McKinney says he's still considering her but that no team wants to be associated with someone who acts like Cindy.

So Breanna began introducing herself to as many managers as possible. She found Jimmy McNeal, the black founder and CEO of the Brooklyn-based Bulldog Bikes. Sponsored by the hip-hop magazine The Source, Bulldog prides itself on its roster's cultural diversity in a sport still dominated by Anglos. McNeal calls Bulldog the first urban bike company in the history of BMX.

He travels the fairgrounds via skateboard and greets visitors with a soul-brother handshake. McNeal says Breanna is a strong possibility to become Bulldog's second female pro, complimenting the girl on her ability to sell herself.

But silence is still the rule for Cindy with her daughter. Breanna stops to take a picture of the other Nixon girls in the crowd, and their mother comes closer to try to see the photographer. When she recognizes her as Breanna, Cindy pivots and leaves without a word.

After that, the sick Breanna returns to the camper and sleeps from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. She feels no better when she awakes for the finals. She watches Mandy win No. 1 in her age group. Misty will take No. 2 later that day.

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