Hell on Wheels

Breanna prepares to blast out of the starting gate.
Troy Fields

Standing on her pedals, Breanna Brand drills a hole into the starting light with her eyes. Her bike, the light, the track -- these are the only things in the 17-year-old's world right now. Her dark brown hair pulled into a tight bun, her fingers locked around her handlebars, she doesn't look at the seven other racers. She doesn't want to think about who she's up against.

About 4,500 BMX racers from around the world are packed into Tulsa's Expo Square. Every race this year has led up to the American Bicycle Association's 2002 Grand Nationals. Breanna is ready to make up for her past Grands. In 2000, another rider slammed into her on the first jump, sending her home with a cast on her wrist rather than a trophy. Last year, she took second.

She's stronger now, though. She's been training hard. Squats and sprints that strengthen and tone her five-foot-five-inch, 125-pound frame.

In the vast arena, racers hear the encouraging roar from throngs of proud parents and other relatives lining the bleachers. But her mind tries to distance itself from thoughts of her family. For the first time ever, her stepfather isn't here. And who knows where her real dad is. She hasn't seen her brother, a former bike racer himself, since he left home years ago.

The starter's amplified voice bellows through the arena: Set 'em up

She's going to burst out of the gate. She's going to take the first jump and soar.

On the gate

Breanna is concentrating on the starting light. And, unknown to the teen, the bleached-blond woman in the first row of the stands is staring at her. The spectator's black-polished fingernails dig nervously into her palms. She slides to the edge of her seat and leans in, ready to yell for her daughter, for this racer who fled a trailer-house existence in secluded Frog Town near Angleton.

Riders readywatch the light

At this instant, Breanna can't afford to think about family or even first place. She'll just focus on the light.

Those in the bike racing world who know about Breanna also know about Cindy Nixon. Mention Breanna's name, and everyone from track owners to fellow athletes gives unsolicited descriptions of how good a kid she is: student council, Key Club, cross-country and track teams, part-time telemarketing job. Then, following in hushed tones is the inevitable epilogue:

You know about her mother, right?

By all accounts, Cindy had always been somewhat erratic. She had isolated her children in a trailer in the middle of nowhere and didn't particularly give a damn for outsiders or their notions of child-rearing.

Breanna had her mother's athletic blood. Cindy attended Texas A&M on basketball and academic scholarships and taught high school math in the Lake Jackson area south of Houston. When Breanna was four months old, her mother divorced her father, a construction worker. She was with her then-boyfriend, welder Eddie Nixon, when she says the ex-husband kidnapped Breanna.

Cindy immediately quit her teaching job and, with Eddie's help, worked with authorities to track down her daughter. Too upset to wait by the phone at home, Cindy and Eddie acted on their one sure clue: The ex was involved in building communications towers, so the couple called construction companies who did those kinds of projects. Putting their lives on hold for 21 months, they wound up driving from job site to job site searching for information. Cindy says they finally closed in on him near Jackson, Tennessee. They tracked Breanna down to the home of one of her father's girlfriends. At the end of their search, Cindy and Eddie found Jesus as well as Breanna. Her father terminated his parental rights in exchange for leniency, they say.

Breanna rode home to Texas with her mom and the man who would become her stepfather. Ecstatic, Cindy sang hymns the whole way back to their hot-pink trailer.

Years later, Breanna would begin to think more about her biological father. She was even tempted to try to track him down; she believes he's living near Dallas.

"I'm not dead set on it right now," she says, with a hint of country accent. "I wouldn't mind seeing him one day, to see what he looks like."

She was too young then to remember much about him. She just knows him as a man who risked a lot to steal her and gave her up to save himself.

But for now, there is a more pressing matter for the teen: trying to win the elusive Grands. As a young kid, she watched older brother Brandon begin his BMX competition, ranking well at the state level. Ever since he was ten, Brandon had built tracks in the backyard for solo runs. And he eventually drew a crowd to his practices: Breanna and her younger sisters, Misty and Mandy.  

The Nixons knew their girls were hooked. Cindy served as chief trainer, overseeing demanding regimens but insisting that the kids pursue the sport only as long as they were interested. Before long the couple was devoting their time and money to taking the kids to meets as far away as California.

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.

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.

Nestled beside a swamp off a quiet country road, Frog Town is hard to find and impossible to forget. Before you enter, your last sign of civilization is a white stucco gas station and convenience store that seems to ask, Do you really have any business around here?

Those who carry on find themselves driving past grazing cattle and over a rickety one-lane wooden bridge with half its guardrails missing. Spanish moss dripping from live oaks and boggy water along the unpaved road are solid warnings that nature still rules around Frog Town. A flood a few years back overtook the bridge and left families stranded for 19 days.

Frog Town, as the Nixons call home, looks like a Hobby Lobby and a junkyard exploded and the debris mated on the way down. Cindy says her decorating ideas came from magazines, but none of the cookie-cutter beauty in Better Homes and Gardens rivals her singular vision.

Wooden planks form the route to the Nixons' front yard, which displays rocking horses, knee-high mailboxes, discarded lawn mowers, fishing rods and segments of white picket fences.

On the way to the blue house trailer, visitors duck beneath white lace, bird cages and potted plants hanging from almost every tree limb in the forest of their yard. Christmas lights outline painted wooden boards nailed to trees and carrying messages like "Frog Dance Tonite at 8," "No City Slickers" and "God Laughs in Flowers." On a tree above a clothesline holding pink old-timey britches, a sign implores, "Bless My Bloomers." Similar signage points out landmarks like Mosquito Meadow and Toad Abode. Painted doors lean against some of the trees. On one is the Christmas favorite Frosty, beneath the words "In the meadow, we can build a snowman."

A bathtub serves as an outdoor goldfish aquarium. A sign pokes out of it saying, "Catch and Release." The only things under lock and key are the bicycles, the Nixons' most valuable possessions.

Chief among Frog Town's self-ordained ordinances is "Thou shall not covet." This includes coveting a reliable automobile with air-conditioning.

Until late this year, the Nixons drove to the races in an aging blue Lincoln Town Car. They replaced it with an old black Lincoln Town Car. After an Oklahoma race last spring, the car broke down in the Central Texas town of Madisonville.

Repairs would take a few days, but the kids had to get back to school. Breanna's boyfriend, BMX pro racer Tim Kneip, lives about an hour away in Conroe, but Cindy didn't want him picking them up. Cindy and Eddie insisted on remaining with their car. The family slept in it the first night, then stayed in a hotel for two more nights. The kids missed four days of school, but the family did not violate Frog Town Ordinance No. 2: "Thou shall not spend the night in someone else's home."

They returned to their 14- by 80-foot trailer with its unorthodox interior design. Layers of quilts, afghans and sheets cover the floor and furniture, and the living room overflows with years' worth of trophies. There are so many the family covered dozens of them behind a mountain of white teddy bears, with a few Winnie the Poohs thrown in for color.

Wherever the walls aren't painted with butterflies or clouds, they're plastered with newspaper clippings and photographs of the children's racing exploits. "No one will ever sit on their seat when they race my daughters," Cindy says with a smile. An otherwise modest woman, she can talk endlessly about her daughters' accomplishments in a friendly, down-home accent.

Cindy trains the girls at the parking lot of a soccer field a few miles from Frog Town. They shoot as fast as they can between two "Do Not Enter" signs along the access road to the lot.  

They do two sets of seven sprints between the signs, about 42 feet apart, as Cindy times them with her wristwatch. Misty "Boogie Baby" is hard enough on herself that Cindy doesn't have to fuss at her. She's only nine, but she has an adult's determination. Mandy "The Maniac" needs more prodding from her mother. Mandy rides more smoothly, keeping her body still and her head down as she darts between the signs, yet it's Mandy who's broken her collarbone twice.

While the coaching duties rest squarely on Cindy, Eddie is the provider. The 39-year-old welder works as many hours as he can get and says he makes more than enough to support his family. Usually wearing a baseball cap or a do-rag, laid-back Eddie doesn't speak much, so his words take on weight. This is why he can tell his boss, "I'm gonna go when it's race time, whether you want me to go or not," and still have a job when he gets back.

They know their home is a bit quirky, but they're fulfilled by owning their own land. On an early October afternoon, Misty and Mandy slip into black boots and head to a metal ladder leaning against a tree. They climb up and reach for the leather strap dangling about 15 feet above ground. It's tied to a rope hanging from a vine. They take turns stepping off the ladder and onto the strap and they're off like Tarzan.

Cindy chain-smokes and watches her girls fly through the air. Sometimes they'll hike a few hundred yards down to the Brazos River.

Swimming in the river, Breanna inadvertently upset an alligator once, and the six-footer chased her to the riverbank, scaring the family enough to never swim there again. But ultimately, it wasn't an angry, cold-blooded reptile who ran Breanna out of Frog Town. It was her mother.

Older brother Brandon was the first to leave.

Two years ago, Cindy was driving him to school when the car started making an odd noise. Brandon, a self-taught mechanic, asked his mom to pull over so he could look at the fan belt and possibly fix it.

Cindy refused to stop. Brandon asked again, saying it would take just a second and he didn't want the car dying on her. She pulled over, but only to tell Brandon that she didn't want him monkeying around on the engine. According to Brandon, that's when Cindy slapped him.

Brandon got out, walked home and called a friend to pick him up. He moved in with his grandparents in Greenville, northeast of Dallas, and hasn't been back since. Now working 60 hours a week as a plumber's assistant, he devotes his free time to his "alternative punk" band At the Park. He says he got more involved in music after moving out, but he hasn't totally given up on the idea of bicycle racing again.

When he left, the responsibility of maintaining the bikes went to Breanna. And she says she inherited another task from him: taking the brunt of her mother's mood swings. Brandon says he never knew when Cindy would "flip out" and berate him for unknown wrongs.

On a day last June, Breanna had worked hours to get the bicycles ready for that night's practice. She rolled them out to the driveway to fill the tires, then realized the pump was broken. Cindy screamed at her -- why was the girl so stupid as to wait until the last minute to use the pump?

Standing there in the driveway, in her pedal-clip shoes and racing pants, Breanna had had enough.

"I never stood up to her ever…finally, I got tired of it," she says. She told her mother she'd worked on the bikes all afternoon, that it wasn't her fault the pump was broken.

Then Cindy slapped her.

She told Breanna she should just leave. This time, Breanna did. She walked down the road to a neighbor's house and called her friend Megan Barclay to pick her up. She lived with Megan's family for three months before moving in with her aunt and uncle.

Brandon says he wasn't surprised. "We try not to talk about that stuff," he says. "Pretty much the same thing that happened to me happened to her."

"All of a sudden," Breanna says, "I understood why he left."

Cindy, who says that was the only time she hit Breanna, also thinks she knows why her daughter left.  

As the oldest of five children, Cindy had to be the primary baby-sitter. She expected the same from Breanna, and she admits being harder on her. Having Breanna around was like having another mother in the house, she says.

The extra responsibility got to Cindy the same way it got to Breanna. Cindy left home at the same age. "I could sense [it] before she left…," Cindy says, her voice trailing off. She knows it was hard on Brandon and Breanna to be so isolated, and speaks of her daughter's departure as if she lost her best friend, the one she called "Sissy."

She says that she and Breanna are so much alike that they probably left home on the same month and day. But reconciliation was not in the works. The mother had tracked her missing daughter down 15 years earlier -- now it was not an option.

Megan says Cindy never called Breanna or visited during the three months Breanna was at her house. Breanna now lives with her aunt, uncle and two cousins in a nice two-story brick home near The Woodlands -- about as far away from Frog Town as one can get.

With one of her cousins in the same high school, Breanna quickly made friends. She got involved in school sports and clubs and enjoyed her new life. For almost six months, she never heard from her mother.

Then came the race in Pearland. Cindy broke her silence -- she walked up to Breanna and spewed her bitterness about Breanna leaving home, embarrassing her daughter in front of her teammates. Soon after that, others said Cindy saw Breanna talking to Hurricanes owner Ivy and assumed he was increasing her sponsorship while leaving her sisters behind.

Cindy exploded into more rage and had to be escorted off the grounds. Her daughter had indeed been talking to Ivy -- apologizing for her mother's earlier outburst. As Cindy was led away, she swore to Ivy that she'd take her other children off his team.

The confrontation came just before Thanksgiving, as Breanna was trying to concentrate on the Grand Nationals -- the ultimate race was only a weekend away.

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.

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.

After Mandy finishes, Breanna slips on her helmet and takes her place in line behind the gate. She doesn't realize that her mother is sitting in the first row of the bleachers closest to the gate, only yards away.

This is Breanna's chance to be No. 1 in her age group. This is her chance to show that if you work hard, you can emerge from six months -- no, a lifetime -- of instability and become a champion.

Set 'em up

Breanna wants this bad. She's stronger than she was last year. She can do this.

On the gate

Winning this can help her turn pro. But she's not thinking about that. Just the light.

Riders readywatch the light

The gate drops. Cindy jumps to her feet and screams for her Breanna.

Out of the gate, it looks like she might win. If she can just get enough momentum after the first turn, the race will be hers. It doesn't happen.

Breanna stays right on the lead racer's tires, but she's just not fast enough to overtake her.

She's disappointed -- not crushed like other girls, who can barely see the finish line through their tears. Breanna takes off her helmet, hangs it on her handlebar and rides to the other side of the building. She's got to grab her second-place trophy and get back to the RV for the ride back to Houston.

On the way to the trophy stand, Cindy and Breanna unexpectedly pass each other. Neither stops, but Cindy turns her head back, lifts her thumb and says, "Good race."

The mother smiles. So does the daughter. Then they continue in opposite directions.

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