GASTON — Kai Buerge straps on his helmet, hops onto his orange and black No. 38 motocross bike and tries to kick-start the engine to life.
The bike coughs, but the engine dies as Rudi, the family’s 2-year-old German Shepard, abandons the stick he’s been chewing on and races over in front of the kid-sized motorcycle. Rudi drops down on his belly, wags his tail frantically in anticipation of what’s going to happen next.
Two more times Kai, just 8 years old and maybe 50 pounds with all of his equipment on, tries to get the bike’s engine to come to life. Rudi begins to bark and finally Daniel Buerge, Kai’s father, steps forward and in one quick motion starts the bike.
Kai revs the throttle, shouts something at Rudi that can’t be heard over the whine of the engine and the dog jumps to his feet. The bike lurches forward and Kai steers toward the mile-long dirt track with Rudi in hot pursuit.
Kai is getting in his final practice sessions in preparation for the biggest race of his young life. The Summerville native is one of the top youth motocross racers in the country and has qualified for next week’s Rocky Mount ATV/MC AMA Amateur National Motocross Championships at the Loretta Lynn Ranch and Campground in Hurricane Mills, Tenn.
Most of America’s top professional motocross racers, including the likes of James Stewart, Ricky Carmichael, Travis Pastrana and Ryan Dungey, have won AMA Amateur National titles and used that as a stepping stone to launch their professional racing careers.
“The Amateur National at Loretta Lynn’s is the event every motocross racer in the country wants to compete in,” said race director Tim Cotter. “A win at Loretta’s gives a racer instant national notoriety and can serve as a springboard to a lucrative professional motocross career.”
Next week’s Amateur National is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious motocross events. Just competing in the event is an accomplishment. There are more than 22,000 racers worldwide competing in 38 classes for the 1,482 available spots. Each racer must get through local and regional championships to earn a sport in Hurricane Mills.
The course contains a variety of jumps, corners and other obstacles designed to test the skills and stamina of the racers. Racers compete in three 15-to-20 minute races over the course of the week.
Kai is a veteran of the racing circuit, having competed for almost three years. A year ago, at the ripe old age of 7, the Oaks Christian School second-grader finished the season as the nation’s 16th-ranked rider in the 7-8 age division. This year, he’s been ranked among the top five racers heading into the Amateur National.
“That’s the highest amateur race not only in the United States, but in the world, and that’s exciting for us,” Daniel said. “It means he’s one of the top 40 riders in the world in his age group.”
While the rest of his friends took up football, basketball or soccer, Kai gravitated to racing and motocross at an early age. Kai learned how to ride a bicycle when he was 2½ and graduated to a small motorcycle when he was 5. His love of all things motocross comes from his father, Daniel, who competed in motocross growing up in Switzerland.
“We went to a motorcycle show, and first, he wanted to sit on the bikes,” Daniel said. “He saw the pictures and trophies I had at home from when I raced and he wanted to do that, too. I might have suggested it, but Kai really wanted to race, and once he started racing, you couldn’t get him off the bike.”
It’s late afternoon and the temperature hovers around 100 degrees as Kai winds his way around the track at the Moto-Vated Sports Complex in Gaston.
Under the watchful eye of his father, Kai effortlessly maneuvers the bike around the dirt course, making the jumps look easy.
“When I’m on my bike, I feel a little bit nervous and a little excited,” Kai said. “I want to go as fast as I can, but I know have to be safe, too. I love all the jumps and spraying in the corners.”
Daniel sees it as quality time with his son.
“It’s all about family and being together and spending time with Kai,” Daniel said. “I think that’s what I like most about it. It’s a real family environment and it’s a team effort. We get to work together, learn together and become closer as a family.”
Kai practices five or six times a week on dirt tracks in Kingstree and Gaston.
“There used to be a lot more tracks, but some of them have closed down,” Daniel said. “It normally takes us at least an hour to get to a track near our house.”
Motocross isn’t cheap, either. Daniel, who is a mechanical engineer at Lauscha Fiber international, which make fibers for car batteries, estimates it costs about $50,000 a year for Kai to race.
“Without sponsors, you couldn’t survive,” Daniel said. “We get some help from some of the factories as well, and that helps out. Without a team behind him at this level, it’s almost impossible to succeed.”