x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Motocross revamp hits full throttle

Dubai Motorcross Club is revamping its venue to boost the sport's presence in the Middle East.

Sam Sunderland rides the circuit at the motocross park in Jebel Ali.
Sam Sunderland rides the circuit at the motocross park in Jebel Ali.

DUBAI // It is more than 20 years since a group of dirtbiking enthusiasts started racing along a makeshift track in Jebel Ali. During that time, the track has been improved and Dubai Motocross Club (DMX) has grown to 250 members as riders have trained, raced and perfected tricks on their bikes and quadbikes. Now they want the rest of us to see what the sport is all about.

In October, the venue is being revamped to boost the sport's presence in the Middle East and create a better atmosphere during race days. The club hopes to put in restaurants, air-conditioned lounges, shaded areas, a swimming pool and comfortable spectator zones - and is looking for sponsors to help fund the plans. "The last team did a great job," said John Watkinson, who three months ago became vice president of the committee, on which he works as a volunteer.

"But there is more that we can do. We hope to get a swimming pool in there. People can watch the races and have a barbecue at the same time. We will get some music on too so there is a whole atmosphere." "Without donations and sponsorship, the track would not exist," said Rob Elliott, a 31-year-old American, who also works for free on the committee as track curator. He and Mr Watkinson met through the social networking website Dubizzle, when Mr Elliott bought Mr Watkinson's bike.

Using machinery donated by Sire Contracting, Mr Elliott taught himself how to use the equipment and helped lengthen the track by 100 metres to 1.6 kilometres, as well as wider and safer, tailoring it to international standards. Other donations include an interest free Dh10,000 (US$2,700) loan from Will Hindes, an Australian committee member. "John and I spend around three hours a day e-mailing each other about the track, talking about what needs to be done," said Mr Elliott. "We discuss equipment, cash flow, design of the track and safety."

Finding sponsors to cough up more than Dh1 million for the new facilities is not easy. "This year is more sensitive with the state of the world economy," said Mr Watkinson. In return for buying items needed for the makeover, sponsors are offered media coverage, brand placement and banner-advertising along the track. The club's shopping list includes picnic benches at Dh75,000, programme printing at Dh10,000, asphalt for the parking and race pit area costing Dh180,000 and a title sponsor for the race season at Dh200,000.

They hope the refurbishments will be in place just in time for the annual eight-round DMX Tournament. Among the competitors will be Mohammed Balooshi, a 29-year-old Emirati who is the current UAE motocross champion. Some international riders compete, but it is hoped that more will take part once the improvements are complete. There is talk within the motocross community of setting up at least one track in each emirate. There is currently just one other track, in Umm al Qaiwain.

"We're just trying to grow the sport as much as we can," Mr Elliott said. "The potential is there because one of the UAE's biggest loves is motorbikes. We just want to make it more family friendly. Everyone works so much here in Dubai, we want those people to come down to the track and have a good time." The highest number of spectators the club has attracted is around 200, but there is room for 2,000 if interest grows. Free admission for spectators will remain.

Fees for riders start at Dh25 per day for members during the week and Dh50 at weekends. Non-members pay double. Lessons can be arranged. The track is open from dawn until dusk, but these hours may change if enough money is raised to pay for lighting. "People who come now just come and watch because of word of mouth. They have an interest in the sport, in off-road, or maybe they casually ride in the desert," said Mr Watkinson.

The track is open to all ages from four upwards, all nationalities and both sexes, as long as you can ride a dirtbike and wear safety gear. In addition to the club's membership, several hundred people are on its mailing list. Its chairman is Mohammed ben Sulayem, the champion rally driver. Sam Sunderland, a 20-year-old Briton, is one of the UAE's fastest riders. He has been riding since he was 10, and got around the old track in 1min 46secs. He has devoted himself to the sport.

"Without it on a weekend, you just end up twiddling your thumbs. You set yourself goals and there is no better feeling than winning in motocross," said Mr Sunderland, who, when he is not training, teaches the sport to children. "There are people from all different backgrounds who ride but we are all there for the same thing." For Britney Erasmus, 19, one of the few women who use the club, the track changes could mean making more friends.

"I want more girls on the track so we can have our own races," she said. "Before races, I want to get a good night's sleep but my other friends don't race so they don't understand. "If more girls want to come and get involved, as probably the most experienced female rider in the UAE, I will try to organise training sessions." Dale Jullien, 13, from South Africa, said motocross was in his blood. "My grandpa, dad and uncle all ride bikes," he said.

"When I first came here, I took my bike around the desert. I hope the new track just brings more riders. Jumping is one of my favourite things, and there is an amazing adrenaline rush at the start line." Mr Watkinson said: "We want to make it a great day out for the family. It's cheaper than go-karting and it's much more fun." asafdar@thenational.ae