6-year-old Salisbury racer eyes top spot in national race
By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY — After buckling his helmet, Gannon Kepley checked his dust-covered shoulder pads for tightness and fired up his dirt bike.
He rode about 10 feet before losing control and spinning out in the grass.
The 6-year-old didn’t realize his father had sprayed the area with a hose pipe to keep the dirt track wet.
But when Gannon Kepley’s on the track, it’s a different story.
Gannon is one of 30 who qualified for the 31st Annual Red Bull AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship at country music star Loretta Lynn’s ranch in Tennessee.
Races will begin Monday and continue throughout the week. Gannon will race Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and an overall score will determine the winner.
Gannon was selected out of more than 25,000 racers in the 4- to 6-year-old age bracket, his dad said.
“It’s immediate,” said Gannon’s father, Justin Kepley. “You see people take a second look because if they’re going to Loretta’s, then you know that they’re fast.”
Although it’s the first time at the event, the family hopes to bring home the grand prize, a $1,100 specialized motocross bike.
Gannon spent about an hour racing around the homemade course on Barringer Street Friday afternoon near his grandparents’ home.
“They come out here and ride and practice,” Justin said.
After a few more practice laps, the Kepleys left for Hurricane Mills, T.N., where the weeklong tournament is held.
Justin called the race a “family dream.”
Justin and Amber Kepley’s three boys have been riding dirt bikes for years.
Gannon’s brothers, 8-year-old Garrison and 2-year-old brother Gibson are also traveling with the family.
Garrison, a top young amateur motocross racer, broke his leg and wasn’t able to qualify this year.
The Kepleys expected Garrison, who takes motocross racing more seriously than Gannon, to be the tournament go-er this year.
Gannon, his father said, got into racing just from watching his brother race.
“He got second place his first race,” he said. “We just kind of went from that point.”
The Kepleys work hard to be successful, Justin said.
But some of it comes natural.
Justin said he works with Garrison and Gannon several times a week on the track, showing them ways to be faster.
“I tell them, ‘If you get beat, let it be because they’re faster than you, not because they’re smarter than you,’” Justin Kepley said.
To be smarter, the boys watch video of themselves and other races to critique riders.
Gannon also wrestles and plays other sports, but he said his favorite is dirt bike racing.
And his favorite part of that?
“Winning,” he said.
The key to it, the 6-year-old said, is taking the right “lines,” or paths, around the dirt track.
“I’d have to say get good lines,” Gannon said, “like sometimes if you’re in the back place you can take a good line and pass a lot of people.”
It’s something the Kepleys focus on when watching footage of races.
Sometimes, Justin said, they watch footage between races to help make improvements.
“I’m always coaching them,” he said.
But the Kepleys said they might do things differently if they had a second time around.
“I probably wouldn’t do it again because it’s so involved really,” Justin said. “You’ve got to get in it young.”
The youngest Kepley, 2-year-old Gibson, was riding on a dirt bike without training wheels at the track Friday.
So far, he’s shown the most promise, Justin said.
“Them excelling in it has gotten us deeper and deeper in it,” he said.
Amber Kepley said she’s grown accustomed to seeing her sons zoom around the track.
But that doesn’t make it any easier.
“I think my nerves have gotten accustomed to it, but I wish they would do something a little less dangerous,” she said.
Her sons are competitive, though, and they want to win on the track.
So she’ll keep watching.
“They like it,” she said, “and they’re good at it.”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.