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Chasing a dream at full throttle

An 18-year-old is well on his way to becoming a professional motocross racer. But first, he'll receive his diploma.

By TOM MARSHALL
Published June 1, 2007


John McConnell, a senior at Hernando High, flashes a smile to his parents, Tom and Helen McConnell, before a practice ride at the Dade City Motocross at the Pasco County Fairgrounds McConnell, who wants to pursue a professional motocross career, started riding when he was 13.
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[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
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[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
John McConnell lands a jump while practicing at the Pasco County Fairgrounds last week.

DADE CITY - The graduate roars up, pulls off his helmet and offers a dusty hand.

Like the pro motocross racer he aims to become by year's end, John McConnell is more than happy to spend a few moments talking to the news media between practice rounds at the Pasco County Fairgrounds.

Truth be told, he doesn't really think about the graduation part much, even though he'll be among the 240-some students getting a diploma tonight at Hernando High School.

No, his thoughts have been on motocross pretty much continuously since the night in 2002 when he rode in his first race. And won.

Around that time, his dad, Tom, cut a deal with him: If you want to ride, you had better get yourself on the honor roll and stay there. So he did.

"I've been maintaining A's and B's in school," John says. "But I basically daydream about racing."

Those dreams, like his career plans lately, have been running in fast motion.

He's racking up the points he'll need for professional status and figures he'll reach that milepost by year's end. He has two sponsors - Capital Car Sales in Tarpon Springs and Action Honda in Hudson - that supply him with fresh bikes.

On a good weekend, the 18-year-old earns $1,000 and spends most of it on travel to Virginia or Oklahoma or somewhere else on the dirt-track circuit. In 2004, he went to the Amateur National Motocross Championships in Tennessee, where he placed as high as 15th and even got his bike impounded for testing by race officials - just as the pros do.

And how much might he earn as a pro?

"Millions," he blurts out, before thinking better of voicing such dreams. Plenty of middle-ranked pro riders make a good living at it, he adds, and there's always motocross teaching to fall back on.

He's also got his share of battle scars: a separated shoulder, a broken collarbone, bad knees, bad wrists.

"I broke my left hand, and they still wanted me to write," John says, recalling one injury that did not excuse him from homework at Hernando High. He became a righty.

His parents worry about the possibility of a career-ending accident. But they're behind him all the way.

"Most of us don't get to follow our dreams," says his mom, Helen. "This is his dream. He can always go to college."

It's time for another practice race, and John excuses himself to get ready.

Standing above the track near the starting line, his parents do some more worrying.

"The hardest time for me is the starts," Tom says, describing the sprint to the first turn. "You've got 40 guys going wide open to get there first. Usually, I don't watch."

There was a rough patch around Christmas, when John seemed to lose his confidence.

"I really thought he was going to quit," Tom says, describing the "bad feelings" that followed a switch of sponsors and bikes, from Honda to Kawasaki.

But they returned to their old sponsor, Kenny Arturo - "savior, godsend, dream-saver," Tom calls him - and their son got his groove back.

Helen nods silently, keeping her eyes on the starting line. It's just a practice, but still. ...

The racers explode off the line with a dusty roar.

"That's him out front," Tom says, as his son pulls far ahead of the pack, riding with no fear.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or 352 848-1431.

[Last modified May 31, 2007, 22:17:48]


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