Henry Pendleton has been racing motocross bikes for the majority of his life, and considering that he is only 11 years old, that's saying something. The Annapolis resident will be at the Loretta Lynn Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn., on Sunday competing in the 31st Annual Red Bull AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship — the biggest and most well-known amateur motocross race in the world.
But the only reason Henry will be in Tennessee on Sunday — the only reason he races motocross — is that he was bored on vacation and needed something to do.
The Pendletons were in Denmark, and 5-year-old Henry was riding down the road in his father's car. Pete Pendleton was looking for sources of entertainment for his young son, but he wasn't the one who spotted the miniature four-wheelers for sale on the side of the road.
That was Henry, who immediately pointed out the vehicles and begged his father for one. Henry spent the next couple of weeks in Denmark riding one of those four-wheelers around and got hooked.
Back in America, Henry had no plans of stopping his newfound hobby, instead persuading his dad to buy him a motocross bike, the next step up from a four-wheeler. Pete, who races sailboats professionally for a living, wasn't averse to the potential danger of the sport but had never ridden a motocross bike before. His son only got to ride the bike after Pete had bought all the safety equipment he could find.
The next year, Henry started racing competitively for the first time as a 6-year-old, winning several local competitions at places such as Budds Creek in southern Maryland.
"I like to go out and race and try and keep up with faster kids and battle with them," Henry said. "I have a lot of fun out on the track."
He was good, but was only racing against local kids, making it hard to see how good Henry would be on a national stage.
That changed when Pete heard about the event at Loretta Lynn, which annually pits the top amateur motocross riders in the nation against one another. If Henry needed to see how he stacked up against the rest of the country, this was the place he had to go.
Pete never knew how good his son could be until Henry started to compete in area and regional qualifiers when he was 8 years old, trying to earn his spot at Loretta Lynn. Thousands of kids from all over the country tried to qualify for about 40 spots. Henry was one of the 40.
Sponsors followed shortly after — Henry is sponsored by USALCO, Dunlop Tires, Scott USA Goggles, MX Solutions and Jessie Keith of Keith Race Tech — and so did the traveling. When he was 8 years old, his schedule turned into a circuit.
Since then, Henry has raced all over the country, from Michigan to Florida to Pennsylvania, but has also done well locally, winning the 2011-12 Maryland state championship.
"We travel around quite a bit. Pretty much every weekend we are going somewhere in the United States to race or to go ride," Pete said. "Now, we sort of follow where the fastest kids in the country are. Obviously, if you race against the fastest kids, you are going to get faster yourself."
Amateurs turn professional around 16 in the motocross world, which is something that Pete says Henry has talked about for years. Every year, the biggest professional motocross teams go down to Loretta Lynn to scout the younger talent, with most of the riders around the age of 16 that finish in the top 10 getting a professional contract. Henry said his goal is to finish in the top seven of the race Sunday.
So even though Henry still has some time before he tries to turn professional, he is still training as if it were right around the corner. Besides competitions every weekend, he also works out three to four times a week — not just riding, but also running and exercising.
Yes, Henry has a schedule that most 11-year-olds would struggle with. Most kids his age at St. Andrews United Methodist Day School in Annapolis don't have weekly races and training to go along with their schoolwork. Still, even with the goal of becoming a professional looming in the distance, Henry's priority is still school.
"School for us is huge," Pete said. "That's for his life. He has to do well in school so he can do well later in life. You aren't going to ride motocross forever."
He might not race forever, but Henry is on his way to a career in the sport, going professional in a couple years if everything goes according to plan.
Which makes it all the more interesting that his career, his future in the sport, all started because a little kid was bored on vacation one day.
"It's blown me away, actually." Pete said. "I never rode bikes or any of that stuff when I was younger, and for him to get into this thing and to get to where he is right now is pretty amazing.
"As focused as he is, every year, he is getting faster and faster and faster. It's a great feeling."
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