Smits Makes Jump into Competitive Motocross
By John Clayton
No one was particularly surprised after 12 NBA seasons and an assortment of chronic injuries to watch former Pacers center Rik Smits ramble off into the sunset.
It's just that no one expected the cloud of dust.
Three years after his retirement, Smits has jumped, literally, into another passion from his youth – motocross.
"It's something I always did as a kid – riding bikes, I never raced them. Now, I get to race them with a bunch of older guys, usually my age and older," said Smits. "It's fulfilling a childhood dream, I guess."
As a player, Smits collected and restored classic cars, but couldn't risk injury by competing in motocross, even the more casual vintage version he rides in now. Smits races a Dutch-made 1981 Maico dirt bike in a couple of series designed for older racers and older motorcycles, the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association and the Speed & Sport National Vintage Motocross Series.
Smits didn't choose the Maico 490cc he races because the two share similar roots in the Netherlands. He chose it because it filled a tall order.
"It's one of the tallest bikes built and it probably fits me the best of all the bikes out there," said the 7-4 Smits, who averaged 14.8 points and 6.1 rebounds over the course of his career with the Pacers.
He raced his first motocross event in Casey, IL, in May of 2001, despite the fact that he couldn't find motocross boots in a size 21. Since then, he has become better equipped, has notched "a few wins," and is a serious competitor for national and regional points championships in his divisions.
"And I haven't gotten hurt, so that's good," he said.
But the grind of the sport does take its toll on a 37-year-old body that was built much more for basketball than motocross.
"It's hard. You've got to get up on the pegs a lot and there's a lot of up-and-down stuff. It depends on the track you're at. Some tracks are more natural terrain tracks and some have a lot of jumps and hills that can be tough on your body.
"I don't know if the height is that much of a problem, but the weight is a bigger problem. It takes me a lot longer to stop the bike for a turn than some of these guys who weigh in at 120 pounds."
Then, of course, there are the jokes. He's heard them all.
"Hey, why are you riding a mini-bike?" has been a popular one at the track.
"I got kind of tired of that one after a while," Smits said, "but it's kind of died down a little bit."
All jokes aside, Smits is serious about the sport, which he said helps quell the competitiveness that stills burns inside a former professional athlete.
"You don't have 18,000 people watching," he said. "There's no fanfare afterwards. You get a little trophy and that's it. It takes about a month or so before they post the finishes on a Website somewhere. But it does fuel my competitiveness. When you're out there, it's not just fun to ride. You're trying to beat somebody."