BY JEFF FALK
FREDERICKSBURG – Anyone can drive. But it takes guts, a steady hand and an unwavering spirit to ride.
And to be a racer? Well that requires another, almost undefinable set of skills.
At Sleepy Hollow Motocross Park in Fredericksburg, not only are champions crowned, but racers are also made. Sleepy Hollow’s challenging, hilly and demanding one-mile test possesses the power to transform the youngest rider, make men out of boys and send the faint of heart to the pits for eternity.
Located on Route 22 East in Fredericksburg, Sleepy Hollow is the only motocross park in Lebanon County and one of just about a dozen across the state. For more than 40 years, competitors from all over the Lebanon, Reading, Harrisburg, Lancaster and York areas have flocked to Sleepy Hollow to explore a sport that continues to evolve.
“It takes time,” said Jerre Swarr, Sleepy Hollow’s owner and promoter for the past 12 years. “Some people just have a natural ability. They know where the edge is. People say it’s a daredevil sport, but it’s not. It’s dangerous, but it takes practice. It takes repetition. When I raced I was always in control. I always knew my limits. Some people just twist the throttle. We call them ‘throttle twisters’.
“It’s 80-85 percent the rider. If you can’t ride, you’re not going to do well,” continued Swarr. “You can’t buy a win. That’s another beauty of it. It’s a unique talent. You’ve got to enjoy it. You’ve got to feel good about it. It’s about being one with your motorcycle, your quad. It’s hard to explain. There’s a certain bond a rider will develop with his machine. Some riders will become one with their machines.”
Step inside the natural walls of Sleepy Hollow and it’s like stepping into an entirely different world.
The whiny sounds of winding engines dismiss the quiet of rural Fredericksburg. The smells of burnt fuel permeates the air. There is activity everywhere, from the make-shift camping/repair grassy area to the dirty, dusty trails of the competitive track area.
The community of motocross and quad racing is almost a sub-culture of its own.
“There’s a little group of people,” explained Swarr. “The quad guys really like this track. There is a certain loyalty. But if you treat them well, they’ll come back. On a big day, we could have 1,500 people here, and ‘spectator row’ is jammed.
“It’s challenging. But it’s like any business,” added Swarr. “I enjoy the people. It’s an entertainment business. You want to give people a good time.”
Sleepy Hollow first opened its gates in 1977. Swarr boasts an extensive background in the sport, but it is a wealth experience that can only take one so far in the business world.
“I’ve been around motocross since the 70s,” said Swarr, a former farmer and township supervisor. “I always liked the sport. I heard it was for sale, inquired about it and bought it. It’s a family thing. I’ve always had a track on my farm.
“It’s (the sport) evolved. It’s changed,” Swarr continued. “You’ve got to change with it, just like anything. It’s a business first. Like anything, it hasn’t been good since the recession. It’s quite a lot of work.”
Sleepy Hollow attracts competitors of all ages, from five to 50, both genders and from as far away as Philadelphia and New Jersey. Per Bethel Township regulations, Sleepy Hollow is permitted only 22 days of competition, practice and racing per year.
“I like the elevation change,” said Swarr of Sleepy Hollow’s grueling lay-out. “And of course, ‘The Bonsai’ is a famous jump on which you can go over 100 feet in the air. I like the grass, the green. And I like the location, right off Route 78. Most weekends, most people are less than an hour away.
“I don’t really know how it got its name,” continued Swarr. “I should know, but I don’t. But it is a catchy name.”
Despite the current economic climate and the costs involved with equipment, maintenance and fuel, the sport of motocross continues to grow. But no matter what the winds of change bring, motocross will always be a family pursuit.
“The sport has evolved into all ages,” said Swarr, a 56-year-old graduate of Manheim Central High School. “In the mainstream, it’s more popular than ever. A lot of events are broadcast live. It’s probably as big as it’s ever been. Extreme sports are popular. The media and television coverage have made it grow, and that brings in sponsors. When I was racing, they said: ‘Motocross, what’s that?’. Now everybody knows what it is.
“The level of commitment varies,” Swarr added. “Some riders are focused on racing all year. It’s their main thing. It’s a very unique sport. For me, I was lousy at all the traditional sports. But motorcross was easy for me.”
And if the popularity of motocross continues to on its upward path, Sleepy Hollow is well positioned to accommodate the growth.
“The industry is up and down,” said Swarr. “The (19) 81-82 recession hit the sport hard. But then it came back bigger than ever. I’ve seen it before. I’ve been around that long. It’ll come back again.
“There’s probably about 12 (motocross) tracks in the whole state of Pennsylvania,” continued Swarr. “People tend to run close to home. There’s a track in Reading. and there’s Pine Creek in Schuylkill County. We try to help each other. We try to work together.”