ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Whether it be a professional football player who plays classical piano, or a beautiful and petite high school girl from Hillsboro who’s a cheerleader but also a successful moto-cross competitor, it’s evident you can’t always judge a book by its cover.
Sydney Waner, a 14-year-old freshman-to-be at Hillsboro High School this fall, is the aforementioned moto-cross specialist.
“I started riding and racing when I was 4,” Sydney said. “I just like the thrill of it.”
Her mother, Valerie, said, “When she was little and wanted to start racing, I thought it was great. Her dad raced, so she wanted to do it too. She’s always been a tough little gal.
“That’s pretty much been her personality.”
Sydney will be a varsity cheerleader at HHS this fall and will participate in track next spring.
But it’s Sydney’s weekends that separate her from most girls-or boys-her age.
“I race in the super-mini class,” Sydney said. “There are both boys and girls in that class. I usually finish in the middle of the pack when I run with the guys.
“I have pretty good luck when I run against just girls,” she added, smiling through her braces.
Sydney already has won more than a dozen first-place trophies, and many more trophies for other top finishes.
“I don’t even know how many races I’ve been in,” she said. “There have been so many.”
Valerie never considered not allowing her daughter to race motorcycles.
“We didn’t want to discourage her,” Valerie said. “We just thought if it was something she wanted to do, we’d try to help her as much as we could.”
Sydney was forced to take a two-year hiatus from the sport when she was 11 and 12.
“I had a lot of injuries, so I sat out a couple years,” she said. “Also, I was too small for the next size of bike, so I had to wait until I got a little bit bigger.”
Although she still doesn’t sport a physique large enough to strike fear in many people, Waner nevertheless does for many of her fellow moto-cross riders.
“Everything about moto-cross racing is tough,” she said. “But with enough practice, it gets easier.”
While physical limitations are one consideration Sydney must address, monetary limitations are another the family faces.
“It’s an expensive sport,” Sydney says. “A brand new bike like I ride would cost about $5,000.”
The bike Sydney referred to is one of two she currently rides. One is a Honda CR80, while the larger, more expensive bike is a Yamaha YZ125.
“The small one weighs about 150 pounds and the bigger one weighs 170 pounds,” she said. “The YZ125 is so big that I can’t straddle the seat and touch the ground with my feet. I have to have blocks to rest my feet on at the starting line.
“I figured I might as well start in the 125 class now to get some practice,” Sydney said. “I’ll have to run that pretty soon because of my age anyway.”
Safety gear is another added expense, but it more than pays for itself.
“I wear a chest protector, knee guards, boots, helmet, jersey, pants and goggles,” she said. “I don’t have to wear them all, but most of the riders do.”
One expense that is avoided, at least to some extent, is the cost of the services rendered by mechanics.
“My dad (Mike) and I do everything (mechanical) on my bike ourselves,” Sydney said. “We’ve never had my bikes in a professional shop.”
One positive aspect of Sydney’s moto-cross career has been the opportunity to travel.
“I’ve raced all across Kansas and Oklahoma,” Sydney said. “I’ve been on tracks in Marion, Wichita, Lyndon, Inman, Odin, Cooperland (in Stillwater, Okla.), and the Oklahoma City Raceway.”
Valerie said: “She’s made some pretty good friends along the way, too. It’s like a family. The other racers are like her brothers and sisters.”
Sydney is always on the lookout for a good track to perfect her riding skills.
“I think a good track is one that has a good layout,” she said. “If things are safe but you can still feel the danger, it’s pretty good. I like tracks that have a variety of turns and jumps.”
Following the racing circuit is a long and sometimes grueling journey.
“The season runs from February until the first of December,” Sydney said. “I race just about every weekend and try to practice a couple times a week, also.”
Sydney practices at Marion and at Wichita. She said she uses the same cycles for practice as she uses for competitive races.
Since the races are run on weekends, racing and school don’t conflict.
Once the weekend rolls around, though, it’s “off to the races.”
As a veteran racer, Sydney said she really doesn’t let nerves interfere with her performances.
“I used to get nervous before I raced when I was little, but I don’t so much anymore,” she said. “Mom gets nervous before and during races, but she still likes to watch them.”
Said Valerie, “I get more nervous now that Sydney is bigger. She’s riding against bigger people, on a bigger bike, and she’s going faster.
“There’s always the possibility that she’ll get hurt,” Valerie added. “But she can get hurt riding a bicycle or riding in a car, or while she’s pole vaulting, too.”
Injuries do play a huge part in the sport.
“I’ve broken my arm twice,” Sydney said matter-of-factly. “I’m not scared at all when I come back from an injury. That’s just part of moto-cross racing.”
Sydney’s most severe injury came this past February in Oklahoma, when she took a nasty spill and sustained a concussion.
“I wasn’t there,” Valerie said. “But it was pretty scary when they called me and told me about it.”
Said Sydney: “As long as I don’t get hurt really bad, I’ll keep racing. If I get hurt to the point that it’s no longer safe for me to continue, I’ll give it up.
“But I hope that doesn’t happen.”
As mentioned, Sydney races against not only other girls, but also against the guys.
“I’ll probably always race against the boys because sometimes the classes aren’t very big,” she said. “But there are quite a few girls that do race.
“There are a couple girls from McPherson, one from Wichita and another girl from around Newton that I know of,” she said.
Sydney said she’s a fan of moto-cross racing on television, and has seen several races in person. A highlight was meeting Ricky Carmichael, a star in the sport.
“I told him that I race and he thought that was pretty cool,” she said.
Also thinking her racing career is “pretty cool” are many of her classmates.
“They really don’t say too much and I don’t think anyone is jealous or anything, but a lot of them think it’s cool,” she said.
With added years comes added activities, and Sydney struggles to juggle her schedule.
“If I have something else going on, I don’t race sometimes,” she said. “They keep a points total for the year in each class, but I don’t go for that.
“We used to keep track of points and work for that, but there are just so many races now and other activities that we don’t have time to do that anymore,” Valerie said. “But when she was little, she actually took second place in the points standings.”
Continuing her racing and pursuing a career in the sport isn’t necessarily a path Sydney is looking to follow.
“They do have a professional women’s moto-cross, but it’s not very popular and there really isn’t much money in it.”
Added Valerie: “It doesn’t matter to me if she wins or loses. As long as she tries her hardest and as long as she’s having a good time, that’s all that matters to me.”
“It’s not really set up to be competitive against each other that much,” Valerie said. “The parents in the stands each want their child to do good, but it’s set up pretty much in an individual way.”
“I like moto-cross because you’re riding as an independent,” she said. “It’s not like a team sport because you just rely on yourself and your own abilities and not on someone else.
“It’s not something that everyone can do, or even tries to do.”
Said Valerie: “When I see Sydney out there racing, it makes me feel good that she’s out there trying her best and giving it her all. I’m very proud of her.”
“She’s a well rounded child.”
“Moto-cross racing is tough, but it’s fun,” Sydney said. “The day after races, I’m pretty sore sometimes, depending on if I crash much or not. But moto-cross is still the best.”