HURRICANE, Washington County — With the riders behind the starting gate, the race was about to start as spectator Lance Clifford assessed the competition.
The 6-year-old BMX riders displayed their rankings on the front of their bikes for all to see. Those ranked national No. 1 through 5 were raring to go, along with Clifford's son, Connor — with no national ranking, but No. 138 of the southern Utah district.
As the gate went down, Connor got his pedals pumping and wheels turning, propelling his bike through the 1,200-foot course. Within a minute, the kid from Hurricane had placed sixth in his first USA BMX Grand National and landed the national No. 14 ranking for 6-year-olds.
"He made his name against 40 of the fastest kids of his age," Connor's mentor and sponsor Lonny Lierley said. Being ranked that high after a year of experience is "absolutely impressive," he said.
Connor also participated in two other races at the Grand National in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which took place the last weekend of November. He placed first in the Race of Champions and third in the Grand National open race for his age group.
"It's a nice track and the trophies are big," Connor said about the series of races in Oklahoma. His trophy from the open race is 6 feet tall and towers over him by about 2 feet.
At present, Connor leads in points for all age groups and skill levels in his district. He also won the No. 1 state championship for Utah.
Lierley attributes Connor's rapid success to the support of his parents, Lance and Renee Clifford.
For Lierley, BMX has always been about family. He and his bothers did BMX together beginning in the '80s, he said, and that's carried over into his sponsorship. He will only sponsor riders who are in a family that's supportive of their BMX participation, he said, and that's why he chose to sponsor Connor.
"I see nothing but respect from Connor to his parents, or from his parents back to Connor," Lierley said. "They are a good family, and they spend a lot of effort with their kids."
Lance Clifford said he's always wanted his kids to be involved in things they are passionate about, so he's glad Connor found BMX. Connor tried football, soccer and baseball, but wasn't passionate about any of them, according to his dad.
When the Clifford family moved to Hurricane, the nearby Virgin Regional BMX track sparked Lance Clifford's interest, he said, because Connor had just learned how to ride a bike. Clifford raced BMX from the ages of 10 to 16 and thought his son might like his old hobby.
But it was Connor's mother, Renee Clifford, and his grandpa, Larry Clifford, who took him to the track for his first race because his dad was working.
Connor looked like a rookie geared up in a motorcycle helmet, jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, his mom said, and during the race he "crashed spectacularly" and started crying.
"I thought, 'Maybe this isn't the sport for us. Maybe this is just another thing to check off of our list,'" she said.
But as the Cliffords were getting ready to leave, race coordinators invited Connor to ride in another race, and he wanted to try again, his mother said. In the second race there were fewer than three people in his age group, so he was guaranteed a trophy.
"He finished the race and got a medal, and I think at that point on he decided that he liked it and he wanted to try harder," Renee Clifford said.
After several local races, Connor signed up for national races. In his first few national races at the beginner level, Connor "got his butt kicked," according to his father, adding that his son loved BMX but wasn't good at it until he placed at a national race in Reno, Nevada.
"Somehow a light switch just kicked on in his brain, and he was like an animal. It changed everything."
"We went from being pretty darn serious about (BMX) to being crazy serious about it and into it because, at that point, we knew he had the ability and talent and capability to compete at the national level with the best of the best," Lance Clifford said.
Connor won 10 races at the beginner level, qualifying him for intermediate level. Then he won 20 races at the intermediate level, qualifying him for the expert level, going from novice to expert in one year.
Clifford said his son's success is incredible because it can take kids years to advance levels. Lance Clifford himself never made it to the expert level during his years of racing.
Connor participates in as many races at the Virgin track as possible and several races in Las Vegas each week. These races gear him up for national races, like the one in Oklahoma.
"There's a lot that goes into it that people don't realize. It's not just get on your bicycle and ride it like you are going to the grocery store," Larry Clifford said.
In addition to the races, Connor performs daily practice exercises and receives coaching from BMX professional Jason Stout, a local of southern Utah, and Lierley of Las Vegas, according to Lance Clifford.
"It makes me stronger," Connor said about his practices.
"It's become not really just a sport, but a lifestyle for him," his father said.
There's quite a bit of schedule juggling that goes on, but Connor's dad, who works as a real estate agent, and his mom, who works from home, said they do the best they can to schedule work around Connor's BMX schedule.
With all the family's travel, Lance Clifford said he's just glad that gas prices have gone down and that they have a motor home to use to cut back on hotel costs.
Renee Clifford said she used to worry about her son's safety in the fast-paced sport, but she's come to trust the safety gear Connor wears and has become one of the most enthusiastic parents on the track.
"We take a lot of pride in his wins and feel pain when he loses," Larry Clifford said.
Four months ago, Connor's younger sister, Callie, started asking her parents for a "pedal bike" to be like her brother.
"I didn't even mess around getting her a bike from Wal-Mart. I went straight to the bike shop and bought her a fancy race bike," Lance Clifford said.
"I brought it home and she said, 'Yeah, Dad, it's not pink,' so I had to take it apart and have it powder-coated sparkly pink. Then I brought it back, and she's like, 'All right, yeah, I'll ride it.'"
Callie, 4, rode her bike the first time she tried, her father said. Now her parents have two little BMX riders at home.
"She not as committed as Connor, she just rides around the track and has fun and isn't super competitive yet, but she's only 4, so what do you expect?" her father said.
Whether BMX is a stroll, like it is for Callie, or a joyride, like it is for Connor, Lance Clifford said they'll continue to support their kids at whatever pace they want to go.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: TORIAjorgensen