The summer X Games in Austin kick off on Thursday with the debut of flat-track racing—a high-speed form of motorcycle racing where riders power-slide their bikes around low-banked end corners. Officially called Harley-Davidson Flat-Track racing, the X Games' inaugural field of 24 riders will compete for a 12-person final.
Two women are hoping to make it into that final heat and onto the podium: Nichole Mees and Shayna Texter. Flat-track does not have a women's division. Mees and Texter will be racing against 22 men. Among those men are Mees's husband and Texter's brother and her boyfriend. X Games' inaugural flat-track race, it seems, will be a family affair.
ESPN-owned X Games specifically built the track for the event. It's made of tacky, packed clay, is 3/8-mile long, and shaped like a paperclip, long and narrow. On tracks that are a full mile, riders reach top speeds of as much as 140 miles per hour. Because the Austin track is shorter, racers expect lower-than-average top speeds.
Flat-track bikes are streamlined for speed, stripped of unnecessary parts, and run on twin-cylinder engines between 650 and 1,000 cc. The corners of the track are banked a slight six degrees, hence the name flat-track racing. In the corners, riders dip low to the inside, though their knees do not touch the ground. On their left, inside, foot, they wear a steel boot. As racers power-slide through the corners, dragging their steel boots over the track, the bikes are often handlebars-to-handlebars close.
"You could throw a [single] blanket over five or six riders," Mees says. "You don't have a rear mirror so you are focusing not only on yourself but you're trying to anticipate what the guy behind you is doing." If you look back at all, Texter adds, "in that split instant, they could pass you, use it to their advantage."
Some people think that a platform as large as the X Games could launch the sport onto the national theater. An exciting race on Thursday night is crucial to drawing national attention, but for this race, the unknown factor is the new track.
"Being that nobody's ever raced on this track before," Mees says, "nobody really has an advantage over anybody. That's one neat thing. Everybody will be in the same boat trying to figure out gearing and set up for the bike."
While flat-track racing is new to the X Games, the stories likely to get the most attention are the husband-wife and brother-sister matchups. This has never happened at the X Games, and, as far as we can tell, hasn't happened before in professional sports.
Not surprisingly, both women grew up in motorcycle racing. Nichole Mees, 27, from Clio, Michigan, has a stereotypical Midwest accent, her vowels long and her tone warm. Her dad raced motocross and introduced her to flat-track racing through a family friend. She and her husband, Jared, who was the 2014 national champion in flat-track racing, competed against each other as amateurs. Not until they both competed at flat-track's highest level, GNC1, did they race against each other as professionals.
In 2007, Mees became the first woman to race at the GNC1 level. Despite 2014 being one of her best years, Mees has decided that this will be her last full season in the sport. "I recently went into the teaching field and I kind of want to pursue that a little more...There's always going to be motorcycles around the house and I can go riding whenever I want."
Shayna Texter, 24, from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is friendly and thoughtful when we speak on the phone, but also focused, often anticipating my questions before I ask them. In the X Games Austin 2015 Preview that aired on ABC on May 24, she said that "racing has been a part of our lives since day one for Cory [her brother] and I."
Texter's grandfather and father both raced motorcycles. Her father's car dealership sponsored the siblings in youth racing. In 2010, Texter's father died, and, as she said on the ABC special, "We were in a lot of debt, a lot more than Cory and I actually knew, just because he poured everything into [racing]. Unfortunately, we had to just get rid of everything."
Cory, for his part, deferred the money to his sister. Texter, then racing at the next-to-highest level in the flat track world, GNC2, won in Knoxville in 2001, beating the men and becoming the first woman to win a Pro Singles main event. She joined Mees in GNC1 in 2014.
"When the funding started to get tight because we both were racing," Cory says, "I decided to take a back seat and give all the financial funding that we received that season to Shayna."
Texter will not only be racing against her brother, but also her boyfriend, Briar Bauman. The trio bounce ideas off each other. They talk about race strategies, how to race a particular track, and what works and what doesn't when they're racing. Of course, there is the inevitable familial angst.
"We are definitely competitive," Texter says. "It definitely makes for some long car rides home sometimes. It doesn't tend to bother me but the critics do get to him sometimes when he's got to listen to whatever everyone else has to say if I beat him."
Given that these two women are competing at a higher level than any other women in flat-track racing, it's not surprising that Mees and Texter both come from racing families. They've had support to compete from a young age, and they spend their day-to-day lives close to other professional racers. That proximity to the sport is part of the reason they're racing at the sport's highest level.
Flat-track racing, like a lot of other sports, isn't as accessible to women as it is to men. According to the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls at the University of Michigan, women encounter more obstacles to entering and competing in sports than do men. This, they say, is true for high school, collegiate and professional women athletes, as well as hopeful athletes at all levels.
"Girls and women are still not provided comparable athletic participation opportunities, resources and recognition as boys and men," according to the policy center.
Since no female-only class or league exists in flat-track racing, Mees and Texter have always participated at the level for which they qualified, rather than one determined by gender. To that, they train and strategize regularly with the best in their sport, and their performances reflect that.
The flip side to this is the chance that fewer women participate if there is no all-female space within the sport. As Mees told me, "Typically you don't see a whole lot females in the sport because it's a male-dominated sport. For quite some time, I was the only female at the GNC1 level."
The X Games showcasing two women riding against the men brings attention to flat-track racing. The stories from within the field of competition are what draw people to an event and a sport. The brother-sister and husband-wife connections in Thursday night's race give spectators another reason to watch, and the added exposure helps the sport, promotes the athletes, and can even lead to sponsorships.
"I think it's really important that Nicole and I are part of it," Texter says. "I think it's huge for our sport, and for women in racing in general."
Thursday night's race will feature a new type of starting gate. Rather than the riders starting in a three-wide grid pattern, they'll start abreast of each other, like a motocross start. And while the familial connections can be advantageous off the track as advice and feedback, once they get the green light, you won't be able to tell who's related to who.
On the track, Mees says, the men "don't treat us any different. They're not going to be nice to us because we are a female on the racetrack. They know we are just as serious as they are. We are out there to win just like they are.