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Welcome to the Sandbox

Jimmy Widrig completes a lap during Saturday's action at the Sandbox Arena near Star Prairie.1 / 5
High flying action on Saturday at the Sandbox Arena.2 / 5
Fathers and sons prepare for the start of a race.3 / 5
Motocross competitor Marissa Polencheck hopes to turn professional next year. She was at the Sandbox Arena on Saturday competing in the five-race winter series.4 / 5
General Manager Jessica Noaeill (headphones) scores a race with assistant Kari Cunningham at the Sandbox.5 / 5

It's Saturday morning, Feb. 11, and the parking lot is jammed with trailers tethered to pickups sporting plates from all around the upper Midwest.

Moms and dads busily unload dirt bikes and four wheelers, followed by extra-large duffle bags stuffed with the latest safety gear. If it's motocross, quads or bikes, and it's winter, it's got to be the Sandbox Arena, in rural Star Prairie.

The Midwest's largest indoor motocross arena is hosting race number four of its ongoing race series open to kids from ages 4 to 18. Inside the 120,000-square-foot complex, it's a family affair with kids of all sizes decked out in brightly colored racing gear from boots and motorcycle body armor to helmets that are a cross between Darth Vader and the hottest hockey goalie. Male and female gladiators alike must sign a waiver releasing management from any liability arising from injury before they can compete.

In the center of the lobby, staff members man a horseshoe-shaped desk registering racers and computing results of the ongoing races. Race by race results are posted on a large concrete wall adjacent to the desk. There is a concession stand, restrooms, and a small ocean of tables and chairs at which participants and their fans can eat and relax between events.

A two-story wall of windows allows fans to follow the action on the course while staying warm inside. There's also an assortment of big screens featuring live motocross action from other sites around the country. It's advertised as an indoor arena, but don't be fooled, although the lobby is heated comfortably, the racetrack is not and requires at least moderate winter gear for comfort.

Inside the track area, a thin fog mixed with dust churned up hundreds of dirt bike laps mechanically perfumes hundreds of racers and their pit crew families. Amidst the constant whining of dirt bike engines and walkie-talkie chatter, track manger Jessica Noaeill recalls being "hooked" on the sport since she was a kid.

"I've been around racing since I was born," she said. "My dad raced. I started riding when I was 4 years old and racing when I was 7."

This morning, sitting trackside, headphones on, she shares scoring responsibilities with her assistant Kari Cunningham. Races are scored manually and then entered into a software program, which yields a printed form of individual race results as well as overall standings.

"We have about 110 entries this morning and we'll have about the same number this afternoon," Noaeill said. "They come mostly from Minnesota, eastern Wisconsin, a lot from Iowa, Ft . Dodge area, and even a few from Illinois."

Competitors earn points throughout a five-race series that started back in November. Today is the fourth race in their winter series, which culminates in an awards banquet March 11. Races are categorized by rider age and bike or quad engine size. Kids as young as 4 will race this morning during the youth rider sessions, with older kids 12 to 16 years old testing their skills this afternoon in the Class A amateur sessions.

Racers compete on a track graded into a challenging laylout of hills and moguls covering some 2.68 acres.

"We change some of the obstacles every couple of weeks, but the basic layout stays the same," Noaeill said.

Volunteer flaggers man strategic points along the track armed with flags to signal caution or fouls as riders pass them by. An elevated concrete mall designated as the "pit" area is segregated from the track by a metal fence. Beyond a certain point, only participants with the correct wristband may enter the pit area. Here competitors prep their machines for races and repair them if needed between races.

At 4 years old, a rider decked out in all the appropriate safety gear is nearly as big as his bike. Six-year-old Kaiden Knaack and his folks traveled from Independence, Iowa for the opportunity to compete today. His dad, Tim, says Kaiden's been racing for three years already.

"There's no other place like this," Tim Knaack said. "It gives the whole family something to do."

Besides driving long before you're 16, it's is easy to understand why kids would be attracted to racing looking at the latest high tech gear. Ask Aaron Boatman, a 10-year-old competitor from Andover, Minn., giving a thumbs up as he revs the engine of his KTM 60cc dirt bike before the start of his race.

Decked out in flashy blue and white riding pants, Marissa Polencheck stands out in this crowd of motocross fanatics. The 18-year-old from Glidden says it all started with the movie Motocrossed.

"I liked it so much, I made my dad buy me a bike," she said.

Four bikes and six years later, Polencheck stands tied for first with 75 points in Open C Class and first alone in the women's standings with 100 points. She admits her first place standing in the women's category is because, "I'm usually the only one who shows up. So I've got that one kind of wrapped up."

She races because, "I like the adrenaline rush. I work hard and I always conquer my goals."

This summer, Polencheck plans to "go pro." To turn professional, racers have to have a racing resume that proves they are ready. If the American Motorcycle Association approves a racer's resume, he or she get a license and begin racing for money, or if they are lucky, "you get picked up by a factory team and they pay you to ride."

A group of partners opened The Sandbox in conjunction with Amsoil in October 2007. Management did confirm the arena is for sale but no buyer has yet to come forward. The current season ends this March. No further plans for the facility were available at press time.