“They say you have to have the strength of a powerlifter, the balance of an Olympic gymnast, and the composure of a world-class poker player,” said Ohio native Kenny Dixon as he pulled his helmet over his head and fastened the strap with a few sharp tugs.
He adjusted the choke on his Honda 450, kicked the starter down, and ripped away onto the muddy motocross track for another run.
Most riders get into motocross when they are really young — some are on a bike right around the time they take their first wobbly steps. That wasn’t the case for Dixon, but he can still ride with some of the best.
“I’ve been out here on the Island from Ohio for about two years,” Dixon said. “This is the first year I’ve known of the track, and I’ve been coming out here a lot. It’s a really good, small community — motocross in general in America is small, then when you come to the Island it gets real small. It’s like a brotherhood; everyone helps each other out.”
Directly adjacent to the Airport Business Park, secluded inside dense woods, a serpentine track of thick mud and rolling jumps draws riders of all ages and skill levels.
Welcome to the Compound.
Also known as J.J.’s Motocross Park, the Compound is owned and operated by longtime rider, construction worker, and Oak Bluffs Police officer, J.J. Mendez.
Mendez invites anyone looking to get into motocross to head to the track, and also encourages more experienced riders to check it out.
For $25 a day or $500 for a yearlong membership, folks can go to the track whenever the gate is open and kick it into full gear, so long as there is at least one other rider out there (that’s a cardinal rule).
Dixon said when he came to the Island, he never expected there to be a motocross track.
When he heard the Compound was reopening, he knew he had to see it for himself.
Although it’s not quite up to the scale of some dirt tracks out in Ohio, Dixon said, he enjoys the motocross park on Martha’s Vineyard, and added that he was surprised at the size of the track.
“It’s a good size for the Island, I think. Plenty of space to have some fun and ride with your boys,” Dixon said.
For Dixon, motocross is the ultimate competitive sport. With such an intense physical and mental demand required, he added, dirt track riding in particular provides a good gauge of overall skill.
“So you have cycling, and that’s a little more man than machine, and then racecar driving is a little more machine than man, but motocross is like the 50/50 balance of man and machine. That bike is like an extension of yourself, and it takes a lot of energy and skill to master that balance,” Dixon said.
Over his approximately 15 years of riding, Dixon said he has lost a few friends to the sport, and because of the inherent danger of flying 20 feet into the air over a jump while gripping an almost 300-pound machine, all riders on the track must be at the highest level of awareness at all times.
“It’s a very dangerous sport, unfortunately, It’s not really if, it’s when. But there are a lot of ways to make sure you are riding as safely as possible,” he said.
One rule of riding is to never ride over your head, and always know your level of ability before trying something new. At the Compound, the community of riders is incredibly close-knit and supportive, and members often become lifelong friends. They always look out for each other, which is why Dixon stresses the importance of staying on two wheels (except when in the air) and always maintaining your lines.
This means if you are riding in one direction, it would be a poor move to alter your course too quickly and risk cutting into another rider. “You gotta remember that you can’t learn anything if you’re hurt. If you’re on the inside or outside line and you are battling someone for a lead, you want to maintain — you don’t want to cut people off. There definitely is a kind of track etiquette, if you will,” Dixon said. “Safety is always No. 1.”
And while the competitive edge is certainly present at the Compound, riders consider it a practice track, and not intended for head-to-head heats.
To accompany the welcoming atmosphere, riders will occasionally bring a grill out to the track along with some food to grill up. “It’s really laid-back. People can come and stay for an hour or four hours, as long as they want to ride,” Dixon said.
Another skilled rider, Jordan Landers of Texas, pulled into the parking and staging area a little way back from the track after an intense run, and took a swig from his water bottle. He told The Times his passion for riding was bequeathed to him by his father at a young age, and after a long hiatus, he decided to purchase a dirt bike and flip it for some extra cash. The rest is history: “I started riding again, and thought, ‘Well, why should I sell it?’”
Landers moved to the Island about three and a half years ago, and started getting into motocross about a year ago. But he really got hooked on the sport after landing his first big jump.
“The thing that I enjoy most about motocross is the feeling when you are in the air, you are just kind of weightless, and there is that really cool moment where you forget about everything else, and you just hope you land,” Landers said.
Landers spoke a little bit about Mendez, and how he is always willing to give newer riders tips and make sure they are being safe. “He will pull you aside while you are riding and tell you what you can do to better work on gaining more speed, or being a better rider in general,” Landers said. “He’ll be, like, ‘Look, I notice you’re sitting down too soon before going into the corner,’ or ‘You’re in too low of a gear, you need to get into a higher gear so you can ride smoother.’”
He noted that for such a small community of riders, there are several retired professionals who are always looking to help others hone their skills.
“It picks you up and motivates you when you are around people with that level of skill. It’s definitely a special place,” Landers said.
Chris Heidt, a friend of Mendez and a veteran rider of 40 years, helps manage the park and make sure everything is shipshape.
He said his 11-year-old son has been riding since he was 4, and is now starting to get into competitive motocross.
“We have pit bikes and a small little track at our house, but we just grew out of it; it got too noisy, and we don’t want to upset the neighbors, so we come here,” Heidt said.
Heidt said this is the only place on the Island where members of the public can go to ride for a nominal fee, and there are regularly about half a dozen people who head to the track each week.
But there are about a dozen kids who use the track to learn, and Heidt stressed that one major ambition of the Compound is to give kids a safe and fun place to learn a new sport, or get better.
“That’s what it’s really all about — teaching the younger kids to ride, and encouraging what they enjoy, while also giving these older guys a place to ride as well,” Heidt said as he pointed to Dixon and Landers, who were getting ready to head back out for another spin.
Heidt said there is a big problem on the Island of people riding in the State Forest illegally, and potentially getting hurt.
The motocross track gives people a safe and private place to ride where they can learn from more experienced people, and prevents illegal riding that can be dangerous, especially if riding alone out in the woods.
“Every single one of these guys who rides here helps with the kids, and coaches them along. It’s like a little family. We have a little text group, and I swear there are guys in there who will reach out who need housing, and they find it through the text group. We support each other on and off the track,” Heidt said.
Reached by phone, Mendez told The Times he wanted to provide an opportunity for young kids on the Island that he never had when he was young — getting to ride on a track every weekend and learning from an expert rider.
“Growing up on the Island as a kid, whoever had the bigger bike down the straightaway was always considered the fastest and best rider, so I always thought I was the badass,” Mendez said. “When I was like 26 and I started competing, I thought I was the baddest guy out there. I went out on the track for the first time, and I got smoked. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know how to ride.’”
As Mendez trained and rose up through the ranks, he was exposed to the close-knit community of riders across the country. He began to compete in professional races, and trained with some of the best riders in the world.
For Mendez, the entire process taught him discipline and perseverance, and he knew he wanted to provide that same kind of life-changing experience to the youth of Martha’s Vineyard.
“I have gone all over the country, shipped my bikes down to California, Arizona, I ship them down to Florida every winter,” Mendez said. “I take whatever I learn while I’m away and bring that back here for everyone else.”
In motocross, Mendez said, the only team you have is yourself, and it takes a lot of time and dedication to cut down your lap times and improve your abilities.
For him, teaching kids to ride is a joy that has become a major part of his life, and he plans on continuing to offer a fun and meaningful learning experience to anyone who is interested.
“I love watching people come to the track who can’t even turn a corner, and when I’m done with them they’re flying out there,” Mendez said. “Do you want to learn, are you going to listen? Then I can teach you.”
Mendez thanked John Keene Excavation, Kenney’s Ready Mix, Louis Paciello, Maciel and Son Excavation, Mike Sawyer, Aaron Boyd, and Tekomah Goggins of Atlantic Pool, among other anonymous supporters of the track, that allow him to keep the cost down.
And Mendez doesn’t maintain the track on a regular basis in order to make money — watching kids learn a new sport and become passionate about it is compensation enough for him. “I don’t care about making a dollar, I just want to cover the cost of the insurance,” he said. “I love the kids, I love teaching them, training them. I think I love that even more than I love riding.”