Hangtown Classic revs up in Rancho Cordova

Dirt flies as motorcycle riders speed into the first turn during the men’s 250cc pro moto at a recent Hangtown Classic in Rancho Cordova.
Dirt flies as motorcycle riders speed into the first turn during the men’s 250cc pro moto at a recent Hangtown Classic in Rancho Cordova. Special to The Bee

Hangtown isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a sunup-to-sundown blitz of the senses, revved up with nonstop, nerve-jolting, ear-assaulting excitement.

In motorcross circles, Hangtown hangs alone. No other motorcycle race comes close to its history or panache. And for lucky Sacramento fans, Hangtown roars back into action this week with more of everything.

Just as NASCAR has Daytona and open-wheel racing has Indy, Hangtown has that one-name mecca status that leaves comparable events in the dust.

Officially, though, it’s the 47th running of the GoPro Hangtown Motocross Classic, the opening event of the 12-race Lucas Oil American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Pro Motocross Championship Series.

A lot has changed in the almost five decades since Hangtown first was contested near Placerville and latched on to that town’s Gold Rush nickname. Televised live on NBC Sports, Hangtown has matured into the biggest sporting event of its kind in the United States. About 25,000 fans are expected to turn out for Saturday’s marquee motos.

To get the most out of the Hangtown experience, we turned to the experts who put on this spectacle, the Dirt Diggers North Motorcycle Club. Here’s their insider advice for a full-throttled experience:

For the uninitiated, what is the Hangtown Classic?

It’s the granddaddy of American motocross. The nation’s oldest and most prestigious motorcycle race, it features more than 60 of the world’s best professional riders. But that’s only part of the action, which starts Thursday.

“We’ll have 450 to 500 riders total including the amateurs, feeder series and pros,” said David Harvey, Hangtown’s director. “Thursday and Friday feature the amateurs with the very, very top pros competing Saturday.”

The riders compete in two classes, divided by engine size: 250cc and 450cc. Each class runs two heats (called “motos”) to determine an overall winner. Each pro heat is 30 minutes plus two laps.

Back this year is a division for female professional riders. The women’s pro motos are split between Friday afternoon and Saturday.

Who are some of the stars to watch?

Hangtown’s two reigning champions, Ken Roczen (450cc class) and Jeremy Martin (250cc), are back to defend their titles, said AMA’s Brandon Short. But this is a race with national championship overtones. Newly crowned Supercross (indoor) king Ryan Dungey is a two-time series champion and will try to get his MX season off to a fast start. Also on the radar are title contenders Eli Tomac (a past Hangtown winner), Cooper Webb and Marvin Musquin.

150 feetHow far racers will have to travel in the air to make it across Hangtown Classic’s new marquee jump

“Every top pro will be on the track Thursday afternoon (from 1 to 3 p.m.) for practice,” Harvey said. “It’s a little secret to the public. You can come out Thursday when tickets are half-price and there’s only 2,000 or 3,000 (people) on track instead of 20,000-plus. You can see all the pros in action and not fight the crowd.”

On Saturday morning, the pit area is open to the public as part of general admission. Fans can get an up close and personal view of the motorcycles as well as meet many of the racers.

Where do they race?

Hangtown is the only major pro motorsports event held in a state park: Prairie City. Just outside Rancho Cordova, this park offers motocross riding year round. For Classic weekend, volunteers reshape the dirt track to challenge professional riders with outrageous jumps and difficult turns.

This year’s 2-mile dirt course will be especially difficult.

“We created the biggest jump in U.S. motocross,” Harvey said. “It’s 150 feet across and 35 feet high. They’ll be jumping more than 21/2 stories into the air.”

Who are the Dirt Diggers?

Hangtown’s hosts and creators are motorcycle-riding volunteers: the Dirt Diggers North. Based in Orangevale, this club has only 26 members (all active motocross riders), but handles the logistics and planning for this huge spectator event.

“We’re all Type-A personalities,” Harvey said. “We put this all together ourselves. We’re the only club to serve as a promoter of a professional motocross event in the country. We literally set the standard for the series; our race is older and bigger than any of them, and we do it with all volunteers. Everybody else does it for profit. We do it for the love of motocross.”

In addition to the Dirt Diggers, hundreds of other volunteers take part. From parking cars to selling bottled water, they raise money for their own charities. Total donations now top $1 million, Harvey said.

What about amenities?

The Dirt Diggers add something to their Prairie City venue every year as permanent improvements. Borrowing from professional golf, they created shaded VIP seating and hospitality tents featuring wet bars, hot lunches and live feeds on TV.

“People figure out they’ll be spending the whole day here, so they might as well be comfortable,” Harvey said. “Our most expensive tickets sell out first.”

Priced at $175 to $350, the VIP packages sold out in advance, he said. But there are still plenty of extras for the general admission crowd.

“The one thing we value highly: Lots of food options,” Harvey said. “We have everything from tri-tip, Korean barbecue and hamburgers to ice cream and frozen lemonade. We try to keep our beer and water prices down. It’s a family event and we want it to be affordable. We hold true to our motto: Stay true to motocross.”

Debbie Arrington: (916) 321-1075, @debarrington

Hangtown Classic

  • When: Today -Saturday; gates open 7 a.m. each day
  • Where: Prairie City State Vehicular Recreation Area, 13300 White Rock Road, Rancho Cordova
  • Cost: Today and Friday, $20 (children ages 6-11, $10); Saturday, $40 (children ages 6-11, $20); children ages 5 and younger admitted free. Parking, $10.
  • Information: www.hangtownmx.com
  • TV: 2 p.m. Saturday MAVTV; 4 p.m. Saturday, Channel 3
  • Opening ceremony: 12:25 p.m. Saturday, followed by pro motos in both classes.