When contacted by phone last Monday, Donny Robinson was still numb or in pain from having had four wisdom teeth removed a few days before.
“Feeling a little rough but other than that, everything’s good,” he said. “The left side of my face is super fat. It took me an hour to eat my eggs yesterday.”
Thankfully, getting people to sign up for sessions of the BMX Racing League, which Robinson co-founded with fellow BMX veteran Jason Rogers in the fall of 2016, hasn’t been like pulling teeth at all.
“I think we’re sitting at about 56 tracks right now around the country, so it’s good,” he said. “It started here in Napa and at the end of 2017, USA BMX, the sanctioning body, adopted it and helped us scale (expand) to all the other tracks. It kinda added legitimacy to us. The first year, (Rogers) and I scaled 10 tracks across the country. Last year we got to 36 and now we’re at like 56, so I’m hoping we exceed 75 this year. As long as we have some steady growth, I’ll be happy with that.”
Robinson, the bronze medalist in BMX at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, said he can’t show up to all of the open houses across the country.
“That’s one thing I could not possibly do, although I want to,” he said. “It certainly is a benefit to have me there because I know the program and I know what the kids and the parents want. I’m fairly impactful being there in person, and it’s not necessarily my medal that does it. It’s just giving the families that environment that they want at their BMX track.
“A lot of tracks were doubtful when they heard I wasn’t going to be there, but we teach them. Anybody can do it as long as they know the recipe. It’s exciting to see how some of our first locations, in Michigan and Washington, had better turnouts than I had here in Napa during my first season, and it didn’t take me being there.”
There’s no need for him to be the face of the program, now that it’s sanctioned by USA BMX.
“Officially, they own the program now,” Robinson said. “But I’m still in the shadows. I give families weekly updates and what to expect at the next session, and those come with videos from me. They still see my face and my name, but other than that, it’s just the tracks and their volunteers running them by themselves and being under the name BMX Racing League.”
The mission of the league hasn’t changed in 2½ years, and that is “getting kids and parents back on bikes and out to the BMX track to enjoy our individual sport and show these kids of a new generation what bicycles can do for them,” said Robinson, adding that the $129 cost for a five-week session is also still the same. “All the benefits are still included – the loaner equipment, the instruction, the racing, the pizza party, the trophies. We also still brag about not having equipment fees or extra travel, too.
“Like I told the parents at this last open house (on March 17), we still have screaming parents, except our parents are screaming encouragement to all of the kids. It’s as connected to our childhood as walking, but it’s new for families who didn’t know a facility like ours and others existed.”
The first day of the spring session will be from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the North Bay BMX track, accessible from the southern end of Kennedy Park in south Napa. This session, which ends May 5, is closed. But registration is open for the next one, which will be on Wednesdays and Fridays from April 10 through May 10.
“This morning, I think I have a 145 kids signed up,” Robinson said last Monday about the session starting today. “Our record was last year at 149, so I’m pretty sure we’re going to surpass that. If we don’t, I’m going to be very upset.
“Last year we did 350 unique kids over the course of the four sessions. We have repeat kids and new kids, and we’re keeping them around. We started in the fall of 2016 and had 40 riders, then came back in spring 2017 and had 115. Spring and fall are always by far our biggest seasons.”
The 2001 Napa High School graduate said he shows his skills during open houses and sometimes during instruction, but doesn’t dwell on his career with riders.
“Not that it wouldn’t add some legitimacy to it, but most of these people that show up have no clue who I am,” he said, “and I’m OK with that. It’s not until I demonstrate some skills halfway through the league session on the track that they say ‘This guy’s kinda good – maybe he knows what he’s talking about.’ And then they Google me and figure out who I am.
“But there are a lot of kids who aspire to be something more. Some use me as inspiration, some use some of the younger kids at our track as inspiration. But the thought of going to the Olympics for most is just so farfetched that it’s not healthy. There are all of these intermediate steps you’ve got to take to eventually get to that point. But you could say ‘This is what I want to be one day’ and that would be awesome. There are people who want to be Olympians and we support that wholeheartedly.”
Robinson said he mentions the Olympic medal, that he’s been racing for 28 years and that he started in Napa only so students take him seriously.
“They respect it and they think it’s a bonus, but ultimately they’re out there for themselves and for their kids, and I want to get them exactly what they want,” he said. “My parents are still helping, so I bring them and have my mom get up and talk. That’s powerful stuff, having my mom talk to other moms. That’s more powerful than me getting up and talking about my accolades.
“We’ve got some new girls who are going to start coaching with us this season, too. Last year, out of the 149 for spring, we had 20 girls – moms included – and we’re at 20 girls for this session. My goal is to get equal participation between girls and guys, so the girl coaches will hopefully be that inspiration to the girls. I get along with the girls and we have a lot of fun, but girls looking up to other girls? You can’t beat that.”
The league has opportunities to move up to open racing, at the state, national and world level, including for his own “Dream Team” and Napa Valley Pull BMX.
He added that about a dozen colleges are offering scholarships in BMX now.
The BMX Racing League is open to ages 3-15 and 25 and older.
“Mostly they’re 10 and under, but we’re really pushing to get those early teens out as well because at they’re at an age where they’re still looking for some place to relate to, some identity, and the BMX track is a perfect place to do that.
“We also allow the parents to get involved, so we’ve got 35-year-olds and even grandpas out there doing it. I think I had 25 parents involved last spring – moms racing against moms, dads racing against dads – so whole families are doing it.”