In the early days of BMX racing in the Quad-Cities, Paul DePauw remembers transporting everything he needed for an event — from sponsorship signs and trophies, to coolers and a PA system — in his 1973 Volkswagen camper.
“The entire race was loaded into that van,” he recalled this week. “When you’re the track operator and you start from ground zero, you learn to improvise at the highest level because you could be hosting 500 people.”
From cleaning toilets to calling races, DePauw, 47, of Geneseo, has done it all during his near 25-year tenure as the area front man for the extreme sport.
The all-volunteer effort has resulted in the development of the East Moline BMX Speedway, the undisputed mecca for organized bicycle racing on dirt in the Quad-Cities.
Somewhat hidden off a frontage road south of Avenue of the Cities, the 1,000-foot track, complete with jumps and berms, is sandwiched between the Rock Island County Fairgrounds and Reynolds Motor Co.
Almost 20 years since its inception, the nonprofit course, which started as a "flat piece of ground," has become the "best-kept secret" in the Quad-Cities, one DePauw hopes more people uncover this summer.
Last week, hundreds of spectators and about 85 competitors gathered there for Olympic Night, an annual family-friendly event that drew a mix of veteran and newbie riders for an evening of free races.
The nostalgia-inducing affair sparked memories for those who hadn’t been to the site in years.
Positioned on each side of their 2½-year-old son, Emmett, parents Jessica Clark and John Mills introduced their rookie racer to the track for the first time.
Riding a balance bike, which lacks pedals, chains and training wheels, Emmett propelled himself with his feet and relied on his folks’ steering to lead him from the starting gate to the finish line.
Clark, who frequented the facility in high school, said she wants her son to try every sport.
“I loved it when I raced,” she said, “so hopefully, he’ll really love it, too.”
Although it’s more niche than mainstream sports, such as baseball or basketball, BMX is similar to other pastimes that are passed down from generation to generation.
Take Zach Stulir's story, for example. His father got him hooked when he was 9.
The now early 20-something dusted off his bike and donned old gear for the recent night of races, his first time out in about three years.
“The track’s all different,” Stulir said during a break. “It’s like a whole new experience.”
Despite other changes, the level of camaraderie at the Speedway hasn't wavered, Stulir said.
Across the grounds, participants of all ages and abilities traded high-fives and compliments as they passed each other between runs, support that starts at the top and trickles down.
Serving as play-by-play announcer, DePauw shouted a variety of colorful phrases, including “bad to the bone,” to describe the night's performances.
Devoted BMX dad Bryan Dennis touted the many benefits of the sport he thinks is often misunderstood.
“Nobody ever sits on the bench,” he said. “Anybody can race.”
BMX bikes, DePauw noted, range in price from $250 to $3,000.
Dennis, a member of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local Union 25, said the activity also gives his children confidence and “keeps them out of trouble.”
Seconding that sentiment, DePauw, who began racing at age 11, called it a great individual sport.
“When you’re in the gate, you’re on your own, and there’s no team that’s going to help you," he said.
As he found his groove under the bright lights last week, Stulir decided he probably won't wait another three years to return.
"I'm too competitive to do it once," he said with a grin.
Building an institution
After taking a beating on Olympic Night, the course received a major makeover last weekend.
DePauw and a crew of helpers skim-coated, or resurfaced it with a mixture of glue, water and dirt, which hardened the surface and got rid of any loose, lingering dust.
The upgrade comes just in time for Olympian Nicholas Long's visit next weekend. The professional BMX racer, who finished fourth in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, will host a training session for aspiring athletes on Saturday, June 24.
BMX racing became a medal sport at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
"It's had a lot of ups and downs," said DePauw, referring to the fluctuating popularity of the sport. "But we're on an upswing, and I think it's getting back in its prime."
Prior to landing its current home in 1998, he hosted races at Green Valley Nature Preserve in Moline, where the sport had an on-again, off-again presence dating back to the early 1980s.
The revival followed a few dormant years in wake of a short-lived stint in Orion, Illinois.
Earlier this spring, DePauw decided to hand over the reins of BMX Racing Zone, a retail and repair shop in East Moline, to friend and fellow enthusiast, Bobby Parker.
Although he still owns the building, DePauw no longer oversees the business he ran for 23 years.
The real estate investor, who manages several properties in the Illinois Quad-Cities, hopes the move will allow him to spend more time preserving and bettering his beloved track.
"Sometimes, I look around at what we've done, and I think it's for some kid I don't even know yet, 10 years down the road," he said, crediting other people for their "wonderful" work. "I want to lay deep roots."