GAMBIER – For motocross riders across the country, racing at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch is a lifelong dream.
The private course, located in western Tennessee, is seen as the sport’s holy land. It’s where the best of the best compete each year in the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship, the world’s largest and most prestigious amateur motocross racing program.
Most motocross riders spend their lives vying for a trip to Loretta Lynn’s. Many never make it. This week, Gambier 7-year-old Baylee Arsenault will do just that.
Arsenault will race Wednesday, Thursday and Friday on the nation’s biggest stage. She’ll be one of 122 riders in her age group, and one of just five girls.
She’s only been racing for 10 months, and already Arsenault has established herself as one of the world’s premier amateur motocross riders.
“Going to Loretta’s is something that people never will do oftentimes,” said her mother, Chelsea Arsenault. “So it’s kind of a miracle that she gets to go her first year ever.”
Baylee qualified for nationals last month by placing 10th at her regional race, held in Byron, Illinois. Although only the top six regional finishers are guaranteed a spot at Loretta Lynn’s, she moved up because qualified riders will typically move around.
In the 4-to-6-year-old age bracket (Baylee qualifies because her birthday was after Jan. 1), riders can qualify in one of three classes – 51cc special limited, 51cc shaft drive limited or 51cc limited. Some will qualify for nationals in multiple classes, but they must choose one to compete in. When riders are forced to choose, those on the fringe of automatic qualification will move into the mix.
Injuries and disqualifications can also cause riders to drop out of national contention, thus creating spots for riders like Baylee.
Even though the Arsenaults had a good feeling Baylee would qualify, given her strong regional finish, they still waited nervously for almost a month before the final list came out. They had stopped at a Johnstown gas station three weeks ago, on their way to Chillicothe for another race, when an email came across Chelsea’s phone. It was from MX Sports, the organization that runs the national race.
“When they sent it, everybody was looking, so it was glitching. So we actually couldn’t look,” Chelsea recalls now, laughing. “So I’m clicking, clicking, clicking, clicking. And it’s not working, and I’m like, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’”
When the website began working again, Chelsea looked under the 51cc shaft drive limited category and began to cry. So did her husband, Cody, and Baylee herself.
Baylee had made the cut.
“Waiting until the roster came out, we were freaking out. Like, ‘Is she gonna be on it? Is she not?’” Chelsea said. “Of course, we kind of knew that she was. But still, just seeing it was what we wanted to see.”
It’s difficult to grasp just how challenging it is to make the national list. According to Loretta Lynn’s website, nearly 25,000 racers of all ages attempt to qualify in 33 classes for the 1,400 positions available at nationals. That means Baylee is among the top five percent of racers in the country. She will be one of just five in her age group from Ohio; she will also be the only rider from the central Ohio region.
“In that particular class, we may see one or two people from the northeast Ohio, central Ohio area go to the nationals,” said Derek Everett, a motocross announcer who calls nearly 50 races a year in northern Ohio. “It’s a pretty prestigious honor to be representing that class at that level.”
In many ways, Baylee Arsenault is just like any other 7-year-old girl.
Her favorite food is chicken nuggets. She has three “favorite” colors, but her go-to is blue. She likes horse movies and drawing.
When she’s on her red Yamaha PW50, however, her competitive instinct takes over.
Chelsea remembers one race, at Route 62 MX Track in Martinsburg, when Baylee crashed near the start. As she charged back into contention in the ensuing laps, Chelsea and Cody watched from the sideline. Every time she rode by, it sounded like she was screaming.
“I couldn’t tell if something’s broken or what,” Chelsea said, “and she screamed all the way back to the pit.”
When they met up with Baylee after the race, her head was hung. They asked her what was wrong – she finished second after starting in a seemingly insurmountable hole.
“I didn’t get first,” Baylee told her parents. “I didn’t get back to first.”
“And I’m like, ‘You’re that mad over that?’” Chelsea recalls now. “That’s freaking awesome that she cares that much.”
In a chicken-egg scenario, Baylee’s parents believe racing has helped develop her competitiveness, not the other way around.
“I think a lot of that has come from racing, because she’s naturally a pretty easy-going person. We don’t have a lot of problems with her, she’s not in trouble a lot. She’s not very sassy like most girls,” Chelsea said. “So I think the competitiveness, I think a lot of that has come from racing.”
Baylee’s favorite thing about racing, she says, is winning. When she crosses the finish line first, she kicks her legs out to the side in joy. When she loses, she can barely contain herself.
All great riders have this do-or-die competitive edge, Everett said.
“You have to be willing to press the envelope whenever the position’s on the line. And if it’s a last-lap scenario and there’s only one or two turns left, you have to be determined to make that extra pass to get that extra position,” said Everett, who has called almost all of Baylee’s races so far.
“I’ve seen her do that at 75, 80 percent of the races that she’s been in this year. She’s been right there for position towards the end of the race, and she just gives it that extra 110 percent to put her over the edge and make that extra pass towards the end of the race to put her even further up the pack.”
As Baylee has progressed, Chelsea said, she’s become increasingly competitive. She’s improved drastically over the last few months. Her parents will take her to to Route 62 MX Track for Friday night practice sessions, which are scheduled to last from 5-10 p.m. After five hours in the heat, Baylee still cries when her parents tell her it’s time to go home.
“Some of our friends will be like, ‘We need a break or a weekend off [from racing],’” Chelsea said. “And we’re like, ‘Do you want to take a break?’ ‘No, I want to ride.’ Every day, every weekend.”
Baylee’s also fueled by those who doubt her. As much as she loves winning, she also has a chip on her shoulder. Baylee is a girl competing in a sport dominated by boys. She’ll be one of the few girls in this week’s national field, and she’s typically one of only a handful at local races.
Sometimes, she’ll get comments. One boy told her earlier this year that she was “really fast for a girl.” Announcers will occasionally confuse her gender, especially because riders are covered head-to-toe in racing gear while they’re on the track. She doesn’t wear pink equipment, either. “I don’t like to wear girl stuff,” she says.
Most of all, Baylee hates being called “cute.” Nothing makes her race harder.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just get mad.”
Then, she’ll win or post a top-five finish (Baylee stays consistently in that range, Chelsea said). After No. 728 unleashes 15 minutes of fury on her competitors, the “cute” perception tends to fade away quickly.
“Lots of times, for the most part, after they see her ride they’re like, ‘That’s freaking awesome,’” Chelsea said. “But then there’s a few dads that get really mad if she beats their son, which makes it even better.”
The final piece of Baylee’s greatness is her racetrack intelligence. She’s able to balance her competitiveness with a seasoned approach to racing, despite her inexperience.
“She’s very, very smart,” Chelsea said. “She makes good lines, and I don’t know why she’s really good at getting through really rough ruts and stuff, because her bike is so tiny. Most kids, it’s really hard to get through super big ruts and stuff. For some reason, she’s always been really good at that.”
Baylee might not be the biggest or the fastest rider on the course, but she understands how to win. Everett has seen this first-hand. Smart racers, like Baylee, are “artists,” he says.
“They draw a smooth line all the way around the race course without having any jagged edges,” Everett said. “They’re very creative, they’re very methodical about their line and placement, and then they remember that in the back of their mind when they come up to that section the next lap around.”
‘She was just hooked’
Making it to motocross's holy land has been somewhat of a family prophecy for the Arsenaults.
Cody, an upstate New York native, grew up racing his quad in the woods. He eventually competed in the Grand National Cross Country Series. When he met Chelsea in Florida, he was attending college to become a motocross mechanic. The two eventually married and traveled the country, as Cody worked for a Texas rider named Crockett Myers, who would one day turn pro.
Deep down, Chelsea and Cody had always hoped one of their own children would get involved in motocross. They loved everything about the sport; in fact, when Baylee was born on July 28 (during the week of nationals), they bought her a Loretta Lynn’s onesie. In the hospital that week, they watched the races on television.
“We always were just like, this would be so awesome… it’s her birthday, so this would just be so, so cool,” Chelsea said. “But you just don’t ever think, having a little girl, that dream is ever going to come true.”
Baylee began biking with training wheels at the age of 2. By 5, her parents let her try a dirt bike. Cody had built her a quarter-mile course in the woods behind their house, replete with whoops (small, repetitive bumps) and tight turns, so Baylee could learn the fundamentals before she began racing. Baylee first competed on Sept. 23, 2018 – her mother has the date memorized – and hasn’t looked back since.
“She was just hooked,” Chelsea recalled. “Like, she loved it.”
Now, Baylee practices every day, either on her backyard course or at Route 62 MX Track. She raced indoors in the winter, then carried that momentum outdoors in the spring. The Arsenaults have traveled far and wide to take Baylee to her next competition.
“She would literally ride her bike from sun-up to sun-down if we let her,” Chelsea said. “We will go practice and kids will be like, ‘I’m done, I’m done. I’m tired.’ Never. She cries to go home every time. She’s obsessed.”
According to Chelsea, it’s self-driven. Baylee is “too hard on herself,” her mother says. While other parents may yell or scream at their kids to do better, the Arsenaults try to do the opposite.
Chelsea said she’s not concerned about Baylee burning out one day, despite her daughter’s obsession with the sport at a young age.
“I don’t worry about that with her really, because we’ve never ever had to push her to do this, it’s just something that she [wants to do],” Chelsea said. “And if she did [need a break], we would be like, ‘OK, fine. You need a break, you can have a break. That’s fine.’ But we’ve never had to push her at all. This is all, 100 percent, her.”
It’s hard to tell what the future holds when it comes to Baylee’s motocross career. She’s only been racing for 10 months, but she’s already considered elite. She’s seen the fruits of her labor – “hard work pays off,” she quips – and she’s hungry for more.
When asked about future goals, Baylee Arsenault has it all planned out. Sort of.
“I want to be a professional,” she says.
Her mom raises her eyebrows.
“But I really want to be a vet because I love animals,” Baylee adds.
As for Loretta Lynn’s this week, Baylee is hoping to stay competitive. The Tennessee course will be the toughest and longest she’s competed on.
Then again, what does Baylee have to lose? She’s fulfilling a lifelong dream at the age of 7. And she’s doing it with the odds stacked against her.
“Nationally, if you were one of the top 20 fastest kids in the country, that’d be awesome,” Chelsea says, looking at her daughter for approval. Baylee nods. “So at least if we were in the top half, we’d be cool with that.”