With John McConnell and his family, the expression “like father, like son” has taken on a new twist.
At 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 16, those in attendance will find three generations of the McConnell family racing in the amateur class competition at High Point Raceway in Mount Morris.
McConnell ‘s twin daughters, Jessica Coombs and Melanie Mara, followed in his footsteps as avid motocross racers. But the story doesn’t stop there because McConnell’s wife, Valerie, has also raced for 15 years, and his 13 year-old grandson, Cade Coombs, is now starting to extend the family’s passion for the sport.
Ironically, Jessica married Timmy Coombs, the son of Dave Coombs who runs the races at High Point. The Coombs family would babysit the twins while their parents registered for the races, and the two families continued to share their interest in motocross over the years.
“When I was younger, Timmy always told me to call him when I turned 18,” Jessica said. “In 1999, when I was 22, we met at an after-race party and hung out. We’ve been together ever since and married in 2001.”
Over the years, McConnell, 64, of Shaler Township (Allegheny County) hasn’t missed a single year racing at High Point and figures he must have ridden the course over 100 times.
In 1980, he got his professional license and raced all over the East Coast, for 6 years until he got older and his age became a limiting factor.
“Motocross is very physically demanding and is up there with soccer,” he said. “Most pros start around the age of 16 and continue to about 30. In a race, they’re on the course for 35 to 40 minutes without a break, twice a day, which is very challenging.”
McConnell first got into biking at age 18 when he got a Suzuki 185 and rode it in the woods around his home. After getting interested in racing, he and his wife, who met in the tenth grade, entered their first race in 1974 at Rocky Ridge, a track on a strip mine near McDonald, which has since closed.
“We went to the races all over the East and camped outside the tracks in a tent,” McConnell said. “Valerie raced in the powder puff class, now called the women’s class, and we raced everywhere from Florida to Colorado. When she got pregnant with the twins, her doctor said she could only race until month four.”
The twins started on bicycles with training wheels. Jessica said they weren’t allowed to get on their little 50 automatics until they mastered their bikes, but once they did they picked up riding very quickly.
“We both enjoy riding but didn’t take racing seriously or become competitive until about the age of 12,” Jessica said. “At the time they didn’t have a professional women’s motocross class. When it was established in the early 2000s, neither of us was willing to make professional riding a career choice.”
When McConnell turned 31, he dropped his professional career and began racing just for the fun of it.
“Through the years, racing has kept me fit, and I’m the same weight now as I was in high school,” he said.
When Loretta Lynn started the amateur championship competition on her ranch in Tennessee in 1982, Valerie signed on as one of the first competitors in the women’s class. Since then all four of the McConnell family racers have participated in the competition, but never all four in the same year. Once, McConnell finished 7th in the amateur class and daughter, Melanie, earned both a 7th and 10th place finish.
“What’s significant about the race is that bike manufacturers scout the participants much like the NFL scouts college football players,” McConnell said.
In his career, McConnell considers himself lucky because he has had only a few knee injuries. His wife sprained an ankle, Jessica broke an arm and lacerated her liver with a handlebar and Melanie broke a leg.
Some of McConnell’s fondest memories include having his photo on the cover of the Daytona Beach Sunday News Journal, winning several races in the 30-plus class in the series of the races for the state championship and winning the Supercross in the 30-plus class of the mini Olympics in Gainesville, Florida.
Jessica now works for the family as logistics coordinator, but still finds time to race. She said she handles managerial duties at races like registration and scoring, but jumps into her gear when the time comes, then hurries back to her management duties after the race is over.
“At 42, I’m still racing and do quite well at local races,” she said. “The last week of May at High Point, I raced against women half my age and still came in 20th out of a field of 30.”
Her son Cade, started racing at age 4, and Jessica said he really enjoys it.
“Even though I’ve raced for a long time, the thought of Cade making those high jumps, which he’s just started to do, scares me as his mother,” she said.
Now a three-generation family, the McConnells travel to races in three motor homes and camp outside the race tracks. With grandchildren running around outside, Valerie, now retired from racing, cooks for the family, held together with a common bond of motocross.
“The sport has had a lot to do with me and my wife succeeding in life and giving our kids a good foundation,” McConnell said. “It is something physical that they had to work for and taught them how to lose as well as win.”
“They’ve gone on to have successful careers and marriages, and motocross seems to have given them a firm understanding of the fundamentals of life.”
For more information on High Point Raceway, visit its website at https://highpointmx.com.