Motocross-racing Alum, Family Steer Toward the Weekends
Dirt bike racer Amanda Knapp Ph.D. ’13, associate vice provost and assistant dean of undergraduate academic affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is a star in the sport and an ambassador for broadening its appeal.
Though Amanda Knapp Ph.D. ’13 had been riding motorcycles since her feet could reach the foot pegs, she was 34 the first time she suited up for a race. She didn’t know what would happen on the muddy, technically challenging track through the woods once her dirt bike crossed the starting line and she was elbow-to-elbow with 300 competitors, but told herself, “I just have to do it.”
That’s also what Knapp, associate vice provost and assistant dean of undergraduate academic affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, told herself more than two decades ago as a first-generation college student steering through the college application process.
“My entire career is to help other students break down those barriers and overcome those fears,” Knapp said. “For me, getting on the race line, being surrounded by 300 competitors, mostly men, was terrifying. You have to learn to push through those fears, push yourself beyond that comfort zone.”
Though Knapp and her competitors have been sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic, she’s still a star in the sport with two championship wins in 2019 and many sponsors behind her. Knapp has frequently been featured in dirt bike magazines, and was recently highlighted in Toyota’s Makeup2Mud campaign and the “2 Wheeled Rider” motorcycle touring podcast.
“I’m really proud that I’ve been able to have an impact on the riding community to show that you can be any age,” Knapp said, “you can be a mom, you can be a full-time employee and still do this. It’s possible.”
Although the number of women in the sport has grown enough to establish separate classes of female competitors—which Knapp attributes to an expansion of riding clinics, clubs and organizations geared toward women—she’s often one of the few women on the track during a race. She avoids wearing pink or feminine-looking gear that could draw attention to herself, but has still experienced challenges during a race. Not everyone follows track “etiquette,” as Knapp calls it.
“There are so many more people who are positive, so you can’t let those few outweigh the hundreds and hundreds of people who are cheering for women,” Knapp said.
Kenneth Held, American Motorcyclist Association off-road racing commissioner, said Knapp is his biggest ambassador for broadening the appeal of the sport.
Held owns Team Perfect Storm, a youth off-road racing team comprised of two girls and five boys. Knapp is someone the girls “admire, and she’s a professional; that’s the best part,” he said.
Knapp attends weekend rider clinics held by professional racers for girls and women of all ages. She called the clinics an uplifting experience for participants, saying “it’s about being there with other women who are all there to help each other.”
Those who are unfamiliar with dirt bikes may have a misperception that the sport is about “partying and tattoos,” she said, but it was clear from her first time at the track that racing is a family-oriented affair of shared potluck meals and keeping an eye on each other’s children. And despite the competitive atmosphere, racers are always quick to offer up spare parts when someone’s bike needs a tune-up.
“When I go out to a race, I’m joined by hundreds of families from all over the place,” she said. “We’re all there helping each other.”
Ryan Knapp, Amanda’s husband and the director of operations at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at UMD, compared the races to festivals, in that they “create a city over a weekend,” full of shared interests and friendship.
Everyone in the Knapp family—including the couple’s three children and her parents—ride dirt bikes. Only she, Ryan and their middle son, Riley, race competitively.
While it might be nerve-wracking for parents to watch a child who can’t yet drive a car speed off on two wheels, Knapp said it’s all about making good choices. She knows her children were taught safe riding techniques and always wear protective gear.
On New Year’s Day every year, the Knapp family gathers around the huge wall calendar hanging in their kitchen. They start filling in the weekends, scheduling basketball, Boy Scouts and other commitments around motorcycle races.
Racing has taught valuable lessons to the Knapp children—a sense of community, commitment, taking good care of yourself and helping others—and Amanda and Ryan find that racing benefits their work lives.
For Ryan, it’s a sense of crisis management: While racing, he said, everything is immediate, and in the competition for points and titles, every second counts.
For Amanda, it’s a form of stress relief. Her time on the bike clears her mind of other demands as she focuses on the rapidly changing terrain in front of her. Though the 250-pound bike requires every muscle to control, leaving Amanda sore after weekends spent riding and racing, it allows her to work as “a better, happier person.”
“Work-life balance is such a critical thing,” she said. “We all need to find that thing we’re really passionate about, that thing that drives us.”
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