J. J. Concannon hasn’t just been riding a motorcycle as far back as he can remember—he’s been riding one since before he can remember.
When he was 3, his parents took him to several acres of property near Custer and let him ride for hours on a 50-cc Suzuki motorcycle. By age 5, he was racing in his first motocross race at Bellingham’s Hannegan Speedway, finishing third in his class.
“I have no memory of that,” says J.J., whose first name is actually Jacob.
Now 15, Concannon is a competitive amateur motocross rider who races across the United States. This year, he accomplished a major goal: qualifying for the prestigious Amateur National Motocross Championship, held each summer at country music icon Loretta Lynn’s ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.
The event, in its 40th year, uses a series of area and regional qualifying races to select the top 40 motocross riders, in multiple age-based divisions, from across the U.S. and the world. Concannon is the first Whatcom County rider to qualify for the event since the 1990s.
“Every kid wants one of those tickets,” says his father Jaime, of earning a literal paper ticket to compete at the ANMC.
At the Concannon’s Whatcom County home, sitting atop a fireplace surrounded by trophies and medals, are three large qualifier tickets. Getting these, however, was the byproduct of years of work.
Learning to Fly
Concannon comes from a motocross family. His uncle and grandfather on his mom’s side raced motorcycles at Hannegan in the 1970s and 80s, and it was his uncle who bought Concannon his first bike. Today, in fact, the two—along with help from his mom and dad—manage Hannegan as nearly one half of the track’s nine trustees.
The feeling of freedom and independence that comes with racing a motorcycle is hard to explain, Concannon says, and is best experienced for yourself.
“It’s a huge adrenaline rush,” he says. “You’re out there by yourself, no one’s telling you what to do. You can’t hear anybody over the sound of a motorcycle.”
As a 5-year-old racing in his first season of 50-cc motorcycles at Hannegan, Jaime says the goals for his son were simple: have fun, be safe, and don’t get lapped. J.J. accomplished all of them.
“I think he was faster than me when he was five, and he’s never looked back,” says Jaime, who didn’t throw his leg over a dirt bike until he was 35.
After a couple years at the 50-cc level, J.J. transitioned to 65-cc bikes. Jaime says the move is seen as a defining point for most riders, forcing kids to learn how to work a clutch, shift without stalling the bike, and utilize both front and rear braking systems.
J.J. adapted quickly, and it became clear he was an above-average talent. At age 8, he attempted to qualify for his first ANMC on a 65-cc, lining up against the likes of gifted riders like Haiden Deegan, son of freestyle motocross legend Brian Deegan. He didn’t make the cut, but it whet J.J.’s appetite for continuing to attempt making the pinnacle event in amateur motocross racing.
As he got older, Concannon began riding more powerful bikes—125-cc and 250-cc—at more and more places outside the confines of Hannegan. There were trips to places like Grays Harbor and Washougal, in Southwestern Washington, and—in more recent years—to tracks in California, Florida, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. In the last two years, Jaime estimates they’ve been on the road about 48 weekends per year.
“One of the biggest comments people make about him is that it looks like he’s going slow,” Jaimie says of his son’s riding. “He’s so smooth. He’s passing people, but it doesn’t look like he’s going that fast.”
After graduating from Roosevelt Elementary School and Whatcom Middle School, Concannon was to attend Squalicum High School in 2020. But then the pandemic struck. Being thrust into remote learning allowed the Concannons to realize home-based schooling was ideal for J.J., freeing up more flexibility for additional motocross travelling.
As a result, J.J. is now fully schooled through Washington Connections Academy, a state-accredited, tuition-free, online public school program. During the school-year, Concannon’s home-based weeks consist of twice-weekly gym visits and weekend riding. On travel weekends, he’ll do homework on his laptop while his parents drive to the next track.
When Concannon is seeing a private motocross coach in California or training at a motocross facility, his schedule is more strenuous. Twice-a-day gym workouts and 2- to 3-hour riding sessions every day, plus working on his bike.
The rest of the family also helps out. His uncle, an aircraft mechanic, does a fair amount of wrenching on his nephew’s bikes, and J.J.’s grandparents also help when they can. The family has two vans and a large trailer for traveling with the motorcycles and gear; at this level, nothing is cheap or easy.
“It takes a village to do this,” Jamie says.
Fast and Fearless
Like any sport, and particularly any motorsport, risk of injury always lingers.
In motocross, where riders speed along heavily-rutted dirt tracks with 100-plus-foot jumps in close proximity to dozens of other riders, getting hurt is practically unavoidable.
Despite wearing high-quality helmets, chest-protecting bruise guards, beefy knee braces and ankle guards, Concannon has broken his arm, separated the ligaments in both shoulders more than once, and been knocked out several times. A friend of his once broke his back.
But like many athletes, the mentality of motocross riders is to not fixate on injury, but on how quickly they can heal and get back to their bikes.
“It’s no joke,” says Jaime, of the risks. As a parent, he says the best thing he can do to minimize his son’s risk is to invest in the best safety equipment and training and trust it will be enough.
“At the end of the day, it’s your child that’s out there,” he says. “I don’t care how good they are; if you can’t protect them, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sending them out there.”
In May, Concannon travelled to Farm 14, a motocross track in Centreville, Mississippi, to try qualifying for this August’s ANMC.
Facing a crowded field of more than 60 C-class riders, some 10 years older than him, Concannon finished third in each of the three divisions he ran—125cc, 250-cc limited ages 12-17, and 250-cc limited—to successfully qualify for the event. Only the top six finishers in each race qualified.
It took seven years, but after finally earning his tickets to ANMC, Concannon is spending large portions of his summer training at Farm 14 in preparation for the big show. He will compete in the 250-cc limited and 250-cc 12-17 divisions, and says he expects to finish Top 10 at minimum.
His second focus is on improving his speed enough to come back and qualify in the B class of riders in 2022. Eventually, he says, he hopes to become a professional motocross rider.
“That’s the main goal,” Concannon says. “Even if I don’t go professional, I’d like to stay in the (motocross) community some way, somehow. It’s kind of like a drug; I’m addicted to it.”