As a plane makes its final approach to the nearby airport, a Freestyle Motocross competitor practices a jump in preperation for the Panasonic Open Wednesday, June 8, 2005, in Louisville, Ky. The event is the first in a new series of action sports competitions featurning skateboard, BMX and dirt bikes. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. Once dismissed as nuisances far removed from mainstream sports, skateboarders, off-road bikers and motocross riders have hit the big time. And now they have their own league to prove it.
A new series of events kicks off this week, featuring athletes in the three sports in six competitions. The Panasonic Open is the first of five events in the Dew Action Sports Tour. There will be competitions monthly, ending with the Playstation Pro in Orlando, Fla., in October.
But to the athletes, it's just another few days of skating or riding.
''It's just what I normally do,'' 15-year-old skateboarder Ryan Sheckler said. ''I don't think about it. I didn't even know where it was, I just came.''
The tour will have a cumulative point system, building up to a prize of $3.5 million, not including a custom Toyota truck, and personal deals with sponsors, including Panasonic, Vans shoes, and Mountain Dew. NBC and the USA Network will broadcast more than 32 hours of the competition, beginning Saturday.
Just don't call the sports ''extreme.''
''Everyone in America is using that word,'' freestyle motocross rider Beau Bamburg said. ''Everything's extreme. You've got extreme toothpaste.''
The athletes prefer to call the events action sports.
For the first stop on the tour, the University of Louisville basketball court in Freedom Hall has been transformed into a skate and bike park. An aging football stadium at the state fairgrounds has been covered with 10,000 tons of dirt, organizers said, and converted to a BMX and FMX track. Athletes rode and skated for a few available spots on the tour in an open qualifier event Wednesday.
The parking lot at the Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center is now a festival village, with a music stage and sponsors' attractions, including a Mountain Dew-themed house, a trailer full of Playstation products, and a station where fans can custom design their own Vans shoes. Tour officials say they expect up to 100,000 fans over the four-day event that starts Thursday.
BMX rider Allan Cooke said he's happy to get as much exposure to the sports as possible. He said critics who think the street sports have gone too corporate should give it a try.
Only the exposure has changed, tour general manager Wade Martin said.
''The key to that issue is that everything inside the ropes, on the courses, doesn't change,'' he said. ''As long as we continue to represent the sports properly, in the competition arena, I'm not sure it matters how big it gets outside, and how many banners and how many hours of TV. It's important that we keep the integrity of the competitions in tact and that's something we're striving to do all the time.''
Only a few years ago, an organized tour was a lot harder sell to action athletes. In 1999 a top BMX rider walked out of a meeting with Martin and NBC executive Kevin Monaghan, after Monaghan suggested, among other things, that the athletes wear uniforms, Monaghan said.
More input from the athletes was one of the keys to success, Monaghan said. Former and current action athletes and judges helped design the courses that will be used on the tour.
''In the subsequent years, I think we've done a really good job of listening,'' Monaghan said. ''You really have to give something back to the sport, show the athletes you're willing to listen.''
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