By BOB BENNETT
Some six-year-olds are content to graduate from training wheels to a big-kid bicycle. When Samantha Slingerland turned 6, she asked her dad for a dirt bike.
Slingerland, a freshman majoring in forest operations at Paul Smith’s College, is a nationally ranked professional flat track motorcycle racer. Sam the Shredder, as she’s known in the racing community, has been fascinated by dirt bikes since her father took her to the races when she was 4. He bought her a mini dirt bike with a 50cc engine a couple of years later.
Soon, she was racing – and winning. She climbed through a succession of larger bikes and competed in dozens of amateur races. By 2012, she was ranked third in the country. In 2015, she turned pro. And Slingerland has finished in the top three ever since.
Flat track is the NASCAR of dirt-bike racing. Racers don’t leave the ground, unlike motocross riders who hit huge jumps that send them hurling through the air. But flat track is faster than motocross. Slingerland has been clocked at 115 mph.
“It’s very dangerous, but I still love it,” she says. “I love the adrenaline. Being next to 18 roaring motors really gets your blood pumping. As a little kid, I dreamed of making a living racing, but as I grew older, I started to think that maybe the cons outweighed the pros.”
The danger is the biggest con for Slingerland. She knows people who have died, and she suffered a serious concussion herself in the fall. For races on bigger tracks with hard-packed surfaces she races with full protection, including a neck brace, a kidney belt that protects her from puncture wounds and a full-leather suit that has still more safety features built in.
The other drawback: Flat track is a rich person’s hobby. A standard dirt bike goes for about $9,000, but flat-track bikes require special suspensions and tires, which cost at least $5,000. Traveling to all the different races gets expensive, too. Last year, Slingerland spent $10,000 on travel and race-entry fees. She races in about 15 states, mostly in the Northeast and Georgia, Illinois and Florida. She went racing three different times during the fall semester. When you routinely finish in the top three like Slingerland, the purses offset some of those costs, but it’s still not enough to make a living, she says.
“I’m learning to be a lumberjack instead,” she says. “I’m looking at getting into sawmill production back in New Hampshire.”
In the meantime, and for the foreseeable future, she’ll continue racing. She has races lined up in Florida, Delaware and Pennsylvania in March. At those races, Slingerland will sport the logo of Paul Smith’s, which signed on recently as one of her sponsors.
“My parents are my biggest supporters, though,” Slingerland says. “I’m so thankful for them and all that racing has provided me. I’m friends with 1,400 people on Facebook because of racing. It’s a tight-knit community.”