It had been about 35 years and 16 surgeries since Carey Steiner last rode a motocross bike. At 55, she was far removed from her younger days of racing 60 miles per hour across rugged tracks of dirt, holding her own against the best riders in the nation and battling men who went to extremes to avoid losing to a girl, including running her over. Her hands are still calloused from clutching the handlebars, hanging on for dear life.
Living in her quiet home in Olney, the glory days of winning a national motocross championship seemed like another lifetime for Steiner.
And then the phone rang recently.
A special event was being held at Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernandino, California, to recognize and celebrate 40 years of women’s motocross. A nationwide racing club based in southern California was organizing the event and gathering all of the current standout drivers and past champions, including Hall of Famer Sue Fish and other well-known icons in the sport, such as Dede Cates. The list also included Steiner, who at the age of 19 claimed the 1978 Women’s Motocross National Championship at Carlsbad International Raceway. Steiner had emerged as one of the best young riders in the country when she upset Fish in the championship race. But only a few years later, Steiner surprised the racing world by announcing her retirement and stepping out of the spotlight. She spent a few years racing off-road trucks, and once again developed into an expert driver, competing in the King of Hammers, considered the most hardcore off-road race in the world. But after another successful stint, Steiner stepped away from the sport. For 25 years she worked for the Los Angeles City Fire Department, and after retiring in 2010 she was fed up with city life. She moved to the Flathead.
“I wanted to live off the grid,” she says.
Women’s professional motocross racing is at a crossroads, and many enthusiasts worry it’s even on the edge of extinction. That fear led organizers to seek a way to spark interest and excitement into the sport, which led to the 40-year celebration and races among champions.
When Steiner received a phone call, they asked her if she would race.
“I just had shoulder and elbow surgery in March and May. But to gather together all of these past champions is just a once in a lifetime thing,” she says.
Steiner agreed to race. But first she needed a bike.
She contacted the owners of Penco Power Products in Kalispell and explained the situation. Right away they said, “Come on down and see what we got.”
When Steiner arrived, there was a brand-new motocross bike waiting for her.
Steiner borrowed the bike and, for the first time in over 30 years, she drove a few practice rides on the outskirts of the valley.
“I could only do two laps,” she says.
Despite that, she traveled to California two weeks ago ready to race. She arrived to a champion’s welcome, as organizers and fans cheered on Steiner and other former professionals. But to her surprise, just before the race, Steiner found out none of the other riders from her era were actually going to race. Instead it was Steiner up against the latest lineup of young riders.
“I was scared to death. I hadn’t been on a track forever. I assumed the older women would be racing,” Steiner says.
Instead of backing out, Steiner stuck with it and lined up at the start. Her heart was beating like a drum and her hands were tightly clenched around the handlebars.
No one could have predicted what happened next.
The starter fired the gun and Steiner blazed out of the chute with a loud dust storm. It’s called a holeshot, a term that describes when a driver hits full throttle immediately and fires out of the starting area faster than anyone else.
Steiner’s spectacular start carried into an unforgettable race; the 55-year-old former professional finished second in her first race and third in her second race after achieving yet another holeshot.
“My hands were almost coming off the bars but I held the (eventual winner) until the very end,” Steiner says. “It felt phenomenal.”
After signing autographs and helping celebrate women’s motocross, Steiner quietly returned home. But she brought with her a good reminder that she hopes to pass on to other women about racing and overcoming their fear to chase their dreams.
“Once racing is in your blood, it’s hard to get out,” she says.