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Twenty years after building track, retired Navy mechanic shares his passion for riding
Ross Kepner is standing next to a bulldozer a few steps outside his garage when a P-3 Orion aircraft appears above the treetops.
The sound is loud enough to stifle conversation, yet Kepner hardly flinches. He’s lived on his North Whidbey property for 23 years and is used to the aircrafts that soar over his home regularly as they approach the air field at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
“They’re only about 700 feet over our house,” said Kepner, a retired Naval aviation structural mechanic. “You get used to the noise. I’ve never had any issues with it.”
Kepner is no stranger to engine noise. On the back half of his five-acre property is a motocross track he built shortly after moving in.
His passion for racing turned into the creation of what is now Oak Harbor Motocross, the only public motocross track in Island County.
Riders who sign a waiver can ride to their heart’s content on Kepner’s track.
He set up the track as nonprofit venture with riders’ donations helping cover track improvements and upkeep.
“You don’t do it for the money,” Kepner said. “You do it because you love it and you want to give back to the community.”
Kepner, 52, began riding motocross bikes when he was 7 but didn’t get interested in racing until after he retired from the Navy in 2000.
He competed in what he calls an “old-timers’ series,” and won the 2004 Pacific Northwest Challenge in the 40-and-older division. The series consisted of five races.
Kepner doesn’t like to sit still. He owns a construction company and builds and remodels houses. When he’s home, he’s often grooming the track or taking one of his bikes out for a ride. He speaks glowingly of his family’s understanding for his passion, including his wife of 23 years, Belinda.
He is grateful that he can share his passion by providing other motocross enthusiasts a place to ride and train.
“I grew up on bikes,” said Kepner, who’s from Los Angeles. “We rode our whole lives. I didn’t get serious about bikes again until I got up here.”
Kepner said he gets riders of all ages, gender and different skill levels on his track. He’s watched riders from age 4 to 71 turn up the dirt.
Kepner knows full well the inherent risks of the sport and offers his wisdom at every chance. His garage is full of extra helmets and chest protectors that he loans out. He says he won’t let anyone ride across his parking lot without a helmet.
Safety is paramount on his mind yet he realizes accidents and injuries are part of riding motocross. There are 21 jumps on his mile-long course.
“In 20 years, I’ve never had anybody sue me,” Kepner said. “We’ve had more broken bones around here than I care to admit. That’s the hazard when you put your leg over these things.”
Kepner said he still isn’t fully recovered from his own accident on his course nearly two years ago that broke his back and put him in a body brace for three months.
He said he was only going a little over 10 mph when he turned sharply to try to avoid another rider, came to an abrupt stop and tumbled over his handle bars into a large puddle of water. When he landed, his chest struck a chunk of wood that was submerged and undetectable. Even with a chest protector, the impact fractured two vertebrae in his back.
The body brace kept Kepner “on the couch” for three months and he thought about giving up riding once he recovered.
“That lasted about five minutes,” he said with a laugh.
Gene Cardella, a chief warrant officer in the Navy, understands his older brother’s passion and also rides on the track.
He said that Kepner’s track is well known around the Whidbey Island naval base.
Naval aviators recognize the track on their approach and sometimes will point out to Cardella that they saw his brother on his tractor. Kepner said many of the riders on his track are affiliated with the Navy.
“If you want a cheap way to ride owning a track is not it,” Cardella said. “He’s put a lot of blood sweat and tears into it. It’s a passion of his.”
Kepner said he’s had a lot of help from the fraternity of riders who show up regularly to groom the track. And a lot of understanding from his wife from the day the property was purchased.
“She asked me, ‘Why do you want 5 acres?’” Kepner said. “I told her I wanted to build a motocross track. And I did. Here it is 20 years later.”
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