By Nathan Mills
Special to The Globe
At 5 years old, Max Duff wanted a bike.
In that regard, he was like any other kid his age. But Max didn’t want any old bicycle. He wanted a dirt bike.
“One of his friends had gotten one … and I saw how much he loved it,” said Christine, Max’s mother. “It was like, ‘Mom, I’ve got to have one of these; I’ve got to have one of these.’ So I was like, OK. He’s loved it ever since.”
Now, after nearly a decade of building his skills on the bike, Max is a Missouri state motocross champion.
With four first-place finishes, the sophomore honor roll student at Joplin High School ended the season with 189 points in the 450cc state series, more than 50 points higher than his closest challenger. He also finished second in the 250cc series.
At first, though, Max just enjoyed his new hobby. When he and his family moved back to Joplin from Warsaw, Mo., eight years ago, he began practicing with jumps and more advanced riding.
“I just started out, and we didn’t really look into racing, didn’t really know about it,” Max said. “I just rode around in a field.”
As he evolved as a rider, it became obvious that he was a natural. Last year was Max’s first full racing season. His state championship — and the five-foot trophy in his living room — speak for themselves.
“It’s his determination (that leads to success),” Christine said. “He’s had that since he was 2.”
“I was kind of thinking it’s all the practice that I do,” Max added.
He’s confident on his bike. That confidence has helped keep him safe, as he’s suffered no serious injuries in this dangerous sport.
Unless you count whiplash or being run over by another bike, that is. Even though Max is well-protected, wearing a helmet, neck brace, chest plate and more for every race, there are still times his family gets nervous watching him on the track.
Still, those risks won’t turn them away.
“When you see him come off that track after he’s finished the race, it’s like he’s lit up like a light bulb,” Christine said. “He just glows when he comes off that track after a race, whether he’s taken first, second or third. I think that’s what keeps us doing it, seeing how much he loves it.”
With all that goes into Max’s riding, it would take nothing short of passion to keep it going.
The sport is expensive, costing about $1,000 a week, according to Christine. Boots alone cost $600 a pair. A neck brace is another $600. Helmets are $300.
Costs are offset a little by two sponsors Max picked up this year, FMF Pipes and Gaerne Boots.
Max and his dad also do all the mechanical work on his bikes, keeping them in tip-top shape for race days.
“I appreciate it a lot,” Max said. “I think it’s really cool that they’re doing this for me. It’s a lot every weekend. We go, and we always spend a lot of money on gas just getting there, especially with the way gas prices are.”
But Christine wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There are a lot of families out there that kids go off on their own directions, especially if they’re siblings, boy and girl,” she said. “The girls go this way, the boys go that way. Parents don’t see them until Sunday night. We’re together all weekend long … We love it. We’re hooked on it.”
“I’m always proud to say that he won, or even if he didn’t win, I’m always proud to say how he did,” Max’s sister Paris said.
It’s that family support and love that keeps Max going on the track.
“That feels really cool because a lot of people are looking at you and hoping that you do (well), so you just try to do your best for them back,” he said.
The weekends start with a long drive — sometimes six or seven hours — on Friday. After getting to the track, Max spends Saturdays registering for races, checking out the track and spending quality time with friends and family. Sunday is race day, starting with an early morning church service.
“We didn’t really go to church much until we found that,” Max said. “We’re going every weekend now.”
Max believes that weekly ritual has helped on the track.
“It just gives me someone to look up to for my races that I can depend on,” Max said. “A lot of people, they point up to Him before races. They thank Him before all their sponsors and everything.”
It’s also drawn him to his professional hero, supercross championship contender Trey Canard.
Canard rides in the 250cc class, one Max knows all about, as he finished second in the state in 2012.
“He’s really fast, and he’s a really Christian dude,” Max said. “He really looks up to God.”
Those heroes may serve Max well as he continues on his quest as a racer. He hopes to one day be in Canard’s shoes, competing at the supercross championships in Las Vegas.
That’s still some time in the future, though. For now, he’s focused on the task ahead. Max will begin his quest for a second state championship, this time in the novice division, May 5 in Moberly, Mo.
“Next year, I’m going back at it,” he said.