Blake Gardner was just 2 years old when his parents got him his first motocross bike.
His father, Dave, a firefighter at a Culver City fire station, had been riding in races with other firefighters for years, while his mother, Karen, a Realtor in the Santa Clarita area, also had experience riding. Blake’s two older sisters, Megan and Amanda, began riding at an early age as well.
None of them can claim to be a national motocross champion, though, and that’s the title that Blake earned Aug. 5 when he took first place at the 2022 AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship 250B Limited division held at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Tennessee.
“I was shocked. Like, I didn’t have any feelings. I just couldn’t believe it,” Blake said in a phone interview with The Signal. “I was feeling really comfortable going into it. I honestly was hoping for a top five [finish] there, and I was so surprised when I won.”
Blake’s journey began just at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dave had heard that schools were going to completely remote learning, and knowing that his son was interested in taking the next step in his motocross career, asked his wife about sending Blake out to Robbie Reynard’s training complex in Wellston, Oklahoma.
“When my husband told me that, you know, school wasn’t in-person, he’s like, ‘We should have him go train,’” Karen said in a phone interview with The Signal.
Blake had trained with Reynard before, but usually only for a couple of weeks. Given the chance to spend an extended period of time training sounded like a great choice to him.
“[My parents] were the ones that kinda like told me about it and talked me into it,” Blake said. “All of the tracks around us in California were starting to close down, and school went online. So we actually had time to come out here, and this was open and it just took me to the next level.”
So with no in-person school and nothing really to do back home in Canyon Country, Blake and his mom took the family fifth-wheel out to Tennessee, not knowing how long it would be.
That first trip ended up keeping Karen there for about a month before she had to go back home to her job. Blake, though, stayed to train for the race at Loretta, which meant three months living with the small racing community at Reynard’s. He stayed there until the big race at Loretta, and then moved back home, but after experiencing the full-time rider’s life, he couldn’t wait to get back.
So when it came time to prepare for the Loretta race again – Blake has qualified for the race, which attracts approximately 20,000 hopefuls each year, according to Dave, every year since 2016 – he went back to Reynard’s in 2021 and has been living, not quite alone, but away from his family and friends, ever since.
That doesn’t mean his life is easy.
Blake said that he wakes up every day and runs about 3 miles, followed by some riding starting at 9 a.m. and going on for about five or six hours. After that, he and the other live-in riders go to the gym three times a week, and on those days, he doesn’t get back home until about 6 p.m. After that, he works on his bike, eats dinner and gets ready for the next day.
That routine is the same whether he’s preparing for a big race or just doing some simple training.
“The routine never really changes a whole lot,” Blake said. “So it’s pretty much just, like, all out, all year long.”
It’s a difficult situation for the Gardner family, though they find time to talk to each other as much as possible, with modern technology being a big tool.
“We FaceTime a lot. We Snapchat a lot. So it’s nice,” Karen said.
Being able to train with a professional like Reynard – he has been racing as a professional since 1993 – has only done wonders for Blake’s technique and confidence. According to Karen, Reynard told her husband that heading into the 2022 race at Loretta, Blake was looking as good as ever.
“Robbie just said something clicked like a few months before the race,” Karen said. “My husband got calls like, ‘Wow, Blake’s riding really good. Lap times are amazing.’”
Blake got another vote of confidence when his parents flew out one of their family friends, Troy Roth, an 18-year-old 2022 Canyon graduate, to be Blake’s mechanic at the big race. Normally, Dave would handle mechanic duties, but Blake’s parents decided to surprise their son with Roth, a friend of the family, sending him out to be with Blake in the month leading up to the race.
“Poor Troy. He’s never been to the race before,” Karen said. “He comes back after the very first race and he’s like, ‘Oh my God. I thought I was gonna throw up.’”
That first race saw Blake finish second, and he did the same in the second race, putting him in pole position to win it all in the third and final race.
“I wish it was in the morning,” Karen said of the third race. “But I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Oh my God, Wellston was not at the last two races. And he didn’t do as well. So I’m bringing him this time.’”
Wellston is a terrier mix that Blake rescued while living in Oklahoma. Without any friends or family around, Wellston became a big part of Blake’s life.
“So I had him, and I go off by myself, I watch it, you know, in the middle of the field where I can walk around,” Karen said. “I just couldn’t watch it. A few times, I would look and I could kind of count where he was, and all I wanted was him to stay on the bike, because one little, small thing, or someone, you know, takes them out, and that’s it.”
As much as Karen fretted, Blake did not disappoint, finishing fourth to finish first overall in the series.
After the race, Blake was unsure of where he stood in the overall standings. But Karen knew, and she let her son know it.
“It was crazy,” Blake said. “Like, I didn’t know I won, and my mom came over crying. She’s like, ‘You won!’ My dad came over and gave me a big hug.”
All of that after being one of just 12 to move on from an area qualifier and just six to qualify at a regional race to even get to Loretta. In total, 42 racers qualified for the Loretta race.
“I think it was just my drive and my fitness that got me there,” Blake said.
The victory was not the only recognition that Blake received that day. He was also honored with an award from U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Matt Sluder. The award was given to the rider who showed the most dedication and hard work.
Next up for Blake is the Ponca National in Ponca, Oklahoma, on Oct. 3. Similar to the Loretta race, though maybe not quite as strenuous, he’s looking to keep his sights high as he hopes to put his name on the map for some sponsorships.
Those will come soon, Blake hopes, but for now, he’s living his best life and trying to make it last as long as possible.
“[My family is] pretty much telling me to keep going, follow my dreams,” Blake said. “I just see myself doing this for a long time.”