Last Tuesday Chase Hawk sat at a wooden table at the Buzzmill bar and coffee house, nursing an amber-hued IPA. “Ten years ago, I’d drink you under the table, stay up all night, and then ride all of the following day,” the 27-year-old professional freestyle BMXer told me. Now, he says, he’s inclined to stay in, eat a healthy meal, and rest up for competition, in this case, his eighth consecutive showing at the X Games, happening this weekend at the Circuit of the Americas track, just 10 miles from Hawk’s Southeast Austin home. All this may seem in contrast to the X Games counter culture vibe, but it’s in line with Hawk’s maturing ethos. “I take this seriously. If I can find some way to get better, I’m going to pursue it.”
In some ways Hawk’s journey to the world’s biggest stage for extreme sports—shedding his youthful, slacker persona for the promise of international acclaim—parallels Austin’s path to joining the pantheon of top destination cities. When the city beat out Chicago, Detroit, and Charlotte, North Carolina to land the X Games and its estimated $50-million economic impact, Austin joined the ranks of previous host cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. The high-profile event will draw thousands of people to the city, and the Games will be televised in more than 180 countries, with everyone tuning in bound to hear the phrase “here in Austin, Texas,” more than a few times over the course of the four-day competition.
Four years ago, when construction began on the Circuit of the Americas, it was a foregone conclusion that the new venue would attract major sporting events, like F1 and the Moto GP. However, many nostalgic Austin residents still view the addition of one more major event, to an ever-growing portfolio of them, as yet another wound inflicted upon old Austin. Hastening urban sprawl, glitzing up once-shopworn neighborhoods, tearing down beloved restaurants to make room for skyscraping hotels. But Hawk, who grew up in the city, makes the point that this isn’t just another shiny festival meant to pump dollars into the local economy (though that’s certainly an ancillary benefit): local riders like Hawk saw hosting the X Games as an acknowledgment of the BMX scene they built in the city.
Hawk’s roots are firmly entrenched in the “old Austin.” He’s the son of well-known steel guitar player, Danny Hawk, who played with country western legends like Gary P. Nunn and the Derailleurs, and he spent his childhood at club’s like the Broken Spoke and Antone’s, up well past the bedtime of most kids his age. On his seventh birthday, Danny bought his son a BMX bike and took him to Ninth Street, a park in downtown Austin filled with ominous looking, head-high dirt jumps that draws some of the nation’s premier riders. Soon, Hawk started flying from jump-to-jump, up amidst the tree branches, performing BMX acrobatics with an artful effortlessness. He rode as naturally as he walked. By the fourth grade, he’d left public school to accommodate an increasingly demanding competition and travel schedule. Today, major brands like Oakley, Etnies, and Rockstar energy drinks sponsor him.
Austin proved an ideal place for Hawk to cultivate his talent. As early as the eighties, Austin’s warm weather, ease of getting around town by bike, and welcoming atmosphere, drew top BMX pros from around the world. Hawk watched and rode alongside world champions and early X Games competitors like Taj Mihelich and Sandy Carson.
Together, the young riders expanded their training grounds. Local BMXers had built a series of dirt jumps in a South Austin greenbelt, dubbed Red Box. They battled bums for control of the woods, and were welcomed by nearby residents. “We cleared trash and kept the trails pristine,” Hawk says. Photographs and videos of top riders on the jumps were published internationally. But the BMXers hadn’t sought permission from the City of Austin, and in 2010 the Austin Police Department performed a bust. As officers led Hawk and four other riders away in cuffs, Hawk says homeowners gathered to boo the cops. The community backlash led the city to reverse course. The Parks Department helped rebuild the jumps, and the riders returned for good.
And now the X Games will be hosted in Austin for the next four years, validation for Hawk and the people who see it as a way of their efforts to cultivate this community paying back. (Though, more than one local BMXer told me that Ninth Street desperately needs fresh dirt, and they wished the X Games would give back to the community by helping to rebuild the trails.)
Prior to these X Games, Hawk filmed a fittingly nostalgic video for Oakley, riding around Austin, to the spots where he perfected many of the tricks he’ll showcase in the BMX Park competition on Saturday. In the short film he dives into Ninth Street and soars through House Park—Austin’s immaculate new BMX and skateboard facility. As he rides, he reflects on growing up with the city. He rides walls and rails as he pedals across Austin, he rides across both the old and the new.
(Video directed by Joe Simon; Production by The Delivery Men)