Photo: John Bohn. Mariah McNeill, 15, a successful dirt-bike racer, poses for a portrait with her sponsored racing motorcycle at her home in Dacula.
Just a few weeks ago, the fans at the Calhoun Supercross marveled as a young motorcycle racer blistered the field and soared high above the dirt track on jumps.
When they saw a blond ponytail dangling from the back of her helmet, the obvious question came to mind -- that was a girl?
The racer of note that day was Mariah McNeill, a 15-year-old rising sophomore at Mill Creek and one of the South's most accomplished teenagers in motocross racing. Her standout performance in a male-heavy sport caught the attention of a pack of young girls in the crowd, and one mustered the courage to talk to her.
McNeill gave the youngster her trophy, then began signing autographs. Others wanted trophies, too, so she went to her father's truck and grabbed the rest to give away. With more than 600 trophies in her racing over the past eight years, she has a few to spare.
"The little girls loved it," said McNeill, who races in the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championships this week at Loretta Lynn's estate in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. "I usually do that on the local tracks now because I've got so many trophies."
McNeill, along with her father and guardian Barry, work pretty hard to get them, too.
The father-daughter team is on the road, either practicing or competing in races, for 50 of the 52 weeks of the year. The majority of those dates, roughly 45 or so, are to competitions for the McNeills as they put 500 miles a week or more on their white cargo van, packed tightly with a pair of motorcycles and tools in the back. A group of sponsors make their journeys possible.
It's a routine the two have followed for years since McNeill talked her father into riding a small motorcycle with training wheels when she was 5 and a frequent visitor to the Conyers motorcycle shop where her father worked. By the time she was 6, she was entering races and she kept going despite falling 34 times in two laps of her first competition.
She doesn't fall much anymore.
McNeill leads the 2011 girls and women's standings on several regional motocross tours, including the prominent MegaSeries, and also ranks among the top-five racers in the school boy class. The majority of her races come against male competition.
"I think it's fun to race the guys," said McNeill, a Gainesville native who moved to the Mill Creek district as a high school freshman. "I race more against guys than I do girls. It makes me better just because they're more aggressive than girls are."
Outgoing and energetic, McNeill fits right in with the boys. She admits that she can be a "girly girl" at times, though the few bits of evidence at her house (like the small princess sign over her door) are overpowered by all the motocross posters, trophies and plaques.
"I'd rather be dirty and on the track than go to the mall," she said.
McNeill has accomplished her motocross success despite lacking the access that many of her fellow cyclists enjoy. The South's top riders are home-schooled athletes who attend private training academies, allowing them the freedom to practice daily on dirt tracks. Those youngsters also benefit from rigorous physical workouts with top trainers.
Meanwhile, McNeill works out on her own. She rides a stationery bike in the basement twice daily. She does her abdominal workouts nightly. She knows great improvements are possible with a more focused routine.
Her practice time is limited to the weekends because her father's work schedule doesn't allow trips to practice -- the closest facilities for practice are in Calhoun and Bremen. The McNeills haven't let that slow them down, spending nearly every weekend racing since Barry sold his own bikes so his daughter could pursue her dream. She's never raced without him present and said she fights back tears if he's late to a race for some reason.
"She's been my hero," Barry said of his daughter. "I've taught her since she was a baby. She rides hard. She's aggressive. But everybody says she's so sweet, too. And she does have a good heart."
McNeill reached one of her goals recently by qualifying for this week's AMA Amateur Nationals, the largest amateur motocross race in the world. Only five girls from the Southeast made the field and only 30 riders ages 12 to 15 nationside are entered.
She got to the event two years but was hindered by problems with her motorcycle. She also earned a spot last year, but she couldn't afford the week-long trip.
Her goal is for a better finish this time around, possibly claiming her first national championship.
"It's been a goal of mine for a long time (to win at AMA Amateur Nationals)," McNeill said. "I always want to compete against the best. I want to win it, but I would be happy with top three."
She has even higher goals for her future. She hopes to turn professional as a 16-year-old and earn a spot with a factory-based team for 2012.
And she has one more lofty one down the road.
"I want to be the first woman to ever podium in the men's Supercross," she said.
McNeill and her father don't plan to stop their pursuit of her dreams any time soon. Barry asked her if she wanted to take a year off recently to do other things and she respectfully declined.
She tried those out before, giving ballet, baton, gymnastics and karate shots before determining that all she wants to do is ride motorcycles. Most of her classmates at sprawling Mill Creek, the state's largest high school, have no idea about her primary passion.
"I don't see me doing any other sport," McNeill said. "I wouldn't be me without racing."