Seeing the bleachers at Sarasota BMX filled with fans, Joey Leto almost didn't recognize the place.
Leto was one of the participants in the 2024 USA BMX Sunshine State Nationals, held Jan. 5-7 at the track. The track was filled with vendor and food tents, and everywhere you turned, BMX bikers of all ages were making their way to and from the starting line, preparing for their races on the orange track.
The Sunshine State Nationals served as a qualifier for the 2024 UCI BMX World Championships in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in May. Approximately 1,500 riders were expected to participate throughout the weekend, according to a Sarasota County release.
Leto is one of the best BMX riders — at this event or otherwise. Leto grew up racing on the Sarasota BMX track prior to its 2016 Supercross renovation. He competed in the 2023 UCI BMX World Championship in Glasgow, Scotland, last August — one of four riders to represent Team USA. Leto finished 37th overall out of 67 riders in the Men Elite division. He's seen and experienced a lot in the world of BMX.
The sight of the packed house at the Sunshine State Nationals still stopped him in his tracks.
"When you ride that track all the time, you get used to there being not many people there," Leto said. "It's just people from the local (scene), which is great. But when there's a race like this, it feels like a different place. People from all over the world came here for this. It's cool."
Leto's results on the track at the Sunshine State Nationals were mixed. He was not happy with his performance on day one, as his timing was consistently off, either starting too late or too early at the gate. The poor starts affected the rest of his races, he said. But he rebounded on day two, ultimately taking home a silver medal in the Men Pro final. On Day three, Leto finished fifth in the Men Elite final.
Sarasota BMX, which is the oldest continuously-running BMX track in the country, celebrated its 50th anniversary in December. Leto said he's thankful for being able to come to the track all the time when learning the sport. He was particularly fond of the clinics put on by respected rider Percy Owens each week on Wednesdays.
But they were more than just skills clinics, Leto said. Owens taught young riders how to put in hard work, pushing them beyond what they thought their limits were. Owens had no time for fooling around, and he let that be known.
"It was a little bit different," Leto said with a laugh. "But (Owens) was inspiring to me at a young age."
Leto also expressed thanks to Alice Bixler, Sarasota BMX's behind-the-scenes wizard who was inducted into the sport's hall of fame in October. On top of all she has done for the track itself, Leto said, Bixler has acted as an "undercover agent" in his own life, helping him get a scholarship to Lindenwood University — from which he graduated with a paramedics license — and generally supporting him when he needed it.
The love and care that Sarasota BMX has received over the years from its community has paid off. Leto said the track has become respected across the international BMX scene, with some riders like French World Champion Joris Daudet going as far as calling it their favorite track. Leto said being able to practice every day on the track when he was a teenager was a boon to his career.
Leto's big goal for the year is making the U.S. Olympic team. It's a goal he's had since he was 12 years old and speaking to the the Sarasota County Commission, lobbying them to approve those Supercross renovations to the track, alongside Bixler and his father, Jeff Leto. Three years later, the renovations were done, and Leto began constant practice in the pursuit of his dream. Seeing as he's already represented Team USA internationally, it's no pipe dream, either, but it will require work.
The process for determining Olympic spots is complex, as the sport's international governing body (UCI) will first determine how many spots Team USA gets in the Olympics — the top-five ranked countries get two spots each, with everyone else getting one — and then USA Cycling will select who fills those spots. Both of those things will be determined by a handful of upcoming races, including the World Championships at Rock Hill in May for which the Sunshine State Nationals were a qualifier. In addition to that race, World Cup races in New Zealand and Australia will be a factor.
Leto said he's confident he has the talent to earn a spot. It will come down to how well he performs on the important days on the calendar, he said. Even one off day, like he had on Day One of the Sunshine State Nationals, could put an end to his chances. But this is what he has trained his whole life to be able to do, and he's going to attack it head-on.
"I just have to perform," Leto said. "Stay calm, stay present. I can't get overwhelmed. I just have to do my job."
No matter where Leto ends up come the summer, his experience with Sarasota BMX has given him a chance. That's all he ever asked of it.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.