Tony Hoffman has steered into more than a few whoop-de-doos during his 27 years.
Now, the Clovis BMX pro wants to help kids stay on the straight, smooth path.
Head over to the Woodward Park BMX track on any Monday afternoon, and you'll see Hoffman working on fulfilling that promise, one he made to himself while sitting inside a Tehachapi prison cell.
Hoffman's two-wheeled, knobby-tired outreach program is called the Freewheel Project. Its mission is to introduce kids to BMX while delivering an underlying message on the importance of faith and positive values.
"In prison, I already knew Freewheel Project was going to be the name and helping kids was what I was going to do," Hoffman says. "This is my calling."
Since May, Hoffman has been holding free weekly clinics at Fresno's BMX track. In recent weeks, attendance has surged to more than 60 kids, some as young as 4.
But before anyone gets to ride, Hoffman assembles the kids and parents to talk about the mistakes he made as a former heroin, meth and OxyContin addict who spent 231/2 months in prison in 2007-08 for a home invasion. Dressed in a white tank top that reveals a muscular upper body covered with tattoos, he speaks about the importance of choosing the right friends and influences. (A born-again Christian, Hoffman says he's been drug- and alcohol-free for 41/2 years.)
The right friends will encourage you and help you soar, Hoffman tells the group. The wrong ones will only drag you down.
"The side effect of hanging out with the wrong people, I'm an example of that," Hoffman says. "You won't get anywhere fast."
Hoffman's frank talk may sail over the heads of some of the younger kids, but that's OK. They're just eager to get on the track.
A few minutes later, Hoffman is standing above one of the high-banked turns giving personal instruction to more than 20 kids brand new to BMX. Some are just learning how to ride a bike. The first lesson: Know how to use your handbrake.
"Move at your speed," he says. "If your mind tells you you're scared, slow down a little."
Before anyone else goes, Hoffman gives a demonstration, showing the flowing form that has brought him to BMX's AA/Elite pro level. He currently sits 27th in the American Bicycle Association national points standings.
When a pony-tailed girl no older than 8 approaches the bumpy section with a little too much speed, Hoffman yells, "Use your brake! Pull it! Pull your brake!"
Hoffman has enlisted several friends, including Fresno BMX junior pro Austin Hiatt, to help with the growing demand but still takes the time to speak with most of the kids and their parents one on one.
"What I appreciate about Tony is the interest he takes in the kids," says Sherrie Ramirez of Fresno, whose 6-year-old daughter, Jenna, has attended several clinics since they began in May. Jenna just learned to ride a bike this summer but can already negotiate the entire track. "It's about more than BMX to him."
Hoffman will continue to hold Monday clinics at Woodward Park from 4:30 to 6 p.m. through the end of daylight savings time. Hoffman hopes his fledgling foundation will qualify for 501(c)3 nonprofit status by 2012, when he plans to take the Freewheel Project on the road to schools in cities that host BMX races.
While some attendees bring their own bikes, many are using bikes that either belong to the track or were donated to Hoffman for this program. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants and helmets with a face shield are mandatory. Parents must sign a liability waiver, but no track membership is required.
"What I like about BMX is that it's an individual sport," Hoffman says. "There's no coach telling you [that] you can play or you can't play. If you have a bike, you can play."