Wilmington, NC – John Woelkers buzzes through the empty parking lot of a Burgaw butcher shop on a bright March afternoon, burning up the asphalt with his lightening-blue X7. It sounds like a chainsaw on wheels, but what this 34-year-old heavy equipment operator is really riding is a 120-pound pocket bike.
"You're only going 30 miles an hour," Woelkers says to explain the rush, "but it's so small, it's pretty much like you're going 30 miles an hour with almost no help. And it seems like you're pretty much just flying through the air."
Pocket bikes are essentially miniaturized motorcycles - tiny racers with sleek designs and low-powered engines. Woelkers lusted after such a bike for years before his wife slipped one in his stocking this past Christmas. He's now eagerly awaiting warmer days, to really try out his new ride.
Woelkers describes himself as a responsible rider, wearing safety equipment and staying off public roads and out of busy parking lots where his low position make him invisible to cars. These pocket bikes require the care of a full-sized motorcycle, Woelkers says. "They're not really made for tricks or stunts and they're not little cutesy toys to be played with. You have to respect the ride or else you can get hurt."
Pocket bikes started as a racer's toy, with expensive, high-quality machines. Then, a few years ago, Chinese companies caught on, and started releasing cheaper bikes, in the $400 to $600 dollar range, opening up a whole new market of enthusiasts. At least that's how mechanic Yuri Socom tells it, as he gazes a display of pocket bikes outside of Kings Scooters in Wilmington.
"Before, maybe couple years ago," Socom reminisces, "you see maybe one, [you said] 'whoa, we're you get it?' But now, the market is full, full, and it's getting better and better, and the new things that are coming are better than the ones before and they improve and improve and improve."
Responsible riders try out those improvements on private tracks or parking lots. But for some, the lure of the open road can quickly turn this hobby into a nuisance, or worse.
North Carolina bans most mini-bikes from public roads, and for those that are legal, riders must be at least 16 years old. Other recreational motor vehicles like ATVs are never street legal.
But in spite of what the law says, for residents in some Wilmington neighborhoods the roar of tiny engines on city streets is a sure sign of spring, as warmer weather brings high-octane Christmas gifts out of storage.
Carolina Heights resident Maurice Elson says he hears the whine of pocket bikes frequently when grilling or doing yard work. He doesn't worry much about the ones he hears in the distance, but he does the recall the time a few years ago when one got too close for comfort. A teenager was racing his pocket bike through Elson's kid-filled neighborhood, pulling high-speed wheelies. As a motorcycle rider himself, Elson says he was enraged by such irresponsible behavior.
So much so, that when teen rode by, Elson threw his hat at the boy. "I didn't hit him," Elson is quick to add, "but it made him rather angry. My wife and I were leaving, we drove down to the end of the street. Shortly after that, he pulled up next to the car and shouted obscenities at us. And we thought that perhaps we ought to go back and make a police report, and we did."
Wilmington police say they get occasional complaints about pocket and dirt bikes on city streets, but underage riders are often dealt with informally, usually by getting parents involved. Sargent Carl Strawn with the traffic unit says he knows of one fatal crash involving a pocket bike rider.
Little of this would seem to worry 14-year-old DeShaun Harris as he does loops along North 5th street on a warm spring evening, unconcerned that he is underage and in the street. But Harris says police have stopped him in the past.
"They told me not to ride in the street, to ride on the sidewalk," Harris says, "but I don't see what's the use of riding on the sidewalk. People walk on the sidewalk."
That kind of logic won't take him far, if police catch Harris in the street this evening, as the teen takes off again, helmet strapped firmly to his head. Even if he doesn't know the law, this young rider has learned to respect the power of his pocket bike.