LORETTA LYNN LOOKED at the land and saw a home.
In 1966, the country music star and her husband, Mooney, were searching for a place to raise their six children away from the bustle of Nashville. Famously born in the coal-mining community of Butcher Hollow in the Appalachian hills of eastern Kentucky, Loretta wanted a place with wide-open spaces where she could disappear when she wasn't working. One afternoon, on a drive about 70 miles southwest of Music City, she saw a stunning white house on a hill surrounded by woods and water.
"My grandmother fell in love with the home," says Loretta's granddaughter, Tayla Lynn. "She also fell in love with the land around it."
When Loretta and Mooney inquired about the house, they learned it came with the town, which included an old grain mill, a general store and a post office. So, 56 years ago, to buy the house, the couple purchased the 3,500-acre community of Hurricane Mills, a peaceful place where the early-morning quiet was broken only by the throaty croak of the American bullfrogs lining Hurricane Creek, the meandering centerpiece of the town.
"When fans found out where they had moved, they started coming out to catch a glimpse of Memaw," Tayla says. "So, my grandfather said, 'Let's build a campground.'" For the first few years, business at Loretta Lynn's Dude Ranch was steady but slow. Until another family stopped by to camp in August 1981.
DAVE COOMBS LOOKED at the land and saw a dream.
He was out jogging one morning while his family was staying at the ranch. He ran through the valley's horse pasture, along the shoreline of the creek, and stopped to take it all in. This was a great place for a race.
Dave, a tall, charismatic motocross promoter from West Virginia, had been harboring a dream for his sons, Timmy and Davey, and for talented young riders like them. An annual standalone amateur national in a central location where no one had a local advantage, a moto mecca where "everyone gets a championship experience no matter who they are," Davey says.
Dave imagined a motocross track. More than that, he envisioned a summer vacation spot for race families like his own. And he sold the Lynns on his vision. "Dave could talk anyone into anything," his wife and business partner, Rita Coombs, remembers now. Motocross was family. Amateur racers would come with moms and dads, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, many of whom don't ride dirt bikes, and stay for a week. They'd rent kayaks and ride horses, shop in the gift store and swim in Hurricane Creek.
The Lynns could see it, too.
On Aug. 3, 1982, they hosted the first AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship. But everybody just called it Loretta's. Hundreds of families pulled up that first year. They camped, rented horses and swam in the creek. Over the years, it became hallowed ground, a litmus test for those who would turn pro, the pinnacle for those who never did. Dave's kids grew up and kept the business going after he died on the first day of racing in 1998. For 40 years, it was the largest amateur motocross race in the world and in 2021, it was still a family affair. Still held at Loretta's place in the woods, by the water.
"The creek is the tie that binds this whole thing together," says Davey, now president of MX Sports Pro Racing, the company his parents founded in 1982. "That was a big secret to the event. No matter who you are or where you're parked, you can walk to the creek and see your competition, your heroes, your first girlfriend. You're all jumping in the water, cooling off between motos."
LAST SUMMER, ON AUG. 21, two weeks after the final gate-drop at the 40th annual race, Wayne Spears looked at the land and saw the place he lived and worked.
Rain was coming. Just a few inches, the forecast said, but Loretta's longtime ranch manager knew it was time to move the heavy equipment to high ground. Tennessee summers are wet. Light rains can turn heavy, and heavy rains can turn to floods. The ranch had flooded before, and Spears thought he knew exactly what to do.
Spears and Chuck Mcelyea, the campground manager, had worked together nearly every day for 12 years, sometimes taking maintenance calls at midnight and working until the sun came up over Stagecoach Hill. "'We'll move this tractor, then we'll go to the shop, get the key to the lawnmower, come back and move that,'" Mcelyea remembers Spears saying, after they'd alerted the families camping along the creek to leave their tents and RVs and move up the hill. "While he was talking, the water went from nothing to chest deep," Mcelyea says.
A record 17 inches fell overnight and into the morning. The heaviest rain fell in McEwen, which, at 830 feet, sits at the highest elevation in Humphreys County, and flowed steadily down valley, carrying heavy debris with it. For much of the morning, Waverly and Hurricane Mills, the lowest points in the county, were protected by a railroad trestle that formed a makeshift levy at the eastern end of Waverly. But around 10:45 am, the trestle gave way, sending a series of turbulent waves into the town.
Within minutes, the late-summer rainstorm turned violent, washing out streets and bridges, destroying businesses and apartment buildings, and crippling communication. "When the railroad bridge blew out, a tsunami came through the city," says Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis.
For hours, Davis and his colleagues attempted to make their way to Waverly and reestablish communication. "We had no nucleus, no command center," he says. "Waverly was an island."
Across Humphreys County, the force of the water ripped more than 100 homes from their foundations, some with residents still inside, and deposited them blocks away. In one apartment, the water tore twin 7-month-old babies from their father's arms. At a discount store downtown, water smashed through the front windows and pulled employees into the rough current outside.
"Thankfully, Aug. 21 was a Saturday," says Waverly Police and Fire Chief Grant Gillespie, whose wife is a teacher at the junior high. "There's no way we could've evacuated the schools in time. And thankfully, the flood didn't come during motocross, because it's hard to evacuate a campground quickly. That would've been even more tragic."
At the ranch, Mcelyea attempted to use a four-wheel-drive backhoe to push the tractor Spears was operating to higher ground. Water began to fill the backhoe's cab. Telephone poles crashed nearby, and an electric line dipped dangerously close to the water. "I look at Wayne and he's hollering, 'Go back! Go back!" Mcelyea says. "I went up the hill and called 9-1-1, but I couldn't get through."
Spears fell from the tractor into the fast-moving stream, which carried him toward the staging pavilion behind the motocross start gate. He managed to grab on to one of the building's wooden beams and hold on.
"We couldn't speak with one another, it was too violent and loud," Mcelyea says. Mcelyea ran to find a kayak or canoe as the water continued to rise. But, he says, "Wayne didn't look panicked. He probably thought, I'll wait till the water goes down and walk out of this. But I was thinking, just get him out of the water because this is bad.'"
Debris from nearby farms began crashing into buildings near the track. At some point, a barn not far from the start gate broke loose from its foundation and smashed into the starting pavilion Spears was holding on to, splitting it in two. "I run right to the water's edge, and I hollered at Wayne," Mcelyea says. "I said, 'Hey, I'm going to get you. I got a canoe.' At the time, he was on some debris."
Within seconds, Spears was gone.
COOPER WEBB LOOKS at the motocross track and sees the kid he once was.
One day before the first gate-drops at the 41st annual event, the two-time AMA 450 Supercross champion is walking the track with a group of young riders. He has returned to Hurricane Mills at the request of his sponsor, KTM, to pass along the knowledge he gained from 10 years racing here. Not long ago, Webb was one of these kids: wide-eyed and dreaming of holding a No. 1 plate and racing in the pros.
"I started riding when I was 4 and I came here at 6 on a 50cc bike and won a championship," he says. "This is the biggest race in the world for amateurs and for me to win my first year was extremely special."
Like many young riders, Webb returned to the ranch with his family year after year hoping to prove himself against the best riders in the country and turn the heads of potential sponsors and factory teams. He qualified for the race 11 times and won titles in 2006, 2010 and 2012 before turning pro.
"This is where the best of the best congregate," says Honda Racing Coordinator Joe Monge. "If you can win here, you're going to get noticed."
It's also where riders like Webb grow up, have their first big crash, their first kiss, get bloodied in their first fight. "I had so much fun off the track, going to the creek, playing with my buddies, meeting my first girlfriend and people from all over world," Webb says. "To come here from 6 all the way to age 15, you develop a lot as a person."
The same is true of the town, where residents, like riders, grow up with the race. Sheriff Davis worked as a caution flagger when he was in high school and later returned to the event as an officer. "To watch some of these riders make it at the professional level and know they all had to come through our town," Davis says, "shows the magnitude of Loretta's and what it means to our community."
Jamie Spears -- yes, Britney's dad; no relation to Wayne -- has parked his custom, LSU-themed outdoor oven and RV along the creek and catered the race for the event's staff for 20 years. Friday nights, he holds a fish fry.
Mayor Buddy Frazier brought his son -- and a set of earplugs -- to Loretta's for years. Wayne Spears' wife of 46 years, Louise, worked at the local Best Western in the '90s and remembers how wild the hotel lobby became the first week in August. "We dreaded it sometimes," she says. "It was nothing for them to put a bike or bike parts in the bathtub to clean them. You know how long it took me to clean those tubs?"
Each year, the local Walmart stocks extra water, rain boots and non-perishables in preparation for race week. Waverly Wine & Liquor hires delivery drivers. The Milkshakery, a Waverly dessert shop, offers a special edition "Motocross Milkshake," and local restaurants staff up.
"Humphreys County more than doubles in size for the time that motocross is here," Davis says. "It's like a second Christmas for the local businesses."
And no one needs to do much more than listen to know motocross has rolled into town. "Wayne and I would be at home, and we'd hear the bikes," Louise says. "We could hear everything going on at the ranch from the echo through the hollow. We'd look down the hill and see bike after bike after bike."
Although the number of racers has not changed much through the decades, the event's footprint has more than tripled. "I remember the first time an RV showed up at the ranch," Rita says. "It was in the late '80s and the kid's dad owned an airline. I don't think I'd ever seen an RV. Now everyone has two."
In those early years, Loretta performed at the campground music pavilion and handed out trophies with Dave Coombs, whom everyone called "Big Dave." She traded the sparkly, couture ball gowns she made famous for jeans, sponsor tees and her fair share of mud.
One year in the early '90s, Loretta's son-in-law, Alan Brutto, decided to shake things up. He had raced at Loretta's in 1983, met Loretta's daughter Patsy and fallen in love. With a new Kawasaki KX250, he had an idea. "I told her to get on the back and said, 'Loretta, hold on,'" he says. "We came in the front gate and rode a ramp onto the stage. She got off the bike and the crowd just went crazy."
Loretta is 90 now. She doesn't attend the race anymore, but she listens from her home on the hill. She still loves the high-pitched "bumblebee buzz" of two-stroke engines and sometimes sends messages to young fans via her grandchildren's phones. In November, she was elected to the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
"When you're talking to Loretta Lynn music fans, you don't get to discuss the machismo side of her," Tayla says. "Sure, she is the grandmother in the ball gowns. But she's also the grandmother who says, 'Let's invite thousands of adrenaline junkies to ride like hell on our property.' She's rockabilly. And she's proud there's a whole group of people who only know her name because of motocross."
CHUCK MCELYEA LOOKS at the track on a hot summer morning and sees the last place he saw his friend.
Wayne Spears was not a man most racers knew by name. But they knew him. He was the kind, old guy with crystal blue eyes beneath an omnipresent cowboy hat or the Wrangler-wearing, Jeep-driving maintenance man who chain smoked and called everyone "buddy." For more than 20 years, Spears was as much a part of the ranch and the race as Hurricane Creek.
Wayne and Louise Spears lived about 12 minutes from the motocross track, but each year during the race, Wayne parked his camper atop Stagecoach Hill, a camping area that overlooks the track. "He stayed here 24/7," Alan Brutto says. "He'd be sitting out on his porch, waving at everybody as they drove by. He talked to everyone. And then if he'd get a call, he'd be Johnny-on-the-spot there to fix it."
To racers, Spears was an iconic figure. But he wasn't a dirt bike guy. He was a horseman. The only thing he loved more than his Jeeps and his horses, he told anyone who'd listen, was his wife. "You know, he told me him and Louise never had an argument," Mcelyea says. "Not one. In all those years."
To those at the ranch, Spears was family. "When you live here in the wintertime, there's only about 10 of us," Tayla says. "Wayne is somebody we saw every morning at breakfast, over at the country store. The kids would see him on his tractor every day before school."
To Mcelyea, Spears was like a brother. "I spent more time around Wayne than I did my own family," Mcelyea says. "I had to do what I could to try and get him out of that water."
For several hours on that Saturday last summer, Mcelyea alternated between swimming and paddling a canoe through turbulent water to try to locate his friend. Mcelyea, too, was listed as a missing person. Eventually, exhausted and unaware of how long he'd been searching, he climbed into a rescue boat. "I never could get close to him," Mcelyea says.
A search party that included ranch employees and members of the Lynn family looked late into the night for their beloved foreman. They resumed their search early the next morning.
Sheriff Davis was on his way to the ranch that afternoon when he received a call. They had located Spears' body a half-mile from the track. He'd suffered a gash to his head. When they found him, he looked to be clutching his wedding ring.
TWO DAYS AFTER the flood, Anthony Brutto looked at the land and saw what was once his family's dream.
He stood at what had been Turn 2 of the motocross track and took in the devastation. "The damage was totally overwhelming," says Brutto, Loretta Lynn's grandson and GM of the ranch. "I thought, how do I even do this?"
The ranch suffered nearly $1 million in damage, including the loss of 150 cattle. The main road through Hurricane Mills was destroyed, along with historic buildings. The motocross track was flattened and littered with gravel. Remnants of what had been a raucous week of racing were strewn throughout the property. Semitrucks carrying TV equipment and the 40th anniversary trophy floated nearly a half-mile from the track and drowned, their contents spilled into muddy water. All that legacy, the dreams of so many, and it all could be lost forever. It seemed an unimaginable task to rebuild and reopen the ranch, let alone stage a motocross race in a year.
"It would have been easy to say, 'This is too much. We're done.' But that would have been disrespectful to Wayne and to my grandmother," Brutto says.
In Waverly, county officials drove through neighborhoods and marked more than 270 homes with a black X. Uninhabitable. People who had lived in the area their whole lives didn't recognize their own streets. The day after the flood, Sheriff Davis led the motorcade for Governor Bill Lee, who came to assess the damage. They stopped so he could talk to the family of two of the 20 people who died.
"I bent to pick up something and when I looked up, I realized I was standing in front of my grandmother's home," Davis says. "This is where I was raised, where I had snowball fights as a kid, and I don't recognize it. That's when reality hit me."
The next night, Brutto says he had a vivid dream. "I'm reliving that same moment, standing at Turn 2, spinning with this overwhelming feeling, when I catch motion out of the side of my eye," he says. "I turn and Wayne's standing there. He smiles at me and says, 'You just got to start, buddy.'"
For nearly a year, Brutto and his staff worked long hours. "I was on a dozer from daylight to dark for three solid months," Alan Brutto says. "We moved more than 100 loads of gravel and sand off the starting line at the motocross track. But what happened at the ranch is nothing compared to what happened in Waverly."
There, the cleanup and rebuild also began immediately, much of it organized by church ministries, retirees and disaster relief workers who learned about the flooding and streamed into town. Some are still there, spending their days cleaning out, tearing down and rebuilding damaged homes.
"We're used to walking into restaurants and seeing people from two or three states over. They've become unofficial members of our community," Chief Gillespie says. "Sometimes I can't believe there are people in the world that'll take time out of their lives to come and help folks they don't know. For a cynical old cop, it's pretty refreshing."
The week after the flood, Amy Cochran and Stacey Baker, race moms whose sons have competed at Loretta's for years, drove from central Florida and offered to participate in the cleanup at the ranch for free. MX Sports event director Tim Cotter worked with Road 2 Recovery to create a fundraising campaign to raise money for Waverly families and businesses affected by the flood. He called the owners of every major motocross track in the country to rally support.
John Hinz, the president of KTM North America, called his counterparts at other bike manufacturers and industry brands. "He said, 'This is Loretta's. This is Waverly. This is what I'm doing. What are you doing?'" says R2R marketing director Lori Armistead. "Never in my career have I seen that for any cause. We raised over $100,000 in the first week."
A steady flow of small donations from former racers, race families and fans, as well as larger donations from companies like American Honda, Parts Unlimited and Troy Lee Designs brought in more than $360,000 and continues to this day. Monster Energy, the title sponsor of the race, sent truckloads of water and energy drinks to Waverly.
The first race after the flood, pro motocross riders wore "Racers 4 Waverly" patches on their jerseys at the AMA Ironman National in Crawfordsville, IN. Australian rider Jett Lawrence won the 250cc race and donated his prize money to the recovery. Yamaha donated bikes, and Ken Roczen, Eli Tomac, Dylan Ferrandis and Cooper Webb gave jerseys for an online auction.
"Charity starts at home," Cotter says. "We may not get our mail in Hurricane Mills, but Loretta's is our home."
A separate effort spearheaded by the Lynn family and MX Sports set out to restore the motocross track and its surrounding buildings. Georgia-based Yamaha Motor Corporation purchased the lumber. David Eller, a former Loretta's racer and owner of the Honda Phoenix Racing team, donated the labor through his company Makson Construction. Fox Racing paid to restore their observation tower, which has stood across from Turn 1 for more than 20 years.
In mid-April, Eller and 40 men drove from North Carolina to Hurricane Mills. Although he'd seen photos of the ranch after the flooding, Eller says he wasn't prepared for what he saw when he arrived. "Everything was gone," he says. "The hardest thing was finding a starting point."
Eller and his crew began by rebuilding the track's 50-foot-long billboard. They then sketched and framed out the mechanics area, the spotters' tower and the staging pavilion where Spears was last seen. They camped at the track, and with the help of the ranch's employees and local volunteers, rebuilt the structures in four days.
In mid-July, the track rebuild started in earnest, led by MX Sports track manager Jeff Russell, who is married to Dave and Rita Coombs' daughter, Carrie, the CEO of the company. It was a headache, he says. The rock and sediment needed to be removed before new dirt and sand could be trucked in. Parts of the start gate's frame had warped and needed to be replaced.
"We're rebuilding 40 years in two weeks," Russell says.
ON TUESDAY, AUG. 2, Tim Cotter looks at Wayne Spears' white cowboy hat and sees a new start.
The hat has been bronzed and mounted to a broken beam from the start pavilion where he was last seen. It is a memorial to the man who took care of this place and a reminder, Cotter says, to stop and take in the moment. "I hope riders will touch the hat for good luck."
At 7 a.m., the campground speakers crackle to life. "Well, I was born a coal miner's daughter ..." The first day of racing begins the same way it has every day for 41 years. "... in a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler."
At 7:30, the race director walks the length of the start gate and signals each rider. He clears the track, and the escalating hum of four-stroke engines fills the morning air. As the 42 riders clear the first turn, a palpable feeling of joy and relief washes over the event. Race dads and track officials high-five and hug. For a few moments, the excitement of race day dulls the pain of the past year. But there are reminders all around.
The buildings around the track are rebuilt better than before the flood, but the creek's shoreline has changed. The track's dirt is different, the turns pocked with gravel. The town, too, is still recovering. More than 400 Waverly residents are still displaced, and it will be four or five years before public housing is restored. Homes with black X's await demolition, and vacant lots stand in place of homes that washed away. The community is reopening for business but planning for the reality that this could happen again -- to the town, the ranch and the race.
"We're going to high ground with public housing. We're looking at re-channelization of the creek and a watershed project several miles east of our town," Mayor Frazier says. "We're replacing bridges and looking at new types of construction."
The Army Corps of Engineers is studying the event, as is the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In late July, engineers from Tennessee Tech University installed sensors in Trace Creek that will trigger an early flood-warning system.
"At one time, I didn't buy into climate change," Frazier says. "But this has made me a believer."
THREE DAYS AFTER the flood, Loretta Lynn asked Louise Spears to visit her at home. She asked her if she would like for Wayne Spears to be buried in the Lynn family cemetery, where Mooney rests and Loretta will be when the time comes. Loretta told Louise that if she chose to do so, she could be buried beside Wayne someday.
The next day, Wayne's body was taken by covered wagon to his final resting spot, up a serene, tree-lined dirt trail just off the main road about halfway between the ranch's entrance and the white house on the hill.
Louise doesn't remember much of her visit to the secluded, hilltop cemetery on the day of Wayne's funeral. But she returned to his grave by herself a few weeks later. "It's beautiful," she says.
That evening, she walked through the tall, iron gate and past a small cluster of headstones. She brought solar lights and sat on the small, concrete bench next to Wayne's gravestone, which rests beneath a tall cedar. He is one of only two non-family members buried in the Lynn cemetery.
"At night, you can see all the lights at the campground," Louise says. "He's where he ought to be. You can see the whole motocross track from up there."