Wheels of Steel
By Kevin Longrie
Just after the large metal gates of Brian Deegan’s estate open, I see a flash of radiant pink careening down the driveway, leaving behind billows of dust and kicked-up rocks. The small vehicle soon trundles to a stop and I am able to make it out. Curves of rosy plastic and a sturdy roll cage put it somewhere between a Power Wheel and a child’s go-kart, with Deegan himself squeezed in the driver’s seat. “Hop in,” he instructs. We take off towards the garage, a building large enough to demand its own lot behind the house proper. After a few seconds of silence, Deegan turns to me, smiling, and says, “This is my daughter’s; she’s hardcore.”
She takes after her father. Deegan started riding dirt bikes when he was 8 years old, and went on to pioneer freestyle motocross in his 20s, setting records and winning medals (a lot of them) along the way. Recently, Deegan indicated that he will make the jump to NASCAR, and he hopes to compete professionally within a year.
From Outsider to Outsider
Deegan grew up in Nebraska where, he admits, the scene for motocross racing was not terribly competitive. After winning local races for two years, he decided at 19 years old to move west.
“I realized I needed to be in California,” he says. “It was where all the fast kids were.”
But the move was not an immediate success, financially speaking. When Deegan arrived in Southern California in the early ’90s, motocross was still an outsider sport. The X-Games would not be established until 1995, and many action sports had little commercial draw.
“Extreme sport culture started as the rebels of normal sports,” he explains.
But Deegan was able to make a living, and he saw the potential for motocross to grow as a sport in the coming decade.
And grow the sport’s popularity did, exponentially so. The X Games were an almost immediate success, and were broadcast on ESPN. Deegan began looking to get sponsored by a dirt bike manufacturer to secure his success.
“When you get a factory ride,” he says, “you’ve made it.”
Finding a company willing to sponsor him, however, proved more difficult than he expected.
“I was always right there, but I could never quite get it,” he says.
Deegan’s conduct on and off the track created a perception in the motocross community that he was not exactly sponsorship material.
“I was outgoing, I said what I wanted to say and I was kind of a punk,” he admits.
Deegan believes himself a rebel. It’s not clear that, with all of his success, he has ever felt accepted in the overall motocross community—or that he necessarily wants to be. He recognized after a few years of winning medals in races that neither his individuality nor his recklessness as a rider were being fully expressed.
“I needed to build something that fit me,” he says. That something would become freestyle motocross (FMX).
Building His Own Brand
The sport founded by Deegan placed a much greater emphasis on tricks and jumps. “Freestyle is not racing,” he explains, “It’s ‘who’s the craziest guy on a dirtbike?’”
FMX gained popularity through fan exposure, through stunt films like the ones put out by racing team Crusty Demon, and in ‘99 through its inclusion in the X Games. This was also when Deegan recognized an entrepreneurial opportunity.
At the time, Deegan had a significant income from corporate sponsorship.
“Now why are they paying me to promote their product?” Deegan recalls thinking. “It’s because obviously we’re cooler than that company is because they’re trying to make us make people think their company is cool. That’s why you sponsor people.”
The solution seemed, to Deegan, equally obvious: he should build his own brand.
The brand Metal Mulisha began as a signifier for the racing team of the same name and for a handful of their hardcore fans.
“Anyone who ran a Mulisha shirt,” he tells me, “we knew who that was.” They started out with the same recklessness and rebel attitude that they brought to the racetrack, albeit with little backing or formal planning. “When we started Mulisha it was more just about getting our image out there,” Deegan explains. “We were spray painting Mulisha T-shirts.”
Metal Mulisha grew in the same manner as FMX itself: slow at first but with increasing, almost incredible speed. This growth came about organically, with little pruning from Deegan or the other riders. “Our first five to seven years,” he explains, “we didn’t spend one dime on marketing, because we were the marketing.”
The company has now spread from FMX to include, among other things, truck racing and mixed martial arts (MMA). Deegan also tells us that his company is building relationships with UFC fighters.
“I Wanted to be the Best”
The FMX originator is full of ambition, but he is also remarkably protective of his brand.
“One day I’d like to take on the Quicksilvers and the Billabongs,” he says, “but do it in a cooler way.”
His company turns down more offers from retail companies hoping to sell his clothing line than it accepts. Deegan is careful about the growth and direction of the company not only as a businessman, but as someone whose public image is very much intermingled with the Metal Mulisha name.
“I don’t want the brand to ever be considered cheesy,” he says. No matter how big it gets, he tells me, “Metal Mulisha will always be about the rebel dude blazing a trail.”
He seems less concerned, if not more frustrated by the ban on Metal Mulisha clothing imposed by the Murrieta Valley Unified School District.
“Some of the schools have had problems with Mulisha, but it’s so lame because they don’t even know what it is,” he tells me. MVUSD has yet to give Deegan (or his lawyer; legal action against the district is underway) a definitive reason why the brand is prohibited at three of the district’s high school campuses. Supporters of the ban, however, point to what they believe is neo-Nazi imagery in the clothing such as German World War II helmets, skulls and lightning “S” symbols like the ones used to indicate the SS.
“It’s crazy,” Deegan says, “because people stereotype stuff.”
Setbacks for Metal Mulisha have been minor. It continues to grow online and, Deegan says, overseas. The team is on track to hit a million followers on Facebook by the end of this year. “Being able to click a button and tell a million people—a million fans— what you’re up to,” Deegan says, “that’s power.”
Deegan, who attributes his tireless work ethic to his father, doesn’t believe in luck. He believes in his own talent and in his ability to achieve what he sets out before himself. “I always wanted to win,” he says, “No matter if it was in sports or in business; I saw it as a competition. And I wanted to be the best.”
Just like when he recognized that he had to carve out his own place in action sports by creating FMX, Deegan is at a crossroads. He wants to return to racing, but this time on four wheels instead of two.
This transition is, if not familiar, then at least not unheard of. Travis Pastrana, another motocross rider, has been racing rally cars for years and has significant backing for his imminent entry into NASCAR.
“I really wanted to be the guy coming in first,” Deegan laments, though he expresses approval for his friend’s success.
NASCAR, faced with an aging audience and aging drivers, has begun to facilitate these kinds of transitions in ways that it didn’t five years ago. Younger drivers would reinvigorate the sport and boost competition on the track, as well as provide a significant draw for a younger demographic in their viewership. Younger viewers usually earn media companies a higher premium on advertisement space, as they have more disposable income and are more likely to spend it. It is in their interest, then, to court younger drivers, especially ones like Deegan who can bring with them an established fan-base.
Deegan believes that trying his hand at NASCAR is really a return to form. “Racing’s been in my blood since I was 8 years old,” he says. “[There are] a lot of things I accomplished in freestyle that I’m proud of, but it’s not racing. And I’ve always missed racing.”
It is not, however, as if he intended to end up racing NASCAR all along. Deegan belongs, first and foremost, on two wheels. “I think dirt bikes will always have their own thrill,” he explains. “You get in a race car and you’re safe. You don’t have that feeling of ‘I could get hurt at any moment.’”
In FMX, many of the fans are also riders. Freestyle is a sport that encourages if not challenges its audience to participate on some level. NASCAR, on the other hand, is very much a spectator sport. Deegan is not convinced that this will be a problem for him. Many of FMX fans don’t own bikes, he argues, and the spectatorial experience involved in both of these events is similar enough to give him confidence of his future success. He delivers the bottom line: “Going into NASCAR […] is going to gain me a bunch more fans and gain Metal Mulisha a bunch more customers.” He considers the idea for a few seconds more before saying, “not to mention going 200 miles per hour in a car will be pretty badass.”
Deegan recently signed a deal with Ford Racing that will have him competing in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series, Global Rally Cross Championship events and (once again) the X Games.
Behind the Corporate Motto
In 2005, after a terrible crash on the set of Viva La Bam, Deegan found God. Or rather, he found Him again. In Omaha, his family members were church-going Catholics, though none of them, he remembers, took it all too seriously. “I feel like we only went to church because that was the right thing to do,” he says. “It looked good on the family.” But soon, with most motocross races Deegan participated in falling on Sundays, his interest in the church began to wane.
Once he created FMX, he traded in the Spartan lifestyle necessary to race motocross for one of partying and excess. “The more we part[ied],” he noticed, “the more media we [received].” But the nearly fatal accident changed all that. He says he made a bargain with God after the doctors told him that he might not make it. He devoted his life, or at least all of the energy he has left after racing and raising a family, to Christ, attending regular church service, studying the Bible, and participating in the Harvest festival.
“All the heavy hitters of the Mulisha are born-again Christians,” Deegan declared in a New York Times article. Other riders like Jeremy Lusk, Ronnie Faisst and Jeremy “Twitch” Stenberg share Deegan’s faith. But qualifying his statement a bit, Deegan insists that the Metal Mulisha is not an exclusionary team, and that many of the riders do not practice any religion. He is intent on leading by example, but he is not interested in telling others what to do or how to feel. “It’s just not me to use my brand to preach to people,” he says.
Aside from initial fear of not being taken seriously by his peers, Deegan has not worried much about how his renewal of faith will affect the Mulisha. He is able to reconcile his life as a man of God and his life as a self-described rebel. Metal Mulisha is and has been, he says, as if hammering out a mission statement, “about being the craziest guy on a dirt bike, being best friends with your buddies, and winning gold medals.”
None of the tenets he espouses, to his mind, are mutually exclusive with faith. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done was to quit partying and standing up to people for what I believe in,” he says. “Being a Christian, that’s hardcore.”
Photos courtesy of Metal Mulisha