Let It Ride
By Paul Rogers
Travel on any Southern California highway on any weekend and you’ll almost certainly see dirt bikes. Dirt bikes on trailers; dirt bikes in the back of pickups; dirt bikes strapped to the back of RVs; dirt bikes bouncing around in the distant desert. Yep, with it’s almost year-round sunshine, wide-open spaces, incredible variety of terrain and enduring prosperity, SoCal is ground zero for motocross (MX) and the spin-off sport of freestyle motocross (FMX).
So it’s entirely fitting that Red Bull X-Fighters (which, alongside X Games is widely considered the most prestigious and challenging FMX competition) is coming to San Bernardino’s Glen Helen Raceway on May 12—and shocking that this is the event’s first-ever California stop.
The Pinnacle of FMX
“To me, it’s kind of the pinnacle of freestyle [motocross], because it mixes genuine competition with the element of a show,” says Temecula-based Ronnie Renner, a freestyle motocross icon who won X-Fighters in Mexico City in 2005 and earned two other top 3 finishes on the tour (in Madrid in 2004 and Mexico City in 2006). “There’s a clear out-and-out winner; it has the most legitimate judges; [and] the most credible kind of system.”
An invitation tournament attracting the world’s best FMX riders, X-Fighters began in a bullfighting arena in Valencia, Spain in 2001. It brought the jaw-dropping tricks of the top riders closer to crowds in the relatively restricted space of bullrings, while adopting some of the pageantry and showmanship of a traditional corrida—a combination which has proven irresistible to crowds worldwide.
Fueled by the marketing muscle of energy drink producer Red Bull, X-Fighters has grown steadily since its inception, including an annual competition in Madrid which is regarded as Europe’s premier FMX event. The contest has also graced venues in Mexico, Poland and England, and in 2010 drew an incredible 230,000 spectators to Galle Face Green in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Increasingly glamorous, exotic and unlikely venues have been secured for X-Fighters, including Moscow’s Red Square and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt (both in 2010). X-Fighters Glen Helen will be the tour’s first U.S. date since its 2009 event at the Fort Worth Stockyards in Texas.
“They’ve taken the series to places I never imagined when I was getting into it,” says Renner. “As a rider, I wish the timing would have been different for me, because I definitely get a little jealous watching my guys go out there and get to ride in these venues!”
The Punk Rock of Motorsports
The roots of freestyle motocross are murky, but a pivotal moment in its evolution came when then 17-year-old Omaha MX rider Brian Deegan “ghost-rode” (i.e. jumped off his bike and let it soar unmanned) over the finish line as he won the 125cc Supercross main race at the LA Coliseum in 1997. By the end of that decade an informal movement of riders was combining showboating stunts like Deegan’s with tricks borrowed from the world of BMX to spawn the worldwide phenomenon of FMX. Personified by Deegan’s super-successful, Irvine-based “Metal Mulisha” team (and related, bro-biquitous clothing line), FMX has become associated with both daredevil attitude and a proudly non-conformist streak—the punk rock of motorsports, if you will.
Red Bull X-Fighters both tapped into and propelled the growth of FMX by equally addressing the competition and entertainment aspects of the fledgling sport.
“It’s a world-class event and they spare no expense in making sure the thing is legit,” says Renner, who began competing in FMX in 2000 and is an X-Games gold and silver medalist. “I think [X-Fighters is] really hitting home in Southern California because this is the hotbed of motocross and freestyle motocross.”
Freestyle motocross competitions generally consist of riders performing two routines, each lasting between 90 seconds and multiple minutes, on a course consisting of numerous jumps of varying lengths and angles. A panel of judges assigns each contestant a score based on a 100-point scale, looking for challenging tricks and variations over jumps.
FMX tricks include the “Double Grab” (wherein the rider grabs the back of the motorcycle with both hands while extending their body off the back of the bike); “Rodeo Air” (performing a heel clicker with one hand free while the other hand holds the cross bar); the “Dead Body” (placing the rider’s body over the front of the bike while holding the bars and keeping entire body horizontal with the bike); and the classic “Superman” (releasing both feet from the machine and kicking them straight back). Variations on the back flip—long-considered the “holy grail” of FMX—have been a staple of highest level of the sport since the mid-aughts.
What it’s All About in SoCal
“It’s just the right location—it’s the right time and the right place,” says Renner of X-Fighters’ SoCal debut. “[With] Glen Helen being an iconic location with a real big reputation for motorsports and power sports, I think we’re going to hit just that kind of demographic of motorcycle enthusiasts and horsepower junkies.”
Glen Helen Raceway began building a reputation as a motorsports mecca in the mid-1980s, when it hosted several sand drag, off-road and motocross events. In 1991, the sprawling venue hosted its first major event: the United States World Championship Motocross, which returned the following year. It’s been a fixture on the motorsports map ever since.
“[X-Fighters], I think, trumps any other event that’s ever come [to Glen Helen] as far as credibility,” Renner says. “It should, and hopefully will, attract some people that have never seen [FMX] before.”
X-Fighters’ arrival in the Inland Empire comes at a time when the local dirt bike scene is, despite the recently anemic economy, booming. Off-road motorcycling is a hobby for thousands locally and generates millions (from the retail of bikes, parts, accessories and clothing) for the area’s economy annually. World-renowned OHV (Off Highway Vehicle) areas like Glamis (east of Brawley), Ocotillo Wells (between the Salton Sea and the Anza Borrego State Park) and Pismo Beach (on the Central Coast) are all within easy reach of IE dirt bikers. The region also boasts at least half a dozen top motocross tracks (including Perris Raceway, Starwest, Lake Elsinore Motocross Park, Cahuilla Creek, Milestone Ranch and Glen Helen).
“I’ve been all around the world . . . and you just don’t see dirt bikes in the back of trucks like you do in California anywhere!” marvels Renner, “I’m from Florida [originally] where, if you saw someone with a dirt bike in the back of their truck, you knew them!”
Dedication vs. Risks
Freestyle motocross is every bit as dangerous as it looks (just YouTube it—search “FMX crash” to see how spectacularly wrong the stunts can go), but this is a large part of its allure to huge crowds worldwide and is at the heart of the hero-worship heaped on the sport’s fearless idols.
“I would say my No. 1 reason for slowing down [was] I just got to where the risk-to-reward was kind of off-balance,” says Renner. “That’s the nature of the sport . . . When you put your helmet on, you know what you’ve gotten yourself into and I wouldn’t say it’s ‘rolling the dice’—these guys practice and train like Olympic athletes. It’s a lot of dedication and just a lot of time put in; a lot of sacrifices made . . . to be at the level they’re at.
Renner says that the truly passionate riders—those that embrace the risks of FMX regardless of money or glory—are the ones that are rising to the top of the sport. But even the most dedicated and meticulously-rehearsed riders can be (quite literally) thrown off by variations in specific conditions at a given event on a given day.
“You have to do the [tricks] repetitively to get a muscle-memory,” Renner explains. “And then when you get to the show, the conditions have changed. It doesn’t matter of it’s the same exact style of ramp: if the elements change around you, it’s a totally different feel.”
Though FMX has evolved at lightning pace over recent years, riders build-up to their logic-defying tricks in the same way they have since the sport’s beginnings, according to Renner.
“You just kind of paced it out; paced it out—you put a full day into a trick if you needed to,” he says of his routine while a top-flight competitor. “Since 2006, when back flips started getting the norm, the game has changed a lot and the level of comfort is a lot harder to get to . . . So my hat’s off to my fellow riders for taking it to the level they have.”
While local competitors might enjoy an edge at X-Fighters Glen Helen, where the terrain and conditions will be familiar to them, Renner points out that many top riders from all over the world now base themselves in SoCal for many months of the year. As far as “true” local favorites for the event, he singles-out Anza rider Todd Porter (“a really good, natural all-around rider”) and the Temecula-based Nate Adams (“if he’s healthy, he’s going to be the one to look out for”). Overall, Renner also fancies last year’s X-Fighters series champion Danny Torres from Spain (“championships kind of do all the talking”) and the winner from the tour’s Dubai stop last month, New Zealand’s Levi Sherwood (“trick-for-trick, in a normal set-up, nobody can top the kid”).
“The kicker in this one is that it’s going to be a lot different course than a standard stadium show,” says Renner, who’ll be doing track testing and taping his often hilarious “Renner Report” for the media at Glen Helen. “A natural terrain, SoCal-esque rider might have an advantage, because it’s going to feel a lot closer to home, with all the elevation changes; the obstacles. It really will come down to the course and who adapts well to it.
“The [Glen Helen] course is going to be massive. It’s really going to tie-in the history of freestyle into the course, so I think the fans are in for a real treat.”
May 12 will mark both X-Fighters’ California bow and, spiritually at least, a long-overdue homecoming for FMX’s flagship event to the sport’s traditional stronghold. So expect Glen Helen to be surrounded by a sea of motor homes and filled with an army of rabid moto-X-heads. See you at the track.
Red Bull X-Fighters at Glen Helen Raceway, 18585 Verdemont Ranch Rd., San Bernardino, (909) 880-1733; www.redbull.com/cs/Satellite/en_INT/Red-Bull-X-Fighters/001243148660786. Sat, May 12. Gates open 10am. $30-$400.