As the sun rose over Lake Superior, Dick Burleson piloted a KTM 950 Adventure to the top of the ancient chunk of granite that watches over the city of Marquette, Mich. This battered old rock has survived four ice ages. The heavy ice pushed the mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula into the earth and, 11,000 years later, those rocks continue to rise back up.
Nearly three decades after winning his eighth off-road championship, Burleson remains a rock-solid fixture in the motorcycle industry. Active and fit, the compact 60-year-old man is a bundle of high energy who turned his success as an off-road racer into a long career as a representative, advocate and product engineer.
Burleson is nearly as reliable a Michigan fixture as the rocks he climbed with the 950 that cool August morning. He lives in Traverse City and grew up in St. Joseph, both of which are on Michigan’s lower peninsula. He organizes the UP300, an annual industry ride hosted by Parts Unlimited that is held in the woods near Marquette. He also helps lay out the course for Loose Moose National Enduro.
The Upper Peninsula also is a place where he found his direction in life. His childhood was spent under the thumb of his father, who pushed him to become a concert pianist. Burleson worked hard to fulfill his father’s dream until he turned 18, but his path was more aligned with that of his outgoing, athletic mother. Having some freedom at a summer camp near Stueben in the UP allowed him to come to grips with that.
“When I was a kid, I went to a summer camp in the center of the UP. That was fantastic,” he said. “It was one of those things where you realize who you are and what you can do. They just threw us out there and let us have it. I realized I was pretty good at a lot of stuff. It was a big confidence builder for me.”
He enjoyed the camp so much he ended up working there after he went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to study mechanical engineering. He started riding motorcycles in college, and took his Honda S90 with him up to camp to explore the area.
His love of riding led to racing, and Burleson’s dedication, training and work ethic made him the best off-road racer in America. He dominated the sport from 1974 to 1981, winning a record eight enduro championships and earning a space in the motorcycle hall of fame.
The ride to the top of the chunk of UP granite was the beginning of three days exploring this dual-sport mecca and visiting some of Burleson’s favorite places. After burning some pavement over to one of Dick’s favorite breakfast stops, we headed down some snowmobile trails near Trout Lake in the east central part of the UP. Burleson led us down a fire road, branched off on a deep sandy trail and then turned onto a gnarly little piece of singletrack. I struggled a bit to guide the big KTM through the narrow, rocky terrain, but managed to keep the rubber side down mostly thanks to the fact that the bike is amazingly capable off-road.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, either by the KTM’s capability or by the fact that a dual-sport ride with a former enduro champion took about three hours to turn into an off-road ride.
Burleson rides hard for a man one-third his age, but he’s one of many riding off-road after becoming eligible for an AARP membership.
“Use it or lose it. If I stopped …well, first of all, I’d go postal,” Burleson said. “I’d lock up and be taking drugs so I can walk. You keep doing it, and you can do it. Part of the issue, too, is these stinking motorcycles are so good. You don’t have to work it all the time. Just go ride.”
The bikes may be good, but Burleson is no slouch. With his 60th birthday in the rear view, he’s still one of the fastest riders in the country. At the 2005 Moose Run, a notoriously tough off-road race, Burleson finished inside the top ten.
“You have to have realistic expectations,” Burleson said. “There was a time up until I was 40 that if I was racing, I wanted to win. Now, I would kind of like to win, but I’m not gonna. I want to do the best I can possibly do and maybe embarrass some young kids. The goal is a little different. Part of the issue is to ride within yourself and to do that, you’ve got to train. You’ve got to take care of yourself.”
Burleson lives up to that. He maintains his physical condition with a combination of active sports and hard work at the gym.
That work pays off in speed, and he manhandled the big 950 through the woods with grace. The bike is so tall he has to hop off the side to touch the ground, but that doesn’t slow him down.
He’s been on the throttle hard since he won his last enduro championship in 1981. When the time came to quit racing, he worked for Husqvarna. He won his enduro titles on the brand, and hoped to work for the company for many years to come. After the brand was purchased by Cagiva, the off-road program came apart and Burleson struck out on his own. He set up rides for Honda’s Red Rider program, tested motorcycles for a number of manufacturers and founded Thumper Racing with a partner from Texas.
In the early 1990s, Wayne Cornelius from Parts Unlimited approached him. The company was starting Moose Racing and wanted Burleson heavily involved. That relationship has proved to be a fruitful one, as Dick helped them develop an entirely new line of hard and soft parts, and continues to develop and test new products for Moose.
“Every time I go riding, there’s some test piece on my bike,” Burleson said.
In our three-day dual-sport adventure, Dick was testing boots, and my friend and I’s endurance. Day one was an 18-hour epic that had us back at the hotel in Marquette at midnight. Even Burleson’s famed energy seemed a bit sapped that night, but he was up at the crack of dawn the next day, bright, chipper and ready for another day of exploration when Mark and I came down for breakfast at 7:30 a.m.
On the final day of the ride, we left the 950s back at the hotel, and took off-road bikes into Dick’s favorite riding area, the Sands. He laid out the Loose Moose National Enduro there, one of the toughest off-road rides in Michigan.
Burleson’s love of nasty off-road terrain is legendary. While describing the reaction of participants to the course he laid out for the Loose Moose Enduro, he had no patience for those who felt the race was too difficult. The complaints, he said, were simply more evidence of the “pussification of America.”
We parked at a trailhead in the area, and unloaded two KTM off-road bikes and a Suzuki DRZ400S, a bit nervous about what was ahead. Following Dick Burleson around his home country is the equivalent of being led through the gates of Hades by Beelzebub. Both have intimate knowledge of their domains and take delight in tormenting their victims.
Burleson led us through a gnarly piece of singletrack snaking through rocks, hills and logs. I struggled with the 400, and Burleson took the bike and let Mark and I ride the KTMs, which were much better suited to the difficult terrain. At the time, I thought he was being gracious, but after some reflection, I think he just wanted to be sure he could show us his nastiest trails.
Burleson is fluid and graceful off-road, even on the heavy Suzuki dual-sport. We thrashed our way through nasty rock gardens and a four-foot vertical face. I’m sure a pro wouldn’t have blinked, but Mark and I were proud just to have survived the ride.
Later that night, Burleson shared his views on riding as the years continue to tick by.
“When I’m no longer able to run in the top 10 in the country at a national-caliber race, I’ll quit,” he told us. “I figure I have 10 more years in me.”
Aging is one of the universal life challenges, and everyone finds their own way to deal with it. Burleson deals with age like he did racing — well-prepared and charging in at full-throttle.
He has continued to develop product for Moose Racing, and is currently involved with the National Enduro Promotions Group (NEPG). Moose is one of the sponsors for the new electronic scoring system, which makes time-keeping simpler and enduro racing more accessible and enjoyable. Burleson is helping see that new system gets implemented, in addition to his regular bevy of product testing and appearances at Moose-sponsored events. He enjoys working with Moose, and appreciates the fact that they are constantly working to stay involved and improve the sport.
“That’s one of the reasons I’ve stuck with them that long,” Burleson said. “They’ve put it back into the sport.”
Burleson’s eight enduro championships are a feat matched only by Mike Lafferty. The way he’s attacking life speaks volumes about why that is so. Like the ancient mountains rising back out of the Upper Peninsula, Burleson hasn’t let time keep him down.