Roughly 10 years ago, pro rider Clint Esposito went to his first amateur freestyle contest at Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. It wasn’t just Esposito’s first — this is considered the first ever amateur freestyle event. Shortly after that, the Walden-Playboy Race Track in Wallkill, N.Y., hosted another. The track is a progressive venue, one of the first motocross tracks in the country to have a website and run races simultaneously on their two tracks. The kind of place that is game to hosting something new.
Freestyle motocross was still in its infancy. Riders started pulling increasingly athletic tricks in competition in the mid-1990s. Jump contests became part of the show, and the popular videos “Showtime” and “Crusty Demons of Dirt” showed riders doing insane tricks on motocross bikes. Shane Trittler held what is considered the first freestyle motocross event in Castaic, Calif. in 1996, and Racer X magazine put photos of the event on the cover.
When freestyle motocross (FMX) was added to the X Games in 1999, FMX had officially arrived. The riders who became the face of the sport — Mike Metzger, Larry Linkogle, Brian Deegan and Carey Hart — became heroes to legions of fans. At roughly this same time, the Walden-Playboy track decided to host an amateur competition.
As it turns out, the track organizers were ahead of the curve. They held two amateur freestyle events. Both were attended by Clint Esposito and another five guys. A few spectators — mostly friends of the riders — also joined in. The experiment was short-lived and ill-fated.
Esposito saw the potential in the events and thought it was important to get people together who were doing freestyle. But Esposito was wrapped up in his own budding freestyle career, and the former pro motocross racer spent the next six years focused on making a living as a freestyle racer.
In the early days, FMX was driven from an outsider’s perspective. When pro rider Brian Deegan was harassed by his professional motocross team for his dyed hair and tattoos, he and Larry Linkogle’s backyard became home of the Metal Mulisha. They formed this group as a reaction to the straight-laced, traditional team management, and their look was skull-emblazoned black gear salted with a lot of rebellious attitude. Videos featured the crew “poaching,” meaning they did tricks on crowded golf courses and public parks. Brian Deegan raced professionally for the Metal Mulisha and was fined heavily by the AMA for doing so.
Esposito was 19 years old and struggling to make it as a professional motocross racer. He had ridden BMX when he was younger and had a knack for aerials. Esposito picked up a gig jumping a 65-foot ramp and doing tricks.
“They paid me 300 bucks plus my hotel room,” Esposito said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘this is an awesome deal!’”
He began making regular appearances as a freestyle rider, and the money was decent. By 2001, his entire career was FMX. He rode in the first Stadium Monster Jam that included FMX and became a regular on the show circuit.
By 2006, he was in a position to give a little back to his sport, and he put on the Get Out of the Cold Jam near his home in Georgia. The amateur freestyle competition was held just before Christmas. The idea was for guys to get together and for the northern boys to escape the cold. Esposito grew up in New Jersey and understood how long winter can be for northern motorcyclists.
“Paris Rosen came down from Minnesota,” Esposito said. “He drove with his bike laying down in a minivan.”
They had 15 to 20 riders come down; each of the riders did a couple of tricks, and Esposito gave out a few prizes. “It’s more like a meeting,” Esposito said. “Everybody usually rides in their backyard. This was a chance for everyone to hang out. Some of these guys had never rode with anyone at their level before.”
Freestyle riders did eventually find a way to connect at FreestyleMTX.com. This discussion board is the heart and soul of amateur freestyle motocross. People can share photos about what they do, swap techniques and just talk about their sport in a way that isn’t possible when the nearest rider lives 250 or 1,000 miles away.
The message board was founded by pro FMX rider Chuck Carothers, and the crew who hang out at the spot includes many of the top riders of the sport. Which isn’t to say the board is a snooty place. When a new rider comes in and posts some photos of their latest trick on the newbie board, the comments are uniformly positive and supportive. Even when the photographs show riding that is, um, typical of a new rider.
And some of the riding is not typical of anyone new to anything. In a quick troll of the boards, I spotted one rider — TwistedYouth25 from Bakersfield, Calif. — leaping a 170-foot step-up jump in his backyard and several others doing advanced tricks 20 feet in the air.
Carothers and FreestyleMTX.com provide a forum for the sport, and two relatively new organizations are working on organizing events. The AFMXA hosts events on the West Coast, and FMX East hosts them on the other side of the country.
FMX East was founded by Esposito. The AFMXA is headed by Toby Bost, who is also the head of the La Jolla Group, a clothing company that includes the O’Neil product line. The two organizations cooperate on occasion and are both working to put together more amateur events.
Esposito held about a dozen events in 2010 and sees steady increases in attendance and riders. He also said the level of competition is increasing and that his last four race series saw three novice riders battling it out to the finish and throwing some impressive tricks along the way. He understands that young talent is part of what’s needed for the sport to take the next step.
“I get as excited watching a kid doing heel-clickers for the first time as I do watching the pros knock it out at a national competition,” Esposito said.
Dan Weeks is an FMX East affiliate and FMX rider who owns 20 acres near Dallas, Texas. He grew up riding and racing dirt bikes and working for his dad’s company.
“My dad owns a small business. When the economy tanked, he couldn’t pay us. My brother went to work for a bank,” Weeks said. “I decided to full-bore it and try to make a living riding a dirt bike.”
Weeks made it work. He hosts the annual Pinn-It Bash, a FMX competition, at his 20-acre facility and will have open riding available beginning in late March. He also will be offering lessons. Both he and Esposito said that requests from new riders come in on a regular basis. Neither has had the capacity to help much, but Weeks will try to change that with his lessons.
In the end, making it in this sport is no different from any other. Ultimate dedication is required, and Esposito said riders won’t be able to make the cut unless they train hard both on the bike and with their bodies. Fitness is required both for top mental conditioning and so riders can recover quickly if they get injured.
Esposito also noted that amateur freestyle is no more dangerous than amateur motocross. While the jumps are high, you don’t have 40 throttle-pinned maniacs on your tail when you crash.
And speeds for the tricks are quite low. Esposito said the big ramps only require a second-gear run to clear, and that one of the key adjustments for a rider is understanding that high speed on the ramp isn’t necessary.
Another irony of the sport is that the bad-boy image that helped launch it is now a hindrance. FMX is largely populated with hard-working young men sweating day and night in the gym and on the track in the hopes that they can make a living on two wheels.
Amateur competition is where that fresh new talent can blossom. Esposito believes the best way for new venues to be created is at existing motocross tracks, where an FMX course can be added easily, insurance is already in place, and noise restrictions and other barriers have been crossed.
On FreestyleMTX.com, more than 8,200 members have put up a quarter million posts discussing this sport. The board has grown explosively, and tricks that made magazine covers 10 years ago are common at local race tracks today.
“Regardless of who’s runnin’ it, amateur freestyle is coming,” Weeks said.