Troy Lee’s Day in the Dirt Grand Prix

March 4, 2010
Adam Waheed
By Adam Waheed
Road Test Editor|Articles|Articles RSS|Blog|Blog Posts|Blog RSS

His insatiable thirst for life is only surpassed by his monthly fuel bill. Whether rocketing on land, flying through the air, or jumping the seas, our Road Test Editor does it all and has the scars to prove it.

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
Racers tear off the starting line during the 13th annual Troy Lee Designs Day in the Dirt Grand Prix.

I’ve got the throttle pinned as I plunge several stories into “The Pit.” The muffler has barely any affect on silencing the engine’s roar as I accelerate flat out in fourth gear. The suspension is pumping violently trying to keep pace with the onslaught of bumps and square-edged holes transmitted through the wheels. I try to hang on, staying low and anchoring my legs against the bike. In a split second, the handlebars are ripped from my hands by the force of a G-out and a rogue pothole. Out of sheer instinct I jam my legs deeper into the sides of the bike in a desperate attempt to hold on. I somehow manage to remain upright, regaining control. This barely into the start of my first lap… No, I’m not on some psycho Nitro Circus-sponsored death ride. I’m taking part in Troy Lee Designs Day in the Dirt Grand Prix.

More than just a race, Day in the Dirt is a celebration: the Burning Man of off-road motorcycle racing. A reunion of old school camaraderie between men, women, their adversaries and the machines they love to ride. It’s a weekend where enthusiasts, their families and friends, can reunite at the racetrack and reminisce about the days of yesteryear while they create new stories and memories that will live long into the future. What started as an occasion to get riding buddies in the same place at the same time has evolved into one of the most well-known events in the realm of motorcycling.

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
Camaraderie and the opportunity to enjoy racing in a relaxed atmosphere is what brings people back year after year.

“The first year we were expecting a couple hundred to show up and we had a thousand come out,” remembers Kenny Alexander, Hollywood stuntman, racer, and architect of the event. “We were thinking, ‘nah, this is only going to be a one-time deal,’ but everyone was saying, ‘I can’t wait until next year,’ so we went ahead and scheduled the next year and the rest is history.”

The affair, now in its 13th year, is the pet project of stuntmen and dirt bike racing fanatics, Alexander and Jimmy Roberts. For these two guys racing motorcycles is in their blood, as their fathers, Ernie Alexander and J.N. Roberts, were motorcycle racing mad-men during the ’60 and ‘70s.

“J.N. Roberts was one of the fastest guys in the desert,” recalls Troy Lee, owner of Troy Lee Designs and sponsor of the race. “He’s, like, nine-time desert racing champ back in the ‘60s. He and Malcolm Smith were the two main guys then. They’d all go out there and have fun, live out of their trailers by the campfire, and drink beer and ride motorcycles with the family.”

Fun is the key ingredient of Day in the Dirt, and it’s what separates it from all other off-road motorcycle races. It’s a race for enthusiasts by enthusiasts. A race where there are no points and your finishing position only dictates the amount of smack you can talk over beers.

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
KTM off-road superstar David Knight took the opportunity to ride some vintange machines with the appropriate attire.

“We wanted to bring back some of the soul of the old races that happened when we were growing up,” explains Alexander. “The film industry in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was really into it. They were putting on some great races back then. Everyone just showed up to camp and it was more about hanging out than the actual race. That’s what inspired us to go ahead and do it.”

Day in the Dirt is held every Thanksgiving weekend and commemorates one of the country’s largest and most renowned classic desert races. It’s also held specifically on this weekend to accommodate those working within the film industry – a key contingent of the race.

“When I was growing up, the biggest race everyone looked for was Barstow to Vegas,” remembers Alexander. “It was the biggest desert race ever. It had 3000 riders start at one time. My family looked forward to that weekend all year long. So we thought, let’s go ahead and throw it on Thanksgiving weekend and see what happens.”

“Basically all the stunt guys – they all love motorcycles. But the movie studios typically don’t shut down for Christmas,” adds Troy Lee. “They seem like they always shutdown for Thanksgiving.”

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
Jeremy McGrath gives his daughter a ride through the pits. Looks like the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

The Hollywood delegation is primarily made up by those working within the trenches of fame: the grips, the guys and gals in the make-up and wardrobe sectors. And, of course, the fellows that literally take the fall for actors like George Clooney and Tom Cruise. Additional star power comes in the form of some of TLD’s top racers. Guys like Sam Hill, a professional downhill mountain bike racer, who could easily be a pro motocross racer, NASCAR racer Kasey Kahne, and IndyCar pilot Paul Tracy.

Los Angeles County Raceway’s vast expanse of dirt has hosted Day in the Dirt for all but two of its 13-year-long history. LACR was chosen primarily due to its close proximity to Hollywood and because of its sheer size, topography and pavement section – a key component of any motorcycle Grand Prix.

“We’ve made a big, long Grand Prix course so it has a fun feel,” says Troy Lee. “The dirt is bitchin’. It doesn’t get really hard chuckholes. It’s kind of sandy so it stays real user-friendly. We’re trying to make sure we don’t hurt a bunch of people. Most of the jumps are all tabletops so you can jump into them and go more, more, more because we have so many people racing at every different skill level. There are pros like Jeremy McGrath and Ryan Hughes, but then at the same time we have Sheri (Ridenour, TLD Marketing Queen), who works for me booking along on her 150.”

Things unofficially kick-off on Thanksgiving Day with participants pulling their rigs in early to secure a prime spot within LACR’s paddock. And when I say rigs, I mean everything from ultra-high dollar Prevost buses to small, clapped-out pickups packed to the brim and everything in between. 

Happy Hour

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
LACR hosts the GP and is a favorite for its multiple climbs and long laps.

Friday riders get their first taste of the track during the Troy Lee Happy Hour Practice Session. The nearly five-hour long practice is split into one morning and one afternoon session allowing riders to get acquainted with the specially prepared track. All the funds generated from the Friday’s practice directly benefit the Steve McQueen Memorial Fund for the Boys Republic – a charity that the actor and motorbike racer credited to turning his life around as a youth.

And trust me. You’re going to need every bit of time because the track is huge! How big? Well, think of it this way. There are 23-turns, nine opportunities to jump in and out of the seven-story deep crater and a top gear asphalt straightaway. This equates to lap times in the high three-minute range for pros like Honda Red Bull rider Andrew Short and the King of Supercross Jeremy McGrath and times in the four- and five-minute range for the rest of us mortals.

After registering and stickering my bike with cool N-Style Day in the Dirt decals, I hit the track. All I can say is – Wow! I mean, I had a general idea of the layout based on the map posted on the Day in the Dirt website, but that did nothing to prepare me for how incredible it actually is.

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
Red Bull Honda team manager, Eric Kehoe (15), takes his turn battling with David Knight (101) in one of the fast-guy races.

The terrain is a mix of sand and hard-pack dirt with a layout that utilizes the top portion of LACR’s standard motocross track arrangement before leading onto a paved straightaway nearly a quarter-mile long. From there it wraps all the way around to the other side before dropping into a massive pit which looks like the remains of an ancient meteor strike.

From there you rail around a multitude of tabletops and loamy-walled berms before charging uphill through another section of obstacles before dropping back into The Pit. The rest of the lap continues in that manner until you climb the hill for the final time – airing it off the tabletop lip and through a narrow chicane where the timing and scoring folks track your progress. It’s ridiculously fast (in a good way), long and loads of fun for riders of all skill levels.
One of the coolest things about Friday’s practice is that you’re riding alongside pros from the past and present, most of whom we’ve all looked up to at some point. Guys like Andrew Short, Jeff Ward, Rick Johnson, Jeremy McGrath and Jeff Emig to name a few. And these guys haul ass!

I specifically remember running down the upper backside of the track just before dropping into the crater. I’m in third or fourth gear smashing through the sand whoops as hard as I can. I had just motored past two guys and was thinking how bad-ass I am. Out of the corner of my eye, Red Bull Honda Team Manager and former pro, Erik Kehoe, comes around the outside of me, blasting through the whoops like I’m standing still. Talk about being humbled.

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
A young rider puts his bravery to the test. DITD is all about quality family time.

Aside the occasional strafing by a pro, the sketchiest element of ADITD is the sheer speed of the course. From the downhill dirt straight-aways to the wide-open pavement sector, you’re pretty much riding as fast as your bike will go in fourth or fifth gear. Add into the mix the variety of different sized bikes and an equally diverse rider skill-set and the varied closing speeds associated with it and you’re bound to experience a rush that few other forms of motorcycle competition can offer. And that’s just Happy Hour practice…

Rumble in the Desert

Saturday morning, we are unceremoniously awakened by the announcer, Greg Barbacovi, who begins his spiel way too early. His voice sounds like nails scratching a chalk board, but after gathering the courage to pull myself out of my sleeping bag and step into Lancaster’s chilly morning air, the irritation transforms into anticipation. Ahead is a full day of racing followed by an equally entertaining evening of partying. By now the pits are jam-packed and bustling with the sounds of folks laughing, kids playing, and the echo of assorted dirt bikes and Rhinos buzzing around the paddock.

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
Like the group of riders who pilot them, bikes young and old show up to compete.

For a hardcore two-wheeled aficionado, perhaps what’s most impressive is the sheer number of immaculate vintage machines on display. Bikes like the Greeves 250 Challenger, Maico 490, and BSA 441 Victor could all be found hiding beneath their owners E-Z Ups. Despite some of these motorcycles being in such pristine shape that they could be museum pieces, people are out here flogging them like it was a 1970s outdoor national. One guy I met even hired a local up-and-coming pro to pilot one of his vintage Yamaha 2-strokes, just to watch it tear up the track.

One of the neat things about the weekend is that no matter what you ride, from a brand-new 450cc 4-stroke to a 50cc Cobra, there’s a class to compete in. Being able to count on one hand the number of times I’ve raced dirt bikes, I opted to take it easy by registering for just two races: Saturday’s 30-minute 450cc Novice GP and Sunday’s 75-minute Moto-A-Gogo Team Race. There’s no practice or parade lap before the races start Saturday morning, which adds to the nerves, or excitement coming into the races.

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
David Knight has had the opportunity to race just about everything, but the GP brings out the Manxman’s grin.

Saturday’s motos kicked off with the Vintage and Women’s GP races. In the women’s class, WMA regular Tarah Geiger was lapping the field while her boyfriend and certified off-road racing maniac, David Knight, was racing an immaculately prepped ’70s-era CZ dirt bike. And, like many of the vintage racers, Knighter fully embraced the spirit of that era by trading his Moose riding gear and Red Bull painted lid for a pair of denim jeans, a flannel shirt, and a retro custom TLD-painted half-helmet.

If you could only see the smile slapped across his face during the race, it was unbelievable. He literally had his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth enjoying every second of the 30-minute race – it was hilarious. Furthermore, like the majority of the vintage racers, he wasn’t simply putting around but was pretty much riding as hard as he could on a bike with less than a third of the suspension travel of a modern day machine. In fact, he rode the CZ so hard that he broke the right rear shock absorber right off the frame yet still finished the race.

After the Vintage and Women’s races concluded it was the kids’ turn, followed by the Stunt GP Team Race which pits the film industry against each other before my time came to bash bars in the Beginner/Novice GP class. To say I was nervous as I rode up to the starting area would be an understatement. After finally deciphering what wave I was in and my position on the starting line I tried to remain calm, knowing that this was going to be one of the longest dirt bike races I’ve ever competed in.

Since there isn’t a gate, the starting procedure requires you to have your left hand touching your helmet which signals you’re ready to go. Once the flagger sees everyone is in position, he drops the flag and riders simultaneously notch the bike into gear and slip the clutch, peeling out as fast they can.

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
The author got his first taste of DITD madness aboard a 2010 Yamaha YZ450F.

My reaction time was a bit off and I didn’t get the start I had hoped, so I tried to remain patient as I entered Turn 1 mid-pack. Not wanting to look like a complete squid I took it easy the first lap and just tried to keep the bike upright and find the smoothest line possible in order to avoid getting worn out early.

Despite what you’d assume, everyone rides cleanly and bar-bashing is kept to a minimum. By the second lap I started to get into a groove and was making my way through traffic. Despite being the sixth race of the day the track was really holding together well. Sure, there were plenty of bumps, but overall it wasn’t as hairy as anticipated.

As I started knocking back the laps, my lack of physical conditioning began to show its effects. I was running out of steam quick. With time dwindling I was trying as hard as possible not to crash yet still pass the rider in front of me. Having minimal dirt bike racing experience, I miscalculated a few passing attempts and paid the price when I ran into a guy’s back wheel, sending me face first into the dirt. No sooner had I got back underway when I made the same mistake the very next lap.

I felt like I was about to pass out when I saw the white flag. It rejuvenated me knowing that in less than five minutes I could celebrate by knocking back a few ice cold Rocky Mountain sodas. Minutes later that celebration became reality when I crossed the line in 24th position out of the 42 riders that completed the race.

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
After the day’s racing is complete it’s time to unbuckle the boots, grab a cold one and relax with new friends.

I had already lost count of how many mountain sodas I’d consumed when the final checkered flag of the afternoon was waved. At that point the pits really came to life. Kids were running around, pedaling their bikes looking for that same thrill we all seek at that age. Campfires ignited in rapid succession followed by the aroma of food on the grill. A fair-like atmosphere permeated the air, complete with lights, music, and lots of laughter.

Moseying from campsite to campsite you’re guaranteed to be greeted with a smile and offered something to eat or drink. Most folks’ set-ups get creative. One group hauled in their own sod so they had a perfectly manicured lawn just like at home. Another hauled in a hot-tub nestled next to their bikes in their pop-up garage. Many strung lights across their camper in the spirit of the holidays. 

Blow of Mercy

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
The Coup de Grace Survival Race has no predetermined length.

Sunday is the final day of racing culminating with the Coup de Grace Survival Race. The contest is unique in the fact that there is no set finish time, only the promise of racing anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes or until the dude waving the flag thinks you’ve had enough.

Things kick-off with a single parade lap so those who arrived on Sunday can learn which way the track goes before lining up on the starting line. During the evening the track crew does an outstanding job, going through the track with a fine tooth comb so you’re greeted with a smooth, freshly ripped track at dawn.

Similar to yesterday, racing action begins with the kids followed by the big bikes. Next to the Coup de Grace, one of the biggest races of the weekend is the Moto-A-GoGo Pro/Am Team Race. The contest is comprised of a two-man team broken into classes by category of expertise i.e. moto, stunt/film, father/son. I teamed up with my pal and former motocross racer Nick Theil in the moto class.

The format of the race is simple: each team member puts in a single lap aboard their machine before pulling into the staging area and swapping arm bands, thereby tagging their teammate, allowing them to race for a single lap. The race continues in that format for the entire 75-minute duration.

Having recently become addicted to the adrenaline rush of a dirt bike race launch, I opted to start. Like yesterday’s race, I stumbled off the line but still managed a mediocre position into the first turn. Unlike Saturday, the track already had some pretty big holes in it which made it a little trickier to navigate and find a smooth line. My primary focus was to keep the bike on two wheels and let Theil try to make up time on the other teams in our class.

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
The racing is always stacked with a full list of entries every year.

At the end of each lap you had about four minutes to rest before racing resumed. It was really amusing to monitor the progress against your buddies racing next to you. It also gave you some time to mentally decompress and analyze where you could try and carry speed and where you needed to just try and get through unscathed.

Things were going well until I took a digger in one of the track’s slowest 180-degree corners right before dropping into The Pit. During the spill, I stalled the engine and it took me a couple of kicks to get it re-fired – costing me a good chunk of time. Once up and running I was surprised by how fast track conditions were deteriorating, mostly due to the ridiculous amount of earth-flinging torque produced by 45-plus horsepower 450cc dirt bikes.

This caused some pretty hairy moments at the bottom section of The Pit where the combined forces of the G-out and random holes made it sketchy. The remainder of the race was fairly uneventful and we eventually ended up finishing 14th out of the 40 teams that finished. After avoiding a couple of potentially huge crashes, I was ecstatic to have finished with all my limbs intact.

Next was the final race of the day—the Coup de Grace. The race was won by Timmy Weigand, a professional off-road and Baja racer who competes under the Johnny Campbell Racing Honda team. Weigand put in an astounding 27 laps. His trophy? A TLD-customized toilet proclaiming him “King Shit.”

Perhaps the most entertaining element of the race was when the flagger flew the white flag with the black cross signifying half-race distance at roughly the 90-minute mark. By that point, most of the guys racing assumed the end was near, but instead it was only halfway complete…or so they thought. A lap or two later, the blow of mercy came in the form of the checkered flag.

Troy Lees Day in the Dirt Grand Prix
Timmy Weigand earned the dubious title for claiming the Coup de Grace.

In less than 24 hours LACR goes from a vacant gravel pit to a bustling community of motorcyclists all sharing the common bond in their lives: having fun and riding dirt bikes. Here there’s no pretentiousness and it doesn’t matter what you do for a living, your background, or where you’re from. While this sounds like some strange utopia mumbo- jumbo, it’s the truth. In one area of the track, don’t be surprised to see a gypsy-like band of riders sleeping out of the bed of their pick-up trucks and eating out of a huge shared pot full of cooked rice while directly across from them is pro rider Jeremy McGrath with his family. Therein lies the beauty of Day in the Dirt. For one weekend a year, it’s about a sense of nostalgia and fraternity, where pretenses are shoved aside, where all that matters is the love of the dirt and the thrill of the ride.