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Backmarker: Nuclear Cowboyz Inception

Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Micky Dymond won the AMA 125cc outdoor motocross championship in 1986 and 87  and the Unlimited Supermoto title in 2005. Tommy Lees personal instruction notwithstanding  he marches to the beat of his own drum. It was his idea to create an FMX show with a script and a story  instead of just a sequence of tricks.
Micky Dymond won the AMA 125cc outdoor motocross championship in 1986 and '87, and the Unlimited Supermoto title in 2005. It was his idea to create a show with an actual script instead of just a sequence of tricks.

For Micky Dymond, Life's an Opera

Back in the '80s, my friend Micky Dymond won two AMA outdoor motocross championships. Then he decamped to Europe where he raced in the World Championships. That didn't go quite as well, perhaps because Micky took an, um, idiosyncratic approach to training. A journalist asked him what he'd be doing next. Micky told him, "I may become a poet." Now, in saying that, he could've been messing with the interviewer - but knowing Micky, there was a good chance that at that moment, it was what he had in mind for himself. (For the record, he's a creative guy, but he'd make a terrible poet.)

What he actually did was come back to the U.S., where he ended up working for and with some of the first freestyle motocross promoters. He got things done, which made him useful if you needed to move a huge show in and out of arenas. For a while, he handled the logistics and setup for Mötley Crüe. When Tommy Lee found out who he was, he made a deal; you teach me how to ride a mötorcycle, and I'll teach you how to play the drüms.

With fans becoming increasingly numb to difficult tricks  the Nuclear Cowboyz show aimed at providing more of a backdrop to set the scene.
With fans becoming increasingly numb to difficult tricks, the Nuclear Cowboyz show aimed at providing more of a backdrop to set the scene.
Micky came back to motorcycle racing, winning the AMA Unlimited-class Supermoto championship in 2005. The 19-year gap between his first and last AMA championships has got to be some kind of record. He's one of the most naturally-talented riders I've ever personally known. Someday, I'll tell you a story about the first time he ever rode a roadracing bike. But, I digress; having read this far, you might guess that when my phone rang a couple of years ago, and Micky showed up on my caller ID, that a.) I picked up; and b.) I did not know what to expect.

What Micky said was, "I want you to help me script a motorcycle stunt show."

He'd been contracted to put a stunt show together in Australia. It was basically a choreographed sequence of stunts; it differed from the usual X-Games/X-Fighters contest shows mostly in that Micky, given his rock-show experience, was planning to integrate the music, lighting and pyrotechnics into a more cohesive whole.

Micky's big idea was more than an FMX show with better special effects. It was one that told a story, in which the riders 'acted' out roles in a scripted plot. "Until then, the shows were all basically a mock X-Games," Micky told me. "The riders were introduced as themselves at the beginning of the show. Once the riders have been introduced, they can't play characters, they can only play themselves. My idea was to lead with the story."

Derek Guetter performs a back flip on his ATV at Pittsburgh.
Derek Guetter performs a back
flip on his ATV in Pittsburgh.
Perhaps because the show'd originated in Oz, Micky had imagined a sort of 'Mad Max,' post-apocalyptic theme for it. The plan had been to bring it to the U.S. When that fell apart, he pitched it to Feld Entertainment himself. Deep into that process, it occurred to him that he had a big idea and a theme, but no actual storyline. For the first time in the history of live FMX shows, someone needed a writer.

That was where I came in. I told Micky about Joseph Campbell's 'Hero With a Thousand Faces" theory – that there's essentially one blueprint for all myths. Together, we repackaged the essential elements of Micky's show as a story with a beginning, middle, and end; conflict and resolution; music and since it was still an FMX show, lots of pyrotechnics. We scripted an introductory video, and wrote a role for a Master of Ceremonies who served as a sort of narrator. We joked that we'd created the first motorcycle opera.

The first season of 'Nuclear Cowboyz' was enough of a success for Feld Entertainment that they re-upped, and when the 2011 version of show came through Kansas City, I dropped by the Sprint Center to check it out. Micky had fought for and lost a battle to create a new introductory video for the second season, but our initial story (which
With 20 people moving around in the dark at any given time on dirt bikes and quads a lot of mistakes can happen  so riders have to thoroughly choreograph all their movements.
With 20 people moving around in the dark at any given time on dirt bikes and quads a lot of mistakes can happen, so riders have to thoroughly choreograph all their movements.About 10 charts like this one help riders to remember where they are in the show.
had pitted two 'tribes' of motorcyclists that had survived a nuclear holocaust by living out in the desert) had been buttressed with a third tribe of urban dwellers; parkour-style gymnasts and trials riders, including 10-time AMA national champion, Geoff Aaron.

I showed up a few hours before the show. The dozen FMX bikes are trucked from arena to arena – part of the huge, seven-semi load – the bikes were waiting in the tunnel under the arena. The stars just fly in, ride, spend the night in a nice hotel and go home. For $5000-$10,000 a night, it's nice work if you can get it, and it's also great exposure for the riders' personal sponsors.

The FMX guys drifted in, suited up, and checked over their bikes. Feld hires a couple of mechanics to look after the machines, but I saw some of the riders doing their own safety wiring. The trials riders were the first guys out on the arena floor (which is covered with thick rubbery matting). They warmed up by riding Gas Gas 300s over a wrecked cop car, and effortlessly wheelying up a landing ramp so steep it was hard for me to even walk up it. Then, still on the back wheel, one of them rode across a 20-foot bridge over a 10-foot drop. The bridge was maybe 16-inches wide; I had my doubts about even following him across it on foot.

Micky inspected the floor. He corrected the alignment of a couple of take-off ramps, and measured the precise gap to the landings. An inspector from the local fire department came to approve the arrangements for the pyro. We were still standing right on the arena floor when a dozen of the best freestylers in the world started their warm-up. Within a couple of minutes, they were doing things on motorcycles that, if I ever did them, I'd want to know exactly what I'd done so that I could make sure I never did it again.
The Nuclear Cowboyz show brings together freestyle motocross  dance  and music and delivers it in a highly choreographed theatrical-style performance.
The Nuclear Cowboyz show brings together freestyle motocross, dance, and music and delivers it in a highly choreographed theatrical-style performance.

Seen up that close, it was some sick $#!+. Although the layout of the show's set, ramps, and props is pretty similar in every arena, it takes them a while to get used to the exact setup for the night. In an hour, they were doing synchro backflips about a yard apart. And by the end of that time, I had come to a conclusion: Nuclear Cowboyz is the future of FMX.

I'm not making this claim because I had a part (albeit small) in its conception. I'm sure of it for two reasons: the first is that tricks, by themselves, are boring; the second is that the people who actually do the tricks would rather do this than risk their lives trying to win medals at the X-Games.

Don't get me wrong; the first time you see some crazy backflip you're, like, "Oh My God! That was ridiculous!" The second time it's, "That was sick!" But the third time, it's "What else have you got?"

Nuclear Cowboyz incorporates lots of eye candying in its show.
Nuclear Cowboyz incorporates lots of eye candying in its show.
Mike Mason may be the most versatile and talented cast member. By now, he's an elder statesman in this kid's game; a guy who, before becoming one of the 'Soldiers of Havoc,' qualified for AMA MX and SX nationals. Even he admits that the contest model has limited appeal. "We've seen a lot of people who say this is the first show they've ever seen," he told me. "It's cool because if they went to the X-Games, maybe one guy's doing a double backflip and you're, like, 'That was sick,' but everyone else is doing the same [tricks] and after you've seen the fifth or sixth guy doing the same trick on the same ramp, you're over it. Here there's fire, there's girls dancing; people who've never seen our sport have more to hold their interest."

It was interesting being a fly on the wall with those guys, too. You see them on the X-Games or whatever, with the tatts, all amped up for the TV show, totally nutso. But the reality of making a living as a freestyler is, the gap between those ramps is wide and at the top of the arc you're a long, long way above the ground.

Trials and Endurocross ace Keith Wineland wheelied across a bridge that I hardly wanted to walk across; it was that narrow.
Trials and Endurocross ace Keith Wineland wheelied across a bridge that I hardly wanted to walk across; it was that narrow.
"I think [shows like Nuclear Cowboyz are] something the sport needs," Mason told me. "The tricks are getting to a point where unless you're willing to risk your life, it's hit a standstill." Adding in the story element gives the audience something to think about besides a ghoulish curiosity about whether or not the next guy will make it. Mason continued, "The storyline's cool; we get to act out of character, we act like we hate all the Metal Mulisha guys and they act like they hate us, but really we all like each other. We're doing regular backflips, but it's in a train or side by side, and it's fun; it adds a level of excitement."

Not that pulling the show off is easy; it isn't. With up to 20 people moving around on the floor - 12 motocross bikes, two quads and two trials bikes, as well as dancers and gymnasts - in the dark and fog, keeping track of the choreography and knowing exactly where you need to be is key. During the show, Micky's stationed at the entrance to the tunnel, where huge script cards are posted as reminders for the riders. [Author's note: At one of the final shows on the 2011 tour, one of the performers (Ronnie Faist) crashed and broke his femur.]

Metal Mulisha's Derek Garland - who looks like what you'd get by shrinking a Hells Angel and setting him on a motocross bike, but is quiet and articulate in conversation - told me, "Everyone's on cue; you're not just doing your own thing. It's technical, you're riding close to the other guys. The product's good. I feel like an actor, some scenes we're chasing each other around, mad-dogging each other. I'm one of the bad
Ive been doing freestyle for six or seven years  the Mulishas Derek G-Land Garland told me. This is definitely where its going.
"I've been doing freestyle for six or seven years," the Mulisha's Derek 'G-Land' Garland told me. "This is definitely where it's going."
guys on the black bikes. I've been doing freestyle for six or seven years. I'd love to see it go more this way; the lighting and dancers, the quads, the synchronized and choreographed stuff."

So at the end of the night, did the average fan leaving the Sprint Center have a really clear idea of the story as it had taken shape in Micky's head? Maybe not, but the theatrical sets, the black-bike tribe and white-bike tribe, the all-black 'shadow warrior' give the fans something on which that they could, at least, project their own interpretations. Besides, the average fan leaving the Metropolitan Opera after watching Puccini's 'Turandot' probably has no idea what the plot-line was, either.

As for Micky, by the time you read this the Nuclear Cowboyz 2011 tour will be over. "This was a good start," he told me. "Our story is simple: You have a post-nuclear world; it's Mad Max and it's been beaten to death, especially in our sport. Now that we've proven that motorcycle fans like this stuff I'd like to do something more like 'Tommy', with rock and roll, great lighting, and motorcycles. It's time to get creative.”
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Dave Massingham   April 6, 2011 08:26 PM
We saw the show, FANTAStic, worth every dollar!
screamer69   April 6, 2011 06:59 AM
those guys are insane-they make me nervous just watching them...
Brammofan   April 5, 2011 07:30 AM
Awesome comment, Mary! Mark: This isn't RoadRacerX anymore. You're going to have to up the ante. It's Motorcycle-USA.com -- and, believe me, most of the readers could tell you everything you need to know about Turandot.
Backmarker   April 5, 2011 07:16 AM
Thanks honey - that first comment was put up by my wife. James, Joseph... clearly his theory is that all hero's journeys are interchangeable, and mine is that the same goes for names.