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Common Tread

Off-road racing is expensive and painful and you should definitely try it

Jan 12, 2022

Motorcycle racing was said to have been invented shortly after the second one was built. While there are plenty of good reasons to avoid competitive off-road racing, it still draws thousands of riders across the United States, and many more worldwide. What exactly is it that brings us out to our local tracks on any Sunday?

Many dirt racers have been riding in the dirt and racing since they were kids. Not me. Despite growing up just a short drive away from Unadilla Motocross track in central New York, I didn't grow up racing. In fact, once I grew out of my little Yamaha PW50, I didn't even ride until I was an adult. It was literally just a few months ago that I saw the movie "On Any Sunday" for the first time, thanks to the National Hare and Hound Association. At 23, I started riding like many, many other riders: on a used Kawasaki Z1000.

Matt with his Z1000
This is where motorcycling really started for me. Squid-tastic with a Z1000. Photo by Matt Carman.

OK, so that's not like how many riders got started. But you get my point. I'm not the born-and-bred dirt-scooter aficionado that I wish I was. But at some point, as a perfectly rational 30-year-old adult with a 401k, I gave in to my crusty dirt demons, I dropped the gate and showed up one particular Sunday, and rode face first into a cloud of dust and glory.

(Alright, make you a deal: I'll stop with the moto-movie puns if you promise to read the rest of the article.)

Editor’s note: Matt Carman is a member of the RevZilla Rider's Alliance, a team of everyday riders from across the nation, from all walks of life, on all types of bikes, that represents and embraces the diversity of the RevZilla ridership.

Why? Why are these people, thousands of them across the AMA's 44 districts in the United States alone, lining up, bar end to bar end, 10 to 50 to 150 wide, waiting for that gate or banner to drop, then riding like maniacs for that first turn, hoping not only to avoid the inevitable pileup, but also praying for that coveted holeshot?

There are plenty of reasons not to race. Racing is expensive, painful, physically demanding, and there is little to no monetary payout. None of my friends or I will ever hope to get a factory sponsorship. I'm in my mid 30s. I have to go to work on Monday. I've found that I'm not alone in this "Vet-C" mindset. This is just a hobby for us. An expensive, dangerous, addicting hobby.

"Racing makes heroin addiction look like a vague wish for something salty," Peter Egan once wrote. That explains why, in my circle of friends, my name is a curse word. I was the one who convinced my little riding circle to go racing that first time. Afterwards, blistered and sore, they looked at me and yelled, "Why, Matt? Why did you make us do this!?" Then, by about Thursday, they're all asking "OK, when's the next one?" They're hooked.

The first one's always free, isn't it?

Spurgeon standing in the rain in a deep water crossing
I got a Triumph Tiger 800 and went adventure riding. I was following Spurgeon's example. Who wouldn't want to have fun like that? Photo by Brett Walling.

What brought me here

I didn't get into dirt riding to be competitive. Living in Nevada, I started my dirt dreams, just like Spurgeon, as an ADV rider. Chasing sunsets, and finding that perfect campsite in some far-off destination I'd only ever seen in movies. Non-riding movies.

Shortly after discovering that some of those destinations aren't paved, I learned that the best adventure riders were the ones who could handle their big ADV bikes in the dirt. Because, God forbid you get trapped in the backcountry with your massive 500-pound bike and you're unprepared for this terrain. So, I started riding harder and harder off-road with my Tiger 800.

After a few drops, some hard lessons, and a few expensive trips to the local Triumph dealership, I decided that my off-road education would be much more economical if I had the right tool for the job. I quickly brought home a used, kick-start only, "better suited for a track than the trail" Honda CRF250R. With that bike, I learned quickly, I was either going to have outstanding clutch control or a strong right leg from kicking it to life after every stall.

You're not supposed to ride in the desert alone, right? Someone suggested that there were plenty of friends to be made at races. Maybe I should attend one of those. So, I did. I don't know what you've heard about the off-road riding community, but I was welcomed with open arms by complete strangers I now consider family. They brought me in, helped me unload my old Honda, made sure I had water, and then lined me up on C Street.

At the world-famous Virginia City Grand Prix.

motorcycles racing through the streets of Virginia City
My first ever motorcycle race. The Virginia City Grand Prix. That's me, number 413. 4theriders photo.

At the end of one 25-mile lap, I was sore, exhausted, in pain. I took my DNF (Did Not Finish). Everything hurt. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done on two wheels.

So of course I quickly brought my ADV crew into the racing scene. We all learned some hard lessons.

Racing dirt bikes is expensive and sometimes painful

Off-road racing is hard on virtually every single part on your bike. Even the ones designed for off-road racing. Ask my Rider's Alliance teammate Liz Kiniery how many front fenders on her KTM she's replaced. Tires get swapped out almost as often as tanks of fuel. Here's a fun fact: The oil change interval on a Honda CRF450X is the same interval as the piston and rings, every 15 engine hours.

How do I know that?

Because this past May, I spent about $1,200 to team-race my dear friend Allison's Honda CRF450X in a 600-mile race called Baja Nevada with her. The piston started this race at about 100 engine hours. Because in her and many others' opinion, swapping pistons every time you change the oil is ridiculous! Surely they last longer than 15 hours?!

We found out they sometimes do not, and don't call me Shirley.

This particular $98 piston didn't make it to 120 hours. It disintegrated due to fatigue and caused about $5,000 in damage to her engine. She bought the whole bike a few years prior for $4,500.

Allison standing by her broken-down motorcycle
Race over. DNF. Thanks for playing, try again next year. $1,200, plus expenses, just to blow up her bike in the Nevada desert. Photo by Harlan Foley.

OK, but here's my point: She paid it! She spent the $5,000 to rebuild her beloved bike, spent another ungodly amount of cash to enter the same bike in the equally famous Vegas to Reno race three months later.

To be fair, big races like Baja Nevada or the super famous Baja 500/1000 are prohibitively expensive and your local race series will be much easier on the wallet. But make no mistake: No one gets into racing dirt bikes because it's cheap.

Racing can also be painful on your body, as well as your bank account. On your best day, off-road racing gives you sore muscles and blisters on your hands. On your worst, broken bones, a concussion, or something even more tragic. I've been through four separate one-crash-use-only dirt helmets and a neck brace (thanks Liz!) since I started racing. I've had my share of gnarly crashes, the most recent of which really made me stop and think:

"You know, I'd like to see 40 years old. And preferably, not from a wheelchair. I've done a lot of adventure riding, but I've yet to actually finish a BDR. I don't want to get seriously hurt chasing after a plastic trophy that probably has my name misspelled on it."

Sure, riding in general is dangerous. "Oh, that's cute, you crossed up and fell in some sand out in the sagebrush? Try dodging SUVs and semi trucks in L.A. traffic at 5 p.m. on a Friday!" say people who don't race, probably.

Risk is an unfortunate part of the world of motorcycles. But racing dirt bikes is particularly hard. But there's a positive side to that.

Racing changes us, physically and mentally

Kelly standing on his motorcycle in a Halloween costume
This is Kelly, he's a bit of a... BMW rider. Photo by Emily Phelan.
As an adult, even as a military reservist, I don't need to be in great shape, but I find myself wanting to get in better shape so I can do better at racing. Before he started racing, my friend Kelly was the kind of guy you'd find around a campfire, a few adult beverages in, telling stories about that one time he washed DR650 parts in a lake to get home from an adventure. After his first season of cursing my name through 100-mile desert races, Kelly is now the kind of guy getting up early to run laps around his block to get ready for his third season of desert racing. He won his class last year (Four-stroke Novice) on his kick-start-only 450. (He claims his success is due to lack of competition. We still insist he's a champion. No one is allowed to dispute this.)

Racing changes us. When you are faced with the insane adrenaline-pumping urgency of a race, you don't stop to ponder an obstacle. You don't sit at the bottom of a hill climb thinking "Wow, that's a really tall climb." You just go. Hit the hill and give it your best shot. Maybe you make it first try. Maybe you don't. But you keep going until you get up there.

one of Matt's race trophies
Look! They even spelled my name right! Photo by Matt Carman.
I've personally witnessed all of my riding buddies, male and female, beginner and Baja-tested ADV veteran alike, become faster, more confident riders after only a few dirt races. There's something about it that helps you get out of your own head and accomplish things you never thought you were capable of.

But is the reward worth the risk? After that crash that made me question why I race, I took a year off, for the most part. I still raced a few NHHA rounds on my Triumph Scrambler 1200XE as a Hooligan, but with those races, excuse the contradiction, I took my time. I paid attention, and took everything in.

I focused on every aspect of racing, from the excitement building the week before, then on Saturday, the Zen-like state you put yourself in (or panic-stricken rage if your bike isn't ready) to prepare for the race.

Showing up early Sunday morning, or camping at the pits that night.

The rider's meeting, the national anthem.

The dead calm as 100 riders to your left and right silently stare at the banner, raised 500 yards away, waiting for it to drop as we all smash that starter button and release the clutch, hoping to get out ahead of everyone else. (Unless you're Kelly. And you have to kick-start your bike, and hope you're not last. He's a champion.)

Coming into the pits mid-race, forcing water into your body and fuel into your bike, hoping nothing has been broken (on you or the bike) during that crazy first lap. The sense of accomplishment as you return to your pit after finishing, talking about that one hill or the pileup or how you finally caught that one guy in your class.

racers off-road taking a jump
Racing changes you. Maybe even makes you better. Photo by Josh Jones.

Is racing for everyone? No. Should you look up your local race series and consider trying one? Absolutely. At least volunteer. They could use the help.

Consider this: When was the last time you did something that forced you to really prepare, both mentally and physically, and put yourself out there? Was it a high school sport? Racing could be that crazy addicting thing that gets you into the gym, gets you to start eating healthier, going to sleep and waking up thinking about racing, contributing to your local riding community and joining a club. It could be the thing that gives you a greater sense of purpose or drive.

Or it could be that thing that you tried and found out it's not for you.

As for me, I've got what's left of my youth, a secondhand, clapped-out Beta 350, a racing family to encourage, support, and compete against, and a whole bunch of free weekends. So for the foreseeable future, you'll likely find me racing, On Any Sunday.