Banking hard out of the berm to carry speed into the short run-up before the launch ramp, the rider hits the jump with practised calm, the high-pitched baaarp of the two-stroke engine silent for a long few moments as he flies into a smooth nac nac – whipping the bike sideways and swinging his leading leg back around behind the bike.
A little look-back adds some style. It’s a trick from another era of freestyle motocross: not hard to do if you’re an accomplished rider, but still difficult to make look good. This version is a classic, thrown not by a Red Bull X-Fighters World Tour contender wearing full-body riding kit, but by a rider in black pin-striped trousers and a sleeveless denim jacket. This is Drake McElroy, part test pilot, part every rider’s best mate, and a whole lot of FMX hero.
When McElroy leads the testing session on the multi-tiered course constructed in the Dionyssos marble quarry in Athens, Greece, it’s the first chance the X-Fighters stars – the world’s best FMX riders who compete on the Red Bull X-Fighters World Tour – get to ride the track. Ahead of Thursday’s qualifying and Friday’s main event, it’s a free practice session that’s crucial to the riders’ safety and the quality of the show many thousands will watch live or via webcast. Without it, the riders would be going blind into first official practice.
“Drake is an exceptional freerider in natural terrain, so I think that’s why he has such an important role in the track-tuning process,” says South African FMX veteran Nick de Wit, who rode in the first Red Bull X-Fighters event in SA last year. “He can think up crazy new lines, but I think his ability to go out and hit jumps that have never been hit before, and time them perfectly, sets him apart.”
Like everything else on the Red Bull X-Fighters World Tour, the test session fits smoothly into a complex, well-oiled machine. Once the hour-long tune-up ride is done, the riders give their opinions on the ramps and riding lines to McElroy, who in turn feeds these ideas back into the mix. “Following the test session is a four-hour block during which ramps can be moved and things can be changed,” says McElroy, recalling how in Pretoria last year two big berms had to be added so the riders could generate momentum before take-off. “I’m here to be the middle man. Say the riders want to move a jump just a little bit in this direction or they want to put a ramp there, then I go over to the camera guys…but maybe it doesn’t work for them because they planned for something else. Or maybe it messes up the lighting guy…”
“The first testing session creates a general level of comfort for everybody and sets the tone for the week,” continues the 34-year-old from Nevada in the USA. “You know, one good ride sesh before you have to gear up and think about official practice and qualifying. It’s also an early opportunity for the riders to suss stuff out for their bikes – they can feel how things are running and what changes need to be made before regular practice starts.”
McElroy speaks so clearly and concisely that if you had never seen photos of him or missed web series such as Drake’s Passage and MotoSoul, you might think you were talking to a marketing manager or an engineer. Instead, colourful ink covers much of his body, his hair is past shoulder length and the grungy punk look that some might call aggressive belies an intelligent, highly creative soul.
A special place in FMX lore is reserved for DMC, as McElroy is known to his fans. Best remembered for being a pioneer of freestyle motocross, on two wheels McElroy has done it all. He got a Yamaha PW50 for his first birthday and shed the training wheels at age three. By four he was racing. He raced regionally in the USA until 2000, when he morphed into a freestyle rider courtesy of a small event where he “made a little coin for just riding my bike and having fun”.
Later he started carving out his own quirky niche away from the competitive scene. In 2007, aged 27, he told ESPN he wanted to “set himself up to be dangerous for fun instead of doing it for a career”. That meant more time to focus on his young family and on other passions like art, music, building custom café racers and the Smoking Seagulls, a project he describes as “a bridge between like-minded people who don’t fit perfectly into the mainstream motorcycle market”.
That evolution has now led him to doing dangerous things so that his friends – who perform even more dangerous stunts – can be safe. “He looks pretty hardcore and has his unique style,” says De Wit. “The first time I rode with him he didn’t have a front fender on his bike. He rides in a leather jacket and jeans. True, unique style.”
On the Red Bull X-Fighters World Tour, McElroy initiated the group testing session – which he now leads – in 2012, when the tour had a stop at Glen Helen in California. “I could drive to the track because it was in my county, so I brought my bike and I could ride everything with the riders,” he says. “It helped validate my opinion. I could ride all the stuff and I knew what the guys wanted and how to make it work.
“I could be standing around all day in my casual clothes and saying, ‘Oh, yeah, that might work, or this might work’, but until it’s time to go and your brain is geared for that, it’s a whole different thing. Because I can hit the course with the riders, they’re going to take my opinion more seriously. They see that I went out and hit all the same jumps and I was living the same sh-t they were.”
Having McElroy test the course and act as the riders’ go-to guy meant that track shaper extraordinaire Dane Herron could rely on a single source of feedback instead of a cacophony of rider opinions. And at Glen Helen, at that point the biggest Red Bull X-Fighters track ever built, McElroy’s unique skillset also allowed him to shepherd the wide-eyed Spanish riders – who until then had only seen tight arena layouts – around the course until they found their feet. McElroy’s roving role made total sense and by 2013, he had a bike for each stop of the tour and the testing session had become an institution.
To radically summarise the Red Bull X-Fighters track-building process: what begins as a vision and a venue develops into a vast CAD drawing, with approximately a month’s worth of material sourcing and infrastructure building going on up until a fortnight before event day. What then happens is a frenetic seven days of track construction by Herron and his expert team of machine operators, and then the fine-tuning of the event week.
McElroy typically arrives seven to 10 days before a Red Bull X-Fighters World Tour stop, sometimes less if it’s for a return venue such as Plaza de Toros in Mexico City. “You get there in real time and you’re dealing with elements of nature and things you cannot do with CAD,” he says. “There are tons of little fires that start and you help put them out and just help bring everything together. “There’s so much planning that goes into each track, but once you get the ball rolling and the machine is taking off then you need to handle all those little elements on the fly. There is always something that comes up that you never thought of. And there’s always more than one way to solve that problem, so you have to find the best solution, one that works for everyone.”
The track for the Pretoria stop of the 2015 Red Bull X-Fighters World Tour (on September 12) will be totally different to last year’s. “That track is built on a slight slope so you are limited in the directions you can run,” says McElroy. “But they will still change it up. Every year the riders start doing things a little differently and that in turn creates requests. And that’s what’s cool on the tour: they help make the riders’ requests a reality, which improves the show and progresses the sport.”
Certain tracks inspire a higher level of riding and fuel the evolution of the sport, but it’s a level McElroy would rather not have a part of any more. Although he puts himself in the line of fire by hitting freshly built jumps, he prefers to keep it old school.
“Have you seen what those guys do?” he asks incredulously. “I love riding: I still ride shows and demos, but the competitive nature of the contest today… I just don’t have the passion in me to keep up on the training and the focus. The risk for reward is not there. Those guys are incredible and passionate, so they make it work.”
But any talk of risk is relative. Every time McElroy fires up an FMX bike, it’s a risky business – because it means pretty soon he’ll be flying through the air, hanging underneath a 100kg motorcycle and about to discover whether the landing ramps have been correctly laid out. McElroy relishes his role as the ultimate fixer, the guy who steps up to remove the variables so the stars of the show can be 100 per cent confident when the time comes for them to push the limits.
“I don’t mind waking up on this tour to do whatever is ahead of me,” he says. “I like picking up shovels and building barrier walls and whatever else has to be done to keep everybody safe. So you put in that work and when you finally see the riders’ reaction, you know, we might tweak a few things here and there to get them really stoked!”