Los Angeles International Airport
Into the rental car and out onto Interstate 10, where streams of cars head east. Better keep to the speed limit. The CHP doesn’t mess around. The drive to Glen Helen Raceway takes around two hours. This storied motorsports arena hosts Red Bull X-Fighters, which, for the record, is freestyle motocross -- or gymnastics on a motorbike: double backflips, 360-degree spins in the saddle, jumps with 100 feet of air. And why Glen Helen? Because freestyle motocross was born here.
Glen Helen Raceway
Over an area as large as three football fields, quarterpipes, ramps and kickers tower out of the earth, offering more than 30 jump options, the most ever at a Red Bull X-Fighters event. The toughest challenge at this late spring competition is the “step-up” -- a ramp almost 20 feet high that catapults riders up to a 60-foot dirt plateau. Those who dare to try it are shot to the seventh story of a high-rise. Freestyle veteran Ronnie Renner checks out the playground and gets poetic: “You can draw lines here, like an artist with his brushes.”
When Eigo Sato crashes, things go quiet around the course. His motorbike -- a Yamaha YZR250 -- rolls on riderless for a couple of feet and tips over. Sato lies still on the ground. After a few seconds he slowly starts to pull his legs up to his chest. He stands up carefully. Sato, in black helmet and red pants, beats the dust off his chest. He trots to the bike, climbs stiffly onto the seat and kick-starts the engine. Then he heads off toward the pits. The course has just shrugged off its first rider.
In the Pits
The crashed pilot Sato sits on his camping chair, sipping tea. “When you notice something going wrong during a jump, you have two choices,” he says. “You throw the bike away or you hold onto it. I kept hold of it and that was the right decision.” How do you know that? “Look at me, I’m still sitting here.”
Beneath Sato’s chin, a crescent-shaped scar runs from one side of his face to the other. A pea-sized cut next to his left eye is a reminder of another injury. At 34, the Japanese rider is still one of the top players. He’s the oldest athlete on tour and perhaps the toughest of all. What his damaged back doesn’t allow, Sato makes up for with blood, sweat, and tears.
“As preparation I visualize my rides a lot,” says Sato. When he lies in his hotel room at night, he flies over the circuit, tests out ascents, plans his next landing. Right now he fishes a piece of paper out of his pants pocket and makes notes for his qualifying run. As well as a few sentences, he draws some stars -- only he knows what they mean.
He wants to continue riding for a couple of years. His dream is “to do backflips until I’m 40.”
Until the sun sets, riders fly back and forth over the ramps. How to master this monster of a course? The trick is to estimate flight distances, test approach speeds and hone trick options. Everyone is in agreement: the massive step-up is still the greatest risk. It dawns on several riders: This is the difference between victory and defeat. A question goes in the notebook: “How do you cope with the idea of crashing from so high up?”
Check out the August 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands July 10) for more of the article. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.