Making tracks

Three Reno-area motocross riders will take their freestyle aerial acrobatics to Los Angeles to compete in the X Games

Northern Nevadans are some of the big leaders in the motocross world. Dustin Miller competes in a freestyle event.

Northern Nevadans are some of the big leaders in the motocross world. Dustin Miller competes in a freestyle event.

Photo courtesy of Markus Paulsen/Shazamm/ESPN

In the mid-1990s, a group of teenage motocross racers could be found regularly at the race tracks of Northern Nevada. This close-knit crew—including riders like Matt Buyten, Drake McElroy and Dustin Miller—had a reputation as a promising bunch of future professional racers.

Toward the end of the decade, a fledgling sport called freestyle motocross entered the picture. Freestyle, in which riders compete by performing acrobatic moves over jumps before a panel of judges, started getting national exposure when ESPN featured the new event in the 1999 X Games.

Buyten, McElroy and Miller began experimenting with new maneuvers. Today, the three friends are among the most accomplished and respected figures in the now-prominent sport of freestyle motocross.

The X Games is an Olympics of alternative sports, spotlighting the competitive elite of sports like skateboarding, BMX racing and, of course, motocross freestyling. Buyten, McElroy and Miller all plan to compete in the high-profile happenings in Los Angeles, which will be televised by ESPN Aug. 4-7.

Buyten, 25, will compete in the step-up contest, where riders jump a bar that is raised higher with each round. McElroy, 23, will ride in the Freestyle event, where riders string together sequences of their best moves on a multi-jump course. Miller, 24, will compete in both the Freestyle event and the big-air contest. Big-air riders execute one large jump, in which they attempt their most impressive trick. (Miller’s most impressive trick usually involves a few aeronautic moves in which he appears to defy the laws of physics.)

Drake McElroy shows off his bronze medal from the 2004 X Games.

Photo courtesy of Shazamm/ESPN

Buyten rose to fame at the 2003 X Games by taking the step-up gold medal over perennial favorite Tommy Clowers. He’s carved out a reputation as one of the toughest riders in freestyle. Buyten’s intensity and agility, learned in part during his formative years as a BMX rider, made him the surprise hero in 2003. In 2004, his narrow loss to super-cross legend Jeremy McGrath earned him respect among his competitors and fans. The duel went more than a dozen rounds, despite Buyten battling an injured shoulder that popped out of place twice during the event.

For this year’s X Games, Buyten, who lives in Carson City, is focusing on regaining his step-up title.

“I’ve been trying to ride as much as possible, both motocross and freestyle,” Buyten said. “Pro Circuit (a motorcycle modification company) has built me a good step-up bike too. … So I’ll be practicing all this month to take down [McGrath].”

Like Buyten, McElroy used the jumping skills he learned as a racer to make a rapid rise through the freestyle ranks, garnering a reputation as one of the smoothest riders in the sport. Since earning the bronze medal in the 2002 X Games freestyle event, McElroy, who grew up in Fernley but now lives in Sparks, continues to impress at contests worldwide. His signature trick is called The Dead Body. In this oft-imitated move, McElroy extends his legs over the front of the bike and stretches his body flat in the air while still holding on to the handlebars, mimicking in mid-air the posture of a corpse at a funeral.

McElroy said his career in freestyle came about largely by accident.

Miller achieves flight.

Photo courtesy of Markus Paulsen/ESPN IMAGES

“Back when we raced, we would watch videos with freestyle and go play-riding a lot,” McElroy said. “And then I went with Tim [O’Brien] to do a show at a monster-truck thing once and made a couple of hundred bucks doing freestyle. Later, I did a halftime contest at a race in Red Bluff [Calif.] and made some money there, and then I started doing the IFMA [International Freestyle Motocross Association] stuff. One day, Dustin [Miller] and I just packed up and drove to Phoenix for an event, and it took off from there.”

The IFMA circuit proved to be a great arena for both McElroy and Miller, both of whom established themselves as top riders on the tour. Miller, who had been a minicycle racing standout in the days before his freestyle career, is a highly technical rider, basing his runs on intricate trick combinations that include many no-hander lander variations, in which he lands the bike with both hands in the air instead of on the handlebars.

At the 2005 Winter X Games, Miller, who lives in Gardnerville, earned the bronze medal with one of his combination maneuvers, proving that it was still possible to earn a top finish in a major contest without relying on the back flip—a risky move that all three riders have experimented with to various degrees but usually avoid in contests.

A number of other Northern Nevada riders from the same generation have become freestyle contenders, including Carson Valley’s Mike Mason and Brian Foster, both of whom have enjoyed high finishes at IFMA events and other contests in recent years.

Matt Buyten sees no need for gravity.

Photo courtesy of Markus Paulsen/ESPN IMAGES

How did so many of their generation become successful in freestyle?

“I think it could just be the passion we all have for the sport,” Buyten said. “It’s a dream come true to be able to ride for a living, and a lot of us were able to build off each other and make it happen.”

McElroy agreed that the effect of the group had an impact on their common success.

“There’s always been a good local scene here,” McElroy said. “And when we were growing up and riding, we always pushed each other. It was a little harder to get people to notice us up here [in Nevada], but we were eventually able to tap into the scene and get people’s heads turned our way.”

Just as these riders once rode together as amateur racers at Friday-night motocross races in Carson City in 1995, they will once again ride with each other on the world’s stage at the X Games. While the stakes have certainly changed since those early days, it seems that the riders’ connection to the sport—and to each other—has not.