Crusty in India

January 11, 2006 9:31am
I count myself very lucky. Otherwise, I cannot explain the phenomenon that has been assisting me in fulfilling my ambitions. I have had several of my dreams turn true. I have always wished to be inside one of those Open-Wheel racers. And while I was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indy 500, I talked my way into the cockpit of Michael Andretti’s 2002 Long Beach-winning Champ Car (and as a bonus, I was taken on a passenger ride in the Safety Car at the cavernous track during the Indy 500). I longed to watch an AMA round to quench my thirst, and I met my motocrossing manna at Southwick in 2004.

When I sit back and reflect on things that have taken place in my life, I am thankful and satisfied to have seen certain favorable events unfold in front of my eye. But at the same time, at the corner of my heart, there was a sense of craving to witness a freestyle motocross show. I have seen the Ricky Carmichaels and James Stewarts of this world and count myself amongst a few to have spoken to them on a professional basis, but freestyle MX has always espoused the childlike fondness in me. Little did I know that soon enough I was about to realize that one, too. I managed to put a mark against witnessing freestyle motocross on my favorite checklist.

Recently, news trickled in that the famed Crusty Demons were coming to India to perform their bag of tricks. They weren’t performing in my hometown but a city that was 250 miles away. Now came the hard sell—to convince my folks to get me to the show (and it doesn’t help to have a group named Crusty Demons when you are trying to emphasize your point). Once I dropped the name, it sent all sorts of panic signals. After all, my mom thought Crusty Demons to be some Wes Craven horror flick or some head-banging, nerve-jangling heavy-metal outfit. It was only when I explained to her about them, she began to realize.

So I set off to a place called Bangalore to witness the Crusties perform. I had the same butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling as I had during my trip to Southwick in 2004. I had managed to fix an appointment with them, but have heard about their crazy behavior with the media—even their PR aide gave me a forewarning. It gave me the creeps when I saw them with rifles and guns coming for the interview. Talk about stockpiling yourself for the interview! Turns out that it’s just a PR gimmick. After all, freestyle motocrossers need to throw some shtick, don’t they? As they would recall later, it’s part fun and showbiz.

According to the press release, the Crusty Demons were credited to be the pioneer of this art and have traveled across the globe strutting their stuff. But the Demons aren’t a tight bunch, so to speak. Their lineup has changed over the years and it reminds me of that 1970s British heavy-metal group Rainbow. I am pretty sure that the Demons’ family tree is a big one. But that’s beside the point. First thing, I was expecting the Godfather of Freestyle MX, Mike Metzger, to be there. I have seen his unimaginable daredevilry on two wheels and, apart from my hero Travis Pastrana, Metzger is right up there when it comes to FMX ranks (at least as for as my preferences are concerned). But to my dismay, I learned that Mike couldn’t make the trip since he was injured and was on the road to recovery.

The Demons were mostly Australians, with “Mad” Mike Jones representing America while Jimmy Blaze, an up-and-coming snowmobile rider from Alaska, handled the snowmobile duties, with Jon Guetter on quad-bikes.

A cursory glance at the Crusty website doles out the statistics: 2005 has been very good for them. They broke six world records in one single night in Australia. American Trigger Gumm set a new world mark for the longest distance jumped on a motorcycle. His mark of 277 feet bettered the previous one by 24 feet and it must be mentioned here that Evel Knievel’s longest jump stood at 146 feet. (The record has since been pushed past 300 feet by Ryan Capes.) But Gumm didn’t make it to India, either. The lineup featured Jones, Blake “Bilko” Williams, Steve Mini, Joel Balchin, Matt Shuebring, and, of course, those skimpily clad Crusty Babes to fire their, well, competitive spirits. Not to bust the Crusties’ chops, but the babes caught as much attention among the Bangalore crowd as much as the Demons did on their bikes.

One thing that struck me immensely was that these guys are masochistic. They reel off their injuries like doling out an achievement list. A concussion here, a broken bone there.… So it isn’t surprising that though those tricks look daunting to us outsiders, the riders don’t lose sleep over the potential injuries that could hamper their career. In short, it’s a tightrope walk.

And another thing that I picked up during the interview was that the sport is certainly a tough thing to sell to potential sponsors. What with so many potential pitfalls awaiting them during every single show, it’s hard for the riders to convince sponsors from across the industry.

It’s where the accolades seem to pour in for Jeremy McGrath. Most of them allude to the fact that for someone like King Jeremy to test the freestyle waters in his video has given some attention to their sport in the industry. Now most of the factories support these riders, and it’s all the easier now for the youngsters to get into the sport.

Bangalore has always had a decent motorsport culture, hence it wasn’t surprising to see hordes of people at the turnstiles. At least 5,000 turned up for the show despite a damp beginning.

The rain certainly played truant that day. Whenever the riders came out to test the conditions, the drizzle would get heavy, forcing them back to the pits, and the grim situation continued for at least 90 minutes past the scheduled start. Of course, no one left the arena, since they weren’t privy to such things here in India.

At last the rain gods relented to the collective prayers of a few thousand souls. The riders began to test the surface and after several dry runs, the show began to thunderous cheers. But before I get into the show, I had managed to acquaint myself with the terminologies of FMX. One type of trick was called Look-Back Hart Attack. Not exactly sure what it means, but the trick involves the rider to get one foot off the peg and manages to take a look at the crowd while the insurance company gets the heart attack, I guess. Okay, that’s a cheap shot. Then there is the archetypal backflip, which without doubt represents the face of freestyle motocrossing. There is also something called the Kiss of Death, and trust me, it doesn’t have anything to do with bad breath. They also had 75-foot variation where two riders set off on opposite ramps and do the exact same trick as each other. Of course, everything was orchestrated.

The first one to come out was Cam Sinclair. Sinclair opened up the proceedings with the Look-Back Hart Attack. And then Bilko officially became the first rider to successfully attempt a backflip in India. The crowd went delirious. Then Mike Jones did the no-hander and that’s when the fans began to get into the groove. So far, they had seen only wheelies, and when they saw these three being dished out one after another, it was something akin to going to a sumptuous seven-spread dinner. But there were more stuff in store. Since the weather wasn’t exactly kind to the spectators and the performers alike, Jimmy Blaze only managed a cameo with his snowmobile.

Once they cycled through their routine tricks it was time to do the synchronized acts. Bilko and Balchin were in one group, while Mini and Mad Mike formed the other. They did side-by-side backflips, Kisses of Death, no-handers, and even the Superman Seat Grab. At this point, the crowd was at its vociferous best and, like any true stage artists, the Crusties were pumped by the crowd’s feedback. That meant more tricks followed.

The Crusties came out with the trick train where the riders came out one after another and if you blinked you missed a trick. To say that it was well choreographed would be an understatement. Then it was time for 75-foot flip variation. As the name implied, the riders gated out simultaneously to do the opposite trick. When Bilko did the one-handed back-flip, simultaneously Balchin completed a backflip no-footer. The crowd certainly had their eyes full and was turning their heads from one point to another like they were in some tennis match.

Of course, everything wasn’t hunky-dory. Bilko failed to perform the backflip nac-nac and crashed on the dirt. For a moment, everyone went silent and the grim reality of the sport flashed for a moment, but Bilko soon recouped his sense and got back on feet. And to everyone’s surprise continued with the trick.

Before they called it an evening, the Crusties went on a rampaging mode. They began to set ablaze a couple of Indian 100cc bikes, and that didn’t go down well, in at least some sections of the crowd. Following that, they enacted a scaled-down version of the demolition derby. For this the Indian Tuk-tuks played the role of sacrificial goat.

Finally, as I petered out the arena, my visage was filled with a sense of satisfaction. I had feeling like I almost conquered the final frontier. I have come full-circle in terms of witnessing motor sports events. Be it working at the media center at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indy 500 or interviewing Michael Schumacher for a magazine at the Indy pits or waiting at arm’s length to watch Ricky Carmichael author a block-pass over Chad Reed at Southwick, I have no qualms, really.

Now that the show has left me longing for more, it’s time I take a sneak peek at the Crusties’ schedule and prepare for upcoming shows.