Rich Winkler founded Dirt Wurx U.S.A. in 1990 and has been designing and building tracks ever since. A former professional rider himself, Winkler has turned Dirt Wurx into a renowned track building company that is the exclusive racetrack design and construction firm for Feld Motor Sports—which includes Monster Energy Supercross. We caught up with Winkler earlier this week to talk about safety, design, Oakland and much more.
Racer X: Take us through the process of what goes into a typical week of building the tracks and getting the dirt ready for the weekend.
Rich Winkler: Well, Monday’s our travel day. We’re heading to one or the other, or guys are switching crews between Supercross and Monster Jam or something else we’re doing. Same for the Feld guys; their trucks are on the road on Sunday and Monday. Tuesday morning is our start day for everybody at each stadium. As far as the dirt, obviously dirt lying on a hillside it doesn’t have any value, but as soon as you put it in a $100 an hour dump truck, it starts to multiply depending on how far you have to move it. So at all the places that are repeats from one year to the other, we try to store the dirt either on the stadium’s grounds or really close by, like on trucking guy’s yard or something. I do a bunch of calling ahead to see what condition the dirt’s in and to make sure we’re set up with enough trucks. So usually Tuesday morning it’s haul and go from 8:00 a.m. on.
And take us through the process of a race day as well. When do you guys get in there and when you start forming the tracks?
Well, we try to get the tracks finished by Thursday afternoon so that the AMA and whatever factory people are in town for the press conference can ride it, and we can get some people to take a look at it and get any feedback. Friday we spend making changes, if any, and also putting in cable paths and things for TV that the fans don’t see. But usually the track, as far as the race track is done on Thursday night. And then Saturday morning’s the regular deal, riders walk the track, riders’ meeting, practice… we get a break between the two timed practices and if there’s something that we’re not happy with or a bunch of the riders aren’t happy with or something we see where we can make it better we change it between the two practices, as long as we get to do a timed practice on whatever the change is.
Dirt Wurx is the exclusive racetrack design and construction firm for Feld Motor Sports—which includes Monster Energy Supercross.
Dirt Wurx photo
And this week we’re going back to Anaheim for the third time. What are some of the challenges of going to the same facility three times in a year?
Obviously we want to make it different but honestly it’s actually not as tough as you might think because baseball-shaped stadiums like Anaheim and Phoenix, they actually can give you a little more leeway. All the rest of the stadiums even though it’s a different city, because they’re football-shaped they’re exactly the same, almost exactly the same week to week to week. So it’s kind of tough sometimes to come up with new designs for the football-shaped ones even if you’re in a different city and definitely year to year. The baseball ones you can get a little more creative. You can go long lanes down either sideline, similar to what you’d see at any Supercross. But then you’ve got that whole kind of diamond-shaped interior where if you wanted to put in something that was a little more outdoor or a little more sweepy or flowy you have the ability to do so. Personally I really like the baseball-shaped ones; I think it’s a lot more fun to design the track and build it. It’s probably about 50/50. Some of the riders like it when it’s changed up and it’s a little faster and some of the riders really like it when it’s traditional Supercross like more-or-less parallel lanes with bowl turns at the end.
I want to go back to last week when some people were thinking the whoops after the start kind of caused the pileup in the 450 main. Can you explain the decisions that go into making sections right after the first turn?
We do all of the designs in August in the summer and then bring them to Chicago to Dave Prater and the guys from Feld and also Kevin Crowther and John Galleger from AMA and FIM show up. We go through them and change things that people think are going to be issues either as far as safety or as far as race-ability or even things that we might not have known about--track promoters are looking where their stage is going to go or something like that. I didn’t really think it was that much of an issue. I don’t know if you were there or if you saw it but the first set of whoops was almost more like rollers. They were extremely flat and nothing like what we would normally build as far as stadium whoops. What was kind of fun was with 180-degree first turn and then kind of a long, flat roller section and then another 180-degree… I actually thought it was going to let them separate out quite a bit. The alternative, having them come around a turn and go right into some kind of rhythm section, that always freaks me out. Something they’re going to do lap after lap from lap 2 on might be relatively safe but one guy trying to do it while other guys are riding over one by one on their first lap always freaks me out. So I’ve been trying to stay away from putting anything where there’s some multiple, a triple or a quad or something in that first lane where somebody might think they can do it on the first lap. I couldn't see exactly what happened. I saw that Chad got loose and bobble with some of the other guys in the second turn but I didn’t really see what happened or what caused it.
This week will actually feature whoops after the start, according to the track map. Does what happened last week change your mindset on how you’re going to prepare the whoops?
It’s going to be a firmer, more consistent dirt. I don’t know if that was part of the issue or not, that the dirt was soft or had ruts. Obviously we’re going to have to make that section first-turn friendly. We had a lot of rain in Anaheim this past week, but it’s supposed to be nice all week this week. I think we should be okay.
Another topic that was discussed all off-season, has been the safety of tracks and the riders. What were some of the discussions this off-season when going through designs? Did you go into it trying to tame the tracks down, or change the designs?
I wouldn’t say tame it down but I’d say we were conscious of the fact that sometimes in a rhythm lane because they’re long, they’re the whole length of the straightaway, there has to be something toward the end of the rhythm where they’re reaching for something. I don’t know that there’s really any fixing that we did in full because these guy are the best riders in the world and no matter how many jumps you put in front of them sooner or later they start looking at doing a bigger combo than you thought. But, that said, there are certain… step-on, step-offs, and flat over threes and things like that where you’re carrying a lot of speed but there’s not a lot of proper height. We tried to change the tracks where those things were at the beginning or in the middle lane as opposed to at the end. When you’re accelerating and you’re not going as fast, you tend to get more pop and less distance whereas once you’re already committed to the lane going faster and faster, like something that’s kind of flat where you’re skimming over a landing jump, that’s where we thought it got dangerous. We changed around almost every track to make sure we weren’t doing that.
The Dirt Wurx crew works round the clock to get tracks built for Monster Energy Supercross.
Dirt Wurx photo
Do you ever run into problems where it’s hard to balance safety but yet still challenge the riders?
I don’t know; I guess I’m not really as much as a believer as some people in the track is engineering the race. I know that’s a huge conversation on the Internet every week. Let’s face it, you could have a kick-ass track and still have kind of a boring race or you could have two fifty five gallon oil drums on a field, racing in a circle, and have a great race. I’d love to say that it’s all [great racing] coming from my pencil but I’m not really sure that’s the case. When the tracks are busy and technical I think it’s just the speed’s down and there’s less big crashes but then you have the problem where you've got the three or four guys that can do something that nobody else can and then somebody starts reaching for it and the accident happens anyway. As far as an actual design or frequency of obstacles I think it’s kind of a false paradise thinking that you’re going to reengineer something with that. I think what is important is safe transitions, round landings, making the obstacles themselves a little bigger and fatter and more forgiving. If you look at some of the films from, say, back in the mid to the end of the two-stroke era like McGrath and Ricky Carmichael era, things were extremely rough, incredibly rough as far as transitions. If you look at it today, we go over every single inch of the track and mellow those transitions out and make sure everything flows as best as we can.
How much feedback do you get from the riders and how much of that do you take into consideration when making changes?
We get a lot of feedback. Here and there there’s guys that are aggressive and sometimes you’ve got to be a little careful with that, whether it’s really constructive criticism or whether it’s something that they just want to change because they will do better on it. But we’ve been doing this 20 years, over the years you start to recognize that there are guys that you can get a legit opinion from. And we talk a lot with riders on Friday and Saturday morning or even sometimes about something the week before that they thought could be better that maybe we can do from then on. I don’t know if it’s really so much design as it is the transitions and things like that. It’s important to talk to the riders because on the machine or even on foot something relatively insignificant like a clod left from one of the cleats on the machines or something that’s just in the wrong spot on the backside of a jump or something… as a machine operator or even walking you probably would never notice that. We’ll be looking at something and think, "Why doesn’t anybody try another combo through here?" And then somebody will point that out. You got this dirt clod or a big cleat mark left from the dozer that’s right in the sweet spot where we want to land. So it’s good to talk to the riders, for sure.
One of the biggest complaints from riders seems to be that the track can get one-lined. How do you guys try to compensate for that in your design and keep the racing closer?
Like I said, there’s certain features or certain standards -- there’s a triple and a finish line and a set of whoops. But rhythm lanes is the thing you've got to think about. Is it going to stay two choices or more than two choices all the way to the end? It’s difficult. It was certainly easier in the day of the two-stroke. It was certainly easier before factory filming and before all the timing that’s in the tracks now. If the rider, even if his ass tells him line A is the way to go, all he has got to do is go back to the truck and they can look at factory filming and the other guys factory filming and then compare all the split times from the transponders. Even if he was convinced in his head that one way was better, the other way’s better, the computer’s going to show it. So it’s tough for us as far as making two lines exactly the same--as opposed to just giving the perception that two lines are the same.
Winkler and his crew have been designing tracks for more than 20 years.
Dirt Wurx photo
You mentioned that you’ve been doing this more than 20 years. How much has it progressed and how much has it changed over those years? In just design and like you said just making things safer and so on?
It’s huge. When we first started doing this it was straw bales held together by wire and PVC finish line poles… it was old-school motocross. I’ve been a rider since I was 12 or 13 years old; if anybody ever told me, even as a huge enthusiast, if anybody ever told me when I was a kid that this thing would be on television three or four times a week and selling out stadiums week after week I just never would have believed it. But we have a little more freedom as far as the budget with all the interest in it as far as sponsors and whatever. You can see Feld has hugely stepped up the game as far as just what the thing looks like and safety features like Tuff Blocks and whatever else. It’s head and shoulders above where it was even five years ago, no less twenty years ago.
What is the one thing that keeps you up at night that challenges you every week that most people probably would never think of or realize?
As a businessman obviously I’m always worried about weather and breakdowns. I’m committed to these people that the track’s going to be there. 50,000 people are coming Saturday night. But if it pours rain every day or every machine breaks or every guy on my crew’s got the flu or whatever… It’s nerve-racking. I don’t mind telling you that even after all these years, it's a worry. But as far as the track designs I’ve been really watching it. As I’m getting older there are younger guys that are coming in with me. A couple of the guys now are late 20s early 30s and are pro-level riders, a lot of them recently. Up until maybe three or four years ago I did every drawing and design myself, and then three or four years ago a couple of guys that work for me are pretty much fifty-fifty as far as input and are actually doing maybe 6 or 8 of the drawings, 6 or 8 of the designs themselves a year. And we’re looking to improve that even. We’ve got a plan for 2014 to have Dave Prater from Feld and a couple of my guys or myself all get together for a week at my place and really do the designs as kind of not only a group effort but maybe go for a ride in the afternoons and just kind of be in the spirit of the thing the whole time instead of just trying to jam them out in some 60 hour marathon. So, it’s good. It’s kind of been a breath of fresh air the last few years, not only with younger guys on my end but also with Todd Jendro and Prater and now Tim Fenn. These guys all ride, they’re all enthusiasts. It’s kind of a more constructive team atmosphere thing than me just turning in my homework and somebody saying it’s an A or an F.