Hailing from the famous San Diego motocross-mecca town of El Cajon, California, Dustin Nelson had his eye on becoming a professional racer from an early age. Growing up with famous El Cajon neighbors like Rick Johnson, Ron Lechien, and Mike Fisher, Nelson’s path to motocross stardom was looking good.
In 1993, during his first visit to Loretta Lynn’s, Nelson carded consistent 2-3-2 scores, which was good enough to win the overall title in what was the hyper-competitive 85cc 14-15 year old division. Other standouts in the class included Brock Sellards, Charley Bogard, Shaun Perolio, and future freestyler Doug Parsons.
Armed with a Team Green Kawasaki ride, Nelson turned pro in 1996 and started chasing his dream. He was fast, good enough to make main events and fight for the top 20, but the results didn’t come. By 2001, he was still racing, but took a job testing with Yamaha. But in a way, that’s when his real racing career started. Nelson is still at it today, transitioning from dirt bikes to ATVs to side-by-sides, all while testing with Yamaha—and also while winning championships!
Racer X: Thanks for taking some time to chat with us. What are you up to today?
Dustin Nelson: Well, I’m not sure why you want to talk with me; I wasn’t a very relevant racer during my prime moto years!
Well, the record books might not show any professional records, but you were still damn fast, and we understand you are still racing today?
Well, I guess so. I’m still chasing the dream, man. All I know how to say it is that I’m a racer at heart. I tried for so long to make it with the dirt bikes, I worked harder than anyone, but well, I guess I just didn’t have the talent to make it. But I figured out how to keep my racing passion alive, and through working with Yamaha as a test rider.
You have made a living as a factory racer in the ATV world and now as a factory side-by-side racer, right?
That’s right. In 2005 I started racing quads as a professional. I did that for 10 years and won a bunch of stuff out here on the West Coast. Now I am a factory racer with a Yamaha YXZ1000R side-by-side buggy. I tell people, “Hey, I am going pretty far in life without real job skills.” [Laughs]
Well, I disagree; I think your job skills are your race skills. That’s pretty amazing to go from professional motocrosser to professional test rider to professional ATV racer and now a pro side-by-side guy.
Well, I am doing what I love, and I certainly can’t complain about that.
I would venture to guess that you have had not one, but three separate careers.
Oh yeah, I have worked plenty. I’m still a current test rider for Yamaha, although my deal is that I am an outside contractor. I test both the YZ and off road bikes, as well as some other stuff. It just depends what all they are working on. I really enjoy being part of the development process, it’s really cool.
Walk me through a week in your life?
Well, no two are ever the same. These days, racing the cars, there is not enough money to have a mechanic, like I had that when I raced quads. I guess it’s similar to a mid-level dirt bike guy, but with the amount of work and prep I have to put in, it’s pretty much a full time job. Most of my days are in the garage, working and prepping race cars.
Two weeks ago I was out with Yamaha testing YZs. We did that for three days straight, but nothing is on a regular schedule in my life, that’s for sure. The prep work changes from race to race, and depending on damage to the car from the race before; and testing can be hectic as well.
How many days a year do you ride a bike?
I would say it averages about five to seven days a month. Sometimes it’s heavy, sometimes there is a lull. But I also still ride a decent amount for fun, and Yamaha gives me a few loaners that I can cruise around on.
Give me a rough outline of how the testing program works?
Well, most of the testing is in SoCal, and I still live in El Cajon. Most of the work is at the normal SoCal tracks, and it just depends on what we are doing. Sometimes we ride on public days or sometimes on private days where we rent the track. It really just depends on what we are testing and working on.
You must get to see some really cool stuff.
I’m lucky to be able to ride future models, but I can’t say much more than that. I have ridden some really, really cool stuff and I know that there is some great stuff coming. Not all of it makes the production cut.
Tell me about your motocross racing?
Well, I was a pretty fast amateur; I won at Loretta’s in 1993. I was Team Green until the end of 1996, and then started riding some supercross and outdoors. I felt like I was fast, but just felt like I didn’t have the talent; just had to really hang it out to finish where I wanted to. I got hurt a bunch, and found out that I was better outdoors than in supercross. In 1999, I started riding those four stroke races, then I won the Four Stroke National Championship, back when they used to hold that series. Then I became a test rider in 1999 and learned a ton about product development. Even if I wasn’t killing it at races, I could still make money riding. Then in 2001, I had a ride with Motoworld, which was a local shop. They got Yamaha support and helped me out a ton. My best ever national number was 63. But I didn’t have major success in Nationals, I was always a 12-15th place guy. But my downfall was always getting hurt.
How was the money as a test rider?
When I was a kid living at my dad’s place, it was great. It was never super good, but before economy crashed it was at its best. I got a few bonuses before the economy crashed, which always helped out. I just really enjoy being part of the development process and having a hand in the finished product. For a long time, Doug Dubach was the face of the testing program, but now Travis Preston has pretty much taken that over. Dubach is still part of it, but also works on his own company now. Steve Butler is in charge of it and he is our boss. He runs YZ testing as well as some other platforms within Yamaha. He is a great guy to have on my side.
And how did the quad deal come about?
Well, Yamaha was testing it [the ATV] in 2002 or so. They asked me if I wanted to help, and I knew that more riding would mean more money, so I said sure. And I grew up a SoCal kid going to the desert, all my family friends had quads and we rode them at night since my 80 didn’t have a light. And then Yamaha started testing at moto tracks, and I put a lot of time on it before the bike came out. I got pretty good on it, and at end of 2003 Yamaha gave me a bike as a bonus and talked me into racing it. My first ever quad race I got second on a stocker. I didn’t know what to do! I had committed to sponsors to race the Four Stroke National series again in 2004, and I finished third, but then on off weekends I was racing local quad races. And I started wining a lot of them. So at end of 2004, I was working on contracts, I just basically had more money racing quads locally and staying at home. I then raced the QuadCross Series, which was basically a Southwest series that had a big following.
So you made the switch over in 2005 or so?
Pretty much. Then at end of 2006, I won the (quad) championship, and Yamaha offered me a factory ride on the quad. I thought I had hit the jackpot, but it wasn’t like a motocross factory ride, I still did a lot of stuff myself. Being a factory ATV racer means you get bikes and parts and some cash, but that’s about it. The rest was up to me. I also raced quads in the WORCS series (off road).
What were your best accomplishments on the ATVs?
I won six championships on those things, and it was definitely the right career move. I extended my dirt bike career by 10 years and went from being 15-20th place guy to winning races and making a great living for myself. It was a great move. Being a good racer, I also got to be the face on the ATV promotional side as well. So I did lots of commercials, print ads and whatever else I could make a few more bucks on. And I still do that work as well.
So why did you leave the ATV series then?
Well, the West Coast series stuff slowed down when the economy dropped, and the side-by-side thing was getting bigger by the year. I had been involved in development of those things and knew just enough to know that Yamaha had a sport side-by-side coming. It was a mutual decision between Yamaha and I. My contract was up, and I was prepared to race quads another year, but they decided to spend some money racing side-by-sides.
And how are you doing with it?
So 2016 was our first full season, we are running the YXZ1000R and we had a really, really good year. We were running in the Lucas Oil Off Road Series. It’s a short-course series, maybe a mile-long track, and is basically motocross in a little car. My ATV and dirt bike experiences really helped and out of 20 races, we won 16 and two championships.
That’s awesome! So do you get the full factory rig and all that comes with it?
Well, not really. I race out of a 48’ rig, it’s mine, and I haul three cars to the races. They take up a lot of room. My wife has been racing, and she has her buggy. So I have two cars that are mine, plus hers. We have some other motocross guys doing it—Ronnie Faisst and Brian Deegan being some of the names. In fact, Deegan’s daughter raced one of my YXZs for the big Challenge Cup race we had last year. It’s that old cliché “with age comes the cage.”
Well, you have quite an amazing story and career, and it’s still going.
Racing is what I do. I started when I was six years old and never lost the drive. It’s just what I am passionate about. Honestly, so many things have come and gone, but racing is still there for me front and center.
What about your personal life?
Well, I have three kids, my oldest is Jaycee, and she is 12. My sons Trevor and Corbin are 10 and nine. Between my work and racing schedule, and the kid stuff, I’m just super busy. We do the softball, baseball, and soccer stuff. All three kids do ride, but no one races. That’s fine with me, I’m still racing for work so it’s easier to concentrate on my job. Also, I got married this year to Elizabeth Bash, she is a former WMX professional racer herself.
What is next for you, besides more racing?
One of my best friends is Regis Harrington [Ed note: Andy “Regis” Harrington was a former factory KTM racer from San Diego who now works in the movie business], and I recently brought him in on a Yamaha commercial. They were talking about getting another driver and doing some stunt work, and I knew he was a shoe in for that. His business is really growing. What he does is stunt work and he also has his own business running with electric camera bikes. The bikes are silent and we have these big movie cameras on them. He can do some crazy action shots, and get right next to people talking on sidewalk. It is all on these silent, covert camera bikes. So I wouldn’t mind helping him more with that, because the week we spent doing it was a blast. But for the most part, I’m still racing and have my own program going on with Yamaha.
Well, you have an amazing and unique career story. Any closing words?
I’m not a wealthy man, but I get to do what I love for a living. I’m still doing it, 20 years later, and making enough to support a family and provide for them, so I’m a happy guy—that’s for sure.