Images courtesy of Alex Gillespie
We all have questions about the tracks we see each Saturday night in Monster Energy AMA Supercross, right? Well, I know I do anyways, so on an episode of the PulpMX Show recently (episode #534) I called up Alex Gillespie of Dirt Wurx, who build the tracks we see each Saturday night, to pepper him with some questions and here’s a slice of that interview. If you want to listen to the whole thing, check out Pulpmxshow.com, or watch the video embed below.
Racer X Online: We just had Eli Tomac on, and he told us how gnarly Oakland was, even for a guy like him. When you design that and build it, are you like, “Oh, yeah!” Is this a conscious effort to be like, we’re challenging you guys with this? We’re doing something different? Whoops, dragon’s back, whoops had everyone living in fear of that.
Alex Gillespie: Two whoop pads, we used to see all the time. I guess for the past year or two not so much, but ten years ago I remember seeing two long sets of whoops a lot. Deano [Wilson] kind of said it best on your review pod, and he was saying that they’re really built pretty consistently this year, but what makes them gnarly is how cupped out they get and how steep they get. That’s kind of out of our control on how they break down. Chase [Sexton] kind of says the same thing. He always says they’re too steep or don’t make them steep, but we can’t really control how they break down. You only have so much maintenance time. We fight that. I don’t try and make anything too dangerous, by no means, but we all want it to be challenging. We want it to be good track. Just like Eli said, there were tons of opportunities to make up time, which is exactly what I want. I don’t want it to be just follow the leader. A big place like Oakland, it’s a good opportunity to make a track like that.
Where do you stand on the sand sections that have so many riders angry at you guys?
I don’t disagree with the riders, but sometimes they love them too. It’s such a preference thing. At Houston, did Eli like the sand? Probably. Or maybe he didn’t. I don't know. But the fans like it. They’re the ones that buy the ticket and sit in the seats. It creates inconsistency. So, I don't know. As a rider, I agree. The sand is probably not the funnest, but as a fan, it’s kind of badass.
We talked about the whoops and breaking down and you can’t control that, and I agree, and I know what you’re saying, but San Diego whoops are round and big. I walk over there and I’m like, “Holy shit, look at these things.” Then Chiz [Kyle Chisholm] walks by or someone comes by and goes, “No, those are going to be easy. They’re round and big. You can bounce off of them. They’ll be really easy.” They did prove to be fairly easy, although some guys crashed. Then other sets are steeper and more pitched. Can you shape the whoops like that or is it kind of like how the operator builds whoops, or is it a different operator every time? How does it determine the shape of said whoops?
Corey [Arnold] and Ross [Blankenship] are the two guys that are doing the whoops every week because they want to be consistent. So, obviously the same guys the better. To me, they’re pretty close. I know I got some heat in Oakland that the first set was massive, but if you look at the height of the top of the whoop to the transition in-between, they weren’t that big. What made them look huge was we cut the floor down next to whoops, where the big LED screen and the manager towers sit, so it gave them an illusion that they were just massive.
So really the goal week to week is for the whoops to be similar, actually?
Yeah. Whether if they’re loader whoops or dozer whoops, the second set in Oakland was the first set of loader whoops we had all season. It seemed like they actually held up better. The only reason the first set I actually fixed between timed qualifying, which was because there was no seed practice or [Supercross] Futures or KTM Juniors or anything like that. We had a 50-minute maintenance there, so I fixed the whole first set because that was the first set. And the first set was the dozer whoops.
Can you explain to our listeners dozer and loader whoops? It’s like picking your hottest chick. Everyone’s got a different opinion on what works and what doesn’t. Can you explain the difference for our listeners?
Dozer whoops we usually cut tip to tip 14 feet apart, and the loaders are usually 13. The dozer you can build bigger whoops if they’re 14 versus 13 because the dozer is kind of long. The whoops are flatter when you build them with a dozer, not as steep, where loader whoops you can kind of get buckwild if you don’t know what you’re doing. But if you watch the time lapse of Corey cutting loader whoops on the Dirt Wurx Instagram, you’ll see how we do it. Maybe this week I’ll post a time lapse of use doing dozers. I should actually do two videos and put them on one post so you could swipe left or right and watch. I feel like if I had all the riders walk the track and ask them, “Is this dozer or loader?” They might not be able to tell.
I think Corey or maybe Ross, somebody DM’d me. We had a rider on the show talking about dozer whoops and dozer, dozer, dozer. They wrote me and they were like, “Yeah, those are loader whoops.” This rider was so sure and he got it totally wrong what it was. So they don’t even know necessarily.
Yeah, Chad’s [Reed] pretty vocal on the whoops. He wants us to fix them with the dozer, but the melted down ones that he might ride in Florida, you could probably lift the blade up and fix them with a dozer, but I’d like to see him come do that with the dozer we have at supercross.
What makes you decide to build one one way or the other?
If the pad is really soft, you can’t use the loader because we’ll get sideways and crooked, and then your bucket is crooked and the whoop has a low spot and a high spot. But if the dirt is a pretty good consistency, you can use a loader. But, if the pad is really soft like in Indy, you just use the dozer because you can angle your blade so it will be the perfect height and even all the way across.
So it’s never a decision based on we think one races better than the other, or it’s going to do this to the riders? It’s literally all based on the requirements, this is the only way we can build it depending on the dirt we have?
Yeah, it’s like the cards we’re dealt with how the material rolls into the stadium. It’s also kind of hard to guess. I know we got a little heat on the track being soft in Oakland and some stuff being steep, but you get your first bucket of dirt, and you build your first jump and the dozer goes over and tracks it and then you’ve got all these people texting me like, “Is the track going to be soft on race day? Is there going to be deep ruts? Is it going to be hard?” It’s like Tuesday morning and it’s like, well, the sun is going to be baking on it for a few more days… I’ve been pretty sometimes, and other times I’ve been off. So it’s not the easiest thing to just exactly predict the race conditions.
Even myself, I’ve been hard on tracks and critical of tracks, and riders are. It’s a bit of a no-win situation for you. I think I feel like I praise good tracks here and there. I like tracks that separate guys. I like tracks where only five guys do things. I like all that kind of stuff, but other people don’t. Zach Osborne has been tweeting, “Easy tracks make for great racing. I tell you people all the time.” So, he’s on the opposite fence. Do you feel a little bit like you guys are literally in a no-win situation? It’s like the broadcast. Everyone is going to complain.
Yeah, it’s politics. I was even hesitant on coming on this podcast because you guys are analysts and I’m the track builder. But I learned to just not really listen to that. We’re blowing these tracks out in like two and a half days, three days. If you come in the stadium on a Thursday afternoon, we’re putting the gate in and just putting in some TV pipe and building some robo-camera pads. The track is pretty much done. So, we’re blowing these tracks basically in three days. We do the best we can. As long as I know that we did the best we can, what the people say, it is what it is. Move onto the next one. I feel like the past couple years, we’ve had great racing. Even before that, we’ve always had some good racing. Some tracks, we can’t win them all.
This is what we always think. We think on the outside, they’re trying to make a hard track for X, or they’re trying to make an easy track for Y. That is like the two theories. If you make the easier track, they stay closer. If you make a challenging track, there’s more separation. Maybe that’s more fun. We think we think we know why things are done the way they are. Is that even a conscious decision you’re making? Like, let’s make it easy or let’s make it hard? Or will you just build a track and then like you said, there’s variances you can’t control and it just turns out the way it turns out?
Kind of like the way it turns out is the way it turns out. Sometimes we’ll finish the track and I’ll be like, this track isn’t as good as I thought it was going to be, and then the racing is amazing and at the end of the night on Saturday I’m like, this track was badass. Other times, it’s just one-lined. Our goal really is to have multiple lines, and that’s kind of why I’m anti-transponder and the go-straight thing, the dart fish. It gives everyone so much data and they just look at the data. Like, what was faster? Two three or three two? Then, I don't know, what’s the data show? It kind of takes that out of racing. That always hasn’t been around.
Goodbye split lane sections. Those don’t work anymore. We all know which way is the faster one now.
Yeah. There’s ten transponders now and there used to be four last year, and now there’s like ten. So, there’s so many splits. I don’t really go on the AMA site and look at that stuff. I don't know if you guys can see all those splits. I think a lot of those new transponders also work with that green light that was on Phil’s [Nicoletti] bike.
They’re going to use it more and more on TV as they get it figured out, to be like now we know this dude in this whoops section right now has been faster the last few laps. I think that’s their ultimate goal, to add more data for the TV show. But every time they get another piece of data, that takes the guesswork out of what line to take through a section.
Yeah. The only thing that saves us really is how much the track breaks down. It breaks down so much in the main events that what the data showed was the fastest all day could completely 180 because something is just so chewed up it’s now slower.
When you go to a city you’ve previously gone to, do you look at old track maps and kind of get an idea of what raced good and what didn’t? Or do you guys just totally wing it from the start?
I flip through old track maps all the time. I have all [Rich] Winkler’s [founder of Dirt Wurx] maps that go way back, so I always like to flip through and then watch on YouTube and just kind of take notes and incorporate that into some designs. Lately I’ve had a fan or two be mailing me in some plans, and actually the Oakland one was a track map that got mailed to me. I think I might have changed some things. I don’t really remember. I love to look back on some old stuff, because if there’s a split lane or something that works amazing, why not try and incorporate again or remix it and change it up a little bit.
When you design these tracks and you send them to [Dave] Prater and [Mike] Muye and everybody to look at, how much do they tweak your stuff just for their reasons? Or do you have an open book pretty much?
I’ve learned over the years there’s a bunch of requirements. The finish line kind of needs to be at the end of the first lap, ideally. We’ve got to leave room for the manger towers and the big LED score tower, so we’ve got to create some dead space. That big flame unit, too. Doc Bodnar [Dr. John Bodnar] needs to have his paths. When they’re doing practice, it’s kind of nice for when the bikes are exiting, you can kind of start the next practice. So we kind of think about that. There’s the big stage, so you’ve got to leave room for that. The tunnels, which tunnel are they going to load the bike from and which tunnel are they going to exit from. So, you read off all these requirements and you’re like, man, there’s a lot of things I’ve got to think about. All that comes into play.
I’m sure you’ve heard this. They cannot pass in 90-degree corners. Is it possible in a rectangle, football stadium, can you build a track without 90s? Is it just like, “We know. We can’t work around it. This is the way all tracks have to be.” How does the 90-degree thing happen? I’m sure you’ve heard it’s hard to pass in 90s.
Yeah. Unless you make an inside berm and then leave the outside, and then the next jump is steep on one side and rolled down on the other. You use the kind of split thing to try and get two options. Then that’s another risk that one side is going to be abandoned. So, I don't know, whoever said that, come up with a cool layout and send it in. I’ll look at it. I’m open for anything.
But you’ve never been able to make a rectangle football shaped track? To connect it, you just need to have 90s? There’s no way around that?
You’re saying build a track with zero 90-degree turns?
Yes. Could you build in a football stadium without 90-degree turns? Or is it impossible to make a track loop around without that?
Off the top of my head, maybe there’s a layout that has zero 90-degree turns. There might have even been one. If there is one, how many times are you going to use it? Just over and over and over again, like in arenacross?
Watch the full interview with Gillespie on episode #534 of the PulpMX Show below, starting at the 3:02:23 mark.