“I think about stuff and wonder, ‘Man, I’m just a kid from a small town in Nebraska. I wasn’t supposed to be here. I wasn’t destined for motocross stardom.’ I guess I built my reputation over these years proving it and not talking about it.” – Brian Deegan
I had a feeling it was coming. I really did. From the infield of the ancient Los Angeles Coliseum, I stood on the inside of a tight right hand turn and watched it play out. When the white flag came out, and some 30 seconds later, the racer I had been watching pinned it and headed towards the red, white and blue AMA official unfurling the checkered flag. It was Saturday evening, January 18, 1997, and little known Team Moto XXX privateer Brian Deegan was about to make some very unique history by winning the AMA 125cc West Region main event over factory riders such as Robbie Reynard, David Vuillemin and Kevin Windham. Immediately upon crossing the finish line, he shoved himself off the back of bone stock RM125 and ghosted the bike well off into the South Central Los Angeles night air. The crowd of 60,000 just absolutely roared.
“All I have to say is the first time I won in supercross, I promised myself I would do something that no one else has done yet,” said a very young Brian Deegan while standing atop the victory podium inside the cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum that night. “And I’m glad everyone was here to see me kick everyone’s ass!”
Later that evening, the darkened Coliseum pits basically a place for ghosts as the clock neared midnight, I met Brian Deegan for the very first time. Still an ad agency guy at the time and a ways off from making racing a full-time career, Deegan spoke with me, still in awe that he had won. So was I!
“I bought my own bike,” Deegan said to me. “I mean I went down and paid $4,000 for it. I’m a true privateer and I won.”
As far as action sports, freestyle motocross and certain sectors of auto racing go, Brian Deegan is now a household name, his phone # punched into the phones of many motor racing players in this nation. However, and back in the winter of 1997, he was living hand-to-mouth as a full-on privateer, living on friend Sondra Peters couch in Southern California. Certainly, a long ways away from becoming a multi-millionaire with a family deeply embedded in many things motor racing. Yes, his two-wheel competition days behind him now, he’s assumed the role of overlord of the Deegan Racing empire where he and his wife Melissa keep the trains on the tacks for children Hailie (ARCA MENARDS Series stock car racer) and Hudson and Haiden (motocross racers) and their racing programs. The sun never truly sets on the Deegan racing empire as Brian and the three racers he and Marissa look after are always in perpetual motion. On Sunday afternoon and with a little time on his hands, Brian Deegan spoke about his Moto-X travels.
Okay Brian, Team Deegan has been locked down here in Southern California and, well, like the rest of us poor sods, riding out the clampdown. What have you and your family been up to during this bizarre ordeal?
As far as the last few months, we had a lot of stuff planned and we’re used to going wide open every weekend. We’re either at the motocross track with the boys or we’re at the NASCAR with Hailie or we’re at the off-road truck races doing either my truck racing or Hailie’s truck racing. We’re booked every weekend. So, obviously, we were all booked and ready to go every weekend. I mean Hailie just signed a new deal with Ford, so we have a lot of new things happening and then the whole pandemic deal happened and nobody expected that. All that kind of forced us to be home and then we had to decide, ‘Do we want to be in North Carolina or do we want to be in California?’ We then said, ‘Okay, let’s just stay home in California. This where everything is at.’ I’m glad I did that because we’ve just been busy riding dirt bikes. Really, we’ve been home and it has been a big break for us and we’ve spent a lot of family time together, which is good. I think we kind of needed a break, as far as our family goes. And to be honest, we were prepared for any emergencies or anything bad that would happen. We’re doing fine. We’re okay. It’s been good here.
I don’t think I’m stretching it all that far in saying you guys are America’s full-on racing family. What do you make of all that has transpired for you and wife, sons and daughter?
Yeah, we see and hear a lot of it because of the social media stuff we do and you hear a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, the Deegans are the American racing family.’ It’s cool to see. I mean the whole family races and we all revolve around that, but it’s cool to see Hailie and Haiden and Hudson all have a love and passion for not just sport and not just racing, but working hard and accomplishing goals. Getting to know the media game, the marketing game and the sponsorship game and learning all this which I think is really exciting to see as the kids grow up in this way. We have all three kids going and in different sports and they’re winning. That’s another level, trying to actually win championships and to set records and all this stuff, which is another level of time and commitment. I’m excited to be able to give kids a better chance than I had growing up. I had an opportunity and I made the most of it and I’m trying to give my kids a better opportunity. Also, I’m a big believer in being motivated and finding the people that are good mentors. Throughout my career and coming up, my dad was always a hard worker, straight shooter business guy. He was a big foundation of why I am who I am today. My dad was just a hard worker and it was all about business. I carried all that into the sport and found my niche.
As we both know, to many motocross, supercross and freestyle motocross the world over, what truly put your name up in lights in this prism of moto sport was the L.A. Coliseum ghost ride. I mean even now, almost 25 years removed from that night, fans still speak of that moment. I know I do!
I run into people all over, like say at the grocery store, and they’ll be in their 40s or 50s and they’ll say, ‘I was there that night when you ghost rode your bike!’ Everyone remembers that deal, which is cool. That’s what it’s all about. Making those memories. It’s weird to say, but when I was raced I was kind of this underdog privateer that came out of Nebraska and was against the odds. And I don’t think I ever did defeat the odds of motocross. I look back now and I get to talk to guys like McGrath and I talked to Doug Henry the other day. I get to talk to all these legends of racing now and they didn’t give the time of day then, but now I feel like gained so much more respect in the industry. I mean most times, people get the most respect when they race. I have to wonder how this played out, right? It didn’t happen overnight, right? Because for 10 years I was a punk. I was the Metal Mulisha bad boy with all-black dirt bikes and spikes and pissing everyone off, but we hit X Games at a perfect time. I hated walking away from supercross and motocross racing, you know? I felt like I should have got a factory ride. I never did. It probably had a lot to do with my attitude. Anyway, I went into freestyle motocross and I always felt like I tried to make the most of it. I feel like that in supercross and motocross, I was trying to make the most of it, but I wasn’t doing something right. You know, looking back on all of it, I just didn’t know the right people. I wasn’t IN. I wasn’t in the IN crowd.
See the entire race, and the iconic ghost ride below!
The sport was smaller then and there certainly wasn’t nearly as much money moving through it like it does today, but still, you managed to eek out a living and hold on, huh?
Yeah, exactly. Now I can sit back and look at it and go, ‘What happened? Why didn’t I get that chance that other kids did?’ Now, I’m based in California and I stop in at Monster every two weeks and say what’s up and I’m in the scene and I’m friends with Mitch Payton and I’m friends with the guys at KTM and friends with the guys at Star Yamaha. I’m friends with all these guys. Now I’m in the scene. Before, when I w as growing up, I just wasn’t in the IN crowd and I didn’t get that chance. And I wasn’t a winning rider at the time, so I probably didn’t deserve the chance. A lot of kids get a chance who don’t deserve it because they’re in the IN crowd. Anyway, that’s kind of the way I see it. You know, it just goes to show you that when I raced supercross and motocross, this was the time when we first met, I was renting a room from Sondra and Mark Peters. I remember it was $300 a month and I slept on this little bed. Humble beginnings. I didn’t make much through racing. I was a top 10 rider and I just needed enough money to eat. The moment I got into freestyle and started doing tricks and doing videos, I started getting paychecks. It was like, ‘Okay!’ That had to be the same across the whole industry. It was new companies. It was new money. It was. If you could write a storybook, there were so many little pieces to the freestyle motocross puzzle and I’m just glad I was part of that, you know? My pieces to the puzzle were probably the ghost ride and the 360 at the Summer X Games. There were always little pieces that I contributed and I was also a large part of the Metal Mulisha. The Mulisha was a big part of action sports.
Going back to stalking you down the morning after the 1997 Coliseum win and subsequent fine from the AMA, I’ve been around you quite a bit throughout your journey in motor racing. All along the way, it was pretty easy for me to see that you had a heavy hand in all things FMX, Metal Mulisha and action sports.
We were always working behind the scenes and I had a hand in most everything, right? I always hand my hand in it because I always wanted to maneuver it in some way, whether to help my buddies or to help my brand or to help the sport because it was going to help all of us. I never wanted to sit back. I feel like that was my dad in me. My dad was always the leader and he had 1,000 people under him and he ran this whole school system. I felt like that was the way I was raised. Looking back on it all, I think Travis Pastrana was such a good front man for the sport, but it wasn’t until later in his life that he started organizing the sport with Nitro Circus. I was trying to do all of that early on. We tried to put on freestyle shows, ramp-to-ramp demos and all this other stuff to try and build the sport. It was all pretty cool. We didn’t take any years off, or really even days and months. Even to this day, we’re always building something. That’s the fun part about it. We walked the walk and talked the talk, and I was always the one that backed it up at the events, right? We had our rough and tumble crew, but I was the one who actually fought for the gold medal and brought the justification to the crew. And then we helped build the guys who came up like Twitch [Stenberg] and then [Ronnie] Faisst. The list goes on. Yeah, all that was cool and Travis was a big part of all that.
I don’t know, dude… To my way of seeing things, even today, a rider such as Axell Hodges and all the current FMX competitors, really, they could not be who they are or what they are today if not for the Brian Deegan influence.
There is definitely a road, right? It’ll never be the 1990s again. I think the new heroes today are different, but Axell has gotten a big opportunity with a big channel such as Monster Energy, but he’s definitely made a ton out of it and he backs it up with good riding. He’s filled that spot. I think it’s a good combination. He’s young and he’s got a lot of opportunity ahead of him. I think he’s good.
1997 GHOST STORY INTERVIEW
Brian Deegan reflects back on Fright Night circa 1997 and a remarkable run in FMX.
Brian, the video of you winning the 1997 AMA 125cc West Region Supercross main event in the Los Angeles Coliseum and ghost riding your bike across the finish line is up on a number of sites right now. I watched the thing like eight times in a row this afternoon. Have you gone back and watched it?
Yeah, it was pretty cool, you know? At the time it was pretty exciting, but you forget over time on how. You forget how big an accomplishment it really was for me, you know? It’s one of those things I can always look back on and be proud of. For a lot of people, their racing career goes by, but I’ll always have that one memory that I think made it all worth it. It was one of those memories I don’t think 99% of the racers would have. I have something like that to be proud of for all the work I put in racing dirt bikes.
You rode really well throughout the entire 15-lap main. Were you surprised at how good you looked in the race?
Yeah, it’s funny because I was watching that and I was like, “Man, I was hauling ass.” I really looked like I was faster than all the other guys. My speed and style and everything looked like a full-on pro and like a guy who could win a supercross championship. You know, it kind of bums me out that you can see that and see 15 laps of me riding that good and I still didn’t get any support.
How stock was that bike, Brian?
That bike was a stock Suzuki that I bought at Simi Valley Suzuki for like $4,000. It was a stock bike with a pipe and silencer and I had Pro Circuit do the head and cylinder, so it was pretty much a production bike with a few modifications.
Right after the race, you had a few things to say on the podium that, as far as I know, have never been said before or since. What did you think about all that?
It was cool. It was crazy. I was super-young.
It was during that same period in time that you guys were just beginning to get the Metal Mulisha off the ground, wasn’t it?
1997 was actually was the first time I started writing Metal Mulisha on my bike and helmet. I still have the helmet that says “Metal Mulisha” in marker that I won the supercross with. I think that moment that I decided to ride for Moto XXX that I was just really rebelling against everything and wanted to do something different. That night in the Coliseum really launched the attitude and the Mulisha. Ghost riding the bike and doing everything that you weren’t supposed to do, I pretty much did. Then I got on the podium and pretty much said what I thought and I how I felt and I wasn’t afraid to say it. I pretty much told everyone that I kicked everyone’s ass. I just said stuff that people normally don’t say or hear from the podium and that carried into freestyle and the Metal Mulisha and us being ourselves and saying what we wanted to say. That was a big launching point for us. From that point, from winning the supercross, ghost riding the bike and doing all the Crusty [Demons of Dirt] that year and doing the Moto XXX movies and doing the skits. It all started that year. People wanted to bash it, but you know, I won a supercross and we had a lot of stuff to back it up.
Then later that summer you showed up at the Washougal National with gold glitter all over your bike, boots and helmet. I remember standing in your pit area and Ryan Hughes walking by the bike and smiling. Some people, like Ryan, seemed to get a kick out of it. On the other hand, many others didn’t…
Yeah, you see a lot of people don’t remember that. I still have that helmet, too. We were in Washougal and I decided to glitter my whole bike, helmet and gear. I just knew it would bum so many people out. All the factories and the teams were looking at us like we were a bunch of screw-offs. I ended up crashing on the start of the first moto, but in the second moto I came out and was like top five or six the whole race and battling with [Mickael] Pichon and [Stephane] Roncada on a glitter bike. It was just funny. I knew it just pissed them off. They couldn’t pass me on my glitter bike. It was just another chapter in the story of us pushing and breaking rules that really weren’t even there. People wanted to shut us down, but there was really no way to do it. It was like, “We’re mad at you for being different! We’re mad at you for being cooler than we are!” It was all kind of funny.
I was also fortunate enough to see the debut of freestyle motocross in the X Games at San Francisco in 1999. To my way of seeing things, that was the day the Metal Mulisha went global…
Yeah, you know freestyle started in 1998 as a competition sport. Like we put on the very first freestyle demo at the end of 1997. We had Death Metal bands and freestyle motocross and a jump park built by Micky Dymond. Then, in 1998, they started a small freestyle series and it did all right. Then in 1999 the X Games picked it up and that’s when it really hit. By that point, I was already in deep and was like, “I broke my arm at the very first supercross race in the January of 1999. I‘m over racing. I’m not getting any support. I have no money and I’m broke.” So I focused on freestyle. I was getting paid by companies to ride freestyle. I was stoked. So I started going crazy and I was doing all these commercials and all this stuff for action sports. Then, X Games happened. It was like me as the bad guy and [Travis] Pastrana as the good guy and we took it to the next level. All of a sudden, we had all these cameras on us and we just smoked all the other sports in our very first year.
Brian, what would you say was the top moment of your entire freestyle motocross career?
The first moment that comes to mind, it’s like my biggest moment, would be doing the first 360 at the 2003 X Games at the Coliseum. I stuck the 360 before Pastrana. It was the first time I ever did it on dirt. I just barely landed it and I think people were just tripping, you know? People were blown away by it. In the end, that was the biggest moment. You know the other thing I have to say is that another major accomplishment was being the guy that built freestyle motocross. I mean, look around… I’m one of the only dudes left that is an OG guy that started the sport that still competes. I think the longevity with that and the Mulisha being built and still going strong and us having the sickest team in action sports is a huge accomplishment. I think it might be the biggest besides what Tony Hawk has pulled off, you know?
See Brian’s iconic 360 below, please excuse the grainy video!