TALK IT UP TUESDAY: Joey Christensen
Tuesday, Mar 3, 2015 04:02pm
By Aaron Waldron
Welcome to LiveRC's weekly column, "Talk-It-Up Tuesday!" Here we spend a little time talking with industry icons including racers, manufacturers, team managers, developers, promoters, and everyone in between! Sit back, relax, and go behind the scenes as we interview them all!
Like nearly all racers in the 90s, my R/C career started with electric cars, both off-road and on (well, for a couple of years anyway). At the time, there were three unique off-road tracks within an hour of my home that hosted weekly raced area - one indoors, and two that took advantage of the wonderful San Diego weather. The two outdoor tracks occasionally drew a heat of 1/10-scale 2WD nitro trucks, mostly driven by racers who were already there racing an electric buggy or truck, but the class struggled to gain traction until the end of the 90s - and by that time, pre-teen me had gotten over my fear of driving and turn marshaling them (it didn’t help that my first-ever track time with a nitro truck ended in a glitch-induced runaway).
When all three San Diego-area tracks closed down as the real estate market heated up, the options for racing on the weekends dwindled. Sure, we were only a little over an hour from some of the best indoor tracks in the country, SoCal R/C Raceway in Huntington Beach and MnM Hobbies in Corona, but the long run-times and relative lack of mid-week maintenance (with no battery cycling or comm-cutting) of nitro trucks had started to dominate our play-time on the track built in our front yard. I searched far and wide for listings of new tracks in Southern California and stumbled across an outdoor track in Hemet, CA - a small SoCal desert town known for, well, nothing really. I had an aunt and uncle that escaped the frigid Michigan winter and retired to a mobile home there for a few months every year, and that’s about all I knew. We drove up there one Saturday and found about a dozen people, a big concrete drivers’ stand, and a dustbowl of a track made of little more than some PVC pipe and some half-assed shovel work. We clobbered the field that day and drove home in time for an afternoon barbecue with friends that provided more competition.
My father and I spent the next year or so racing electric cars and driving our nitro trucks in the front yard, and were invited to take part in an RC demo at a trade and consumer show organized by a local off-road vehicle coalition. We took our nitro trucks and had a blast on the makeshift off-road course, putting on a show for the crowd with wheelies and big whip attempts (which, of course, led to spectacular crashes that drew the biggest cheers of all). One of the drivers at the demo showed me the first nitro 1/8-scale buggy I had ever seen, and told us about “this bitchin’ track in Hemet, with these huge berms dug into the side of a hill, a bridge that crossed over a whole lane, and the biggest jumps of any RC track.” When he explained how to get there, it sounded an awful lot like the dustbowl we had visited back in early 1999 - but he argued that what we remembered was nothing like the track he knew, and it had just held a big race that drew a bunch of factory drivers.
He said the name of the track was “The Dirt.”
The following Friday night, after I got out of school and my dad left work, we loaded up the truck and headed back up to Hemet, unsure what we’d find. Sure enough, it was the same location all right - but now the parking lot was packed, the lights were on, the drivers’ stand and everything had been freshly painted.
And the track was the coolest I had ever seen.
I felt like the promises of huge berms and big jumps were a complete undersell - this was a scaled down motocross track that rivaled Glen Helen or Red Bud. Elevation changes that dwarfed the vehicles traversing them, treacherous whoops, launch ramps that shot the cars into low orbit before dropping into an skillfully crafted landing, and a straightaway long enough to stretch connecting rods were previously only track elements in my dreams. The voice of an entertaining announcer rang through the PA speakers, and the young man who we were told was in charge of the place was running around the track with a shovel, turn marshaling cars during practice while patching and re-patching ruts seemingly as they developed.
We were immediately hooked. Except for the occasional electric race, my RC career went almost exclusively nitro. Every Friday night we’d head up Interstate 15, fight through Temecula traffic, and set out for the middle of nowhere. After a quick pit stop by Steve’s Burgers down the street, we’d set up our pit area and be greeted by the smiling track owner, shovel in one hand and sign-up sheet in the other. The Dirt wasn’t just an incredible place to race, with one of the most approachable and hard-working track owners in the business, but it was the closest track to my house for quite a long time.
When “that big race” happened for a second time, in February 2001, I signed up and got smoked - but as a racer or member of the media, I never missed another one (and eventually made the Pro Buggy main in 2007). After the “Dirt Nitro Challenge” celebrated its Sweet 16 this year with a record number of entries the weekend before last, topping 1000 across three tracks, there was no better choice for Talk It Up Tuesday than the man who started it all - Joey Christensen.
Aaron Waldron: How did you get into building tracks and organizing RC races?
Joey Christensen: In my early 20s I was part of a successful chain of surf, skate and snowboard outlet stores that were up and down the California coast. We had sold the stores and I found myself happily off of work for a bit. I grew up racing bicycles and motorcycles and just had a love for off-road racing. My dad (known as “Bear”) had a guy working for him that had an RC car and frequently raced it at the local track in Hemet, where I lived. We went together to watch the race and I thought it was awesome. I said, “we should get into that!” and my father replied, "if we go buy all the stuff and a week later we don't like it, we will be stuck with all of it!” I was a little bit disappointed, but figured that my dad was always right, so I let go of the thought and wrote it off as “man, that would have been awesome.” The very next day, he showed up at my house after work with a funny smile on his face. He opened the back of his car and he had bought the entire hobby store it seemed! It was on from there!
I eventually was asked to take over the local track, as I had time and some money to invest. With my racing background, and retail management experience, I felt comfortable doing it. It wasn't until I started making my own tracks that I realized how much passion I had for shaping dirt. All of the years of molding my mashed potatoes as a kid at the table started to come back to me. I was an art major in school and was known for my sculpture and ceramic works, and now it all seemed to make sense. I had the perfect job and no idea where it would go from one day to the next. The track I had taken on had zero entries on race nights, and I had no intention of making it a business. I was primarily trying to help the hobby shop increase its sales and also have a place my dad and I could race regularly. I decided to change the name of the track to "The Dirt,” as that's how all of my friends referred to Hemet - nothing but dirt farms, dirt roads and dirt racers. I made a website and made my own hand drawn logos. I started my own team that ran my stickers on their cars: Tebo, Kortz, Degani, Bradley and Drake. The Drake logo I made for Adam was picked up by Team Losi back then and 15 years later it’s still his signature logo! The first Nitro Challenge was held in 2000 a few months after I started "The Dirt" in Hemet in 1999.
AW: When you organized the first Dirt Nitro Challenge, what would you have said if someone told you it would be as big as it is and run as long as it has?
JC: When I organized the first Nitro challenge I had never ran a big event before. We had weekly races, but never a two-day event where ROAR was involved or anything. The racers were the ones who said I should have a big race, so I went for it! I drew my own race flyer by hand. Steve O’Donnell was my first sponsor, along with Andy's Bodies and engine builder Ron Paris. ROAR was on board as well - it was quite a learning experience, for sure. All of a sudden, Richard Saxton - the King himself - was there with his famous pit man Regan LeBlanc, along with all of the big pros at the time. It was crazy and awesome! I had made the jumps that I thought were perfect for the track I was trying to build, but my ideas were way outside the norm. I remember Richard Saxton cutting down a one-third off of the top of all the big jumps! I wasn't going to argue, as it was my first big race and he was the Ryan Dungey of RC racing at the time. The race was a success, with 111 entries, and we had a great time. I just took things one at a time and tried not to get ahead of myself or the moment. I stay focused and worked on the task at hand. I had no idea the race would carry on and become the type of event it is today. I think it's really cool.
AW: What’s the most difficult part of organizing a five-day event with 1000 entries?
JC: Well, there are many sleepless nights for me. They are filled with excitement and anxiety as well. Knowing that there are going to be racers from all over the world coming and taking time off from work, time away from their families. They will be spending thousands of dollars and spending their hard-earned vacation time to come to the Nitro Challenge is heavy at times. I have a ton of respect and understanding for what that means. They count on me to make sure things are taken care of and that their time and money is well spent. So I guess the hardest part is making sure that every small detail is handled with care. I know with all of the entries this year it caused some issues. They are the growing pains of a big event and I do hear all of the concerns and they are 100% valid and understandable. I am making a plan for next year that will prevent those same things from happening again. I am here to make a fun and memorable race for the racers. Without them I don’t exist, so what they say and need is my priority. I think the race this year was amazing in so many ways and also not so awesome in others. So I am making those changes for next year!
AW: From where do you continue to draw inspiration for new track ideas and challenging obstacles?
JC: As much as I say Supercross or full-size off-road racing is where I draw my inspiration, it's not really. Honestly, I never even think about the track until I'm in the Bobcat driving around and getting a feel for the area and the dirt. It just comes to me as I'm driving around. I say, “Oh man, you know what would be cool right here at the end of this straight? A huge step up on this corner!” And now that this big step up is here this would work right after that and so on. It's a spontaneous, creative process that allows me the freedom to make whatever I want given the terrain and amounts of dirt at hand. I create one section that perfectly matches the section before it to make a perfect flow. It sounds kind of corny, but that's exactly how it goes down - on the fly, every time. If I were to make a track design on paper before I got to a track and tried to stick to that drawing, I might get there and see that the track has a natural slope and a ton of dirt in the back corner. That changes everything! To try and stick to a drawing is to leave out all of the possibilities and creative ideas that come to you in the build process that you could not possibly see when drawing it on paper. The freedom to change each section over and over until it is perfect and then build the next section that follows to match. It is what makes the tracks I build unique. My tracks are like a box of chocolates - you never know what you’re gonna get, not even me!
AW: Why do you think the Dirt Nitro Challenge has become such a popular destination for traveling racers to turn an RC race into a week-long camping trip?
JC: Sometimes I feel like it's like the old TV show “Cheers,” - “people want to go where everybody knows your name." I value friendships most in my life, especially outside of RC racing. I have had most of my friends since childhood and make sure I continue to make them a priority. I am an only child and I think I learned at an early age that friends are important in life. I have made it a point to know most of the racers names and I feel like we are friends. I see them every year and make sure they are taken care of, no matter how small or trivial the request. I'm sure the track has something to do with them coming, but I think it's the friendships and good times that keep them coming back. The fun atmosphere and the good quality racing never hurts either! :) I could be wrong about it all, but that's why I like to come every year. It’s like the quote: "If you want to go fast in life, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." I feel like that is appropriate for this question - the DNC is a "together" event.
AW: How were you able to recruit friends to form The Dirt Crew and get them to help build, organize, and execute such an incredible event?
JC: Well, we are either related or best friends - so either way, they have to! In the first few years of the race, my wife and her sisters were the Dirt Girls. My best friends Todd, Aaron, Dan, and Tony came to help because I needed it, and it didn't hurt that there were a few cute girls around and we rented a big tour bus to take everyone out for the night either. Now that the race has taken on a life of its own, and is bigger than me and the crew, I think they take extreme pride in being part of history. The smiles on the racers’ faces year after year make all the hard work worth it. We are providing fun in a world full of so much turmoil and sadness. If only for a week out of the year we can be a part of this crazy race and get our minds away from the day to day routine, we do it - happily. Plus, I pay them. LOL
AW: This was another one of the few times in the history of the Dirt Nitro Challenge that the week of the race wasn’t plagued by horrible rain, but this year you had some unfortunate issues with equipment that was difficult to prepare for and impossible to foresee - the generator shutting down a few times, a decoder box failing, etc. How do you handle a situation that stops the race program, keeping everyone happy and getting back on schedule?
JC: I handle it like any problem - solutions solutions solutions, and that's it. With a smile and confidence that there is a solution for everything and that it will, eventually present itself if I stay focused and determined to make it happen. Saying “No” or accepting failure is not an option.
AW: Your original location in Hemet, CA, seemed like a really big track when we raced there over a decade ago. How much more of a challenge is it to build an off-road course and prepare a facility the size of something like Fear Farm?
JC: It's not that different, actually. The basic elements of logistics and organizing are the same - there’s just more of it at Fear Farm. There is the matter of generating power and building three tracks, as opposed to one in Hemet, but it's a matter of planning and organizing. If you were an artist and were tasked to paint a picture, the difference between a small canvas and a large canvas is time and paint :)
AW: How has the Dirt Nitro Challenge evolved over the last decade and a half?
JC: I think the Nitro Challenge has evolved in many ways. It was a small race when it started, but quickly was seen as a place to be. It became a race to win after the first year, mainly because it was in Southern California where the majority of the professional drivers lived and the factory headquarters were located. I think that, combined with the track and race atmosphere that was happening, has helped it to grow year after year. There was a point to where I felt like the race had taken on a life of its own. That people from all over the world were coming no matter what. Racers that I had never known or heard of were coming - regular “Joes” that didn't normally attend big events were coming to experience this event called "The Nitro Challenge.” I realized at that point that I had an obligation to them. To make it all that they hoped for and expected. To live up to the hype. It has now evolved into its own community of the DNC - racers, campers, partygoers, once-a-year vacationers who have the same dirt on their cars from last years DNC. It's more than just a race now.
AW: What made you decide to add 1/10- and 1/5-scale racing to what was already the biggest 1/8-scale off-road race in the world?
JC: The decision to add two more fully functioning tracks came about at the onset of the short course boom. Many racers had pit people traveling with them or even family members that would be bored in between heats of the long race days. I thought that it would be a good incentive for the racers to be able to recruit pit help by saying, “hey, I know it's a long week and you will be bored, but there is a cool 1/10th scale short course track that you can race on during the down time!” I also like to push the parameters and try new things. There was room at the Fear Farm facility and the 1/5-scale community reached out to me. Kevin Chase asked if I would help to promote 1/5-scale racing, so we decided to hold a race alongside the the other two tracks. It was a bit of a mess the first year, but I went for it anyways and we had about 40 entries, I think. This year we had three major sponsors (Team Chase, MIP, and the Bartolone Bros.), as well as over 150 1/5-scale entries! Next year should be awesome!
AW: Did you pick a February date so many years ago intending for it to be the first truly major event of the season?
JC: The only reason that February is the month for the DNC is because the Hemet track used to hold a big event every year in February during Super Bowl weekend. So when I was promoting the DNC I thought it would be good to keep the same dates to help with entries and not change too much. We eventually moved the date from Super Bowl Sunday to Presidents’ week, as my whole family were either teachers or in school, and they were all off during that week to help with the race.
AW: What’s the best part of organizing such a big race?
JC: The best part - creating things that aren't there yet. Having ideas and watching them materialize. I have 50 ideas and goals going all of the time and some happen faster than others but they are all works in progress. I hear, "hey, weren't you talking about that three years ago?" and I say, "Yeah, that's on a four-year plan, so were almost there!" The other best part is working alongside my best friend, Aaron Webb! He's just an amazing guy, hands down the best right hand man you can ever have. We have been friends for almost three decades and he still amazes me. Plus, that homeless-looking beard never gets old!
Being able to work with my son Curran is priceless, and it's time that I'll cherish forever. He's such a good person and I just love being around him.
The other best part is spending time with our Arizona host family for the month!! The Brosh family is so welcoming to us - Aaron and I stay with Kenny and his beautiful wife, Jess, for almost a month and we have a great time. Kenny's parents invite us over for home-cooked meals and desserts and it's like my own family. Kenny is such a unique person and his life is truly an inspiration to me. Thank you, Kenny and family!
AW: What’s the worst?
JC: The worst: generators, computers, FM transmitters, sandbaggers, thieves, port-a-potties, bad turn marshals, hackers and late nights. Pretty much all of the things racers complain about.
The generator we used was brand new and were told the problem was internal alarm codes set by the factory and they reset them twice - luckily, we had a backup. We had two race computers running simultaneously along side the LiveTime computer and backup. The scoring was run on a separate generator for a back-up as well. We had two race scoring loops active. We also had four mobile light towers on hand in case we needed them. Our scoring software never went down and the generator that shut off was back on within three minutes - unfortunately, we had to delay the race for fifteen minutes while the lights cooled down enough to turn back on.
We tried our best to be prepared - it was the 300 extra entries that entered the day of practice that I was not ready for. It is my fault - I have allowed day of entries and I am grateful for them, I just need to have a better solution for them next year. If I could have it all go off perfectly with not one issue I would, and I am shhoting for that. But I am realistic at the same time.
AW: How great does it feel to watch an exciting back-and-forth battle between the world’s fastest pro drivers highlight a race on which you spent so much time putting together?
JC: Well, I'm out there a month early, driving around on the Bobcat by myself with my music and my ideas. Each day grooming and working the dirt. Massaging and shaping the jumps. Picturing the lines and the passing points. Making obstacles to keep the lanes wide and equal. Stretching the distances of the jumps to match my estimate of the level of drivers. Always knowing that this track will showcase the worlds best soon. I want it to be a test of their skill and push the limits of their driving. I talk to the track, and cuss it out now and then when the build doesn't go just right. It's not matching the shapes and ideas in my mind. It quietly takes my tractors physical abuse and my verbal lashings with no comment. After all of the tractor work is done and the steamrolling is finished, she's ready to be piped and dressed up like a high fashion model: hair did, nails done, golden tan and perfect dress, she's ready for the stage - no pictures until then of course! During Wednesday practice, when the cars are on the track for the first of a week of 16-hour days, the jumps are overshot, the landings are cased, pipes get blown out, and the rhythm section suffers from getting tortured. But when the A-Mains arrive, there is that special moment - a calm silence when my hands drop before the roar of the Pro A-Main begins. When the top 15 pilots in the world are within hundredths of a second of each other, giving it their all and letting it all hang out while the crowd cheers them on. During that that moment, I can hear the track quietly whisper, “thank you, now watch me shine!” Yes, it is my favorite moment of the year.
AW: How much of a relief is it when the final trophies are handed out Sunday evening and you know the hard work is over?
JC: Yes, there is a certain amount of relief - I know there are always ups and downs to any event. Not everyone has a great week and I realize that. All I can do is be open to the feedback and make the changes I can. Ultimately I give it my best shot - 110% every year, and I feel like if I do that, my job is done. I am extremely grateful that I am able to be a part of such a cool event and help push RC racing into new areas. We are already planning next years event at Fear Farm for 2016 and I am excited for the changes and look forward to seeing the DNC family once again.
Oh, and remember those cool logos that Joey drew up for Drake and the rest of his team? He made one for me, too.