Scar Tissue: Crusty Demons of Dirt

15 years ago when VHS ruled the world, a team of renegade dirt racers were inventing impossible new tricks that changed biking forever. They rode hard, crashed like hell and got it all down on film. They were the Crusty Demons of Dirt…

The rider’s name was Seth Enslow and in that single moment he became the coolest rider in the world.

Rumours had been going around for months about this insane new bike video out of the States, and I’d finally got my hands on a bootleg copy. I simply couldn’t believe my eyes, 60 minutes of jaw-dropping riding action shot in exotic locations and set to a blasting dirt-rock soundtrack. I was road test editor on SuperBike magazine at the time and thought I was pretty shit-hot on a bike, but this was really something else. While Mick Doohan was boring us to death with his ruthless efficiency in GPs, here was a punk 20 year-old kid who became a legend overnight because he crashed so damn hard, got straight up laughing and did it again. A bunch of hooligans with tattoos and LBZ jerseys were ripping up the establishment. They called themselves a ridiculous name that nobody could remember at first, but once you’d seen that fist film you could never forget. They were The Crusty Demons of Dirt.

“We made that first film for just £50,000 and shot it over 18 months,” says Jon Freeman today, who along with co-producer Dana Nicholson established Fleshwound Films in 1994, the name behind the Crusty movies. “We’d go out shooting for days at a time, and by the end of it we knew we had something pretty special on our hands. Within a year we’d sold 100,000 tapes and suddenly the whole industry was taking notice of what we were doing. Dana and myself had come from doing snowboard films and we’d been dropping segments of dirtbike stuff into those. The response was huge, so we planned a bike film and started shooting in 1993. At the time we’d just go out and shoot the professional racers like Jeremy McGrath, Brian Manley and Jeff Emig, but pretty soon a new breed of rider started to emerge. They didn’t want to race, they just wanted to hit jumps and play in front of the camera.”

Seth was at the forefront of those new riders, one of the godfathers of the new freestyle motocross movement. Freestyle didn’t have a name then, and tricks were limited to tail-whips. But for Seth, it was and always has been about hitting big jumps and going further than anyone else. “I always liked going big,” says Mr Enslow today, now a devoted 32 year-old dad. “Going big and whipping it, that was me. I preferred to go long distance, doing the jumps other people would say ‘no way!’ to. That gave me more of a kick than learning the latest trick off a small jump. At the time, I was the only one doing it.” His crashes became the stuff of folklore. In Crusty One he powered off a dune so high and so far that he smashed the front wheel and broke the yokes in two when he crash-landed, knocking himself out cold. In Crusty Two he topped that by landing on the parked bikes. In Crusty Five he leapt 220ft and snapped the whole front of the bike off on landing in front of 5,000 fans, and in Crusty Six he landed so hard off another jump that the handlebars smashed the bone around his right eye socket in his skull. Seth’s goggles filled with blood and he was air-lifted to hospital where he needed 55 staples across his forehead where they operated. The portrait photograph of his perforated skull elevated him to mythical status.

“People thought it was nuts,” laughs Seth. “Seeing the staples in my head made viewers realise that this was for real, that we were putting our lives on the line. People like to see others fail, crash, then get up and say ‘wow, that was a close one.’ But you know what’s really funny? Not long after the surgery for that injury I found that when women get a facelift they go through the same thing! They’re going through what I went through just to look better, to have their whole faces pulled back. They sliced me open right across the front of my skull so they could mend the break to my eye socket and put a titanium mesh into my head to cover the dent I’d made in my forehead. Hell of a way to get a facelift. I’ve got nice tight skin on my face now!”

Three weeks later he was back on a bike and looking for the next big hit for Jon Freeman’s cameras. If you watch the Crusty films back-to-back you can see them evolving, becoming more slick and well-produced as the freestyle movement gained popularity and Fleshwound adapted accordingly. From the earlier first films with their almost exclusively outdoor locations, the filming moved more into arenas as freestyle became stadium-based. There were more girls, more pyrotechnic effects, and the riders went through a daft phase of leaping off their bikes mid-air and wrecking them just for the spectators. Crusty was turning into a show.

“In the beginning it was just a bunch of guys riding in the desert trying to get one up on their buddies on film,” agrees Freeman. “Then in Crusty Three in 1997 we held a competition in Las Vegas with Brian Deegan, Travis Pastrana and Seth all there. Pastrana won that first freestyle event with his tricks. Suddenly it became recognised as a sport, and the new thing for brands to look up to and sponsor.” Whether Fleshwound Films actually invented freestyle motocross is difficult to say, but the riders they were filming and showcasing in their movies certainly did and Fleshwound did the right thing at the right time. People were looking for a movement to get behind and the freestyle scene gave them that. “At the time the industry was too corporate, too raced out,” says Dana Nicholson today in his hang-dawg Californian drawl. “It was in the air, people were getting ready to go crazy. There was a corporate lock-down in racing, we’d go out riding with the pros and they were like, man this is too much fun. We saw a whole different side to them, and these films brought that out.”

As freestyle gathered pace, so did the complexity of the riding. The early tail-whips and heel-clicker tricks had been evolving into something far more radical. Then Travis Pastrana came along and blew everyone away. “The first time Travis came out, that’s when proper tricks came into the Crusty films,” confirms Dana. “He and Mike Metzger just blew everyone away with their aerial stunts in Crusty Four and they made freestyle what it is today. That’s when the stage really opened.” And watching these movies was an 11 year-old from Phoenix, Arizona called Nate Adams. Now 27 and possibly the best all-round freestyler in the world today, Nate recalls what it was that pressed his buttons on those Crusty films.

“I was just a kid when I first saw Crusty One, but it had such an impact on me,” he says today. “It had this cool soundtrack and awesome riding. It was just something you wanted to be part of, although I never thought I’d end up riding for them at the time. They were the first outfit to really push the whole lifestyle thing, to show the out-takes and the guys goofing off as well as the riding. That’s what gives the Crusty films their character even today. Back then I remember thinking ‘what’s the deal with this Seth guy?’, he just seemed so determined to hurt himself. But it was seeing Pastrana in the films that really inspired me, I loved the more technical trick riding and after seeing Travis I was just blown away.”

Evidence, then, that not only were Jon Freeman’s films at the forefront of a new sport, but they were also instrumental in recruiting new talent and giving that talent an outlet and an audience. It’s no surprise that in the X-Games of August 1999 when freestyle motocross was first entered as an event, all of the competitors were Crusty riders. Pastrana leapt his RM250 straight into San Francisco bay to keep him ahead of Mike Cinqmars, Brian Deegan and Mad Mike Jones. As he was pulled sputtering out of the water by rescue boats, Pastrana’s jump secured him first place in front of an amazed audience but landed him in deeper water with the local authorities.

It’s impossible to watch just one clip of a Crusty movie. Once you sit down and the first pounding track grips you, you won’t get up until the full hour is done. In many ways they’re far more jackass than the Jackass films, although if Knoxville’s outfit wanted to out-mad any of the Crusty Demons they would have to be ready to die for their beliefs. Part rock video and part National Geographic documentary, the mix of visuals is immense and every Crusty is a bit like watching a porno film: even when you get to the boring bits, it’s still 100% more entertaining than anything that might be on TV. The location shoots have always been beautifully shot and the cinematography from the earlier films has certainly withstood the test of time. “We pioneered some shots that had never been seen before,” says Jon Freeman. “Dana made aluminium brackets and mounted them to the helmets so we could shoot back towards the riders faces as they hit ramps, and we were using the first pencil cameras running back to Hi-8 video units. We ended up breaking almost all of them. I can’t even tell you how many cameras we broke, even today we have 12 cameras here on the walls with twisted bits of metal and motorcycle sticking out of them."

Sometimes you get a product which is plugged into - and then becomes - part of its time, and the Crusty Demons were just that. They’re still going now, of course, and Jon Freeman is currently putting the finishing touches to Crusty 13. It will be the usual high-energy mix of monster riding, new-wave rock music and outrageously talented kids doing fearless things on dirtbikes. They have a roadshow stunt tour that is coming to the UK on January 3rd 2008 and a new clothing label in the US, but you can’t help but feel that perhaps the Crusty vehicle is slowly running out of gas. The freestyle movement that their riders spawned now has a life and direction all its own, and is fast becoming a highly-competitive sport across the world. And in doing so, it is becoming precisely the thing the Crusty Demons hated so much in the first place – a professional sport. The dog, it seems, has turned on its master.

Maybe it’s just me being a reflective old fart, but I can’t see the new Crusty film having the same impact on today’s 20 year-olds as the original did back in 1995. Nobody had ever seen anything like it back then, there was no Youtube or Liveleak and Crusty was so fresh and exciting that it blew your mind. But now freestyle tricks are in every shop window, the Xbox generation have played them to death, and even Travis is now more into his cars than his bikes.

As for Seth, there are no plans to retire anytime soon. The original Crusty Demon is going for a World Record jump attempt on March 29th where he hopes to clear more than 300ft. There’s a little more finesse these days than with the Enslow of old, it would seem. “Right now I’m putting down the bottle, cutting back on my drinking and getting back to the gym in preparation,” says Seth with typical give-a-shit understatement. “300ft is a big jump so we’re being a bit more technical with it, getting some physics and geometry involved instead of just rolling the dice and seeing where we land.” It’s absolutely impossible to speak to Seth and not be reminded of the greatest motorcycle jumper ever, Evel Knievel. Evel barely planned his jumps, invariably knew he was going to crash, but still went ahead and did it. And with EK’s departure, now would surely be a fitting time for Seth to step-up and fill Knievel’s legendary boots.

“Working with the Crusty Demons crew has been a dream that turned into a job I created for myself,” concludes Seth. “And having created that job I had to do it, people expected it of me, so time after time it meant having to saddle up and go for the big jumps even if I was scared. Because this is what I do. Physically I’m fine, yes it’s dangerous and after an injury you might not want to get back on the bike. Some nights I ask myself, ‘why do I ride these stupid dirt bikes?’ But it always comes back around and you miss the freedom of flying through the air. That twist of the throttle, the feeling of the bike as you jump and the body skills you need to control it. Even if it’s a love-hate relationship at times, you always end up going back.” Isn’t that the truth.