The bare metal grandstands at Phoenix International Raceway were unbearable to anyone not wearing asbestos underwear during the XDL stunt show, where the blazing desert sun raised temperatures to more that 104 degrees. Still, such insufferable conditions did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old boy in glasses and a baseball cap sitting nearby who was watching the stunt show with his mouth hanging wide-open. Since it was probably the first time he's seen motorcycles ridden like this, he looked at the riders as if they were mythical creatures. Oppressive temperatures didn't slow down the stunters, either, as the 10 riders who made the final at this invitation-only event put on one of the tightest, most energetic stunt shows ever seen. Mythological creatures, indeed.
The XDL Show wasn't just another stunt demo, though-it was a new paradigm for professional stunt shows, and the involved riders were ready to impress and do whatever it took to make this one a success. Introduced as a new feature at the established GT Live sport compact auto events, the XDL Show in Phoenix doubled as the inaugural round of new U.S. Stunt Riding Championship, a national points chase that promised to bring a new level of professionalism to the typically less-than-reliable world of stunt competitions. Organized by well-respected stunt impresario Thomas Evans, the U.S. Stunt Riding Championship series was created to be first-class in every way, with sizable payouts, first-rate promotion, clear rules and credible judging, and an all-around great stunt show experience for riders and fans alike. Evans says he felt the pressure to make this series great: "I ran a lot of my own events before, but this was the first time I had 100 percent of the responsibility over every aspect of the show, and that weighed on my shoulders," Evans said. Judging by the way things went down in Phoenix, Evans was definitely up to the challenge.
Evans has been stunting since 1999 and has been emceeing and organizing events for nearly as long. When the GT Live organization decided to launch the XDL Show and use it to introduce motorcycle stunt competition to its show of drifting and other auto racing programs, Evans was the one brought in to make it happen. GT Live has a history of attracting the best drivers from around the world to its events, so the organizers' overriding emphasis with the stunt program was on professionalism and rider respect. "When I was first approached by [GT Live organizer] Randy Grube, he told me his main concern was treating the riders in a way they deserved to be treated-as professional performers." For example, there would be no entry fees for riders. VIP passes for their guests, free vendor space to sell their merchandise, and even all their drinks and food would be provided at the event. No other event has ever treated stunt riders like that. "It's a sad state of our sport when these professional riders, who risk their lives to put on a show for the crowd, are actually conditioned to believe that they have to pay to do that," Evans said.
And make no mistake-the talent responded to the VIP treatment. "A little respect goes a long way" said Big Joe Molina who qualified on the bubble in 10th place for the event. "I can't believe people actually were asking us if we needed water, rather then us have to beg for it," added Kane Friesen, the eventual event winner.
Not only were the riders taken care of when they were off the bike, they also had a top-notch riding area. The riding surface was the same as that used by the drift cars, and it was more than large enough to accommodate the show. In fact, the area was so large that all 20-plus competitors were able to practice simultaneously without encroaching on each other's space.
GT Live spreads out activities over three days. Friday was for practice and the All Out Performance-sponsored Team Battle. To mix things up and keep the competitive juices flowing, teams were created at random with all the competitors' names thrown into a hat and picked out one at a time to create the teams. This resulted in some interesting mash-ups that included superstar rivals Friesen and Darius Khashabi on the same team. The finals came down to a sudden death, a one-on-one battle between Khashabi of team Servin' the Pink and Alex Flores of team Carne Asada, with the final winner selected by crowd participation. In the end, it was team Carne Asada who took home the $500 prize after squeaking out a narrow victory.
Saturday was an absolute scorcher with temperatures reaching past the 100-degree barrier. Most of the day was designated for qualifying, to narrow down the field of 22 riders to 10 finalists. When all was said and done, the top 10 riders making the cut for the marquee event were Aaron Colton, Alex Flores, Kane Friesen, Warren James, Darius Khashabi, Jamal Kindred, Phil Licciardi, Joe Molina, Jason Pullen and Ernie Vigil.
The StuntRide.com Sickest Trick competition took place on Saturday afternoon and offered some warm-up entertainment before the big dance. And who was the sickest rider that day? None other than the man riding the American Iron, Jason Pullen, who successfully pulled off a no-handed scrape on his Harley-Davidson Sportster to take home the Moto-Heaven.com trophy for his efforts.
As day turned to night, the the highly anticipated individual freestyle event finally arrived. Unlike most individual freestyle sessions where the rider basically does whatever he feels like for a few minutes and is scored according to the whims of the judge, the U.S. Stunt Riding Championship events use a highly structured scoring system that requires riders to do five wheelies, five stoppies, five burnouts and five acrobatic tricks-that's right, a total of 20 stunts-in just three minutes and execute them all without error in order to achieve a perfect score. It's a scoring strata that encourages variety and well-rounded skills, and it also rewards riders who are organized, disciplined and on-point at all times. The pressure for riders, in other words, was on.
Adding a bit of theatrical flair to the event was the introduction of a "Hot Seat" (an apropos name, given the weather in Phoenix): The rider with the most points was seated in front of the crowd in a throne of sorts, so the fans and other riders knew exactly who was in the lead at all times. The leading rider stayed in the Hot Seat until he was outscored, at which point he handed the throne over to the new points leader. First out of the box (and first into the throne) was Big Joe Molina. The judges definitely had their work cut out assessing his run-his front wheel never touched the ground until after the halfway mark passed, making it a challenge to tell where one trick ended and a new one began! Fourteen-year-old phenomenon Aaron Colton's run followed and proved that he is a formidable competitor, regardless of his age. Jason Pullen included a couple of high chair circles aboard his Harley-Davidson stuntbike that impressed both the crowd and competitors alike. Jamal "J-Beats" Kindred added some urban flair with his tank spreader circles on his Famous-wrapped GSX-R, while our cover boy Phil Licciardi played to the crowd and busted the longest endos of any competitor all weekend. Erne Vigil killed it, too, with his spiderlike legs dangling in the air and accenting each trick like a gymnast's streamers.
The big thrills (and big drama) came later in the show, when the top-qualifying riders made their runs. Alex Flores looked to have this event in the bag, with a highly technical set that included his signature switchback wheelie. Unfortunately, his last trick included a failed front flip that saw the bike hit the ground, resulting in a point penalty that ultimately cost him third place. Khashabi's 180 seconds were probably the most technical of the weekend, showcasing his prodigious skill (and balls), but a few minor errors in execution cost him some points. Despite this, he was the one in the Hot Seat with just a few more competitors to go.
Next up was another Team Famous rider, Warren James. When James shot out the gate, he had just one thing on his mind: winning. As he raced up and down the track, he accumulated points like they were giving them away with admission. Halfway through his run, he clicked into second and monkey-rolled off the back of his GSX-R to skitch off of a set of custom-designed, Racing 905 grab bars. When it came time to remount, James bobbled and didn't make it back into the saddle. Speeding straight toward a concrete barrier at 40 mph, James tried vainly to pull himself back into the saddle but couldn't quite make it. Closer, closer-BOOM! James hit the concrete wall head-on and the crowd went silent, as he lay unconscious beside his bike. To the relief of the crowd, James regained consciousness just as paramedics were loading him into the meat wagon and gave a thumbs-up as he was carted off. Miraculously, he walked away with only a concussion and no broken bones. "I never let go. I was determined to win at any cost," James told us afterwards.
After James' big stunt, only one rider remained-crowd favorite Kane Friesen. Friesen hit the track amid the inevitable lumberjack throttle-hand jokes, but he never let the friendly ridicule faze him-and he didn't waste a single second of his three-minute boogie, nailing all 20 required tricks with absolute accuracy, precision and style. Not to be outdone, as Friesen rolled past his rival Khashabi in the Hot Seat he made a choking motion at his throat, just to keep the love alive.
After all the scores were tallied using all available fingers and toes, Licciardi finished in fifth, followed by Flores in forth, Vigil in third, and Khashabi in second and, to his own amazement, Friesen was crowned winner of the inaugural '06 XDL Stunt Riding Championships "Best of the West" qualifier. "When I told my mom about the win," Friesen says, "she said it was the best Mother's Day gift I could ever give her." Aw, sweet.
This was the first one-if you East Coasters want to take in a round of the XDL/U.S. Stunt Riding Championships, mark your calendars for October 6-8, which will be the date of the East Coast eliminations at Virginia International Raceway in Alton, Virginia. The final competition will bring the best of the East and West Coast rounds together and is set to take place early next year, at a yet-to-be-determined date and time. We'll be there to support this exciting new series-will you?
Results:U.S. Stunt Riding Championship, Round 1
1. Kane Friesen2. Darius Khashabi3. Ernie Vigil4. Alex Flores5. Phil Licciardi