I’m walking out of the ticket office at Nationwide Arena Saturday night before the Nuclear Cowboyz event when a man starts screaming in my ear. The gentleman standing beside me is dressed in a red flannel shirt with the sleeves cut off, holding a Budweiser bottle in his left hand. No use in trying to determine how he obtained a beer without first stepping foot into the arena, I thought, but I’m glad that one of us is excited for tonight’s festivities.
My body is slowly walking toward an entrance door at Nationwide Arena, but my mind is elsewhere. Two short hours before my journey toward a post-apocalyptic world, I was standing in the ICU at Grant Hospital, waiting for my grandfather Pat Volpe to take his last breath.
I stood beside his bed, holding his right hand in mine as I watched the battle between mortality and death unfold. When death struck the final blow, I reached over to comfort my mother. Then I knelt next to the hospital bed and kissed my grandfather on the forehead, while whispering “I love you” into his ear. I said my goodbyes and offered my condolences to the family members in attendance before exiting the building. Tonight I have a job to do.
The Nuclear Cowboyz is a choreographed theatrical performance, a freestyle motocross tour that does away with the competition aspect. Two tribes, the Soldiers of Havoc and the Metal Mulisha, have survived some sort of apocalypse and are calling for Armageddon in mid-air. If professional wrestling had a child with the X Games, this event would be the result.
From the moment I’d been assigned this story, I had no interest in writing a review. This event called for a different type of coverage altogether.
Why were these riders willing to risk their lives with every performance? Why would these men throw caution to the wind and put their futures in jeopardy? Was it ego? Did they love the sport that much? Was it cockiness? Was it the “thrill-seeking” gene D4DR?
After what I’d been through only hours earlier, the decision lifted into the air like an ominous shadow, and dropped a tremendous weight onto my shoulders. Yet I was undeterred and went off in search of the answer. After dodging a hat salesman and his collection of hideous choices, I found section 120 and took my seat in row HH, seat 1.
A quick glance at the chaotic scene before me revealed a world in shambles. A cop car and a taxicab had been turned on their sides and fire shot out of three massive bike ramps. Strobe lights reigned over the spectacle as alternative rock thundered on in the background.
The PA announcer informed the crowd that the Soldiers of Havoc were getting ready for combat training. I’d spoken with two of the riders from the Soldiers of Havoc tribe the day before the event, Mike Mason and Dustin Miller. They’ve been friends since they were kids and were practically born into this sport. Mason’s father was a legendary dirt bike racer.
“He got me a bike when I was 5 years old because he always raced and I was hanging out with him,” he said.
Miller’s journey began in a similar fashion.
“For my second birthday my dad got me a little three-wheeler and I just started riding that thing everywhere,” he said.
While most kids were riding big wheels, complete with the requisite super hero or cartoon character stickers, these boys were racing dirt bikes. And still, all of these years later, they both admitted that they feel fear while they’re riding.
“The scary thing is trying to concentrate when you’re right in the middle of a train (a group of riders) or you’re falling. You’re trying to judge their speed so you’re not jumping into them, and you have to concentrate on how you’re coming off of the ramp, so that’s where it gets a little more intense,” Mason said.
Miller said he feared death a little bit as well.
“I think about it before and after the show sometimes,” Miller said. “When you have three or four guys right next to you, or behind and in front of you, that can be quite a bit of danger in itself.”
As I remembered these earlier conversations, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the riders. There was something mesmerizing about the way they rose up off of the ramps, performing tricks in harmony while vaulting through the rafters. I counted how long the riders were in mid-air.
Three seconds to hit the ramp, shift your body weight, shift the bike, re-adjust, return to the seated position, and stick the landing on another ramp. The fans’ collective breath seemed to rise into a gasp during some of the more dangerous tricks, but safe landings were met with cheers and applause.
I continued to look for the reason why these riders chose to make a living in a sport this intense. I let my mind drift back into the discussion I’d had with Mason.
I’d hoped that Mason could tell me why these guys chose to live on the wild side. Mason, a kind soul who enjoys having jam sessions on his acoustic guitar while on tour, tried to explain it to me.
“I think it’s a little mix of love of the sport and cockiness that kind of keeps us in it,” Mason said. “It’s a lot of fun to be a part of stuff like this, it makes riding a dirt bike fun.”
That was certainly part of it. Mason has been riding dirt bikes competitively for more than 20 years, and this is a different side of the sport. But I wasn’t completely satisfied with his answer.
Nuclear Cowboyz isn’t a competition, so there’s no need to be cocky. Neither Mason nor Miller appeared to have a giant ego; they were both humble in conversation and truly enjoy what they do.
We’d arrived at the end of the show, and I was panicking. Four riders were back flipping in unison, the crowd was going crazy, and I didn’t have the answer. With no judges, no finish line, and no winner, why were they risking potential injury? I was looking around the arena, watching fans standing and applauding when it hit me.
We’re the reason.
We’re the reason why these motocross stars are tempting fate. They do it for the respect and for the cheers. They’re riding for us because we came to see a show, and their adrenaline-fueled rides put them squarely in the spotlight.
My suspicions were confirmed when the riders exited the arena, fists pumping in the air, pandering to the crowd. They were soaking up the attention, and they loved us for caring about what they love to do.
Because ultimately that’s what it all comes down to, caring for those who love and care for us. Whether it’s a motocross star that’s putting on a show for the fans in attendance, or it’s a beloved family member whose number has just been called, we should cherish the things that we truly care about and enjoy them while they last.