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It All Happens In The Air!

It smells like a rock concert. Mullets mingle with spiky hairdos at San Francisco’s SBC Park. The hum of 40,000 people grows to a roar as the house lights go down. Fireworks explode into smoke. Green lasers slice the night sky. Concussion blasts force me to fumble through my pockets for earplugs. It’s beginning to feel like a rock concert.

Moments later, the sounds shift. All eyes fixate on the 20 brightly uniformed men on large metal contraptions gathered at the starting gate in a rare moment of calm. The rest before the onslaught of the chorus. The adrenaline is palpable.

Suddenly, in a mixture of speed and pure violence, the mechanical steeds rip through the dirt, jockeying for a front-running position heading into the first hairpin turn. Before you know it, the riders are acrobatically flying above the earth, defying Newton and buzzing like a swarm of furious bees. Only these aren’t bees, and this is no rock concert. Where in the name of all that is good and holy am I? I don’t think this is what Freddie Gruber meant when he said ..."

The Punk Rock Team. The event is the THQ World Supercross 2005, a motocross tour that stretches from Toronto to Daytona Beach, Florida, to Houston, Texas, to this rather brisk evening in San Francisco, California. And yes, I know what you’re thinking. This is a drumming magazine, right? Well, it turns out that some drummers don’t just subsist on a steady diet of wood and alloy – a few notable ones include Strung Out’s Jordan Burns, Erik Sandin of NOFX, Byron McMackin of Pennywise, and Rory Koff of No Use For A Name. The drummers/bike junkies ride in the celebrity Suzuki Crossover Challenge for team Moto XXX, a company originally started by Burns, Sandin, and snowboard videographer Kurt Haller to film motocross events because, as Burns quips, “There were some really cheesy motocross videos out.” 1995’s Moto XXX surprisingly sold over 40,000 copies. Sequels followed, and before they knew it, professional riders were approaching to form a motocross team.

“Here we were,” Burns explains, “three guys from outside the industry, and we took all of our money that we made from the motocross videos and started up this race team. We were definitely the punk rock team. The industry and the promoters – everyone hated us, but the fans loved us. We were sponsored by Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph, and we would get CDs from the labels and throw them out at all the races. We’d get in trouble almost every week. A lot of teams have come and gone while we’ve been in this, and the promoters thought we weren’t going to last. But we really surpassed the expectations of anyone in the industry. Our team is now called the most successful privateer team, ever. Which is huge. Our team has won a 125cc Supercross race, and we’ve won a 125cc outdoor national. For a small independent team to do that, it’s big time.”

The Strung Out drummer’s face beams with pride when the phrase “successful privateer team” passes his lips; “privateer” meaning the team lacks the comprehensive corporate sponsorship that the superstar riders (like famous champion racers Ricky Carmichael or Chad Reed) have. The rock-and-roll attitude permeates Moto XXX’s professional riders as well, and played a large part in catapulting the team into the “big time.”

“Brian Deegan really helped to put us on the map when he won the 125cc Supercross in 1996,” Burns smirks, “because he ghost-rode his bike across the finish line. That made it a special win. When he crossed the finish-line jump, he let his bike go and jumped off the bike, so the bike went across the line by itself. The promoters freaked, we got fined, but it made history. It got in all the magazines. If he hadn’t done that, it would have been written off as a one-time win.”

Live To Ride, Live To Drum. The actual Supercross event – the professional races, celebrity Crossover Challenge, and junior exhibition that has riders as young as seven years old – starts around 7:00 p.m., but from noon on, race-goers are walking through the parking lot “pit area,” visiting various corporate-factory and privateer teams, ogling the bikes, and collecting autographs from their favorite riders, the biggest of which enjoy rock-star-royalty status. Admittedly, it’s a bit strange to hear Burns, who is known for his blisteringly heavy and precise drumming style with Strung Out, speak with such reverence of Moto XXX’s current top dog, Kyle Lewis. “He basically runs the team, with Kurt. Erik and I are just drummers. We’re on the sidelines.”

Erik Sandin had aspirations of racing motorcycles long before he picked up sticks, and even longer before the Glendale, California native started his two-decade-plus adventure with legendary punkers NOFX. “My family didn’t have a lot of money,” Sandin explains, “and motorcycles weren’t cheap, so riding was more of a fantasy at the time, growing up. But I was really passionate about it, and then when I got little older and made a little money, the first thing I did – I bought a bike. My father and mom were also really passionate about music, so when I grew up my two things were: I wanted to race motorcycles, or I wanted to play music. But motorcycles were my number-one thing.

“When I was about 14 or so, some friends who were about 17 were starting a band. Typical thing, they said, ‘We need a drummer – do you want to play drums?’ It could have just as easily been the harmonica, or keyboard. I said, ‘Okay,’ and bought an old Rogers piece-of-crap, beat-up drum set for like $175. And it just went from there, it was something that I picked up kind of quickly.”

Sandin picked up drums quickly enough to put the motocross aspirations on the backburner for a while, although it wasn’t as if he was a book-learner on the kit. “I have never taken a lesson,” he rues. “Not once. And that’s something that I’m really regretting now, because I feel that I’m limited because of it. I never learned any other outside styles of music. I’m totally self-taught. Taught myself punk rock, and it’s all I really know how to play. When I was a kid, when punk rock was first starting, I guess it wasn’t cool [to play other styles]. Back then you had to be punk rock, and that was about it.”

Burns’ story is similar, although his bike lust may even run deeper than Sandin’s. “I always wanted a dirt bike,” he remembers. “When I was a little kid, all I used to do was draw dirt bikes. My parents would never let me have one, so I got my first motorcycle when I was 20. It was an ’84 Honda XL350. I still have that bike. Now I have tons of motorcycles. I was probably 15 when I started drumming, and the first time I ever sat down on a drum set, I could play a beat, right off the bat. Drumming came kind of naturally for me. It’s funny, the older I’m getting, the less natural it’s coming. I need to really start cracking down and getting in shape for my music.”

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