THE PITS: Plunging Into Foam Head First

PHOTOS AND STORY BY GARTH MILAN

Forget turkey cutters and shaved seats. Big grab handles and steering stabilizers? Ha! None of these “technological FMX marvels” hold a candle to the impact that the foam pit has had on freestyle motocross. Bringing once—inconceivable tricks into reality, there’s no arguing that the foam pit has brought the entire sport to a completely different level that would be unobtainable without its existence.

So what does this mean to me? More than you could ever imagine.

It all started when the entire staff of TransWorld Motocross sat down for an edit meeting prior to this issue’s construction. Swap’s only instructions were for each staff member to come to the get-together armed with a list of brilliant ideas for a big feature that was “different.” Now, I don’t know if I spent too much time at the skatepark the night before or if my brain is completely fried from sniffing too much glue in junior high, but either way, when I entered the conference room at noon with nothing in my head but “what’s for lunch?” I knew things might get scary.

Never in my wildest dreams, however, did I imagine that Swap would come up with the bright idea for this story that you are now reading.

“How about a feature on foam pits?” asked our fearless leader. “They’re taking the sport to a whole new level now, and it’s about time we showed our readers a behind-the-scenes look at what they’re all about.”

No problem, I thought. I’m the resident FMX goon on staff, so naturally the story fell on my lap, but I was stoked. Not only did I get away scot-free with coming empty-handed to the meeting, but I was assigned a story that would actually be fun and easy, considering I had access to two of the most famous foam pits in the world, both within a half-hour drive of my house. Just as I was daydreaming of shooting Metz and Deegan at their respective pits, tossing fat 360s and flip variations, Maeda inserted the fine print that hit me like a ton of bricks.

As we collectively brainstormed around the table of what form the story might take, Swap came up with his sparkling idea and my living nightmare. “You know what would make this story really unique?” he chimed in. “Let’s line it up so that you can jump into the foam pit and offer a journalist’s perspective of what it is like, completely firsthand.”

With that my daydreaming ended, my pulse quickened, and the butterflies in my stomach turned into giant pterodactyls.

Me jumping into a foam pit? Are you kidding?! I can still remember going to the BMX foam pit with my roommate/pro FMX rider Andy Jones as he was learning backflips. I lined up on top of the drop-in ready to bust big into the foam pit but completely chickened out when I eyed the giant box of foam that lay in front of me. It’s a whole different story when you’re staring at the face of the ramp. Jumping into a big wooden box rather than onto a landing ramp just doesn’t seem like a natural thing for your body to do. Add to that the chance of the bicycle pounding my lifeless body into oblivion after I stacked it jumping in, and I was more than happy to be the supportive friend on the sidelines rooting for Andy.

So now Swap wanted me to do the same thing I wussed out on before, only this time with the lethal combination of a 45-foot gap, a Freeride Technologies Super Kicker ramp that went dangerously close to vert at the top, and a 230-pound 250cc motorcycle. It was at this point that I began thinking of other career options.

HELL WEEK

I thought about a job at Burger King or McDonald’s, but working for a fast food chain serving up animal parts (or whatever else they put in their hamburgers) strongly disagrees with my vegan principles. Beyond that, I knew I didn’t havmany other skills (a switch to the janitorial arts department of TransWorld was also considered, but ruled out after I discovered that it would involve cleaning the same toilets that Swap destroys several times on any given day at the office).

I soon accepted the fact that I would need to man up and consent to the assignment. With our deadline still a few weeks away, I completely put the story off and secretly hoped it would go away. I figured that with my track record, I’d probably end up getting hurt doing something else before it came time to jump into the foam pit anyway.

No such luck.

After getting absolutely everything else done that I was responsible for in this issue, it was crunch time. I had but a few days to find out some useful facts about foam pit construction, shoot several professional riders jumping into them, and finally perform the deed myself.

With my deadline staring me in the face, I made some frantic phone calls. A quick conversation with Nate Adams revealed that he’d be jumping into Mike Metzger’s pit the following day, and after that I was scheduled to head over to the Metal Mulisha headquarters of Brian Deegan’s. In between all of this, I needed to coerce one of the two superstars to let a complete goon (yep, I’m talking about myself) faceplant into their foam pit. Based on the fact that I’ve known Metz since he was a tattooless mini rider (besides, he’s a tad less intimidating than the Mulisha general), my plan was to somehow talk Nate into letting me jump his brand new YZ250 into Mike’s pit.

Now that the ball was rolling, what I thought might be my last week on earth was turning into a living hell. I felt like I had been diagnosed with some sort of deadly disease, and I only had a few days to live. I couldn’t get it out of my mind–all I could think about was that damned pit of foam and the consequences it could deliver.

THE FLAMES OF HELL

Only two short days before my deadline I loaded up my gearbag and set off to Metzger’s. I was as ready as I was ever going to be. As I rolled up to the property, I came face to face with my nemesis. The 12-foot-tall walls of the pit were doing their best to intimidate me, and it was working. I grabbed my Canon, said hi to Nate, and went down to shoot.

I later found out that Metzger’s foam pit is an entirely different beast than Deegan’s. With much higher walls, Metz’ box only needed to be half—full of foam, whereas Deegan’s seemed to be overflowing with the soft stuff. Still, Mike assured me that there were over 28 bales of foam inside, and with each one weighing 500 pounds there would be more than enough cushion for my 185-pound frame. I then asked Mike where all of the foam came from, and he told me that it was all furniture foam scrap that was purchased from a company in Los Angeles. The one comforting thing about Mike’s setup was that it was huge–so huge that I didn’t even think a squid like myself could manage to miss the landing area.

Nate was up, and he wasted no time throwing his first huge 360-degree twist. “Wow, that was gnarly,” I thought. But honestly, Adams made the trick look easy. Next up was a pair of Japanese riders who flew all the way across the world to learn the coveted back flip in sunny So Cal. The first Japanese rider arced a healthy flip; pretty impressive. The other rider didn’t have such good luck, but still put in a noble attempt before eventually throwing it away. It was then Nate’s turn again, and he proceeded to deliver another picture perfect spin. That’s when things got really interesting. During the Japanese rider’s next flip attempt, things went a little wrong. As he hit the eject button midway through, he slammed down pretty hard–hard enough, in fact, to dislocate his shoulder. We all felt for the poor kid, and were doing our best to help him out when we heard that fateful word that I’ll never forget.

“Fire!” someone screamed. The remainder of the next half-hour of my life is now a blur, but from what I recall just as Akira emerged from the pit and climbed over the wall to safety we began seeing black smoke billowing from within the wooden box. It didn’t take more than 90 seconds for the flames to claw their way past the hundred-foot mark, and within minutes of Nate’s frantic call to 911 Metz’ property was swarming with every firetruck in Riverside County. Never in my life had I seen such a sight… The flames were so intense, so gigantic that Metzger’s beautiful FMX course looked like a scene straight out of Apocalypse Now.

When the smoke finally cleared, we were all thankful that no one was in the pit. All that was left of the approximately $40,000 wood/foam structure was a pile of ashes and the cement foundation. And the CR250R that was inside? The only remnants of that were a badly charred exhaust pipe and a set of fork tubes. The entire bike, including the engine and frame, were completely disintegrated. The cause of the fire was a static electricity spark, and when combined with VP fuel-soaked foam that was all it took to start the biggest fire I’ve ever seen in my life.

NEXT!

Damn. When I prayed for a way out of the first-person angle for my story, this is not what I had in mind! Still, the show must go on. With Deegan’s foam pit in full operation, a quick phone call to Swap revealed that I wasn’t getting out of my predicament that easy. I was to hook up with Ronnie Faisst, Doug Parsons and Deegan the following day (coincidentally the same day as my deadline). Translation? The pressure was on.

That night was the longest of my life. Now, not only was I 110% committed to doing something I really didn’t want to do, but I had even more reasons not to do it. Over the last 24 hours I’d seen a guy dislocate his shoulder doing almost the same thing I was to do, then I saw Metz’ pit go up in a ball of flames. Add to this list the fact that I was to jump into Deegan’s foam on Faisst’s FMX bike that I had never ridden (complete with a chopped seat, raised mini bars, and more holes cut into it than a slice of Swiss cheese), three of the best riders in the world were to be watching and filming me, and heavy Santa Ana winds were forecasted. I got a total of three hours of sleep due to some heavy tossing and turning, but I was as ready as I was ever going to be.

Before I donned my riding gear for my first attempt, I interviewed Deegan to find out a little more about his pit. He and Faisst schooled me on the art of building such a structure. Theirs was constructed just over a year ago, in the spring of 2003. Jeff from Freeride Technologies was the man in charge, and it took him a little over two weeks to build the entire pit. Combined with free labor from Jeff, free wood from Parsons and his connections, and the cheapest scrap foam they could find, the Mulisha was still in over $30,000 at this point.

Deegan’s pit is slightly smaller than Metzger’s was. The measurements were 48 feet long, 30 feet wide, and six-to-eight feet deep. A safety deck was built all the way around, and Jeff handmade the crane that is used to extract bikes from the foam. Whenever it’s not being used, a humongous blue tarp keeps the foam nice and fresh, while several splits in the base allow water to drain in case of heavy rain.

Another interesting thing I found out during my conversation with Brian was that his too had caught fire once. Apparently the static sparks combined with high-octane fuel allow the foam to catch on fire much easier than one might think, and Deegan had already found out the hard way.

“One time I fell pretty hard, and got pinned under the bike. Gasd, and were doing our best to help him out when we heard that fateful word that I’ll never forget.

“Fire!” someone screamed. The remainder of the next half-hour of my life is now a blur, but from what I recall just as Akira emerged from the pit and climbed over the wall to safety we began seeing black smoke billowing from within the wooden box. It didn’t take more than 90 seconds for the flames to claw their way past the hundred-foot mark, and within minutes of Nate’s frantic call to 911 Metz’ property was swarming with every firetruck in Riverside County. Never in my life had I seen such a sight… The flames were so intense, so gigantic that Metzger’s beautiful FMX course looked like a scene straight out of Apocalypse Now.

When the smoke finally cleared, we were all thankful that no one was in the pit. All that was left of the approximately $40,000 wood/foam structure was a pile of ashes and the cement foundation. And the CR250R that was inside? The only remnants of that were a badly charred exhaust pipe and a set of fork tubes. The entire bike, including the engine and frame, were completely disintegrated. The cause of the fire was a static electricity spark, and when combined with VP fuel-soaked foam that was all it took to start the biggest fire I’ve ever seen in my life.

NEXT!

Damn. When I prayed for a way out of the first-person angle for my story, this is not what I had in mind! Still, the show must go on. With Deegan’s foam pit in full operation, a quick phone call to Swap revealed that I wasn’t getting out of my predicament that easy. I was to hook up with Ronnie Faisst, Doug Parsons and Deegan the following day (coincidentally the same day as my deadline). Translation? The pressure was on.

That night was the longest of my life. Now, not only was I 110% committed to doing something I really didn’t want to do, but I had even more reasons not to do it. Over the last 24 hours I’d seen a guy dislocate his shoulder doing almost the same thing I was to do, then I saw Metz’ pit go up in a ball of flames. Add to this list the fact that I was to jump into Deegan’s foam on Faisst’s FMX bike that I had never ridden (complete with a chopped seat, raised mini bars, and more holes cut into it than a slice of Swiss cheese), three of the best riders in the world were to be watching and filming me, and heavy Santa Ana winds were forecasted. I got a total of three hours of sleep due to some heavy tossing and turning, but I was as ready as I was ever going to be.

Before I donned my riding gear for my first attempt, I interviewed Deegan to find out a little more about his pit. He and Faisst schooled me on the art of building such a structure. Theirs was constructed just over a year ago, in the spring of 2003. Jeff from Freeride Technologies was the man in charge, and it took him a little over two weeks to build the entire pit. Combined with free labor from Jeff, free wood from Parsons and his connections, and the cheapest scrap foam they could find, the Mulisha was still in over $30,000 at this point.

Deegan’s pit is slightly smaller than Metzger’s was. The measurements were 48 feet long, 30 feet wide, and six-to-eight feet deep. A safety deck was built all the way around, and Jeff handmade the crane that is used to extract bikes from the foam. Whenever it’s not being used, a humongous blue tarp keeps the foam nice and fresh, while several splits in the base allow water to drain in case of heavy rain.

Another interesting thing I found out during my conversation with Brian was that his too had caught fire once. Apparently the static sparks combined with high-octane fuel allow the foam to catch on fire much easier than one might think, and Deegan had already found out the hard way.

“One time I fell pretty hard, and got pinned under the bike. Gas was pouring all over my head, and a spark ignited it. Luckily, we had fire extinguishers right there, so they sprayed me and the pit off and everything was fine,” reported Deegan. Brian went on to convey that you must have the utmost respect for the foam, as he has seen his fair share of people get broke off in it. As dangerous as it is, though, Deegan stressed that the pit has definitely taken the sport to an entirely different level, and assured me that none of the tricks that were going on at this year’s Winter X would have been possible without foam.

UP TO BAT

It felt like an eternity as I sat patiently waiting for Swap to show up and shoot pictures of my big moment. I passed the time in the exact opposite way that I should have, electing to sit at the bottom of the ramp and eye the big gap in between the Super Kicker and the gigantic wooden structure that sat some twenty-something feet past it. Minutes felt like hours as I kept watching for Maeda’s Ford Ranger to pull into Deegan’s driveway. Finally he showed, and it was on.

Just before takeoff Deegan approached me with a liability waiver. As I inked my John Hancock onto the form, I realized that every other signature next to mine was from a top athlete in our sport, and somehow signing my name next to the likes of Twitch’s, Seth’s, and Parsons’, to name a few, left me with both a strange sense of dignity and one of nausea at the same time.

I got some last—minute advice from the riders (along with a little ribbing and teasing about my possible approaching demise), and with that I strapped on my helmet and started Faisst’s CR.

I took two approaches to check my speed, and Faisst said that I was looking good, so it was time. My hands were shaking so violently that I could barely hang on to the bars, but I knew there was no turning back now. All of the events that had transpired over the last couple of days were playing in my head like a bad rerun of ChiPs when I finally hit the metal Super Kicker ramp pinned in first gear. I felt the same wonderful sensation that I did after a recent treatment of Colon Blow as I launched towards the heavens. That was it; regardless of what happened next, I had done it!

Of course, my first attempt was far from graceful. The combination of jittery hands, horrible throttle control and the fact that I had never hit a ramp before in my life all played a factor in the complete boner air I threw. Luckily, I knew enough about riding to tap the rear brake and counteract my Larry Loopout style, and I actually landed intact in the middle of the pit with both feet on the pegs. The one thing I forgot to do, however, was brace for the sudden stop that the bike made when it hit the foam. The result was an extra large kiss on the front fender with a side of handlebars to the gut. This wasn’t stopping me. I unglued myself from the front end of Faisst’s bike, got the bike out of the foam, and hit it one more time. The second time was a charm, and by holding on tighter and not looping out on takeoff I felt 100% better.

The remainder of the day was spent in sheer nirvana. I felt like the biggest weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I knew that sleeping tonight would be a much easier task than it had been the night or three before. Later I discovered that Donn had interviewed Deegan about my performance just after the big moment. When asked how he thought I did, my boy Deegs replied that he was actually impressed, and even admitted that he thought I was going to throw the bike away mid-air and eat my lunch into his pit.

The moral of my story? I guess that if I proved anything by risking my life and limb for this story, it’s that I’m not as big of a kook as Brian Deegan thought I was!

Gas was pouring all over my head, and a spark ignited it. Luckily, we had fire extinguishers right there, so they sprayed me and the pit off and everything was fine,” reported Deegan. Brian went on to convey that you must have the utmost respect for the foam, as he has seen his fair share of people get broke off in it. As dangerous as it is, though, Deegan stressed that the pit has definitely taken the sport to an entirely different level, and assured me that none of the tricks that were going on at this year’s Winter X would have been possible without foam.

UP TO BAT

It felt like an eternity as I sat patiently waiting for Swap to show up and shoot pictures of my big moment. I passed the time in the exact opposite way that I should have, electiing to sit at the bottom of the ramp and eye the big gap in between the Super Kicker and the gigantic wooden structure that sat some twenty-something feet past it. Minutes felt like hours as I kept watching for Maeda’s Ford Ranger to pull into Deegan’s driveway. Finally he showed, and it was on.

Just before takeoff Deegan approached me with a liability waiver. As I inked my John Hancock onto the form, I realized that every other signature next to mine was from a top athlete in our sport, and somehow signing my name next to the likes of Twitch’s, Seth’s, and Parsons’, to name a few, left me with both a strange sense of dignity and one of nausea at the same time.

I got some last—minute advice from the riders (along with a little ribbing and teasing about my possible approaching demise), and with that I strapped on my helmet and started Faisst’s CR.

I took two approaches to check my speed, and Faisst said that I was looking good, so it was time. My hands were shaking so violently that I could barely hang on to the bars, but I knew there was no turning back now. All of the events that had transpired over the last couple of days were playing in my head like a bad rerun of ChiPs when I finally hit the metal Super Kicker ramp pinned in first gear. I felt the same wonderful sensation that I did after a recent treatment of Colon Blow as I launched towards the heavens. That was it; regardless of what happened next, I had done it!

Of course, my first attempt was far from graceful. The combination of jittery hands, horrible throttle control and the fact that I had never hit a ramp before in my life all played a factor in the complete boner air I threw. Luckily, I knew enough about riding to tap the rear brake and counteract my Larry Loopout style, and I actually landed intact in the middle of the pit with both feet on the pegs. The one thing I forgot to do, however, was brace for the sudden stop that the bike made when it hit the foam. The result was an extra large kiss on the front fender with a side of handlebars to the gut. This wasn’t stopping me. I unglued myself from the front end of Faisst’s bike, got the bike out of the foam, and hit it one more time. The second time was a charm, and by holding on tighter and not looping out on takeoff I felt 100% better.

The remainder of the day was spent in sheer nirvana. I felt like the biggest weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I knew that sleeping tonight would be a much easier task than it had been the night or three before. Later I discovered that Donn had interviewed Deegan about my performance just after the big moment. When asked how he thought I did, my boy Deegs replied that he was actually impressed, and even admitted that he thought I was going to throw the bike away mid-air and eat my lunch into his pit.

The moral of my story? I guess that if I proved anything by risking my life and limb for this story, it’s that I’m not as big of a kook as Brian Deegan thought I was!