Dustin Nelson is one of those rare individuals who can go fast on just about anything. His career began as a professional motocross racer in 1996, but he transitioned into a testing job with Yamaha in 2001. Over 15 years later, Nelson has found success racing two and four-wheeled machines of all sorts while working with Yamaha. Additionally, he’s been a part of the development process on nearly all of their most successful machines. His latest project is Yamaha’s R1DT car, which we were out testing recently. Being that he was on hand for the press event, we wanted to get his take on the new car, and of course, the 2018 YZ450F.
What has the R1DT development process been like for you?
Well, I’ve been involved since the original concept idea started. We actually had a few different vehicles at Perris Speedway to get an idea and a direction that they [Yamaha] wanted to go. For me, it’s been a really cool experience, but it’s been really challenging too. I’m a moto guy and I’m used to racing with jumps and lefts and rights. I’ve never done circle track stuff. As much as a moto guy or an off-road guy might look at circle track as easy, it’s really not. To go out there and figure out how to set up the car and actually control it, it was definitely a big learning experience. It’s been really fun to be a part of it, from seeing the car as just a concept to where it is now. This is at least the third version of the prototype that we’re driving today and it’s come a really long way. It’s been cool to be involved in each step of the process. In the beginning, I had little dirt track experience so I was like, “Crap, what am I getting myself into!” It’s fun though. I love driving and I love racing, and it’s a good challenge to learn a different form of that.
Coming from that motocross background, what would you say is the biggest similarity and the biggest difference between a dirt bike and a circle track?
The biggest similarity to dirt bike stuff is line selection and trying to figure out how to enter a corner and read the dirt. You start to learn what looks slick or what looks tacky. It’s amazing how much the track changes. You’ll come into a corner and if you’re two or three feet off the line, it can get pretty slippery. You’ll feel like you’re not in control and that you’re not going to turn in a very good lap. I think the biggest similarity is knowing how to select the right lines and being able to read terrain. In motocross, you’re looking for where the track is smooth, where here it’s very similar, but without the ruts. You’re looking for different colored dirt or a dry spot. What you want to find is where there’s more traction. The difference is drifting a four-wheeled vehicle and being confident and comfortable with that car stepping out. You have to be able to control it with steering input or the throttle. That’s not normal for a motocross guy on a track. If you slide at the slide angle that we’re at in this car, you’re going down and going home with bloodied elbows. With the car, the cool thing is that you’re never going to get a bloody elbow unless it’s really bad. That fear of smashing your body into the ground is gone, but there’s this whole other level of awkwardness when the car steps out on you for the first time. You have to learn to adjust to that and be comfortable with it, and that’s a big difference from anything with two wheels.
What do you see being appealing about dirt track to motocross guys?
Dirt bikes are a ton of fun, right? You can go ride them on the trails and you can go ride them on the track. I’m a huge fan of racing. It’s what I’ve been passionate about my whole life. A lot of guys on dirt bikes will scowl at a quad or a side-by-side or a car like this. I’ve gone those directions because I just love racing and doing it for a living. For anyone who likes to race and likes to battle, you can come out here and battle with 10 to 20 other cars. I find it hard to believe that anyone who really loves battling and racing wouldn’t think that’s fun. That’s definitely the appeal of it. There’s also a huge appeal to Yamaha coming in and doing it at a production level in this industry.
Stepping away from the R1DT, this year Yamaha also released the 2018 YZ450F. Have you had much time on that bike, and how do you like it?
I’ve been a YZ test rider for a long time, and I’ve been riding the ’18 YZ450F for the last two years or more. I’m a very behind the scenes guy as far as the YZ stuff goes, but I’ve been there every step of the way. That’s something I really love about what I do, I get to be involved in the development process and take something from an idea and see it through to where people want it to be. Obviously, there were a lot of consumer complaints about the previous YZ. While we felt it was a pretty good bike, we knew it could improve and we knew in certain situations it could be better. Our goal for 2018 was to get eliminate those flaws. When you put that much time and effort into a bike, with testing all different chassis and suspension setups and engines, it’s awesome to see that bike come to fruition. When I ride it, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is better. The things that people complained about on the old bike are gone. To answer the question, I’ve ridden the bike a lot, I’ve been a part of the testing, and I’ve been a behind the scenes guy. Travis Preston is more the face of that development process and Steve Butler overseas the whole testing department. I sit back and hope for it to do well and I think it will, both in shootouts and in racing.
Whether it’s Yamaha’s rearward facing engine, the power tuner app in the 2018 YZ450F, or the dirt track car built around the R1 street bike, you guys have been breaking the mold a lot these last few years. As a behind the scenes guy, what is it like to see all of these ideas come to life?
It’s so cool. Like I said, I really enjoy the development process. We get to take an idea and make it into something that’s as good as it can possibly be. Yamaha is an exciting company to be a part of at times. There are times where everything is super advanced and we’re developing really fast, and there are times where we hold back a bit. What’s really cool is the YZ model line is always really progressive. The rest of the company isn’t usually that progressive, but then they pull something like this car out. That’s when you find yourself saying, “Wow! This is totally out of the box for a motorcycle company to make this racecar that’s out of the box and onto the track for dirt track.” It’s pretty fun to be a part of that and have a hand in it.