The passing of Kurt Caselli in 2013 was an eye-opening event for the off-road sector of motorcycle racing. While not the first racer lost to the untamed wild of the Baja 1000, the loss of the American hero has helped improve the always-dangerous sport in many ways. Soon after the crash, Caselli’s family and close friends started a group in his honor as a way to improve safety shortcomings in the sport. Now four years later, the Kurt Caselli Foundation is one of the most important voices in high-speed off-road racing and they continue to grow with each year. Just a few weeks ago the fourth annual Kurt Caselli Ride Day took place at Glen Helen Raceway, and it reminded everyone how much of an impact passionate people can have on the world. We spoke with Donny Emler, one of the key figures on the foundation’s board, about early success, continued growth, and what comes next.
Immediately after Kurt’s passing a few years ago, the foundation went into action. Was this something that Kurt had planned on already and this was a chance to do it in his honor, or was everything in reaction to the accident?
The first ride day was just to get the industry together and help mourn Kurt. The turnout was so overwhelming and we had people lined up from the gate at Glen Helen all the way back to the railroad tracks. It was great to see people come out and Kurt was very well known all over the world, but the foundation was sparked at that ride day, when we looked out and saw how many people were there and how many people had their lives touched by Kurt. We listened to all of the stories of people that rode with Kurt and said how cool he was, so the idea for the foundation came from there. It’s special that four years later we’re still doing the ride day, but Kurt was always about giving back to people and riders. He was really involved with kids at the National Hare and Hound Series and would show up at the line to give them high-fives, so now we’re involved in the youth division at the National Hare and Hound Series with the KC Foundation. That’s where it all starts, with the kids. We’ve given them high-vis safety bibs and high-five them, all of which stems from the things that Kurt did over the years. He knew that one day his career was going to end, because you can’t race forever, so he wanted to keep his options open. He knew that racing wasn’t forever, so there wasn’t an idea of a foundation but Kurt always wanted to give back as much as he could.
The first victory the foundation had was the safety transponders that were on riders during the next race at Baja. Looking back on how things went, it’s very unfortunate that awareness for something like that on every racer came from the loss of a racer, but does everyone seem receptive to the idea of more safety for the future?
Working with SCORE, they welcomed us with open arms. Unfortunately it happened at Baja, so we went back and asked how we could make the race safer with Quinn Cody, who has raced and won at Baja. You cannot tame Baja, with its open course that goes on for so many miles. We have to remember that these are people’s roads and that’s how they get around. It was an unfortunate thing that happened to Kurt, but the foundation stemmed from that. We went down there with the money that we raised in the first year with a full helicopter that had a medical doctor on it, and we were able to get animals out of the way and let people know that the race had started. We were able to see a lot of the live course from the air, but one helicopter doesn’t cover everyone. We tried to help the lead bikes, because those were the guys that went in blind since they’re the first ones on the track. We work with their helicopters so if they go down to refuel, we stay up in the air. There is a helmet cam video with Robby Bell and you can see our helicopter go down low to let him know that something was wrong, because there was a horse going over the course. Being in Baja is important for us and since then we’ve expanded what we want to do and how we want to help. That was our first thing for the foundation.
What other initiatives have the foundation focused on?
We want people to know that we appreciate all of the money that comes in and that we’re not just sitting on it. We like to spend the money on things that help racing, not just sitting in a bank account to be used one day. We bought an ultrasound machine for the Alpinestars Mobile Medical Unit, and with Dr. Alexander on our board, it was one thing we knew they needed. It doesn’t have anything to do with off-road racing specifically, but it’s something we felt was needed. Those guys are at a level and have the support of a medical unit on site that can do x-rays, but they couldn’t see what was going on internally. If someone was bleeding internally and only had a short amount of time to get to the hospital, now they know at the track. With the National Hare and Hound series, Paul Krause will change the markings if he feels that maybe someone didn’t see. He can remark the course and we sponsor the youth series with the high-visibility bibs because they are in the desert and there’s a lot that goes on out there. We did two concussion studies and each one cost the foundation about thirty thousand dollars. The first one happened at the Dirt Rider 24 Hour Test, and we monitored everyone on the KC66 team to see what the body and mind went through during an endurance race and if there was a wreck we could see what kind of g-forces the body took. The second test took place at a GNCC so we could have more data. We brought the doctors out that designed the equipment. This will actually be published as a medical study under the Kurt Caselli Foundation.Supercross and motocross have the glamor and everyone knows about the Mobile Medical Unit. Is there something comparable at off-road races? These events are just as dangerous, if not more so, and they may not have the same funding as Supercross.
The Hare and Hound series has a great group that works with them called Rescue 3. We don’t want to go to an event and say that the event is not safe enough; we just want to support them. If there are problems at events that we think can be fixed or a chance to raise awareness, then we step in. Rescue 3 has a great staff and funding, and they do a great job. We’re not there to tell them what to do because we are not a medical staff. They have a staff of volunteers that go to the events. The GNCCs are great events and since the course is close, a twelve-mile loop, it’s hard for us to see how we can help or what we can do. We have to decide if we can cover all of the little things or focus on the big things that might make an impact, like with this concussion thing. We’re trying to learn as much as we can and hopefully shed some light with this research. We’re inviting all of the helmet companies to see and learn about the data that we collected, and if they want to use it in their future studies, they are more than welcome to it. That will help everyone in the long run.
In other sports or causes, foundations seem to do well for just a few years and then they fall off after initial interest wanes. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the Kurt Caselli Foundation and if anything, it’s more effective than ever.
We’re really behind the scenes and we want people to know that we’re working hard. We meet once a month and we take this very seriously. It’s almost like a second full-time job for everyone on the board. But it’s so rewarding and we really care. Our plan is to keep the foundation around forever and we want to do great things with it. We’re not slowing down and that’s what we want people to see. This year was our second-biggest ride day yet, and that was incredible. With the industry support that we have and the riders that love riding, that’s what makes this all worthwhile.
If someone would like to help the foundation, what are the best ways they can be of assistance? Or if a race series needs support, is it possible to get in contact with the foundation?
If you visit our website, you can learn a lot about what we’ve done with the people on our board like Kurt’s mom, sister, fiancé, and other great supporters. On the website you can buy the merchandise and all of the proceeds go directly in the foundation. From apparel alone, we’ve raised more than one hundred and twenty thousand dollars.
We’re always listening. It has to be the right fit for our group to make the decision to spend money, but we’re always looking for ideas. If someone is at a local off-road race and thinks of something that would really make the event safer, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re all just trying to come up with ideas for the time and efforts that we have. There is an email address, and they can contact us through that.