Vinnie Carbone | The Dirt Merchant
By Donn Maeda
Photos by Maeda and Casey Davis
Vinnie Carbone is an artist. The 33-year-old does not work with paints and a canvas, but he does have the eye of a sculptor. With a little imagination, years of experience, and a ton of sweat equity; the Californian hand-builds some of the most amazing freeride jumps in the hills…jumps that he hits alongside some of the best riders in the world.
“The guy is a maniac,” says Jeremy “Twitch” Stenberg. “He will send me pictures of jumps that he’s shoveling, in the middle of the summertime, and ask ‘Yo, where you at?'”
Shoveling. That’s right: shoveling…by hand. The first time we laid eyes on one of the #nonamers jumps (#nonamers is the tagline that Carbone and his dedicated crew have adopted), we honestly wondered how they had managed to drive a bulldozer that far back into the hills. “No man, we built that by hand, with shovels,” says Carbone, beaming with pride and enjoying the awe-struck looks on our faces. “We just barely got a small truck that has a water tank in the back, but we still usually just backpack it in on a motorcycle.”
You’d think that trail etiquette would mandate that Carbone hit each of his creations first, but he often sits back and derives just as much pleasure from watching his friends enjoy one of his masterpieces, as jumping them himself. During a recent trip to “Hollywood Hills” with Twitch and his friends, we had the pleasure of meeting Carbone for the first time and were impressed with not only his work, but his story, too…
How did you get involved and started in all of this? Are you an old racer who took to the hills?
No, I grew up riding bicycles and skateboards! I didn’t grow up in a family that rode dirt bikes or drove off-road trucks or anything. One day when I was around 19, I was watching Crusty Demons of Dirt 3 and I was like, “I could do all that stuff!” I was with a couple buddies and we were going to firefighting school and they were telling me things like, "Man, you can't do that! Those people have been doing that since they were kids!" At the time, I had a ’65 Chevelle, and I sold it and used the money to get my first bike in ’03. I barely knew how to ride, but I headed for the hills and rode every day…just building and stacking lips.
No way! So you never went to the moto tracks to learn how to ride and jump? You just stuck with the hills?
No, I never rode tracks because it was kind of expensive to ride the tracks. So Plan B was the hills! With a shovel, we used to just build motorcycle jumps where the 210 freeway is now.
How long were you riding in the hills before you would say you were a legit freerider?
(Laughs) I don’t even know I'm legit today! I would spend time trying to catch up to the riders that have a couple of years of experience on me.
Did you ever finish firefighting school?
No, I finished level 1, 2, 4, and 5, but never did level 3 and the EMT part. I was just so gung-ho for dirt bikes…as soon as I got one, it was over. I mean I'm not rich or anything, but I do wake up with a smile on my face every day!
What do you do for work to support your dirt bike habit?
My mom owns a little pizza shop and I wash dishes and make pizzas, anything to help around there. I do shows during the summer with the guys, but that's not very consistent. So it’s washing dishes and making pizzas that keeps me riding!
There's rain in the forecast, is your mouth just watering?
Yup! You know where we're going as soon as the first raindrop hits. After some epic grinding, you get some killer photos.
Where do you draw inspiration for your jumps? Do you just see a hill and think you can carve it out there and make a landing?
Yeah, I just kind of look around and if one hill matches up with another hill and the two transitions match up then we'll stack the lip and carve it out.
You build everything, all by hand?
Yeah, we draw a lot of inspiration from BMX jumps and we take a lot of pride in our jumps. Maybe we'll have a park like Magic Mountain, Disneyland, and monster trucks all in one, except it will all be for dirt bikes! (Laughs)
What is the process for building something as big as the Stairway to Heaven? How long did it take?
That took a couple days; it takes a lot of dedication. Sometimes the guys who come out to help can’t see what I see and they aren’t that excited to dig. Once it starts to take shape, then they get the vision and start working faster and harder to get the final product done.
So you start stacking the dirt, wet it, pack it down?
Yeah, it's mostly how construction workers stack dirt, wet it, stack it, and wet it. You have to hold the structure and shape and stack from the bottom up.
Obviously building jumps is some back breaking work, do you ever build a jump and find that you’re too tired to hit it?
(Laughs) Yeah, all the time! My friends give me shit and say I work more than I ride, but I just want to make sure the jump is built right. If it's built right then it'll last for years to come and we don't have to keep messing with it.
The amount of work built into the stairs of that jump must’ve been incredible. There’s no real function to them, but it makes the jump unique…
Yeah, we started taking dirt behind the lift and digging off the side to get dirt from it and someone said, "Man, this jump looks like a stairway to heaven or something," and that's how the name was born. It was more of an artsy thing for me; adding those stairs.
I think that you treat your jumps like art, it's an expression of you.
Yeah, it’s definitely a form of self-expression for me!
I was blown away when I was looking at some of the jumps you made. I felt like I was at Easter Island looking at some of those giant heads, you know?
Yeah! You got to check out the quarter pipe one of these days! We built it last year and it took a couple of months to do it. I was tucking it away as a little outlet for kids to show them they could do this too. It doesn't take an elite group of guys, it really just takes a shovel and finding a hill that matches to your liking. Express yourself a little bit.
I saw the guys riding right now with the five-gallon water bottles on their backs and the pesticide sprayer. I guess those are the tools of the trade?
Yeah big time, like we have a 300-gallon hose lift in the back of a truck. We've got a little team system going.
How'd you meet Twitch and all those guys?
The original canyon back in the day…we'd been building that spot for a while, and Jeremy came out to film a couple of videos and I met him. We kind of share the same passion of freeriding and pushing it, taking dirt bikes back to the dirt. We linked up and had a connection and all the guys he brings, I meet.
So tell me about "no dig, no ride."
I try to get everyone to put in a little work. Teamwork makes the dream work, right? I like to think so. I just want everyone to show a basic etiquette of putting in some work and not being able to ride without a little bit of digging. Sometimes I feel like people don't do this, it gets frustrating at times.
After riding the jump, you fix it, and then put stuff over it so people don't poach it?
Yeah, I kind of have to. We just try to a put a little bit of love into the jumps after we ride them, and if we put stuff in the way, people should know that we put work into them and they shouldn’t just hit them.
Have you ever caught someone sessioning your stuff?
Yeah, for sure. I've handed guys shovels before. I'm trying to get through to them to help contribute, instead of butting heads because I feel like that's not going to get us anywhere in the industry. We all just need to show a basic etiquette.
I don't know really, I just feel like my purpose in this industry is to leave it better than I found it. Just try to pave the way for the future kids, the next generation of kids to be able to ride and express themselves.
Follow Vinnie on Instagram @vinniecarbone