Words by Brett Smith | Photos by Scott Toepfer
With a garage full of motorcycles, helmets, sketches, drawings, Post-It notes, and projects in various stages, it’s clear that Drake McElroy is one of those enviably hip people, the type who invents new words or redefines language use. By the time his interests spread and you, dear wannabe reader, have finally caught on, he’s already moved on. McElroy (that’s MACKEL-roy) is an artist, a builder, a rider, a trendsetter, and an agitator who will do things with the intent of inciting confusion and making people ask questions to which they’ll receive a response that solves nothing.
Yet for all Drake McElroy is known to be, he’s indefinable. Go ahead and give him a label. He’s fine with that. Buzzwords, he calls them. “People love labels,” he says. “They don’t like shit they don’t understand.” It’s that confusion that gives him the urge to unbolt the front fender from his dirtbike, run flat-track tires in a freestyle motocross show, and ride in a denim jacket with no shirt underneath: he knows you’re going to ask him why he does that. And when a satisfactory answer never comes, you’ll stop asking questions and accept the scene for what it is.
McElroy represents the unorthodox side of motorcycling, which led him to found the Smoking Seagulls, described (with a straight face) as a time-traveling bike cult, “a bridge between likeminded people who don’t fit perfectly into the mainstream motorcycle market.” That’s an ironic thing to say, since motorcycling in North America is far from being mainstream. Yet there’s a curious side to McElroy. He’s unexpectedly cerebral, which is why he jumped at the chance to create and host a guerilla-style travel show called “Drake’s Passage” in 2011. With only a cameraman, a producer, and a “fixer” (local guide), McElroy used the location of each Red Bull X-Fighters series stop to explore the non-touristy sides of Mexico City, Cairo, Moscow, and other major cities. It was an out-of-character experience for McElroy, who is shy and quiet, but the chance to explore global underbellies was too good. The result was a cross between “No Reservations” and “An Idiot Abroad.” At one point, McElroy—who is only 5 feet 8 inches tall and 135 pounds—found himself in a Mexican fighting ring getting slapped and body-slammed by luchadores (wrestlers) twice his size. The show had very little moto presence (although he did ride a German Horex motorcycle in Madrid), which made its placement on action-sports-oriented Fuel TV odd. It was a fun and quirky show with daring, exploratory qualities, but it lasted only one season and now lives online.
“He’s got a sixth sense where he knows what’s cool,” says Dave Mavro, who was the show’s videographer. “I would never think this dude would be so worldly. He’s refined.”
Unconventionality is part of McElroy’s credo, and that’s why those who know him were not surprised when his 2015 X Games Real Moto video was the only entry to drift from traditional freeriding on dirt and ramps. In six locations, covering 6,000 miles from San Francisco to the Salt Flats of Bonneville, McElroy rode nine different bikes (street, off-road, moto, vintage, flat track, Franken-bike, etc.) in a 90-second video titled “Dérapage”, the French word for “skid.” The opening scene is as startling as it is disturbing. McElroy, completely nude (not even boots), rides a ’70s-era small-displacement Yamaha enduro bike across the salt flats, his face and body covered in flecks of white. A sword running up the left side of the bike is actually a suicide shift lever. It was…um, odd, but here we are, over a year later, and we’re still talking about it “because people remember that shit,” McElroy says. He earned a bronze medal for the video, his first X Games medal in 13 years. Winning is nice, but making an impression is more important.
“I’m just a kook like everyone else,” he says. “Some stuff I do is outlandish, some stuff I do is totally trendy. Depends on the day, I guess.”
Now 35, McElroy has spent nearly his entire adult life as a “professional two-wheel dude.” Since he was a teenager he’s been on a program he likes to call “fabricated employment.” It started with amateur motocross, then freestyle motocross in the late ’90s when the sport was on a meteoric rise, then demo riding, judging, bike building and designing, and shaping two-wheeled trends overall. And he’s been doing it from an unlikely location: Reno, Nevada.
The McElroys have always been a motorcycle family, and Drake, raised in Fernley, Nevada, 35 miles east of Reno, is a third-generation rider. He and his father, Al, still hit the tracks and trails together. His grandmother gave him a Yamaha YZinger for his first birthday and McElroy claims he learned to ride the motorcycle without training wheels before he could do the same with his bicycle. A motocross racer until the year 2000, McElroy grew up with the “775 Crew” of riders living in the Reno/Carson City area: Dustin Miller, Matt Buyten, Mike Mason, and Brian Foster. All five of them went on to compete in Moto X disciplines at the X Games, with all but Foster earning multiple medals.
In 1997 McElroy started throwing tricks for fun, aping what he saw in the magazines, especially from Mike Metzger. The freestyle epicenter of Southern California, however, may as well have been as far away as Mars. McElroy felt disconnected from the whole scene and he kept on racing, which was getting expensive. At 18 he attended Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) and worked two jobs: unloading UPS trucks from 4 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and then as a custodian from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. At an arenacross race in Northern California, he entered a jump contest, took second, and won more money than he did racing. “Let’s see, stick to the side of a stucco building in the middle of the summer washing windows or jump your motorcycle for money,” he told ESPN in 2002. “What would you rather do?” He left TMCC before the end of his first semester. He had the 775 Crew, however, and they were able to feed off each other. For McElroy, freestyle motocross still had the unconventional, nobody-quite-understands-this status.
“We were on the forefront of things that didn’t exist before we were there,” McElroy says. “Everybody kind of wanted to ride it, see where it was going, make a few bucks. You only get one lap at a time, you know?
Within two years of laboring for money, McElroy was considered one of the top young riders, heralded by veterans such as Tommy Clowers, who liked the “snap” and style of the kid’s tricks. The whole family was behind McElroy; his mom and dad even posted on freestyle internet forums under the username “fmxma&pa” to give fans updates. In the summer of 2002 in Philadelphia, McElroy earned an X Games bronze medal in Freestyle with his signature trick, the Dead Body (an extended horizontal bar hop), and his favorite trick, a whipped-out nac-nac. It was the same year that Metzger won gold in Freestyle and Best Trick with a flurry of backflips, a trick that only a few riders were able to land at the time. While McElroy did learn to flip, he hasn’t landed one since 2004. It was a trick he was never thrilled about, and the fact that he needed to have it in his runs to place well soured the contest scene for him. With an injury history that already included long layoffs for a broken leg, jaw, heel, back, and more, he wasn’t looking for more hospital visits.
“I wasn’t into it enough to be wholeheartedly focusing on it, and you have to be, because at some point it’s really dangerous,” he says. “It needs your focus and attention and drive to make it happen.” At the same time, McElroy thought he could see where the sport was headed. With a propensity for overthinking everything, he couldn’t get his mind off the risk-versus-reward debate: “I saw what was happening and what you had to do to make the few bucks that we were making, and we were already underpaid. I never saw that getting any better.”
He started racing supermoto, became a judge for the X Games and X-Fighters series, immersed himself in his artwork, and founded the Seagulls. Around 2008, he was drinking beer in his garage and looking at all of the dirtbikes that he never took the time to sell. There were two-strokes he used for freestyle and four-strokes for supermoto and motocross. A 2003 YZ450F sat next to a vintage Ducati 250; a swig of ale was knocked back, a light bulb went off. He decided to turn the Yamaha into a café-racer-style street bike. Then he met builder Roland Sands, “scammed some extra metal” and “picked some brains” and ended up with something that, of course, prompted people to ask questions like, “What is that?”
“When I built that first bike, everything [at the time] was ‘chopper, chopper, chopper’ with the stupid big fat tire, but the café stuff was really cool to me,” McElroy remembers.
Sands, who has built custom motorcycles for Brad Pitt, Mickey Rourke, and Anthony Kiedis, was impressed by McElroy’s creativity and his ability to execute ideas.
“It’s rare for someone to have his take on riding, racing, and creating custom bikes,” Sands says. “Put all those together and you’re going to get some interesting stuff. He’s the type of person that our industry needs.”Around the same time, McElroy met Thor Drake, a Portland, Oregon-based motorcycle enthusiast with similar two-wheeled tastes. Their wee-hour beer-drinking sessions yielded what became See See Motorcycles, a retail/custom/coffee shop and brand representing the more inclusive side of motorcycling. McElroy has creative energy into the business, but not a financial stake, and he’s one of See See’s pro-team riders. Eight years after seeing that a discarded dirtbike can be street worthy, builders all over the world are churning out vintage customs using a variety of dirtbike motors. McElroy has long moved on from that trend, however, as he’s currently enjoying the movement that is putting street bikes on dirt ovals. Yet if Santa Claus is real, McElroy says he’s asking for a new skeleton and a 2017 Husqvarna TX 300.
So how does a “two-wheeled dude” make actual money? It’s getting tougher. Few freestyle contests are left to compete in, which means fewer judging and travel opportunities. Even the show/demo circuit is thinning. For two months in the spring of 2016, he joined the UniverSoul Circus as part of a two-person motorcycle-jumping act. Since travel and accommodations were not included, he lived in his van in the parking lots of arenas in Oakland, California, and metro LA.
Two months away from home, away from his kids, and getting hassled over payment led McElroy to the conclusion that maybe this chapter of his life is over. A good payday for a freestyle demo rider is $1,000 and some gas money, nothing less. But the opportunities are either not there or some younger kid with little to lose and more to prove is willing to do it for less. McElroy left the circus, went home, and did what he’s done many times already: started working on a new skill. Combining his love for drawing, painting, and tattoos—don’t ask how many he has—he has joined a local ink shop as an apprentice. Being a tattoo artist is something he’s always wanted to do but has never stayed in town long enough to be able to commit to. With two kids under 10 years old, he also wants to spend more time at home.
He’s not done with motorcycles, though. Hell, he can’t be, because “Forever Two Wheels” is tattooed across his chest. He’s grateful that “FTW” has a special and more positive meaning for him than what is traditional. “I’ve had uncountable enlightening moments on motorcycles throughout my time. And an equal amount of ‘fuck you’ moments!” he says to huge laughter. “Nothing is for free. You gotta keep balance.” There are dreams to ride across the 500,000-square-mile Gobi Desert and rip motorcycles through Morocco.
“There are a lot of places I haven’t been,” McElroy says. “Once you add bikes, it’s just that much more fun.”