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Hooligan racing is the best sport no one’s heard of at the X Games

Eric Lars Bakke / ESPN Images

Eric Lars Bakke / ESPN Images

Covered head-to-toe in a layer of dust that felt an inch thick, staring into an apocalyptic haze accentuated by the setting sun, I went significantly more deaf one evening mid-July while falling in love with the best sport at the X Games you’ve probably never heard of: hooligan racing.

“When you talk about racing a motorcycle in a circle, people are like, ‘Oh, that sounds dumb,’ and you’re like, ‘Okay, totally fair.’” Mind you, local boy Dan Jacobson is describing something he’s among the world’s best at, having competed in hooligan twice already at the X Games.

Not long ago, this sport didn’t exist. Now races are sponsored by Harley-Davidson. Yet Jacobson gets where people are coming from when they can’t understand his sport of choice’s appeal—especially if they’ve never seen it first-hand.

I spent the race holding my breath as brave competitors ripped their throttles at the starting line of a dirt track and then thundered into a deeply rutted corner far too fast. Riders stuck their boots out to prevent high siding and jostled elbow-to-elbow, fighting for little more than glory, points in a series, and a checkered flag. Toward the finish, one bowling ball of a dude dressed in an Evel Knievel suit came barreling in hot, pushing for the finish, as a country boy’s voice rose an octave over the Winona County Fair’s PA.

Roland Sands, the quasi-godfather figure of modern hooligan racing, was once quoted saying, “It’s frightening and it takes balls, but there’s a lot of satisfaction and it makes beer taste really good. That’s how you feel after surviving hooligan.” It only takes witnessing it once to get what he meant. I was as hooked as I was filthy… and thirsty.

In other forms of flat track motorcycle racing the riders are like jockeys, but hooligan is populated by a field of Donkey Kongs or autumn-drunk bumble bees, not Toads or hornets. The rules are minimal. Front brakes must be removed, as should all glass and excess parts. Other than that, it’s pretty much have fun and respect each other.

Andy Bothwell

Andy Bothwell

The credo is basically “run what you brung,” meaning compete with what you rode there. It’s street bikes or bust—those thunderous big boys, 750cc’s or larger, with a stock frame and dirt track tires—not excessively expensive tricked-out steeds with modified chassis. There’s a pay-to-play hierarchy in flat track, where investing hundreds of thousands to customize your machine is necessary just to see if you’ve got what it takes to compete. But hooligan’s relatively cheap stock bikes are an equalizing factor among riders.

ESPN’s X Games debuted the competition as an unmedaled event in 2017, and its popularity has risen astronomically since. Part of its charm is how incredibly barebones it is. Riders like Jacobson often have flat track pedigrees, but not always.

“It’s probably one of the most diverse crowds that there is in racing right now. When you get to the pro level, everybody’s kinda.... It’s more like the rich kids and the jocks,” he explains. “Whereas hooligan can be those guys, but it’s also the rough guys who build bikes in their garages, who have an extra sense of rebellion and punk rock.”

He sees himself as floating somewhere in the middle of it all: a former pro in many different moto fields who got his start skateboarding and hung up his helmet to join the Carpenters’ Union and build scaffolds around the country. He helped erect U.S. Bank Stadium before competing inside. Now he races for the fun of it on bikes that suit him best, in a class where prize money is more equally administered—which has the effect of boosting camaraderie across the board, rather than encouraging bloodthirstiness.

“It’s cool when you get out there with a bunch of different people from all over the place. Some of [these guys] are going to school at MIT and stuff. I’ve never understood that. We get these crazy-smart kids and I’m like, ‘If you’re so smart, what are you doing here?’ The risk is high!”

Hailing from Northern California are father and son duo Frank and Frankie Garcia, age 59 and 28 respectively. Their opposite approaches to the sport represent exactly what Jacobson is talking about.

In 2017, Ducati approached Frankie asking if he’d build a hooligan bike. He’d had no intention of racing it... until he did. “There was one race left toward the end of the series, and I was free to do it, the bike was done, so I raced it. I ended up winning that race, and since then, Ducati kind of stepped up.” He’s been a hooligan pro ever since.

Then we have Frank Sr. The 2019 X Games qualifier was his first hooligan race ever. He not only beat Frankie, he did it on a bike he’d assembled in his garage the week prior, mostly using spare parts he had lying around. “It was right there, so I started putting it together. I just wanted to race it, and the X Games qualifier was the first race nearby,” laughs Frank Sr. “And this is what happened.”

This year’s hooligan race brings an entirely different component for the younger Garcia. “This will be my third time at X Games,”says Frankie, “but what makes it even cooler is my dad was the one who taught me and showed me everything, and this time, I’m not only going to X Games, but my dad’s coming with me. And not to be my mechanic, or to tell me I’m going slow here or I’m doing this good or that bad, he’s coming and I’ve got to try to beat him.” The Franks will battle it out live, trackside, August 4.

Part of the huge appeal of hooligan is this air of achievability—as Frankie put it, an average Joe on the couch can’t race motocross or suddenly become Valentino Rossi, “but they can be hooligan racers! All you’ve gotta do is build a bike and show up to the races!” Now that the sport of hooligan is growing so fast, though, it’s the show-up-to-the-races part that gets sticky for Midwest riders like Jacobson, especially when it comes to huge events like the X Games.

Jacobson plays with some of the best in the world. “Me and my teammate Nick [Mataya] won the first three rounds of this other series. I mean, the guy who won the X Games last year was in it—Nick beat him three times in a row.”

But you won’t find Jacobson repping Minnesota in a third X Games running. “The only X Games qualifier they had for hooligan was in Industry Hills, California [Los Angeles]. It was on a Friday. So I would have had to take more or less a week off work. A lot of guys who got to go do that had dealership backing.”

If you have to travel to the West Coast to prove yourself, then it leaves out the middle of the U.S., where hooligan is thriving. Jacobson says he and Mataya did their best to compete on the world’s biggest hooligan stage. “We actually sent our resumes out, and had a lot of sit-down meetings with just about every Harley dealership in [Minnesota] to try to get out there this year. We figured we had chips to bargain with, but we couldn’t get anybody to step up and help us out.”

Though there’ll be no hometown heroes in this year’s X Games, there are tons of good competitors to root for, and Jacobson isn’t going anywhere: “I had probably three, four people who were like, ‘If this happens again next year, you call me, because I’ll take money out of my savings account to send you guys there.’”

Frank Sr. leaves me with a great reminder that apart from the competition itself and the individuals involved, we’ve been handed a special moment to enjoy. “We’re in a pinnacle,” he says. Hooligan itself remains bigger than the X Games, and worth rooting for. This is its prime season, and it remains the best, filthiest, most egalitarian competition on two wheels, with races held nearby in the coming months.

All you have to do is show up and watch.