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Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Updated: March 9, 3:28 PM ET
Behind the scenes -- Jesse Olson


X Games FMX course builder Jesse Olson, his white Hot Wheels coveralls.

Last week I got to spend a couple of days in Turkey with Jesse Olson, the current course builder for FMX events at X Games, in search of an ancient castle to host a new FMX venue. Olson is a fortunate character in the freestyle motocross world. Beginning on the race circuit, Olson soon became one of the pioneers of freestyle motocross before ditching the bike to carve out a niche as a freaky scientist of gasoline powered jumping (i.e. course builder). You might recognize him best as the crazy guy who stood with a measuring tape on the landing of Tanner Foust's gigantic truck jump at last year's Indianapolis 500, but that's just a small part of his story. In the following interview, Olson details his dirt bike riding roots, his transition into course builds and what the future of car jumping holds. Welcome to the Jesse Olson's world.

ESPN.com: How's your trip to Turkey been?
Olson: My trip to Turkey has been awesome. I really like it over here, the food, the atmosphere. The venue we are looking at is off the charts. It's going to be really exciting.

What got you into freestyle motocross in the first place?
It was just the natural way I rode my dirt bike and a super good fit. I rode supercross and arenacross and ended up making more money in the jump-offs during half time than I was in the main events. That was my focus for a little bit and then the IFMA tours came around and I got picked up on that at the end of 2000. That was right in the birth of freestyle motocross, when it was only a couple of years old and I rode that train for six years.

You became a pretty advanced rider, right?
Yeah. I raced amateur nationals at age thirteen and fourteen at Loretta Lynn's and had my AMA pro card by the time I turned sixteen. I was racing supercrosses when I was sixteen years old. At one point I was racing 125 and 250 classes in the same night! I was pretty serious about it.

A lot of your friends are still riding FMX today. What got you out of it?
I had back-to-back, back injuries. They were not super drastic, but enough to be aggravating. Then freestyle got to that point where it was right at the beginning of big flip tricks and it kind of lost its fun and became more of a real dangerous sport. Every time you rode your dirt bike, you knew it could be the last time you ever saw your family or walk again. It just kind of took the fun out of it for me, so I decided to step back and enjoy riding again. I wanted to help the athletes and the sport organizers and big contests. And make it better for the athletes and everybody else.

Did you ever land the flip?
Yeah, I did land the flip. I have landed flips. I have under-rotated flips. Technically I was the third person to ever have a foam pit. I believe it was Carey Hart, Travis Pastrana and then me. So everybody was coming over to my house. Nate Adams would come over to my house and everybody would learn flips into the pit. That was a lot of fun, but it also showed me how dangerous it was getting.

This is a pic from London X-Fighters 2009, when Jesse built a crazy ramp to have the riders jump out of the window of Battersea Power Station. No one had ever seen that before!

What are the best memories from being on the road in those days?
I really had a great time on the FreestyleMX.com tour, Marc Burnett's tour. It was a two-month motorhome trip with all my friends and we just traveled around doing all the speedways and carnivals. I loved doing freeride movies and photo shoots and that kind of stuff. I also spent a lot of time over in Europe in Budapest and Prague. I went all up and down Italy and had a blast in Thailand. I have had so much fun riding my dirt bike and don't regret anything.

Then you transitioned onto the production side. Where did you get those track building skills?
It was another kind of natural progression. My dad owns a heavy equipment rental yard so I have been building my own tracks since I started riding dirt bikes at like the age of nine. I literally got my first dirt bike and grabbed a tractor from my dad's yard and built my first track the same day. My dirt bike skills and my track building skills progressed together. I was the kid at fifteen years old that built his own supercross track and learned how to ride it that way. To get to the point I am at now I would just jump on the tractor and try to jazz out the jumps at the IFMA's. Then X Games needed a builder and the riders suggested that I give it a shot.

That's quite a progression!
It was funny: I remember my first big build with ESPN being the Winter X Games. That was the ice jump. I really wanted to build stuff for X Games, but I got there and was so nervous about that being my first jump and it going wrong because that was something that I really had no experience doing. I went there and built it my way and it turned out to be a really good ice jump. I even jumped it before anyone got there to test it out. So not only had I never built an ice jump before, but I jumped it without ever knowing if it would work or not. So I guess I had a lot of faith in myself and my ability and skills.

Where do you see the sport of freestyle motocross going?
When I was riding there was a ton of work. I rode fifty weeks out of the year. They were begging riders to ride and be in two different places at the same time. Now it seems like there are a lot of riders and not a lot of shows. I just feel bad for the guys that are doing it now and trying to make a living. The Nate Adams of the world still have it kind of easy, but the guys that really, truly need to make a living riding their dirt bike, it's not as easy as it was a couple of years ago. I think the contest form of freestyle motocross has hit its max a little bit, but I still think the stunts and the real creative part of freestyle motocross is in this.

Who in your mind would you say is the best competitive rider right now?
Damn that's tough. There are so many good riders out there. Nate Adams is a probably the machine on a motorcycle. I remember when he was fifteen or sixteen, doing his first seat grabs at IFMA's and I remember when he broke his first bone, his little collarbone and was out for three weeks and didn't know how to handle it. He took so much abuse from us for being a kid that grew up and learned to ride freestyle instead of being a kid with something like my background or Mike Mason, the OG's of the sport that came from racing. But he really made an effort to just be an amazing dirt bike rider all around. He could go and qualify for a supercross if he wanted to. He rips on a track and is probably one of the most talented guys on a dirt bike right now.

Tanner Foust breaks the world record for distance jumped in a four-wheeled vehicle, with help from Jesse Olson.

What else you doing these days beyond the X Games stuff?
I still build motorcycle jumps, but lately I have been pushing the limits of car jumping. After learning how to dial in motorcycle jumps and perfecting the lips, I took that technique and started building car jumps for Travis' "Nitro Circus" videos. Then Ken Block called me to build a jump for "Stunt Junkies" and really just put some math and skill into building car jumps. I just built that skill for the last four years. We did the world record car jump, one hundred and seventy one feet, for Ken Block and then built a three hundred foot truck jump for Johnny Greaves. Then I was a big part of the Tanner Foust Hot Wheels jump at three hundred and thirty two feet. I'm pretty proud of that kind of stuff and still just pushing the limits on anything I can be a part of creatively with cars or dirt bikes.

That Hot Wheels thing looks pretty fun!
Yeah, the Hot Wheels gig is pretty much a dream come true. Just taking all of those toys you played with as a kid and trying to create it in real life. Basically I walked around the Mattel warehouse and design building and checked out a lot of stuff and told them what could be done in real life and what was completely out of the league. We have some big projects out there right now. We have three big ones coming up this year and more the year after.