Tim O'Brien shares the Livfast strategy
The heart and soul of the sport of freestyle motocross is not necessarily in the big competitions where the elite few get to showcase the outer limits of the possible, but in the fairgrounds and halls and parking lots around the world where promoters bring in riders and ramps to entertain people who would not normally make the pilgrimage to something like X Games.
Tim O'Brien of Reno, Nev., is one of the people who not only has the ability to hustle the shows and give riders an opportunity to earn an income from their sport, but he has also taken some smart tactics to build his own brand.
I caught up with O'Brien in the rare moments between riding and dialing for dollars.
ESPN.com: So what was it that got you into this wacky motocross world?
O'Brien: Well, my grandfather was a desert racer and my father started racing desert. And I can remember when I was a little kid, I can remember the exact moment I thought motorcycles were awesome. We built a little jump for our BMX bikes out of a piece of wood and plywood. We were trying to jump, like, two skateboards or three bikes and then my dad hit it on his old YZ 490 and he jumped 50 feet past everything we were trying to jump. That's when I knew, that's what I wanted to do.
So was your motorcycle background in racing? Was it always desert stuff, or did you spend time on the track?
I never raced desert -- my dad did and my grandpa did. I rode dirt bikes since I was about 5 years old, just up in the hills behind my house.
Then I finally talked my parents into letting me race when I was 14. My first race I actually went out and did really well, won my class and ever since then I was hooked. I turned pro at the age of 17, traveled around and did the outdoor nationals circuit and did a couple of supercrosses.
I didn't really do too well and didn't have quite the money to back the program. Then luckily, right around the time I turned 23 or 24 I got asked by SMP, over at the Vegas supercross, to come and do a demo with Micky Dymond at Laguna Seca.
I think it was one of the first demos that ever happened and it was myself, Twitch [Jeremy Stenberg], Shawn Highland, Micky Dymond, Clifford Adoptante and Mike Jones. All these really cool dudes and they were like, "We just wanted you to come down and jump this double" and I was thinking "Oh my gosh, that sounds awesome." Then they said "We will give you a hundred bucks to do it," and I just couldn't believe that I was going to get paid to just jump.
How far down that pro line did you really take your freestyle career?
I've been in freestyle the whole time since then -- I think that was in '98. I went to the Gravity Games in '99, rode the doubles with Jeff Tilton. I think I took like 11th or 12th. That was just the catapult of everything, and I have been in FMX ever since. I didn't really like jumping for other people, I just didn't think that we needed that, so we built our own set of ramps in '99 and just started doing our own shows. That's when Livfast was born and we started promoting LivFast, selling shirts for beer money, whatever we could.
You created this thing called "Livfast," but if you had to describe it to somebody how would you describe Livfast?
When I was 16 years old I put it on my license plate. It was seven letters and I thought it was just awesome. That's how the whole group of guys was that I grew up with.
We grew up in the Tahoe area and we were either jumping off cliffs on snowboards or into the water. I was on the ski team and there was just this group -- only about five of us and we just kind of did what no one else would do. We had giant rope swings and big cliff jumps and then our motorcycles, all we had a passion for was just riding. It's a lifestyle, that's all it is, it's a live fast lifestyle.
It just kept growing and growing and next thing you know here we are and we've got bikes in Walmart and we are sponsored by Monster Energy and Kellogg's and all these big companies. It's just been on hell of a ride!
Yeah, let's go into that Walmart program. It's just a huge surprise when you walk into a Nevada Walmart, which is the center of American culture and there's a freestyle motocross bike and mannequins hanging from the ceiling. What's going on with all of that?
The cool thing is that we tried so hard to figure out how to get the word out to our events. It's just really hard to get your word out there when advertising costs so much money. You buy radio and here you've got one station and it costs you $4,000. Next thing you know you have $25,000 invested in advertising and the word just gets out as good as you can get it out.
We kept going into retail places and trying to find sponsors and trying to figure out how we would get into what NASCAR does where you walk in and you see Kasey Kahne's car inside there and next thing you know you have a bunch of Budweiser sitting with it. We thought: "That's an interesting opportunity. How do we do that?"
I met this guy named Mike Croghan and he kind of showed me the way to do it. We did the LivFast Cup which was a big pro race we had out at Exit 28, my motocross track and I was able to raise $20,000 for a purse. We were able to throw an event that cost almost $60,000 and the cool part about it is we got 56 pros to come out there. They were big name pros like Mike Alessi and Jeff Alessi and the Hart and Huntington team with Chris Blose and Kyle Partridge.
The word got out so quickly because Walmart put a little blog up on Facebook and they have 18 million followers, it's just insane! A lot of people don't realize that every single week, in every single Walmart in Northern Nevada, 55,000 people will purchase something. So we were just looking at these numbers and Mike Croghan says "You've got to get your bikes in here and you've got to get your clothing in here."
The cool part about it is that Hart and Huntington came on big time with Suzuki and helped us out a lot there and we've got Ricky Carmichael bikes hanging from the ceiling. Ricky is really stoked that we've got No. 4s hanging from the ceiling of every Walmart in Northern Nevada and then he will have them hanging from the ceiling of every Walmart in Southern Nevada next month and we are just going to keep trying this thing on.
But you have been actually doing demos and taking it to the people, that has to be one of the more amazing parts of it?
We are able to not only penetrate the market inside Walmart and [take] advantage of all those eyeballs, but we are able to actually do shows at Walmarts. We are able to do something called "Retail-tainment," where we are able to go in and perform in a Walmart parking lot. In Vegas we had a nine-rider FMX demo with two take-off ramps and two landing ramps, Monster brought in their BMX team and the big VIP haulers. On any given Saturday that store brings in 25,000 people just to come shop, so the audience is built in. Walmart is stoked because they get a cool show in the parking lot, we get to showcase the sponsors who are stoked because then you get to go right inside the store and buy their product and have a free ticket to the show.
[Laughs] That's our new name.
You were just talking about retail a little while ago and you have created a T-shirt line so that people can buy into the brand.
We actually just got out of a big lawsuit and are now able to protect our name and defend our name against all others. So we now have a fully registered trademark that is untouchable. Once we were able to do that we were able to go to the store and actually show them our product. They are really happy with it so now we are going to have a clothing launch nationally, hopefully in the next 60 days.
You have product in store and obviously have a great relationship in Nevada with Walmart, but what's next for the Livfast brand?
We are dealing with the people back in Bentonville [Arkansas where Walmart has its head office] about the clothing line. [They] want us to take it nationally and then do shows to promote our product line as well. Everybody that is a sponsor now, you can actually purchase their product in Walmart. And we are about to go national with this thing.
Right now our sponsors are Kellogg's, Crown Royal, Captain Morgan, Jagermeister, Monster Energy, Budweiser, these are all huge names that most people can't get sponsored by, but with the Walmart connection we are able to hook in with all these people and they just want us to go all over the place. It's just great timing and it is a win-win for everybody and I could not be more excited.
Outside of the great world of commerce, you also have the motocross track at Exit 28. What's up with that?
Exit 28 is awesome. It's nine miles east of Reno on Interstate 80. It is nicknamed the "Chocolate Cake" because the dirt is just phenomenal.
We got kicked out of an old lease we had because we didn't know, but we were paying a guy and he was not paying the guy above him. So I showed up one day and all our ramps were locked behind the fence and I didn't know what was going on.
The owner of the property came out and said that no one had paid and I thought "Oh my gosh, we need somewhere to train and somewhere to ride." So I got connected with a guy named Donny Gilman. His people own about 64 percent of Storey County, which is just East of Reno. Donny showed me the property and the first thing I noticed was the dirt, which could not be any better. It is all loam and you don't have to bring anything in. You can dig as deep as you want and build anything you want. [Editor's note: try a slice of Chocolate Cake yourself in the embedded video at the bottom of the story.]
I talked to [Mike]Mason and to [Dustin] Miller and to [Adam] Jones and I said, "Hey guys, if you are interested in this place then help me out and get me some equipment so we can get this place done." Literally within six months, Drake McElroy and Al McElroy and myself went out with the equipment and built Exit 28.
This will be our fourth year at the motocross track and the best thing is that you will be sitting there one day and Adam Jones will show up. All the little kids get to hang out and watch Adam Jones and they just love it. All the kids get to ride around and see these pros and it is like we can give back.
It's not a money-maker, but the best part is that we have a place to ride now 24/7 with nobody telling us what to do.