Remembering Vurbmoto


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For a few years now, I’ve spoken with filmmakers within the industry about their careers, no matter how big or small they’ve become, and I’ve found there is a fine tapestry woven between most of them: a spot in the winding history of Vurbmoto. From coast to coast, up and back through the midwest, many filmers, photographers, and journalists have contributed to what is largely considered one of the most well-respected motocross publications of all-time. From this tapestry, I’ve decided to trim the fat and connect a few players together in this article.

Will it be the last I speak of Vurb? I doubt it… but for now, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Featuring conversations from Brandon Biro, Kyle Cowling, Chase Dunivant, Tom Journet, and Jeff Urbahn.

 

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Do you remember your first motocross magazine? I can see it plain as day. A big, bold number four kicked sideways against a flat sky. Blue & grey Fox gear with mild cheetah print dotted throughout. Most important of all, the clean Suzuki graphics on a brilliant yellow RM250. The December 2004 issue of Racer X Illustrated, which gracefully accentuated Ricky Carmichael’s then-questionable transition from Honda to Suzuki, blew my mind wide open. It was the birth of an incurable addiction to two-wheels. I haven’t seen that issue in well over a decade, but that image remains burned upstairs.

I love getting asked that question, even if it is a bit of an obsolete one. Ask a little grom today about his first motocross magazine. There’s a good chance he probably won’t have an answer for you, and that’s fine. This isn’t a fluff piece lamenting the decline of print. In fact, this isn’t about print at all. While in my opinion, print will always have its place and deservedly so, digital is the domain. It’s not just for media and entertainment either, it is our life and our connections to other lives. Moreover, it’s the digital space where our subject made its ultimate mark.

Vurbmoto ruled motocross’ digital transition. Sure, many a mainstream site such as Transworld, Racer X, Motocross Action, Dirt Rider, etc. had their online counterparts, but they were hardly more than accessories to their magazines, at least at first. These digital realms were packed with race results, desktop wallpapers (remember that being a thing?), short interviews, and pixel-counting 240p videos. Vurb was the first of these sites to be more than an accessory to another product, it was the product.

 

“I remember seeing the trailer for Epic and thinking, ‘Holy shit! What is this?'”

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Vurb’s work sparked an almost immediate reaction. From California cinematographer Kyle Cowling, “I didn’t know Vurb was a thing until late-2009, whenever Wes [Williams] released Epic. I remember seeing the trailer for Epic and thinking, ‘Holy shit! What is this?’ From there I got turned on to the website and saw everything they had been doing.”

 

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Cowling covers subject Nate Adams on a recent shoot for the Spectrum Series. Photo: Stu Alfano

 

While Wes Williams had been hot on the trail of amateur motocross for a few years prior, it wasn’t until 2009 that he followed that trail all the way to the top of the budding professional scene, where many of his favorite subjects were entering the lights of supercross stadiums and podiums at outdoor nationals. With hard-to-miss talent such as Nico Izzi, Trey Canard, Jason Anderson, Eli Tomac, and Dean Wilson headlining, Epic was the draw for a number of eventual Vurbmoto lifers.

 

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Kyle continued, “I’ve told Wes this before, I think a lot of us in this industry could agree that MC’s part at Castillo Ranch in Terrafirma 2 was probably the best motocross video part ever, and to me, the next best thing is Nico Izzi’s segment in Epic. I don’t know what it is about Izzi at the Suzuki Test Track, for whatever reason that has always stood out to me. I couldn’t give you any solid reason why, I’ve always just felt that way. It’s a gut feeling.”

I prodded Kyle a bit more, as I hadn’t seen Epic in its entirety at the time. I asked if he had felt that way from the get-go.

“I thought the trailer was great, but when I bought the movie I didn’t like it at first. As I’ve gotten older, I revisit that video from time to time and I believe now that it was truly badass. For releasing in 2009, Epic was ahead of its time. It was very high quality, cinematic stuff that no one else was doing. I don’t think people were ready to appreciate that type of content yet.”

 

 

While certainly influential to the scene before the 2010’s, it was in this era that Vurb really embedded itself in the lexicon of riders across the country, and soon after the globe. Vurb’s approach to the sport started from the ground up, graduating from the ranks of the amateur circuit to motocross’ elite professionals. Vurb’s admiration for the minor leagues never faltered though, and as the site grew, the amateur’s fancied themselves a solid base for Wes and company’s little project.

Another camera-wielding Californian, Brandon Biro explains, “[Vurb] was sick! I grew up riding, so naturally I grew up watching Vurb. That website was my life… looking at pictures and videos all day. Not being fast enough to become a [professional] rider, I wanted to become a part of Vurb because it was the sickest shit out. Back in the day you’d get a text from your buddy saying, ‘Hey, did you see the new video on Vurb?’ All of the stuff they did was sick and everybody loved it. It was the elite company to work for.”

He added, “I just wanted to make stuff that people wanted to see. If you were able to work for Vurb, you had ‘it.'”

 

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Brandon Biro (third from left) with his crew out west. Photo: @happyblued

 

This was another central theme shared amongst those I spoke to about Vurbmoto, that it was the benchmark for which all motocross media was measured by. If you had a camera and shot dirt bikes, the goal was to be featured on the front page of Vurbmoto. Being that their audience largely consisted of amateur motocross riders, and their history being so richly embedded in the amateur scene, I can only feel that this created a sense of acceptance that competing publications were dying for. A typical motocross outlet had to infiltrate the culture by preying on kids through a singular “amateur spotlight,” or by running a short story covering a hot amateur race.

 

“If you were on Vurb as a videographer, you were one of the best filmmakers out. If you were a rider, you were one of the fast kids.”

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What’s more is that, in these transitional times, print publications were less and less likely to be featuring you and your friends at the local race. The beauty of Vurb was that it became this network of filmmakers and photographers plugged directly into their local scenes. Wanted to see the fastest kids from the east coast? Check the latest Vurb video. Looking for the sickest photos from Mammoth? Check Vurb. Midwest rippers on a moto trip to Florida? Vurb.

Vurb didn’t have to prey on the culture of its audience (amateur motocross kids) because it was its audience. Vurb was the culture. So when those same amateur kids started picking up cameras, guess where they wanted to work? You know the answer.

I spoke with New Jersey lensman Tom Journet about the impact Vurb had on the industry, and he laid it out plainly, “It [was] huge. It had as much of an impact on videographers as it did on riders. If you were on Vurb as a videographer, you were one of the best filmmakers out. If you were a rider, you were one of the fast kids.”

 

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Journet continues the grind on the supercross/motocross circuit. Photo: @corbinsfilm

 

Tom went on, “Vurb is why I started filming, to be honest. The one video that really left a mark on me was the SOB Mid-Summer 2013 edit. Dillon Gwaltney shot that one on the Sony FS700. That was the first time I saw FS700 footage and I couldn’t believe the slow motion shots I was seeing. Kyler West was in there along with Jerry Robin on his 1985 CR250.”

 

 

Echoing Tom’s sentiment was Tennessee’s Chase Dunivant, the man behind the MotoChasin YouTube channel, “I remember whenever I started MotoChasin that my goal was to get a video posted on the Vurb website. It took so long, and it ended up being my first ever GPF video [that got posted]. Then half a year later I ended up working for them and I was like, ‘Is this real right now? Am I really going to shoot somewhere for Vurb?'”

“I didn’t know at the time if [there] would be a conflict of interest in regards to posting on MotoChasin, but whenever Wes told me I could continue posting simultaneously, I decided to start putting some GoPro [videos] on MotoChasin. I was really involved with Vurb though, because that was my dream. What I wanted to do in the moto industry was work for Vurb… that was every videographer or photographer’s dream.”

 

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Dunivant behind the trusty FS700. Photo: Collin Speckner

 

These feelings of admiration towards Vurb wouldn’t have sustained into today’s times without the adoration for its ringleader, Wes Williams. It wasn’t enough for the site to be a beacon for those looking to cover the sport, it had to be supported by people who were gracious and kind enough to be working for in the first place.

I can remember linking up with Vurb associate James Gingerich in 2014 after a lowly Facebook messenger conversation. He invited me out to film at the Lincoln Trail Loretta Lynn’s Area Qualifier, which I believe paid all of $200, enough to stoke out my little mind as a junior in high school.

James was reserved, but kind. His photography skills were impeccable, which is why he garnered a spot amongst the elite Vurb crew right away. Upon arrival, he informed me that the job I was tasked to do was technically for the track itself, Lincoln Trail Motosports. They were footing the bill, not Vurb. “But,” I remember him saying, “Send me the video once you’re done with it. I’ll see what I can do.”

After the video was completed and sent to James, he forwarded it to Wes and the man himself retorted with, “Dude, that’s sick!” And just like that, I made the front page.

 

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Always stoked on the kids. Wes and Stilez Robertson, Loretta Lynn’s 2014. Photo: @mepmx

 

I tell that story because I want to illustrate that Wes was stoked on moto, and stoked on anything he thought was cool about moto. It didn’t matter if it was some nobody kid from the midwest, or the second coming of Bruce Brown out in California, Wes was juiced on anybody who was juiced on moto. In fact, it wasn’t even close to stopping at me when it came to midwest recognition, as Illinois photographer Jeff Urbahn relayed,

“I was down at Loretta’s that year [2015], and through a crazy turn of events I got hooked up with Motoplayground. I did their film camp at Boom Diggity, so from that I got invited to come down to Loretta’s and film for them. While I was there I saw Wes and I was like, ‘I gotta go talk to this guy.’ I told him I was doing this video with Chase [Sexton], because at that point I had been planning Farm Boy Blues for awhile. I wanted to really try to push myself to get cleaner footage than I ever had gotten before. He replied, ‘Yeah man! Just send it over when you’re done and we’ll take a look at it.’ They ended up liking it and putting it on the channel.”

I asked Jeff how he was able to confront Wes so effortlessly. He went on,

“I guess I was a little naïve, which probably worked out in my favor. I was this kid at Loretta’s losing my mind, because it was my first time there, and I’m just running around getting as much footage as I can. Back then I was shooting with my Canon Rebel SL1, which is like a three hundred dollar DSLR. I’d have a 75mm lens on it with my glidecam, because I didn’t have a good tripod. Wes was probably thinking, ‘Who is this chump?’ [laughs] He was super cool though, really nice.”

 

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Jeff Urbahn and his fellow Illinoisan Chase Sexton at The Ranch. Photo: Lake Kilpatrick

 

It was one thing to get the virtual nod and have your content posted to Vurb’s site, but infiltrating their team and becoming a part of the core group was a different beast entirely. Over time I’ve learned this process to be more about timing and social connections than outright skill, but being motocross dorks, I don’t believe many of us exude the often sought after qualities of extroverts.

“I tried getting into Vurb before 2014,” Tom Journet told me. “It was 2013, and I didn’t make it to Loretta’s, but my friend Mikey Giovanniello made it in the B class. I asked to come out with him and brought my camera with. I don’t even remember what I had, some shitty Nikon I borrowed from my parents. I was just taking photos and I remember seeing the Vurb guys there, Brandon Biro specifically. I messaged him on Facebook after the event, ‘Yo bro, what’s it take to be on Vurb?’ The basic questions and shit, you know? [laughs] Seeing the Vurb crew back in the day was crazy.”

I didn’t ask Biro if he remembers Tom’s initial outreach, but he remembers that year at Loretta’s vividly,

“The first time I met anyone at Vurb was at Loretta Lynn’s in 2013. I asked if they needed help at the race that year and they did, but they couldn’t afford my airfare, just the time that I’d be filming. I hitched a ride with Robbie and RJ Wageman to cover travel costs, but all I really did that year was grab GoPro’s and film Uncut videos. I stayed with the Vurb crew at the track as well. It was Dillon Gwaltney, Jason Crane, Danny Stuart, Chelsea Stratso, and Wes Williams. Ashton Hammill and Eli Moore came out for a few days too.”

 

 

“Wes showed me around their camper & trailer setup when I got there, [where we all stayed for the week]. Everyone was cool and welcoming. We all knew each other but hadn’t all met in person. We got a foot of rain at The Ranch that year, and it was still one of the funnest weeks of my life.”

Vurb’s attitude is often cited as one of its strengths as a media outlet, and the story of the raggedy motorhome / trailer setup only emboldens that punk rock ethos. Vurb poked fun at the sport and exploited its flaws as much as it showcased the best and brightest in racing. From the National Security hijinks, to Dirt Shark’s rambunctious companion Mud Dolphin, and everything in-between (David Izer sneaking a lap at Loretta Lynn’s, the criminally short-lived Vurbmoto Voicovers…), Vurb covered the sport with a tongue firmly planted in its cheek. It provided a voice to those within the community that saw its rebellious flame fading slowly.

 

“When Vurb came in, it was the successor to that Terrafirma & Crusty world in that it was high-quality, but with the same punk attitude.”

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Kyle Cowling reiterates, “I think Vurb was, to me, [the site with] a punk rock attitude. They just did what they wanted and didn’t care. On top of that, Wes invested in all of the newest camera gear and toys that would come out. They were the first ones to bring the Canon 7D and the Canon 5D into the motocross world. They were the first ones to bring in Kessler cranes and dolly’s. To me, they broke a lot of barriers in the filmmaking world when it came to motocross. They did it, and they didn’t care what other people thought. We’re gonna do what we think is cool, we don’t care what you think about it, and we’re gonna do it super high-quality the best we can.”

“Wes was so rad, he’d say, ‘You go out and do whatever you want to do. I don’t care. People are still going to watch it and even if they don’t, you’re going to do something that nobody else is going to do.’ I was like, ‘OK!’ That was a killer experience.”

 

 

I asked Kyle furthermore what he thought of Vurb’s legacy, being that he was so close to the project at one time. His filmmaking knowledge is second-to-none, and his motocross history is spot on. The ultimate converge of film and moto.

“Before all of this had happened with Vurb, you had your Crusty [Demons] movies, Terrafirma’s, all that stuff we grew up on. To me, it’s the bible of our sport. It’s iconic and can never be reproduced. You see people nowadays doing the Crusty or Terrafirma style… and I loathe that because it was done 20 years ago. Why are we doing this now? It was cool then because you had guys like McGrath, Emig, and Ryno. Seth, Pastrana, and Cinqmars. Twitch… Scummy! It was such an iconic era in the sport and it doesn’t come across like that now.”

“When Vurb came in, it was the successor to that Terrafirma & Crusty world in that it was high-quality, but with the same punk attitude. We’re gonna give the amateur world exposure, because no one else is doing that. No one else did that, and no one will do it now because Vurb… it came and went. It’s like the Crusty’s and the Terrafirma’s, there’s never going to be anything that will come close to that, and there will never be anything that will touch what Vurb was.”

And that’s the crux for which most of these conversations pivot upon, the eventual downturn and legacy of Vurb. After all, it wouldn’t be a retrospective without an actual ending. For everything that was great about Vurb: the grassroots following, the insanely intricate filming and editing, the countless hours spent on photos shoots, web design, merch, and more… something had to give.

 

“Those guys who built Vurb, they had more heart for it than anyone in the world.”

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The time it took to make all of these dreams a reality would take a toll on even the hyper-est of strung-out motocross kids. The details may never be laid out in full, as Journet (one of the last remaining members of the team) mourns,

“I really don’t know how it ended, to be honest. For me, I had been working there for over a year at that point, so I was just doing my normal routine. I was going to events and shooting Uncut’s, Select’s, etc. Just doing my job. I wasn’t really on the road, I’d just get flown out to races and cover it for them. I’d get paid ‘x’ amount of dollars, shoot, edit, and have everything delivered by Tuesday when I got home. It was weird how it all ended… We were just doing our thing. I was expecting to jump right into supercross at the time, and it just ended.”

I coyly asked if there could ever be another Vurbmoto.

“I don’t know… Hopefully there’s another Vurb. If there is man, sign me up! I’ll help out.”

 

 

While Journet shared an optimistic tone about whether or not somebody could resurrect the spirit of Vurb, his counterparts Brandon Biro and Kyle Cowling shared a more somber dialect… though Biro was emphatic to a fault, he adds,

“[Vurb’s legacy is] being the sickest moto media outlet in the world. I’d be out shooting with [Aaron] Plessinger, [Dean] Wilson or Cooper Webb, and all of those guys would talk about Vurb videos. It was the cream of the crop, there’s no way to explain it better than that. They had the sickest videos, photos, and articles out of anyone. That’s their legacy right there, having the coolest shit out and owning that title to this day. Carson [Mumford] and I spent hours watching all of the old videos a month ago, we watched them all night long.”

“I personally don’t think it’ll ever be the same, or that Vurb will be beaten. That’s my own opinion, but who knows? It’d be cool if something else came up, but I don’t think there’s enough money or heart in it right now. Those guys who built Vurb, they had more heart for it than anyone in the world.”

I think we’ll be doing a lot of recollection as the world quarantines itself in an effort to curb the effects of Covid-19, and I’m sure plenty of motocross folks will be kicking back at their desktops, tablets, and phones, queuing up memories of days gone by. Vurb Platinum’s, Select’s, and Original’s by the dozen. And while they reminisce, they’ll remember their own days spent at the track… hell, they may very well be a part of the footage they’re watching.

Because Vurb was more than a website, it was motocross. Thanks for the good times.

 

Special thanks to Brandon Biro, Kyle Cowling, Chase Dunivant, Tom Journet, and Jeff Urbahn for the time.