SI Vault: At the top of his action sports empire, BMX star Dave Mirra rides on
In memory of the late Dave Mirra, we're running this Sports Illustrated feature from the May 30, 2005 issue of the magazine to help shed light on the many accomplishments of one of the greatest BMX riders of all-time.
At the edge of Dave Mirra's professional cocoon, the 15,000-square-foot warehouse where the world's most celebrated BMX biker trains, Mirra, a man protective of his privacy, was awestruck one morning last month by the discovery of a tiny intruder. "Check this out," Mirra said, peering into a discarded beer bottle resting in his trash bin. "There's a mouse in the bottle. Dude, he's sopping it up. He's getting plastered." Within the cavernous expanse routinely filled with big airs and other daredevil flights, it took a rodent to win Dave Mirra's admiration. "Here, my man, dry out a little," he said, pushing several scraps of bread through the opening of the bottle. "Earned his meal, this guy. That beer's gotta be rippin' him up. Hey, but he climbed up in there, right?"
Mirra can relate to a creature that ventures into places unknown. His warehouse, which sits next to a cemetery in Greenville, N.C., is filled with ramps and halfpipes, each gnarlier than the next. This is where Mirra, the BMX biker with the most gold medals (13) in the 10-year history of the X Games, does what he does best: soaring, whirling, crashing but always creating. On the wall behind his Animal House-brand ramp are written several mottos, including, "All I have in this world is my word and my balls and I don't break them for nobody," and, "If at first you don't succeed, grab a beer."
"This is my sanctuary," says Mirra. "On days when s--- happens, I come in here and there's nothing infecting my mind. The X Games is business; this is fun. Here I never really have a 'what's-next?' I'm here the whole day because I want to, not because I have to."
In the Generation Xbox world of action sports, Mirra, 31, is a Michael Jordan-like icon, nearly past the age of cutting-edge cool but still performing remarkable feats. It is hard, after all, to maintain street cred in a reflexively contrarian counter-culture when you have leap-frogged that culture and become an industry.
He is the face behind the Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX video game, which has sold more than a million copies. He appeared in a Got Milk? ad and has had his own bubble gum, shoes, trading cards and action figure. MTV Cribs featured his million-dollar home in Greenville (since sold). PEOPLE magazine named him one of its 50 hottest bachelors. Men posing as IRS agents on the TV show Punk'd tried to convince him that they were coming after him for not paying his taxes. He played himself in cameos on George Lopez and Las Vegas and is the capable host of MTV's Real World Road Rules Challenge: The Inferno in Mexico. Next month he will headline the new Dew Action Sports Tour, a five-city tour that includes BMX Park and BMX Vert competitions.
"You never know," Mirra says, "when you'll get out there and suddenly you're trying something you've never seen before. That's rad."
Mirra wasn't always so at home in the spotlight. Ten years ago he and fellow riders would take their shows on the road and trade turns as announcers describing the tricks of the others. "Dave would put on the shades and stammer and stare at the ground until we relieved him of his duties," recalls BMXer Dennis McCoy, Mirra's mentor. "He just wanted to ride."
Mirra was hooked when he first hopped on a bike at age five in his hometown of Chittenango, N.Y., 20 miles east of Syracuse. By day he and his brother, Tim, two years older, would rummage through their garage for cement blocks, old wood, anything they could use to build ramps. Scraped and scratched from practicing on those ramps, they would stay in the garage working on their bicycles until after midnight, when their father, Michael, a TV repairman, would chase them off to bed.
At first Dave was so small he needed a curb just to mount his bike, yet he mastered wheelies and spins with ease. "At that age you're a clean slate," he says. "You don't know what can hurt you because it hasn't happened yet. I tried baseball, but it was too slow. I thought team sports were for people who want to be a part of something because they're not a part of anything else."
When Mirra was in sixth grade, one of his teachers called him out in front of the class and declared Mirra's extensive riding a waste of time better spent on more traditional sports. Mirra paid no heed. "I wasn't going to listen to an overweight teacher who was too fat to try it himself," he says.
Mirra hung around the emerging BMX scene and was discovered by riders from the Haro pro team when he was 13. Haro offered him a sponsorship soon after. Even as he polished his flatland skills, he was taking on vert ramps and soon was equally adept at both disciplines. McCoy, the world's premier rider for nearly a decade, took to the young phenom. "He had the skills, but, man, did he have the desire," McCoy recalls. "I remember thinking, 'Do I really want to show Dave this trick I've been working on for the past few months?' He might have it dialed in by the weekend."
In 1992 Mirra, then 18, upset Mat Hoffman on the vert ramp at a competition in Daytona Beach, but fame and fortune were still a ways off. "We weren't brands," says McCoy of the BMX riders back then. "We were products of the lean years."
It is hard to maintain street cred in the counterculture when you've leapfrogged that culture and become an industry.
How lean? The grocery chain Tom Thumb was the sponsor of shows in Dallas. As a promotion, the riders would shout out trivia questions to the crowd, with $25 gift certificates awarded for correct answers. "We could use the money, so we made a deal with the maintenance workers that we'd give them the answers and they'd split the certificates with us," McCoy says.
Despite the lack of riches, Mirra was enjoying his ride. Then, in 1993, his career—and his life—nearly ended. Mirra was walking out of a nightclub in Syracuse when he was hit by a car driven by an underage drunk driver. Mirra's skull was fractured. He awoke in a hospital surrounded by reassuring family members but unsure of his professional future. He stayed off his bike for six months, suffering from frequent migraines and altered senses of taste and smell. He took a job at a car dealership but quit on his third day.
Early in 1995, Mirra decided he was ready to get back into the sport. He moved to Greenville, where his brother was living, and took an apartment next to a BMX park. Riding with Tim, he gradually regained his passion.
That same year the X Games were born, and Mirra began raking in medals in both vert and flatland events. The exposure was a mixed blessing. He became a millionaire cult hero as he expanded his repertoire to include new spins and twists and a double-backflip, but commercial interests also changed the BMX landscape. "The sport was such a tight-knit group of people," he says. "TV brought money into it, which kind of separated people. 'He's making this. Why am I only making that?' That kind of thing. We weren't so tight after that."
Now Mirra is the establishment, and there's not much cutting-edge in his off-ramp life. He is a 15-handicap golfer and has rolled a 600 series in bowling. "The thing I love to do most is very physical," he says, "so I like to balance it with something that's more mental." He and his fianceé, Lauren Blackwell, own a Yorkie named Rocky Love and have just moved into a new house in Bath, N.C. Dave is especially fussy about guests who forget to push in their chairs after leaving the dinner table. On a typical day last month, just before the move, he was on and off his cellphone, quizzing repairmen about his malfunctioning landscaped waterfall. Mirra also lends his time to the Dream Factory, a Louisville-based organization that works with chronically and critically ill children.
Ultimately, Mirra is about more than maintaining his image. He won't even discuss retirement, because he hasn't finished exploring the boundaries of his sport and his talent. "You never know when you'll get out there and [suddenly] you're trying something that you've never seen before," he says. "That's it. That's rad." That's Dave Mirra finding lightning in a bottle.