Two months ago few people outside the gonzo world of motocross knew of Chuck Carothers. Though he had been riding professionally for three years, he had never established himself among the sport's elite. His fearless riding style had earned him props from his peers but little in the way of prize money. His best finish at an X Games had been a sixth place in last summer's Best Trick competition, and a series of injuries had kept him out of commission for nearly eight months after that. When he headed to Los Angeles earlier this month as a wild-card entry in the X Games, he was under a mountain of credit card debt and, by his own admission, just scraping by. "I try not to think about it," he says. "I do this for the fun and the adrenaline rush."
It was fitting then that at the 10th anniversary of the adrenaline fest that is the X Games, nobody put a bigger charge into the crowd at the Staples Center than the 26-year-old Carothers. Competing in the Best Trick event, he became the first rider to stick a move known officially as a seat-grab body varial. Launching himself about 40 feet into the air, Carothers let go of his handlebars, pushed off his seat, and with his body parallel to the ground, executed a barrel roll before grabbing the bars and pulling himself back onto his bike to land safely on the dirt ramp. The trick brought the crowd of 23,720 to their feet, won Carothers the gold medal and $50,000, and earned him a brand-new Saturn SUV as the Athlete of the Games. It also made him an instant star. "I'm pretty sure I had some luck on my side," he says. "But I'd been through the trick so many times, I had it completely figured out in my head. It didn't matter that I'd never landed it on dirt before."
Even before Carothers arrived in Los Angeles, his quest to land the move--which he has dubbed the Carolla (Carothers plus roll)--was legendary among his fellow riders. He'd first attempted it into a foam pit last January and had promptly broken three metacarpals in his right foot, an injury that required surgery and the insertion of a pin. In June he made what he considers his first successful attempt but dislocated his left shoulder. One month later, just three weeks before the X Games, he broke his left collarbone doing the trick. "He's one of the most underrated freestylers in the world, but he's fragile," says Travis Pastrana, who finished third to Carothers in L.A. "Everybody, and I mean everybody, knew he was working on this trick. We were all pulling for him."
If the word got out early, it's mostly due to Pastrana, a former Gravity and X Games gold medallist who is one of the most recognized figures in action sports. For most of the summer Carothers spent his nights crashing into the foam pit behind Pastrana's house in Annapolis, Md., and spent his nights crashing in Pastrana's guest room. "He ate all my food, and his piece-of-junk van is still parked in my yard," says Pastrana. "He just loves riding. He knew he was going to win the X Games someday."
That drive is what persuaded Carothers to move from his home in Kingwood, Texas, to the motocross Mecca of Southern California five years ago. After a brief stint tending bar, he began riding full time in 2001 and quickly became known as an innovative but hard-luck rider. Pastrana says he still hasn't seen anyone but Carothers execute a one-handed kiss of death--a one-handed handstand with his bike positioned vertically beneath him. Injuries, however, kept him from reaching his full potential. By his own estimate, Carothers has had 21 broken bones and 13 surgeries in his career, and his best year financially came last year, when he made $50,000, half of what most top riders earn. Now, however, he has signed with several sponsors. "I'm taking advantage of all the opportunities," says Carothers, who recently moved back to Kingwood. "I just have to stay healthy now, and I can't wait to start practicing."