Businessman, father, champion short course off-road racer, RallyCross competitor and progenitor of the freestyle motocross movement, Brian Deegan is more than any one of those things. The founder of the Metal Mulisha and the lifestyle brand it spawned, the Mulisha's General is a brand unto himself. And, however you attempt to define him, there's no doubt he's coming off his best year as a competitor.
Not only did he win the Pro Lite championship in the 2011 Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series, repeating his title from his rookie season in '09, he also took on the much tougher challenge of the Pro 2 category, and nailed it, becoming the first rookie to win a Pro 2 title in modern short course history. In the process, he beat some of the sport's fiercest competitors. In 2011, six different drivers won Pro 2 races; several more should have.
But short course off-road racing, even though it's Deegan's main focus, was only part of his 2011 story. It began with the announcement of a factory deal with Ford. Then there was an appearance at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl midget car race. At the X Games in Los Angeles, he won a bronze medal in the Step-Up – essentially a high jump for dirt bikes – and the gold he coveted for RallyCross after a pair of silvers the year before. He capped it off by competing for the U.S. in the Race of Champions in Germany, lining up against Formula 1 and rally champions from across the globe. Topping it off, at Jason Ellis's Ellis Mania mixed martial arts event, he battled BMXer/Rally racer Dave Mirra and won.
“2011's been the best year in my whole career, period,” says Deegan. “I won both championships, I won X Games gold…then I got invited to Race of Champions to race with Vettel and Schumacher. How do I ever top that? It made me think, ‘Should I try something different next year?' It would be the ultimate statement to say, ‘I'm done, I already won.' It would be gnarly. But I feel like I have too much fun with short course, I enjoy it too much.”
With the investment he's put in, it would be tough to walk away. That investment is not only in terms of money and equipment – he makes no bones about his willingness to spend whatever it takes to win a Pro 2 title – but in molding a better driver. Much of his extracurricular activity in the past 18 months has been about making himself faster, whether by design or happy coincidence.
Take the midget racing, for example. To prepare for that, he went to Cory Kruseman's sprint and midget car school. He readily admits he learned a few tricks there that raised his short course game, but it goes beyond that – Kruseman joined him as spotter in the latter half of 2011 and will be on board full time in '12. It's only part of what Deegan is doing to make sure he wins.
“I've got a lot of time to make up; the guys I'm racing have been on four wheels a lot longer than I have,” he explains. “So, in a short two years, how do I close that gap? How do I learn what they've learned in 20 years of racing? I had to race every form of vehicle. I had to study tapes, read books. I did homework beyond homework. It's a lot of time and sacrifice I've put into short course to win the championship, and it was hard work. I look back on it, and yeah, it was fun, but there are times when it wasn't. In the end it paid off and I accomplished the ultimate goal.”
That goal was winning Pro 2. By the time the circus came to Firebird for the finale, it almost looked easy. Preseason, few considered the possibility of a rookie champion. Deegan scored a few podium finishes in the opening races, but Rob MacCachren, Carl Renezeder and Rob Naughton were hogging the wins. Still, they had their share of troubles as well, so Deegan wasn't that far behind. But by the time the summer break was over and the series hit Glen Helen, it was like someone flipped a switch and Deegan could do no wrong. The first win in the bag, another victory at Surprise and mostly podiums to round out the season, while Renezeder faded, meant he cruised to the title, easily holding off a MacCachren surge.
“Everything went right,” he says. “We worked hard, I put the money in, and we had a good truck and a crew that laid it down and worked their butts off. It comes down to that. Can we do it again? Yeah, we can do it again. It just depends on how bad we want it. I proved I can do it driving.”
“I look up to guys like MacCachren and Renezeder. Watching my first race, it was like, ‘Dude, they are so fast.' I was tripping how good they were, and I will always respect those guys.”
Winning the Pro Lite championship, when he wasn't even sure he was going to contest it prior to the start of the season, was a nice bonus. As the season progressed, Pro Lite looked like it could go either way. Deegan won one; Chris Brandt won two. Deegan took a few, and then Brandt would win another. Brandt never finished off the podium until August at Glen Helen, and the race for the title was incredibly close, with Brandt holding a slight edge. Then Deegan went on a tear. He won the last five races to seal the title. Winning Pro 2 at Firebird in December was almost anticlimactic; the Pro Lite title, uncertain until he got out of the truck at the podium, was one to savor.
With what he accomplished in 2011, it would be tempting to go seek the next challenge. But Deegan sees himself around the sport for a while, even as he dabbles in rally, open-wheel dirt track racing and – new to his repertoire – stock cars. If not racing himself, he expects to be helping kids Hailie and Haiden with their racing efforts. Hailie is running in Junior 2 karts and has her eyes on a racing career even as she polishes her entrepreneurial skills in the paddock, selling hair ties and Dirt Princess T-shirts. The family aspect of short course is a big draw, and Deegan admits he may take a step back in '12 to spend more time with his. He also wants to concentrate on the Metal Mulisha business, which has expanded into shoes and off-road parts. And he'll still be blasting through the motocross course and flipping dirt bikes in his backyard.
“As long as it's still fun, I expect to be in short course for a while,” he says. “I've got my fans and I've got my haters. That's what I like – I'd rather have people boo me than not care. Hopefully, people can see the hard work I put in and respect me for that.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, you'll need the February 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.