Before Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was a two-time Xfinity Series champion, before he was one of the most aggressive drivers in the top stock car racing circuit in the country, before he turned that aggression into two wins at the NASCAR Cup Series level, he was a little boy tearing around tracks in Mississippi — not in four-wheeled vehicles but atop the two-wheeled variety.
He started racing BMX when he was 3 and switched over to dirt bikes when he was 4. He loved then, and still loves now, riding dirt bikes for the “jumping and just the overall power,” he says. “It’s something different than being on four wheels.”
Stenhouse switched to racing go-karts when he was 6 but never lost his love for riding dirt bikes. Now that he’s at NASCAR’s top level, he sees riding dirt bikes as a way to relax and get away from the stress of being in a high-performance industry. He needed that more than ever last season. He had what looked like a breakout 2017, when he won two races and qualified for the postseason. But his cars were slow all season long in 2018. His frustration occasionally boiled over, and he publicly criticized the cars his team gave him.
“I’ve been pretty vocal in the shop — and sometimes whether it be in an interview or on the radio, probably when I shouldn’t — and I definitely need to respect all of our guys at the shop that are working hard and trying to provide new stuff for us,” he says. “We just haven’t got that new stuff as quick as what we wanted.”
If Stenhouse can’t go fast on the track, at least he can go fast in his backyard. He lives on a property he calls Slide Job Ranch in Mooresville, just outside of Charlotte. He built a dirt bike track on the property, complete with mounds for jumping, banked turns and a trail that runs through the woods.
Construction on the track began like all great building projects: with a tractor and a dream. “I wanted to build [a track] on my property. I started building one with my John Deere tractor, but I wanted something better,” he says. “Blake Koch [a former Xfinity Series regular] brings his son over some to ride, and he mentioned that his stepdad had built some tracks in the past. I gave him a layout and some different ideas of what I was looking for, so he came out and improved it.”
While it’s mostly a hobby for fun, riding the dirt bikes is also good practice for driving a racecar.
“There is definitely some similarities with hand-eye coordination and hitting marks,” Stenhouse says. “I used to ride a lot in the woods, and at high speeds you really relied on making sure to hit those marks. I definitely think it keeps you sharp on your reaction time.”
Fellow NASCAR drivers Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson have occasionally joined Stenhouse on the track, and Stenhouse’s description of his exploits on the dirt bike sound about how you would expect them to sound from a guy who drives 200 miles per hour for a living and is on the aggressive end of the continuum among NASCAR drivers. That is to say, Stenhouse drives the dirt bike like he drives his racecar: all out.
He visited legendary freestyle motocross driver Brian Deegan’s house, rode his dirt bike up a ramp and did a backflip into a foam pit. “I completed it, and they were like, ‘You totally would have landed it!’ ” Stenhouse told USA Today. “And I’m like, ‘Well, let’s go do it!’ And they’re like, ‘Uh-uh.’ But dude, it was a blast.”
Maybe Deegan and crew, who wouldn’t let him backflip, were protecting Stenhouse from himself. In 2016, he broke his leg while riding his dirt bike during an off weekend. He somehow managed to keep that quiet and didn’t miss any races. “I was in a boot for a while, and I just had to take it off to race and then put it back on, but I told [team owner] Jack [Roush] I was good to go,” Stenhouse says.