The town of Mammoth Lakes sits nearly 8,000 feet above sea level in eastern California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s home to some of the state’s best skiing, but what I’m most interested in is the Mammoth Motocross track, an iconic venue where annual amateur racing events have boosted many of the sport’s biggest names to stardom. It also provided the perfect location for professional short-course UTV racer and viral video star R.J. Anderson to perform one of his most challenging stunts ever in a Polaris RZR side-by-side.
We made the trip out to Mammoth to get a look at his team’s latest filming project in which he'd become the first to attack that mountain-high course in a UTV; naturally, he'd be using his Polaris RZR Turbo R. That might not seem like a big deal, but this track isn't intended for anything with more than two wheels. You can see that it's tight, winding, and just plain tricky no matter the machine, but Anderson nailed it in a way that few others could:
The setup was key as everyone had to be in the right place at the right time to capture Anderson's run. I moved from spot to spot best I could, clicking the shutter on my camera as the others nabbed the stellar footage you see above.
Even with the pressure that comes with this type of occasion, it was always going to be a blast.
Always in the Dirt
Way before racking up millions of views on YouTube with projects such as the Area 52 Takeover and R.J. Anderson's Miracle Mile, Anderson was an off-road racer, enjoying dirt bikes and go-karts before transitioning to the UTV scene.
"I mean, I think it's funny,” Anderson said. “I've always looked at myself as a racer, but everywhere we go, the only thing people want to talk about is that last video I did or what's next and everything along those lines.”
Anderson was born into the world of off-road racing. His father, Randy Anderson, was the crew chief for Walker Evans Racing for 35 years. In turn, R.J. regularly attended races with his father and Walker Evans himself, an Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Famer. Growing up totally immersed in the environment would eventually shape Anderson into a world champion before he turned 30.
The YouTube star grew up riding motocross, but his mother, Carol Anderson, wouldn’t allow him to race. “It's my mom's one rule,” Anderson explained. “I could ride dirt bikes as much as I wanted. [I] could not race. That's how I found myself doing what I do now. I enjoyed it. I still watch the sport. … It wasn't the way I was going to make a living. I ended up on four wheels, and I don't think I'd change it."
Anderson began his career as a short-course off-road racer at the age of 14. Short-course racing is a closed-course format that closely relates to desert stage racing. The primary difference between the two is the total driven distance of the races, hence the name. Anderson holds hundreds of titles, including Short-Course Pro Turbo UTV World Champion, as well as two Baja 1000 victories.
Although he’d rather be known for his victories on the track than for his videos, he’s enjoyed the last decade of filming his mightiest driving feats.
"I've taken that on my shoulders these past five or so years and ran with it and had fun,” Anderson said. His video projects really took off with the XP1K series he produced with UTV Underground back in 2013. This series, in which Anderson drove a heavily modified UTV through spectacular, grueling obstacles, set the stage. Since then, he’s continued to take on new and exciting opportunities to push his UTVs to their limits in any setting.
“That's how I ended up in Mammoth today,” he said. “I want to do projects that the more I enjoy, the more passion I have behind the project, the better it always seems to turn out. This has a lot of history behind my roots and where I came from."
Polaris vs. Mammoth, or Mammoth vs. Polaris
The Mammoth course is the oldest continuously running motocross track in the United States. It opened for business in 1968 thanks to the efforts of founders Don Rake, aka The Original, and the late Dave McCoy, who founded the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. McCoy, who was awarded the Edison Dye Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to motocross in 2015, was happy to get involved. He offered the backing of his resort to the track. The resort staff members, including members of McCoy’s family, help manage it and the ski resort.
The Mammoth track has remained exclusive to motocross since it opened, and the course hasn’t changed all that much over the years. It has garnered favored status from many of the greats in motocross history; Jeremy McGrath, James Stewart, and Ricky Carmichael competed here in the early years of their racing careers. It's no wonder then that it is almost a living, breathing entity in the minds of powersports nuts such as Anderson.
"Mammoth is one of, if not the most famous motocross track in the southwest, which is where I grew up,” he said. “It's one of those things you always want what you can't have. Mammoth is that track. It's up here in beautiful Mammoth Lakes. The dirt is perfect. It's got this picturesque background, up and down hills. It's a perfect track to go rip on in.”
The opportunity to ride here is pretty exclusive. The track is closed to public use and is only open a small number of days every year. Anderson was given the chance to bring his Polaris RZR up for one day, and he jumped at it.
“I've been thinking of a way to cook this up for a long time,” he said. “The guys here at Mammoth have been so awesome to work with. I can't thank them enough.”
The RZR Turbo R that Anderson brought to Mammoth is a true beast. It’s boosted to produce an impressive 181 horsepower with its two-cylinder, 925cc engine. Combine that kind of output with 16 inches of ground clearance and 28 inches of suspension travel—both of which are more than a Ford F-150 Raptor on 37-inch tires—and you have a true performer. Despite what you might expect to pay for a combo like that, it has a starting price of $27,799, getting people into truly high-performance machinery for about half the price of a new off-road truck.
Along with shooting the video that they hope will be viewed tens of millions of times, Anderson and his team also pinned the Polaris RZR Turbo R and Pro R against one another to see which performs better at breathtaking elevation. The latter is Polaris' four-cylinder RZR variant capable of turning out an impressive 225 horsepower from its 2.0-liter. To make things somewhat fair, both models had the Dynamix DV smart suspension swapped out for identical race suspension. While the smart suspension is an amazing thing, something fixed and predictable was preferred for testing.
The team spent time dialing in both RZRs so they would perform well on this track, and Anderson is a driver built for the dirt. It remained to be seen how they would do together at Mammoth.
“Turbocharged is at 181 horsepower,” Anderson said. “The Pro R is at 225 horsepower out of the box. Both of them are bone stock, not tuned. Running the same fuel, everything.”
Time for Timing
As much fun as a head-to-head UTV race would be on this historic strip of dirt, it's not possible. While great for filming a killer video, this track isn't built to accommodate multiple four-wheelers. This is a dedicated motocross track. It is far too narrow for a pack of UTVs.
Before practice runs for the two Polaris RZRs, there was time for a track tour on a Kawasaki Mule, which was admittedly captivating since street cars are more in my wheelhouse. To know that some of the greatest athletes in motocross tore it up here made it an almost spiritual experience. For Anderson, this was a great way to live out a dream.
"It's like that thing,” he said, “that golden acorn out there. And that's what Mammoth is to the motocross world.”
It was finally time to drive the RZR twins on the track and get down to business, and each Polaris ripped through the dirt. Before any timing could take place, the team worked on getting footage together for the initial project. Anderson attacking the legendary motocross track with the Turbo R was the core focus, and the team worked tirelessly for hours on end to get the right shots.
Anderson darted through the turns, blasted over whoops, and launched off Mammoth’s iconic tabletops. The sound of the engine, the suspension setup, and the man piloting it came together to create an amazing display of power that’s really only possible in a purpose-built machine like this. Anderson, intentionally or not, always set it up to cast a beautiful rooster tail of dirt and dust behind him. Even soaring through the air, the RZR seemed entirely at home.
Had it not been for a time schedule, Anderson may never have stopped. I heard him yelling over the engine to track workers and his film crew about how much he loved it, saying he could spend all day doing laps.
The film crew consisted of just two people, Daniel Schenkelberg and Paul Vitale. Schenkelberg is a professional motorsports photographer, and Vitale is a digital creator with a particular focus on filming motorsports. He regularly films for the Anderson Brothers YouTube Channel.
“We don't have a 10-person film crew out here like many would think, or many would like to come out here would do,” Anderson said. “I would love to come out here and do that, but Daniel and Paul have been behind me and a lot of my projects. I know that when I come out to something like this, they're fully capable of making it happen.”
Schenkelberg and Vitale work together for hours on end, doing whatever they can to get the right shot. If it means hitting the same corner for an hour or climbing up and down the same hill 20 times, that's what they do.
Although they give each other a hard time throughout the day in the mountains, Anderson sings the crew's praises. "It takes guys like that to work with you and be a part of your team, that always have your back, and you have to have theirs as well."
Once they gathered all the footage they needed from the first shoot, they brought out the timing equipment and began testing with the Turbo R. It sounded just like a race vehicle should while tearing through the track; the engine was wound tight as it flew through turns and over every obstacle in its path. The Pro R was noticeably quieter, almost as though it was hardly turning any revs in comparison to the competition. Perhaps it was due to the engine struggling to pull in the oxygen it needed, or maybe it just doesn’t need to run as hard to keep up.
Despite being pushed to the limit for several laps of an odd but punishing track for the platform, both vehicles held together. Not even the tabletops could claim parts from either Polaris.
There are a few positions around the track that offer a more complete view of the course. Even in some of the best spots, we sometimes caught only glimpses of Anderson and the RZRs. From those angles, it was hard to tell which one was faster on this track. The recording equipment held the answer.
Unfortunately, we weren't provided with any lap times. They weren’t available right away, and besides, the team probably wants to be the first to release the results. Forced induction would appear to have the edge due to the high elevation, but the RZR Pro R was no slouch. They seemed equally at home at the track with Anderson in the driver’s seat.
Looking at what the future might hold, it’s certain R.J. Anderson and the team won’t be sitting still.
"It's always what's next, right?” Anderson said. “That's why I did that X1K series back in the day, and it started getting play. I was back-flipping RZRs, and it was like, you know what? This isn't necessarily achievable to the general public. Then we stepped to do the Hoonigan thing and jumped a freeway. It's not always what's necessarily achieved, but it's just showing that these vehicles keep progressing.”
Anderson said that blowing people’s minds is where the fun lies for him.
“I get to do something different that really no one's been able to do,” he said. “It's an opportunity of a lifetime. … I wish I could come in here every day and burn laps. What's next for me is just to keep chasing the fun, keep pushing these vehicles to their limits, really.”
Those limits are high, and so is Anderson's skill level. No matter what's next, you know it's going to be a blast if it's anything like his rip around Mammoth.