Nitro Circus recruits athletes in a lot of different ways, most often adding riders to the roster who have started to break out in their sport. But some of the Crew came on board for one thing and ended up staying on after proving themselves in some other discipline. For example, Dusty Wygle caught producers’ attention because he was crazy on a pitbike, and now in shows he rides mountain bikes, land boogie boards, and rocking horses, among other things. But no one has as unique a recruiting story as Kurtis Downs, who’s currently one of Nitro’s BMX superstars and was initially brought on board simply because he’s not a very big guy.
Kurtis was near his home in Draper, Utah, when I spoke with him. He explained that Nitro was looking for someone small to jump a few of the contraptions, and Kurtis was becoming well-known in the Utah BMX world, so through mutual acquaintances he got hooked up with the gig. If you go to a Nitro show today, you’ll notice that, yes, he still jumps contraptions, but for most of the show he’s riding BMX, doing some of the craziest most technical tricks on the Giganta side. As an example, one of his signature tricks is what he calls a “three super indie whip” — a 360 superman Indian air tailwhip. It’s a technical combo, but he’s got a very simple explanation for how he approaches it:
“The main thing that goes through my head is to remember to stop everything and just look at someone in the audience — like, pick someone out of the crowd to look at,” Kurtis says. “So, as soon as I roll in, I remember that, drop in, grab usually a harder pump than a softer pump because I’d rather go deep than short, and then come off the lip and just look for someone that has something bright or something that sticks out in the crowd and stay on that while I do a tailwhip, and as soon as the tailwhip’s done, just put my feet on, look at the landing, and the 360 comes around usually perfect. After that, just wait for the bag and celebrate.” In this video, it’s the first BMX trick you see him do:
Picking someone out of the crowd to focus on is an interesting tactic that is really important, it turns out: “It makes sure that I actually stop what I’m doing, so I don’t overdo it. Otherwise, if I don’t, I usually overcook the 360, but I’ve noticed if I just look at someone right there, everything stops just enough,” he says. “That’s when I land straightest.”
Kurtis is a super technical rider who’s been quietly making a name for himself in BMX over the years. “Quietly making a name for himself” might sound like it doesn’t make sense, but it’s fairly accurate in his case. Kurtis’ teammates consistently list him when they talk about riders who are absolutely killing it every day. He’s an action sports athlete who other action sports athletes look up to. Yet, there isn’t a lot about him out there online; in the public eye he keeps a somewhat low profile. “Coming from a small town, I don’t really worry too much about outside-world perspective as much as I probably should,” he says. “I’d rather just go do it and have fun, and then I kind of get lost and don’t really keep track of all the social media and bios and this and that, just ’cause I’d rather be the hands-on person who’s out having fun doing it.”
Kurtis grew up in Firth, Idaho, a small community in the Eastern part of the state. He got into dirtbikes at an early age and started racing. From there he got into freeriding, but he started to realize that dirtbikes weren’t going to be his career-making discipline. But it was during his senior year in high school, while he was still racing motorcycles, that his next opportunity presented itself. “I picked up a BMX bike at a moto race one day — watched a kid do a barspin and figured out they’re way harder than they look by trying it on his bike,” he says. A few weeks later, Kurtis sold a bunch of stuff and cashed a couple paychecks to pick up his first BMX bike. He started riding with a few local BMX pros, including Colton Satterfield. “I just started riding BMX with them, bigger and bigger stuff,” he says.
A few months into riding BMX, he checked out a local skatepark, and his drive to become a top rider began. “That’s when I met everyone in the BMX scene of Idaho. They showed me that there are dirt trails and you can build as big of a jump as you want.” Getting into bigger and bigger jumps helped Kurtis progress quickly. He started doing shows, performing in local events. Word got around that Nitro was looking for someone on the smaller side for a few of the stunts in the show, and through a series of mutual friends and connections, Kurtis was recommended for the spot.
He was brought in to ride contraptions, but his main skill eventually shined through. “I just showed them that I rode BMX as well and ended up doing both,” he says. Because he’s seriously talented, he was asked to fill in when BMX slots were available, which led to him becoming a full-time Nitro member. He does still ride contraptions, including the whiskey barrel, the bathtub (“If I get roped into it”), the wheelbarrow (“Probably the sketchiest one”), and trikes.
He says the contraptions are always a gamble. And that makes sense. Jolene Van Vugt was seriously injured in practice on the whiskey barrel when they were preparing to introduce it to the show, and 15 minutes later he was asked to take her place. “All the contraptions are where it’s sketchiest,” he says. That’s because you don’t have anyone to coach you on proper speed or technique — with a new contraption, you’re the first person to ever try it out. But he’s been jumping the barrel a while now, so he must have figured out the trick. “It’s a prayer every time,” he says. Particularly, he adds, on the Nitro catapult system (which is where Jolene was injured) it’s a lot more difficult to keep the barrel straight as you go from zero to 60 toward the ramp. “It gets sideways and so sketchy right before the lip,” Kurtis says.
But action sports in general, even the crazy stuff he gets to do with Nitro, help him become a better BMX rider. “Jumping on trampolines, snowboarding, just anything that’s an action sport helps some sort of balance or something that helps you on your bike — it all kind of comes back to it, all action sports. It’s all muscle memory. So, pretty much everything I do I just try to relate back to the bike. I try to take it from every discipline that I watch. Scootering, rollerblading — you can learn something from everyone.”
Being inspired by his fellow Nitro Crew members leads to awesome things, like one of his favorite tricks: the BMX ruler flip, which he does without flip levers. “I like to see how close I can get to doing it like a dirtbike without flip levers,” he says. The flip levers help your position in the air relative to the bike so that you’re able to get the seat under you before you land, whereas without them, Kurtis says: “You just kind of have to hold the pressure with your wrists. And then you have your brake lever, which kind of helps.” It’s a difficult trick to pull off correctly on a BMX with no flip levers, and he doesn’t always try them in shows. “The moto dudes always go before us, and I’ll watch them do it and I’m like, ‘Dang, I want to do that. I’m going.'”
When he does try them during shows, it’s in the final train segments, where the athletes get a little more freedom to improvise. “It just depends on the show — how bad I want to try to stay up on two wheels,” he says, laughing. “You just kind of decide what sounds fun at the moment.” Here’s a clip of him trying one in practice:
Such a great practice here in Arizona today! Love trying to see how close I can get this to a Moto ruler flip @ethenroberts #nitrocircus #az #rulerflip #mototricks
Posted by Kurtis Downs on Saturday, November 14, 2015
Ethen Roberts is impressed that Kurtis was brought on to ride contraptions but has broken out in BMX: “Now he’s one of the better BMX riders in the entire show, so to see him progress and do so well is really cool and inspiring,” Ethen says. Fellow BMX phenom Todd Meyn says Kurtis is “super happy, positive, has a good attitude, and just always rides amazing. Whether it’s in a show or practice, he’ll send it. He’s not scared, and he’s very very talented and can pretty much do anything he wants if he tries it.”
“I just go have fun, ride whatever I can, gain as much experience as I can while I’m young,” Kurtis says. This will be his third year on tour, and he shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, at 24, it looks like his biggest and best work is still ahead of him. Going from a small contraptions role to establishing himself as an integral part of the Nitro Circus live show is just the start. One things is for sure: Kurtis Downs may not be big, and he may not be loud, but he lets his riding do the talking.