Monday, March 4, 2024

INTERVIEW: Dustin Jones on mission to prove “good guys can win”

When it was revealed in August, the Can-Am Maverick R was touted as the most powerful UTV on the market. Faster and wider than its predecessors and the side-by-side vehicles of other manufacturers, the car raised as much excitement as it did eyebrows for its design. Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but Dustin Jones proved that trophies are blind to appearance.

The Can-Am factory rider was entrusted with the Maverick R’s for its racing début at the Silver State 300, where he proceeded to make history by becoming the first UTV to win a desert race outright. A week later, “Battle Axe” sat down with The Checkered Flag to discuss the triumph, his thoughts and role in developing the Maverick R, and how UTV racing has grown in the past year.

The Silver State 300

“For me, in the smaller genre of racing, it was life changing to accomplish something like that.”

Dustin Jones

Despite the hype surrounding the Maverick R, it would be a stretch to say Jones and the Can-Am Factory Racing Team were expecting to blow away the Best In The Desert field at the Silver State 300. In fact, the team was perhaps more anxious than confident.

“We were excited and nervous about this opportunity to be the first guys to race this new Maverick R,” Jones began. “You could say that there’s no pressure and it’s like, ‘Hey, we understand racing is racing and anything can happen,’ but because we were part of the development and we understand the effort that the engineers put in, this was a whole new design in terms of transmission and in terms of the knuckles for the suspension of it, whether they said it or not, we understood the pressure that came along with this race.

“I’ve been in tons of races and I know you can get a flat, you can break an axle, you could blow a corner and crash the car, and I’ve done both. I’ve won the biggest races and I’ve crashed the car six miles into the race and so I’m familiar with all of it. That’s variables we had to consider going into this race.”

Jones started fourth among UTVs while the Polaris of Mitch Guthrie was on the pole. Guthrie, the current World Rally-Raid Championship leader in the T3 class, had finished runner-up at the last BITD round at the Vegas to Reno in August and looked to be the favourite. On the other hand, Jones was more looking towards seeing how the Maverick R played out in racing conditions, especially as the Silver State 300 is known for its fast, rally-style course. As such, his early gameplan could be boiled down to “conserve the car, take it easy, figure out the pace.”

Guthrie had led much of the first half before mechanical issues set him back. This left Jones battling with his fellow Can-Am drivers Vito Ranuio and Phil Blurton for the UTV Turbo Pro and the overall UTV win. Once he realised victory was within reach, he “knew had we to turn it up and we did.”

“We knew that there was going to be a learning curve,” he recounted. “We knew that we only had limited miles on this car because it had only been actually released for a few weeks. We couldn’t be out there guessing the car before it was released or anything like that, and then we were building a race car after the release happened. We had limited miles in the car, so we knew there was going to be a learning curve at the beginning of the race of getting used to it and running this thing at race pace. Typically, my strategy going into big races like this is I know the pace that it takes to win a race because we’ve won so many and you try to stay just below that to conserve the car. Getting used to the car, running conservative pace, it was go out there, feel the car out, see where the field is shaking out, and then make our move from there.

“As the day went on, we kind of figured out who the leaders were about 100 miles into this 300-mile race. When I knew like, ‘Alright, here’s where the top guys are,’ from pit to pit, which is roughly about thirty to fifty miles apart, I would have my chase crew update me on time spreads of, ‘Hey, how far are we from the leader?’ From one pit, we would be three minutes behind, and then I would push hard for the next bit and then we would be within 45 seconds and so I was like, ‘Okay, now I know what the leader’s pace is, now I know what I need to do to win this thing.’ Going into the last hundred, we were a couple of minutes down and I had already made up a few minutes on a couple of different pit stops. I was like, ‘Alright, cool.’ When we were in the last 100, I knew this is when I have to live by the motto that I preach which is ‘checkers or wreckers,’ which is what a lot of people know me for is either I’m going to win or I’m going to crash. I’m going to win a race, I’m going to crash the car. Everybody knows I race checkers or wreckers.

“Going into that last 100, we were down by about two minutes and I knew this is decision time. I’ve got 100 miles to either do this or do we take it easy and make sure the car gets the finish and make sure we finish the first race in the Maverick R. At that 100 miles, on my crew saying ‘You’re down by two minutes. You’ve got to decide what you want to do,’ that’s when I knew I had to live by my own motto and I got to go checkers or wreckers. That last 100 miles, we freaking turned it up. We pushed super hard. We picked off all the cars in front of us and the guy that had been leading all day, as we came into about ten miles from finish, I could see his car. That’s when I realised, ‘Alright, we caught the leader. He’s definitely not going to beat us.’ And so it was that hard push at the end.”

Jones recorded a total time of 5:11:39.222, the fastest of all thirty-nine finishers regardless of class. Ranuio finished second and three minutes behind at 5:14:34.301, while Blurton completed the Can-Am overall podium sweep at 5:13:39.314.

“To roll through that finish line at the end of the race, generally we didn’t know how we finished. I kind of had an idea because I knew throughout the day where we were tracking with the leaders and where the leader was,” Jones recapped. “I knew I’d caught him unless there was somebody else who had possibly won. When they delivered that news that we not only won first in the UTV class but we won first overall out of all vehicles, which has never been done in a side-by-side before; it was literally a historic moment that had never been accomplished in the history of racing for side-by-side. That’s when the emotion really set in and the good tears started rolling and you start realising what we had accomplished.

“It was our goal the whole time to try to win, but it’s a possibility that things can go wrong. I’ve always told everybody with racing, there’s ten thousand opportunities for something to go wrong and it literally only takes one for it to happen. For all the stars to align, for us to have a clean day, for us to come out there and win the UTV, which is what we were trying to do, but also win overall overall was, dude, it was just mind blowing.”

Blurton, the 2021 SCORE International overall champion, was also in a Maverick R like Jones whereas Ranuio remained in the classic Can-Am Maverick X3. The Maverick X3 also scored a class win in UTV Super Stock with Michell Alsup and finished third in UTV Trophy Unlimited with Cody Bradbury.

While supporting colleagues is to be expected, it should not be a surprise that Jones did not focus on them during the race. Such a mentality is particularly reinforced in time-based disciplines like desert racing, where individual performance is key and the leaderboard is constantly in flux. It was not until the dust settled down that the banner day could be cherished.

“In a car during a race, you’re focused on, ‘I need to do good. I have to try to win this race.’ That’s just the pressure you put yourself in as I guess what people would consider one of the top racers,” he explained. “The entire time, I was thinking our strategy, sticking to the game plan, making sure we take care of the car, making sure we’re catching the leaders, and then to roll across, find out that we won, and then just shortly after we find out that Phil took third in the Maverick R and then another one of our Can-Am team-mates took second so we overall overall swept 1–2–3 and then overall swept 1–2–3 in the Pro Turbo class. I kind of described it as we’re running against those guys, we’re competing against them, but they are our team-mates. You get that mutual respect thing where you look over at each other at the podium and you give each other that head nod and that wink of like, ‘Bro, we did this and we did this together.’

“Win, lose, or draw, I would want my team-mates to win if I wasn’t going to be able to win. I think they have that same mutual respect for me, like if they weren’t going to win it, they would want to see me do well. We all hug as team-mates and you give that head nod of like, ‘I was running against you but I’m also pulling for you.’ I was super happy to see that not only did we do well but our team-mates finished well too, and it’s just another feather in the cap of Can-Am doing a podium sweep overall overall, and it made for a good day.”

With the race just a week after SCORE’s Baja 400 while the California 300 and Laughlin Desert Challenge are on back-to-back weekends a fortnight after the Silver State 300, it featured just forty-five total entries. Trick Trucks and Class 6100, categories that usually win the overall, were only represented by one and three cars respectively. Jonathan Brenthel, the lone Trick Truck, finished eleventh overall while his brother and 6100 driver Jordan Brenthel missed the overall podium in fourth, two minutes behind Blurton.

The limited field might mean less competition for the UTVs, but Jones was not keen on letting critics put an asterisk on the feat for “variables that we can’t control.

“I’ve always been a person that thinks you can’t sweat the small things in life. Yes, there was only one full blown Trick Truck and I think two or three Spec trucks. I guess people could discount it, but for me, I don’t get hung up on things like that. Outside of overalling with just a few other vehicles there, we still overalled all UTVs, beat all competitor units, beat all other classes. You can’t discount that. If you want to discount that we beat some Trophy Trucks and that we beat some 6100 and we beat dirt bikes and we beat quads that usually beat all of us, if you want to discount that, you still can’t discount that we beat every other UTV on track. I try to always focus on the celebration and the enjoyment of that victory versus, ‘Well, it’s kind of like you won it but you didn’t win it.’

“They may say that. I haven’t heard people say that to me, but I can understand where they would. But you can’t take away that we still won, beat all the other UTVs that were on course.”

Credit: Brandon Bunch/Can-Am

The Can-Am Maverick R

“This car is certainly the next evolution of UTVs, especially after we dialled it.”

Dustin Jones

While a victory on début might not have been atop the priority list for the Maverick R, it was still the culmination of a years-long build. Luc Bouchard, the Director of Engineering for manufacturer Bombardier Recreational Products, revealed in a media roundtable with TCF shortly after its unveiling that development took five years due to the plethora of technology; work began on its seven-speed dual clutch transmission even before that with an eight-year process.

Jones and his peers were well familiar with the Maverick R throughout its developmental cycle before they were allowed to test it. Once that happened, the car hit all the notes that the drivers played.

“We were fortunate enough to know about this car a long, long time ago and that was before we had ever seen renderings or ever seen the vehicle,” Jones said. “I’ve known about the vehicle for years, but in terms of testing it’s been within the last year that we really started testing and what was incredible is when they bought us the ‘P3’ version—like the final prototype version of the car—which is what we got to drive. The car was already so close. We had some small inputs, some different little things that we liked, but man, it was so impressive to get in that car straight from the engineers and drive the P3 versions and realise like, ‘Dude, y’all were able to do this without any racing input, without us having any significant impact on the design of this thing. This car is already freaking incredible.’

“To test it with them, the engineers were there to learn. They wanted to know what did we think about it, not just as racers, but as somebody that would be a general consumer, what is that balance of ‘What do you need for racing specifically and what if that translates to a production model end user?’ It was incredible to work with the engineers and those guys had pen and pad out, they were taking notes, and to see the final version, like the full production models that we raced, and see little touches that you had some input on, it was such a cool experience.”

The car underwent approximately 500 thousand kilometres of testing to ensure the features would perform as planned, though Bouchard stressed the Maverick R “is not a race car. This is high performance, but this is a mass production car too.” Indeed, Jones’ Silver State 300 challenger was almost fully stock save for certain changes to meet BITD safety regulations.

Of course, he is more than open to making further upgrades. His S3 Power Sports company, which prepares his race cars, produces aftermarket parts and accessories to make UTVs and other off-road vehicles even more powerful.

“We used stock shocks and we had our old valving put into the shocks because we are driving harder and I don’t want to break anything, but generally we put some little gusset kits,” Jones explained. “We have to have all the safety requirements, but it’s strengthened some things that we would do anyways. It doesn’t matter if it was the Maverick R or if it was any other unit. There are certain things I do to my vehicles to prepare for a race that have nothing to do with the strength of the car or reliability; it’s just things I like to do, like certain wheel and tyre combo, a certain shock, a certain rock deflector to protect vital parts of the car.

“But generally, we took a stock car out there with some little reinforcements and all the safety requirements and that stock motor, stock transmission, all factory drivetrain, all factory axles, all factory interior, besides what we have to have for safety requirements. Where I would normally want to tear the car all the way down, full sheet metal interior, full sheet metal door panels and things, we didn’t on this one. It’s got stock doors on it, stock dash, stock interior, and just some reinforcements that I like to have on all of my cars. Besides the safety requirements, somebody else could have raced the exact same car that I raced, you know?

“It’s hard to replicate a race scenario until you’re actually in it, so we went suspension testing for three days with Fox and I was really comfortable with it. But then you get in a race scenario, you’re driving 20% harder. You’re like, ‘Oh, this thing steps out a little more than I remember in testing.’ The potential of what this car is capable of when we tear it down and build a full blown race car, like stripped down as light as we can, as strong as we can, oh my god, these cars are going to run with the buggies whenever we’re whenever we’re done building them.”

After it was revealed, the Maverick R drew some odd looks for its unusual tall-knuckle front suspension design that juts outwards before cutting in at a near-right angle and curving into the wheel well, similar to praying mantis arms. While a stark contrast from traditional suspension arms, it was intended to improve the car’s steering geometry, load distribution, and roll centre height.

Although certainly a unique appearance, Jones feels people will be more accepting as consumers purchase and experience it for themselves.

“I understand as a person that looks at the same thing you’re looking at, it’s different. Different is not always easily accepted,” opined Jones. “If you’ve been through any vehicle launches—the new Chevrolet, the new Dodge Ram—everybody’s like that. ‘New front end is so ugly, the new grille is disgusting!’ And then six months in, nobody cares and they love it.

“I recognise as a person that’s been an early adopter my entire life, like the new latest and greatest, I’m willing to open mindedly give it an opportunity. I’m fortunate enough to be able to get in the car, drive an X3, jump in that, and feel the actual difference. That’s what’s really going to make the most difference is when a person can have that driver experience. It’s one thing for me as a racer to tell them, ‘This thing drives incredible. You can drive it one hand at ninety miles an hour through the whoops and you feel comfortable.’ But until a person can get in there and drive it, they won’t understand how valuable that suspension design is.

“It’s like chopping a tree down. This win, you know, the information that we provide through all of our social media of the design and the performance of this thing, it just chips away at those naysayers. I think the biggest swing, the biggest axe hit was to go out there and win in this car and people will be like, ‘Oh dang, this thing ain’t just a funny looking, different design. This thing gets down as a UTV.’”

Credit: Brandon Bunch/Can-Am

UTV Racing in 2023

The UTV racing scene has rapidly evolved in recent years from its reputation as a “golf cart” class. While UTVs will still be outclassed by a Trophy Truck on most days, they have grown into a more competitive discipline with multiple subcategories across series such as BITD, SCORE, W2RC, and even short course racing like Championship Off-Road.

Can-Am has typically been the top UTV manufacturer, but rivals at Polaris and Honda have beefed up their motorsport programmes to narrow the gap. Polaris created Polaris RZR Factory Racing for the 2023 SCORE season, and the team’s purpose-built Polaris RZR Pro R Factory was the best UTV at SCORE’s Baja 500 and Baja 400 with Brock Heger. Honda Factory Off-Road Racing has a second-generation Honda Talon that will enter the Baja 1000 in November while the Japanese manufacturer also oversees a race-winning Talon short course division.

In the W2RC, Can-Am Mavericks are typically the top vehicles in the T3 class for Light Prototype (race-purposed UTVs) and T4 (production cars) thanks to Red Bull Can-Am Factory Racing and South Racing. However, Guthrie leads the T3 standings in a Taurus T3 Max from MCE-5 Development while Yamaha has enjoyed success as well with the YXZ1000R Turbo Prototype. When Can-Ams finished 1–2 in T3 at the legendary Dakar Rally in January, Guillaume de Mévius prevented the podium sweep in an Overdrive Racing OT3.

Off-road great Robby Gordon has also been developing his SPEED UTV brand that started competition in 2023. SPEED UTV, another addition to Gordon’s decorated SPEED portfolio that also includes SPEED Energy and the Stadium Super Trucks, has a partnership with two-race desert series NORRA.

Jones not only welcomes the increased competition, but sees it as a critical component of his livelihood. As a racer, more diversity in his opponents gives Can-Am a reason to continue funding motorsport; as the head of S3 Power Sports, it increases public interest in UTVs and allows him to make a living.

“People are becoming more educated with social media, with more information out there, they know more about these things,” Jones commented. “They understand the dynamic of them and how well they work and what they’re capable of and that gets people excited and they want to fix them up.

“It’s like having a Jeep. Jeeps have been around for seventy years or whatever it is. People like to customise those things, and so that’s become a thing the more educated people have become on Jeep. The most modified vehicle on the road is a Jeep. UTVs are becoming exactly that for the off-road. These things, nobody leaves these things stock anymore. They all customise them. They all do their own touch to them. For me, that’s incredible and what drives that is changing models, updating models, improving increasing capability, and then the competition of it between models.

“For me, I bleed black and yellow so I’m die hard. Fortunately, I get to build and drive every UTV out there. Aside from being a factory racer, I genuinely believe in my heart Can-Am makes the best UTV bar none at this point. I get to drive and build everything, so my opinion is based on my experience, not who helps me be able to race. That’s on the general consumer side. It’s incredible for us to see people just building these things and excitingly calling every day to ask questions. 

“On the racer side, competition is imperative because if Can-Am is just completely dominating everything and nobody aspires to outrun them, to make a better vehicle than them, then I become obsolete as a factory racer. So that competition is imperative. I’m friends with Robby Gordon. I hope his car does amazing. I love seeing him do good.

“Mitch Guthrie, Branden Sims, Ryan Piplic, all the fast Polaris guys, I love seeing those guys be good and be competitive because if they’re at the very back of the pack and it’s just Can-Am, Can-Am, Can-Am all the time, they’re like, ‘Man, what do we support racing for? We’re dominating. We don’t need to support this anymore.’

“That development, that improvement of the Pro R, of the SPEED UTV, of the Maverick R is imperative to me. I don’t want to just go out there and dominate everybody, then I’m just racing against my team-mates. I want to race against the fastest guys in the world in the best UTVs that people believe money can buy. I love racing those Pro Rs. Those cars are tough, they’re good vehicles, they have good suspension in the rough. I want to race those dudes at their very best.”

Fellow Can-Am driver Rodrigo Ampudia shared similar remarks with TCF after his UTV overall win at the San Felipe 250 in April, calling the growth of the platform “exciting” and “the more competitors the better.”

Even his team-mates provide some flair of their own to the UTV world as the Maverick R’s arrival does not mean the demise of the Maverick X3. In fact, Ranuio’s runner-up finish ahead proved the X3 is “not an obsolete unit.”

“I’ve always been super happy with the X3 and that car is—especially our built race car—is really, really freaking dialled,” said Jones. “I couldn’t emphasise enough to people that this car doesn’t necessarily replace this car. It replaces where the new Maverick R shines and it really excels above all UTVs, but there’s a lot of places where the X3 at this point, this early in the racing, that the X3 still shines and has good performance.

“[…] That is still a competitive unit that we’re going to have to battle against. But I do realise after racing this car and having thousands of miles on the X3 and a lot of wins in the X3, this car is a hundred percent the next evolution of UTVs. It’s moving us into another category and you may say, ‘Well, the race was close. I don’t understand how that could be the case.’

“Well, this is the first race on this car and I know personally racing that car, I didn’t feel like it was 100% dialled in from our driving style, so that means we still left some things on the table and still beat every UTV overall. The potential that it has is significantly greater than all other UTVs out there. That was a really good feeling of knowing that we’re not 100%, our suspension is not perfect for what my driving style is because we had limited time, but I know what this car is capable of and it’s already doing that when it’s not 100%. It just goes up from there.”

Credit: Brandon Bunch/Can-Am

Being the Good Guy

With a win already crossed off the Maverick R’s list of goals, Jones has no intention of relaxing. A day after chatting with TCF, he hosted a pit bike race on his property. In two weeks, he will resume his hunt for the BITD championship at the Laughlin Desert Classic followed by the season-ending UTV Legends Championship on 9–12 November. He is currently second in the UTV Pro Turbo standings behind Ranuio.

A week after the BITD season closes, he will head to Mexico for the Baja 1000.

“You would think you would slow down after reaching this milestone and building a new car and winning in this first race. You would think that once you reach that milestone, you kind of slow down, but for me, it doesn’t slow down,” he proclaimed. “It’s wide open. Now that we’ve accomplished that, I’m looking forward to a Best In The Desert championship. We’re second in the points for the Best In The Desert championship, we have two more races this year, and I’m trying to win that championship this year. Now that we’ve crossed this hurdle, that’s become very important to me.

“I love racing. I tell everybody I like to race. My next thing that I’m looking forward to is this weekend, I’m hosting a pit bike race, a mini dirt bike race on some property that we have. I’m excited about that. I’m focusing on making sure my bikes are ready tonight to race tomorrow because I just love to race and that’s just what I like to do. Once I finish that race this weekend, the next important thing is going to be Laughlin and then the next is going to be the final Best In The Desert race, and I go straight to Baja 1000, racing for Monster Energy at the Baja 1000. The year doesn’t slow down for me. It’s wide open, but it seems to be all kind of pivoting around and based on racing because that is what I love to do. I do this because I enjoy freaking racing.”

His love for racing sparked from his youth living on a farm in Louisiana, but his modest upbringing made it difficult for him to pursue it as a career. Years of hard work and studying as a mechanical engineer brought him to Can-Am, and he has since become one of the company’s top factory racers with UTV victories at prestigious events like King of the Hammers and the Mint 400.

“I do not come from money. My family couldn’t afford it,” he recalled. “I used to love going to dirt track races with my dad and watching, but we couldn’t afford to race. I used to go watch the quads race, but we couldn’t afford to get one. My entire life, I dreamed of doing something like this and never had the opportunity, but it’s chances like this to talk to outlets like [TCF] that makes it possible for me to keep living my dream.”

From his humble roots, Jones has developed a mentality of enjoying life and competing not for the fame, but to prove that heroes can exist in motorsport.

“I’ve always tried to be a good steward of the opportunities that I’ve been given,” Jones concluded. “I remember as a small child, I had an older brother and I thought he was so freaking cool and I thought his friends were so cool, and there were some of his friends that were very nice to me as a dorky little obnoxious little boy that just wanted to follow them around. I remember his friends that were very nice to me and I remember his friends who treated me well; to this day, I remember their names, which ones were which. I made up my mind as I got a little older that I’m going to be that good guy that leaves people with a positive impression.

“I’m so thankful that I can have a little bit of success in racing because that gives me an opportunity to show people that good guys can win and that being a good ambassador for our sport and not being the villain and not getting attention by talking trash or making people mad, you can win by being the good guy and I always strive to do that.”

If the Silver State 300 and his other achievements are any proof, good guys can indeed win.

Interview on YouTube