August 13, 2016 would change Jessy Nelson’s life forever.
At round 10 of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship at Unadilla, Nelson, then riding for Troy Lee Designs KTM, crashed late in the second moto in a tricky turn. The bike followed, hitting Nelson in the back. He sustained a fractured T4 and T5 vertebra and was immediately rushed to Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, NY, and eventually underwent surgery to stabilize his spine.
Nelson was paralyzed from the mid-lower chest down and soon returned to his home state of California to undergo intensive physical therapy. At first, Nelson struggled with this massive life change. “I just kept holding on to that light at the end of that tunnel,” he said, “like hopefully something will come from this.”
At points, Nelson said he hit rock bottom. But his passion for motorsports never went away and soon he began driving side-by-sides using a modified Polaris RZR. He also married his longtime girlfriend, Emily, in 2018.
We recently caught up with Jessy to talk about his new career in motorsports, how his injury is progressing and more.
Chilidog: Loretta’s just wrapped up. Jessy, you had some good experiences. I guess there were some bad ones, too.
Jessy Nelson: I have fond memories. It was fun. Mainly running around and stuff like that. Winning was always fun. I’d always win motos, but I never got all three of them. Not never, but I just struggled getting all three of them or all six of them.
Didn’t Savatgy smoke you the one year, 2008?
He did beat me one year. My forks, they weren’t seamed out correctly when they got rebuilt, so they stuck. It was like having my holeshot device down the whole time. I got an eighth that moto, then I won a moto, then I got a third. So it just sucked.
Ryan Walters sent over the Silver Linings teaser this morning. I obviously teared up as soon as it came on, for probably the 45th time of watching it. Every time it gets me. It isn’t necessarily something to celebrate, but it’s obviously brought you to the top of the mind again. I think a lot of people wonder what the hell you’re up to these days. So I want this to hopefully be a cool, positive thing out of a negative situation a few years ago.
It’s just another day. I was shocked to see Walt up and at it sending me videos. I was like, what’s this guy doing?
As of lately, I’ve been driving RZRs. I’ve been working on them a lot. It’s been a task in itself. I’ve got that. I’ve got some projects going up north with my dad. I’m actually planning on moving back to central coast, where I grew up. My wife and I, we’re getting ready to sell our house in Southern California, head back up north, and then make the transition up into there. I think it will just help me out, especially with what I’m doing now, like the side-by-side thing and stuff. Just having more help. I think that’s a big thing. Everybody says they want to come help, and nobody ever does. So having my family and my brother and my dad and whoever, and the friends I grew up with, that will help too. I’ve got a lot of cool places I can go drive and practice and stuff like that, just like I did when I was a kid.
How has the transition to four wheels been?
It’s been really good, actually. It’s just a lot more work keeping everything going. Then for me learning how to drive them and not break them, or how to get them to the finish, or even setup. I don’t really know anything about them. I haven’t had a whole lot of help with that side of things, so I’ve just been trying to figure it all out. I figured out pretty quickly that your setup is a huge part of doing well.
You don’t say? Motorsports and tuning suspension.
Yeah. There’s four shocks instead of one, so it’s a big difference. I’m just trying to figure all that out. As of late, been working with that.
What kind of results have you posted? I know at the end of Silver Linings, which the last time I watched the full thing was a year ago, but I know you got the one-seater from Polaris and said you were going to go racing. So what kind of results have you been able to manage?
I haven’t had a whole lot of racing experience yet. I probably raced ten times, twelve times or so. I’ve either DNF’d or got third, fourth, or first. So I’ve won quite a bit so far. Nothing championship-wise, but races, yeah. I won the World Championship finals in the stock class in 2018, the short course and the off-road. Then I won the Elsinore Grand Prix. I got fourth the next year. I was kind of sitting in dust. I just bumped up to the pro class and I’ve raced four times, or attempted to, and I DNF’d all of them. I was in a podium position halfway through the 55-minute moto, or whatever it is, and then my blew a wheel off. Did the same thing the weekend before. So it’s just getting the help and getting stronger parts to it. That’s the big thing. You can’t really ride it like a dirtbike. You kind of have to finesse things a little bit more. It’s a learning process. A friend of mine and some other buddies kind of built my race car, so it was just a mix of everything. We didn’t really have super solid stuff or a good foundation. It was kind of just thrown together and I’ve just been running it. So I sold that car and now I’m in the process of building a completely new RZR with just everything exactly how I want it, so that way I can go out and see what I can do.
Have any of your old moto sponsors transitioned at all? Or is it kind of like a whole new endeavor?
A whole new endeavor, really. There’s a lot that I have. I’ve got Polaris on board. That is definitely a new one. TORO Parts has been a huge help with me. B.F. Goodrich tires is huge. Method Race Wheels. They’ve been helping me out since forever, really. Since I signed with the team. They were a team sponsor of TLD for years.
Did your notoriety in dirtbikes help that out, or did they just see you out there riding and be like, “Damn, this dude is fast?”
A little bit of both. I think for sure it helped just getting my foot in the door. I have a background in motorsports, so that’s been a huge help. Got some new sponsors like Seal Savers and Walker Evans Racing. Some of those sponsors kind of transferred over because Reid Nordin that used to the be the head of Kawi Team Green, he’s my guy at Walker Suspension now. Got some really cool people on board. I got a whole list of people. It’s been good. Then building the new car. I’m also dabbling with the Jeep game a little bit. I got kind of involved with that with TORO Parts because they’re mainly a Jeep company. Then I’m also building a mini-jet boat right now.
So you turned into quite the mechanic, I’m guessing?
No, not really at all.
Just take shit apart and figure out how to put it back together, or what?
Yeah. I can get by. I used to build all my amateur bikes and stuff, my dad and I did. But it’s been a while. You kind of forget and you get a little lazy when it comes to working on stuff. You are kind of just throwing it all together. So I’m trying to tighten up the ship. When I move up north I’ll build a shop, hopefully. That’s my plan. Right now I’m just way too overpacked in my garage. RZRs are not as small as dirtbikes. They take up a lot of space.
What’s the latest update on your injury? I think Walt told me you were trying some stem cell stuff a year or two ago. Is there any progress with any of that?
There was. I was getting on this new study a little bit with my doctor in Newport at Just Medical. We were doing stem cell stuff kind of behind closed doors. It’s all adult stem cells. So you take it out of your fat tissue or bone marrow. It’s not like we’re taking fetal stem cells or anything like that or embryonic stem cells. So they’re out of my own body. Then they harvest them and they put them back in. I saw some good results from that from the first time. It’s probably been eight months since I did that first treatment. I saw some good results just with getting some more muscle activity in my quads, or my glutes actually mainly. Just little stuff. Nothing serious. I’m not going to be able to hop up and walk. Just slow steps are just kind of part of the process. As far as feeling in my legs, I can feel just about anything. Heat is a little bit hard for me. Cold water is fine. Cold temperature, I can feel that. I don’t know why heat is kind of a hard one for me.
What does that mean overall? Are you still hopeful that one day the light switch will come back on?
Everybody’s always hopeful about that. You’ve got to kind of be realistic. I just do what I can. I’d rather do it than not. It’s easy for me to go and do some simple workouts and stuff like that and keep my body rolling and moving.
There were times too when I was like six months out of my injury where I could move both toes. It would take me a little bit to get them going. There were times where I could roll my feet, and then it went away. I had a cyst develop in my spinal cord, so that did some damage in there and that all stopped. So that was kind of a hard thing to deal with. Once you see something like that kind of get a little bit better you’re like, damn, that’s cool. But it’s little things. It takes so long. I’m hopeful about certain things. It’s in the future. I don’t know if you’ve watched the podcasts with Elon Musk. I think if anybody it’s going to be somebody that’s unmotivated by…
He is motivated by money. I’m sure he is. Everybody is, but it’s not like an insurance company or somebody that’s going to get something out of it or not get something out of it. There’s a lot of money to be made treating spinal cord injuries and everything. It’s kind of like cancer, I feel like, versus fixing it. But I think if anybody is going to do it, it’s somebody like him. It’s hard to say. People don’t really think about it. I never did when I was racing. It never crossed my mind. I never even thought about. I’d see people and I’d be like, whatever I can do to help, and try to be there, but it’s a lot different when you’re there. Of course as a racer that’s something you don’t want to think about. You don’t want it to even cross your mind. It’s reality. We’ve all had friends die. We’ve all had friends get hurt. It’s just the sport. I think there needs to be some change for sure, though.
I know in Silver Linings you talk about going to dark places sometimes. I’m hoping now that due to finding the new-found career, the new wife and new life and all that, you probably got a bit better mindset in life all around now, right?
Oh, absolutely. The hardest part for me I think was just watching people that I don’t think should be winning races winning them. Not that they shouldn’t, but it’s like, that’s me. I worked so hard for so long and I finally got to a point where it was like every time I hit the track I knew I was going to be a podium guy. And I wasn’t racing a class that was watered down. It was stacked full of guys that were good. That was a hard one to take. Then of course you’re just kind of written off without a doubt, but it still sucks.
I’m guessing taking that new challenge in life on four wheels probably motivates you quite a bit too.
Oh, absolutely. The people that are around in my life now, the people that are in the four-wheel community too, they’re good people. A lot of people think we’re racing quads or racing golf-carts or whatever. It’s really gnarly. I’ve raced every type of aspect of dirt bikes you can think of. Hill climb, or whatever. It’s pretty gnarly. It’s cool. I enjoy it a lot. It’s challenging, really.
Well, much love Jessy (and Emily!) It’s still awesome seeing you around the SoCal events like Straight Rhythm, and then seeing you achieve some success in your next chapter in life. Kickass on your move up north, tell your mom and dad we miss them, and hopefully we’ll be seeing you and your name in many more four-wheel headlines in the near future.