Sometimes racing is more than just the wins and losses, the awards or sponsorships. In fact, for quite a few, this world serves a purpose. For Jessy Nelson, driving offered a path back to a beloved life which, for so long, has helped him really live. From Motocross to UTVs, two wheels to four, this newer chapter of Nelson’s racing career changed in category, but not in impact.
Many athletes transition between vehicles at some point or another, but not often are these progressions imposed by fate. For those who aren’t familiar, this hand is precisely what was dealt to Jessy. In 2016, the young, rising star was competing in the AMA Pro Motocross Championship. Crashing in this sport is par for course. But on rare occasions, these moments completely change a person’s trajectory. During the second set of motos at Unadilla, Nelson went down in a serious off-bike incident trapping him under his KTM. One of his competitors, Cody Williams, stopped to free him – unaware of the gravity of the accident – then carried on when officials ran up to his aid.
Initially, there was hope that only swelling was causing his immediate paralysis, but this was not the case for Jessy. That one fateful crash may have ended his Motocross career. But his racer spirit never went away. Professional racing requires personal sacrifice and a dedication to preparation. Jessy began his journey at a young age forgoing the customary adolescence with one goal in mind: competing at the top level in Motocross.
Growing up racing had become his life and after winning several amateur championships, Jessy finally attained Pro status. At the height of his career, Jessy won the 250SX Class main event at Anaheim in 2015 and scored several podiums in both Supercross and Motocross while riding for the Troy Lee Designs’ KTM team. The accident in 2016 resulted in Jessy’s paralyzation from the mid-lower chest down – breaking his T4 and T5 vertebrae and stretching his spinal cord. And despite this hardship, his drive and determination carried him from tragedy to opportunity to success in a new field: UTVs.
To achieve his dormant goals and continue racing, Jessy teamed up with Polaris Factory Racing and, ultimately, made this inevitable shift to four wheels. With a whole new set of challenges to overcome, Nelson has been competing in events such as Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series (which is no longer an event) and WORCS. Fresh off a 3rd Place podium at Round 1 of WORCS at Havasu, Arizona in 1000cc Pro Stock Class, Jessy was ready to tackle a new challenge: King of the Hammers (KOH).
To compete in any race, let alone King of Hammers, Nelson needed a specialty-built car. Leading up to KOH, he only had his Polaris RS1 which he raced in the WORCS series. He’d made the decision to enter the competition only a few months prior to the start date so, time was of the essence. Jessy set out to craft himself a Polaris Pro XP, while simultaneously (and ambitiously) conducting a build on his RS1. But that wasn’t the only hurdle. Most of his experience comes from short-course circuits and he had yet to participate in a desert race, nor had he even attempted rock crawling at this point. With little seat time in the rocks at Hammers, Jessy was eager to challenge himself and pushed to adapt to this new style of racing.
There was a mad dash to bring his Polaris RZR XP Pro to the starting line, but Nelson and his team worked day and night to be race-ready. Once the vehicles were prepped, the Polaris Factory team invited him out to Johnson Valley ahead of KOH, to help prepare and to familiarize them with the course. Even with all of these preparations in order, there was still so much work ahead to become fully primed that it left little time for testing before the big day. His mechanic even stayed up for 24 hours prior to the race in order to finish last-minute preparations on the car. Their 100% commitment was exactly what brought Jessy and his team to the starting line.
On race day, Jessy was 19th off the line out of 113 participants and would obtain the lead over veteran and historic Dakar Rally Champion, Casey Currie. He found himself battling it out with some of the best drivers of the industry. By the end of the first lap, he was sitting in the 8th position going into the rock sections.
Unfortunately, success was cut short, after coming through Jack North, due to both front tie rods on his Polaris RZR breaking, rendering him completely immobile. That was it for Jessy; as fast as he climbed the ranks, he was suddenly stunted on the track. All the hard work and preparation had come down to a DNF at King of Hammers. But with only 48 racers completing that year, not reaching the finish was somewhat to be expected. Even facing defeat, you won’t find Jessy with head down. He planned to use that DNF as fuel to come back better than ever. And soon, we’ll see exactly what the team has been working on the rest of the year. What training and continuing to compete in Lucas and WORCS has done to shape their next effort at the 2022 KOH.
Jessy will tell you his DNF wasn’t a failure, it was another step towards success. An opportunity to educate himself on the juggernaut like King of Hammers, which is a massive pivot away from WORCS racing. And as there are still many obstacles to overcome, he and his team are setting out to surpass not only previous results, but previous expectations. Since the last KOH, he’s been busy on-track, continuing to prove he can contend with the more seasoned veterans. And whatever the outcome of this week’s King of the Hammers, Jessy Nelson will be a force to be reckoned with in the Ultra4 (Unlimited 4 Wheel Drive Racing), WORCS and anything else he puts his tenacious mind to.