Inside Brandon Semenuk's mission to win a rally championship and Red Bull Rampage in the same week
Last fall, Brandon Semenuk quietly completed one of the most unique and mind-bending sporting feats you’ll ever see. On Oct. 16, he won the Lake Superior Performance Rally to take the 2022 American Rally Association championship. Five days later, on Oct. 21, he placed third at Red Bull Rampage. Within the time it takes to receive a package via standard shipping, Semenuk established himself as one of the very best athletes in two disparate sports.
He calls the one-month whirlwind of planning and preparation one of the craziest experiences of his career. And although it was the highlight of his year, if he had to do it again, he wouldn’t.
“Looking back, I’m like, ‘I don’t need to do that twice,'” Semenuk laughs. “It was just a lot of stress. And I put myself on the line quite a bit within 10 days. It was maybe unnecessary.”
Talk to anyone about Semenuk, and they’ll describe one of the most focused, level-headed, indefatigable and unflappable people they’ve ever met. But there are limits to greatness. There has to be. We’re fascinated by people who do superhuman things precisely because they’re human beings.
Looking back, I'm like, 'I don't need to do that twice.'
- Brandon Semenuk
Three weeks before two of the biggest events of his career, Semenuk was stuck with two suboptimal choices: 1) Go all-in on only one of his passionate pursuits, or 2) Impossibly, try to do them both.
He chose the latter. And for a man who has made his living doing what he loves at the highest level in the world, he admits that the experience wasn’t particularly fun. Semenuk was plagued with endless days, sleepless nights, and obscene logistics in an effort to perform his best in two sports with razor thin — and dangerous — margins of error.
“It’s nice to have at least a couple months to prepare for Rampage. I had three weeks and a lot of other stuff going on,” Semenuk says. “I would never leave a big event like that to three weeks of getting ready, but in this situation, that’s all I had.”
Semenuk is special. But he’s also human. Humans get tired. And boy was he tired.
Competing at the highest level in one sport would be plenty for a full time job. Doing two is difficult to comprehend even for athletes who compete at Semenuk’s level.
Take Rampage. It’s the biggest and most difficult freeride event in the world. Competitors drop down a mountainside just outside of Zion National Park in Virgin, Utah, and throw down the biggest jumps and tricks they can think of before hopefully crossing the finish line in one piece. Their runs mix natural and man-made features that are built by the riders and a maximum of two more diggers during the week of the event. Simply creating a complete top-to-bottom run is grueling work.
Ryan “R-Dog” Howard is Semenuk’s close friend, and a fellow Trek C3 Project athlete who has competed at Rampage twice. He has known Semenuk since they were 15-year-olds hitting dirt jumps in Whistler. Howard has been living at Semenuk’s house during the summer for the last 10 years, and has had a front row seat to his work ethic.
“He’s always got something on his mind. He’s always preparing for something. And I swear he learns a new trick every day,” Howard says. “Whether it’s something that he hasn’t done yet or nobody has done yet. It’s actually insane. He’s always thinking about the next step or what he wants to bring to the table for an event or a video.”
Howard has also been a digger for Semenuk at Rampage. He used to describe the pre-competition dig as “man camp,” toiling under full sun for as long as daylight holds.
“You can’t even think at the end of the day. You are a full passenger. Your body is roached,” Howard says. “It’s literally one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, let alone riding on top of that. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure.”
He's always got something on his mind. He's always preparing for something. And I swear he learns a new trick every day.
- Ryan "R-Dog" Howard
Rally racing incorporates some of the same screaming precision of freeride mountain biking, but instead of a single 2-3 minute run, drivers take on a dozen-plus special stages ranging from 5 to 20 miles long over the course of two days. It’s an endurance sport with a healthy measure of teamwork. Every car has a driver and a co-driver, who sits in the passenger seat and handles pace and stage notes, telling the driver where and how fast to go, often in the midst of blinding weather conditions. Keaton Williams, a 28-year-old Brit, navigated for Semenuk’s 2022 and 2023 American Rally Association championships.
Like Semenuk, Travis Pastrana is also a decorated two-wheel athlete — supercross and motocross, in his case — who went on to win an ARA title in 2017. They’ve been teammates since Semenuk signed with Subaru Motorsports USA in 2020. Their high-speed instincts are almost unrivaled. And yet, success in the sport often comes down to homework.
Preparing for a rally race means compiling every scrap of footage from previous events — both from one’s own cameras and from other drivers — and poring over every rock, root, and tricky curve in the course so that there are as few surprises as possible on race day.
“We’ll take out all the parts that we’re going to do, put those videos together, remake our notes, and then we get to do two passes of ‘recce’ — reconnaissance — at 30 miles an hour or less,” Pastrana says. “And we replay that video at double speed and then go over it until basically we’re only going to get an hour or two of sleep on the rally weekend. Then we go out and we race it.”
Freeride mountain biking and rally driving are both vehicular sports in a way, but there’s a chasm of difference between handling a two-wheeled, 30-pound Trek Session and a four-wheeled, 3,000-pound Subaru WRX. And yet Semenuk is perfectly suited to do both.
It takes a special type of person to so easily swap between mental and physical skill sets. Semenuk, as a person, can come off as quiet, betraying few of his feelings and leaving those who haven’t spent significant time with him wondering what he’s actually like. Behind that quietude is a mind that’s working overtime.
Like a duck, if you're looking at it on top of the water, that's Brandon, but he's got a lot going on underneath.
- Travis Pastrana
“He looks exactly the same as when he’s happy or scared or excited or sad,” Pastrana laughs. “Brandon is a phenomenal poker player. And you can see it. When you get to know him, you see these grins, and he’s just as much of an asshole as all the rest of us [laughs]. Like a duck, if you’re looking at it on top of the water, that’s Brandon, but he’s got a lot going on underneath.”
For Semenuk, both rally and freeride offer a similar draw: The chance to do something extremely reckless in an extremely precise way.
Semenuk never goes to Rampage unless he believes he can show the world something new. That’s easier said than done. Rampage has been taking place since 2001, and in 22 years, bikes and riders have evolved to a point that feels almost impossible to improve upon. Every Rampage run takes months of planning and practice to execute a one-of-a-kind creative vision, all well before any shovels strike dirt in Utah.
In rally, drivers can’t actually get behind the wheel of their car as often as they would like, not when one mistake could mean trashing thousands of dollars worth of equipment. And Semenuk’s drive time is considerably less than his peers, who aren’t simultaneously competing in a second sport and making gorgeous mountain biking films. To make up for that driving deficit, Semenuk uses every spare minute he can to watch footage.
“The dude is non-stop,” Howard says. “It’s very motivating to hang out with someone like that. Our daily routine, when I was living out there, we’d wake up in the morning, quick bite and then go ride for two hours. And then lunchtime comes around and he is on his computer watching the upcoming stages and writing notes. And he’ll do that for two hours. Just the in-car GoPro.”
Semenuk may be more well-known for his mountain biking feats, but he’s no interloper to rally racing. He took an interest in the sport during his early teens when he’d see Subaru team cars whizzing by on the fire-safe roads near where he was building mountain bike trails.
“They might be off in the distance, but you’d see a rally car and hear it echo through the mountains and make a big dust trail,” Semenuk says. “I was like, ‘Well, that’s cool. That’s the next level. That’s like mountain biking but on a whole ‘nother level. So I was like, ‘One day, I’d love to do that.'”
At 18, Semenuk began driving a production car for a local club. He learned about the sport from older members, then gradually took on more and more racing every year, from one event in his first year, to two, to three, and on down the line.
“It was a fairly slow progression to be honest,” Semenuk says. “I didn’t dive right in and do a whole championship. I would do it when I had time or some funds to spend on it. And then later on I got some opportunities to get into quicker cars and work with some proper teams and engineers. That’s where the learning curve really steepened and I was able to start getting some pretty good results.”
It's one of those things that I can constantly chase because it's a sport you'll never perfect, just like mountain biking.
- Brandon Semenuk
Rally gives Semenuk a change of pace from his “day job” of freeride mountain biking. Until recently, he was relatively unknown in rally, free to compete without the loud fanfare and obligations that follow him as the only four-time winner of Rampage. When he’s rallying, all he has to think about is driving to his limit.
Progress in the car has felt particularly satisfying over the last several years. The 32-year-old is still mastering the sport.
“I’ve been riding a long time so finding progression is hard sometimes,” Semenuk says. “Not every day I go out and feel like I’m improving. Some days, I feel like I got worse at biking. But in rally, I’m only in the car on rare occasions. So every time I get in the car, I feel like there’s some progression.
“It’s one of those things that I can constantly chase because it’s a sport you’ll never perfect, just like mountain biking.”
The fact that Semenuk is still finding his stride in rally could be worrisome for his competitors. According to Pastrana, Semenuk has already forced much of the field to up their game. Semenuk took studying and note-taking to a level that no one in the North American rally scene had ever witnessed.
Pastrana recalls watching Semenuk race a stage of the 100 Acre Wood Rally in Missouri in almost total blindness due to a thick cloud of hanging dust that had been kicked up by other drivers. Semenuk’s notes were so precise, he won the stage ahead of a previous ARA champion.
“[He raced at] 130 miles an hour, through narrow, narrow trees, big jumps, exposure, creeks on the outside. And I watched his in-car footage and I was like, ‘Holy shit,'” Pastrana says. “Brandon took it to a completely new level where he was pretty much memorizing these 10-12 mile stages, and he would memorize 150 miles of stages before he got to the rally, which was pretty much unheard of.”
To reiterate: Semenuk doesn’t half-ass anything. Every time he competes, he’s trying to touch perfection. And for every second he spends on-stage or riding freeride lines on camera or in-competition, he spends hours ironing out the littlest details of his runs, removing as many derailing factors as he can to maximize his output in two unpredictable sports.
No one could be more loath to sacrifice his attention to detail. Doing both the Lake Superior Performance Rally and Rampage would mean destroying whatever semblance of work-life balance Semenuk had. It’d mean sleep deficits. All so he could come in undercooked (by his high standards) to his two biggest events of the year.
But the more Semenuk thought about the opportunity, the more he saw it as a feat in itself, as a test of his prodigious mental and physical limits. And the more he thought about the support he had, the more he sensed how much his effort meant to so many people who were willing to help. Semenuk realized he wasn’t alone. So he threw away caution and let it rip.
“I couldn’t imagine coming into a dig week with the biggest, craziest jumps ever and having no sleep for the whole week before,” Pastrana says. “He’s amazing. And even for the rally crew, they’re like, ‘Man, in his spare time he just goes and wins these mountain bike events?’ I’m like, ‘No, in his spare time he comes and kicks our ass.'”
At no point in the lead-up to Semenuk’s rally/Rampage double-header did it feel like a plan was set in stone. Semenuk built contingencies upon contingencies — plans A through Z — in case of unforeseen circumstances, and was prepared to skip an event altogether if a lack of prep or difficult logistics made competing unsafe. Both sports are notoriously held at the mercy of inclement weather, and both are capable of inflicting serious injury upon their participants if something goes wrong.
Semenuk would have to jet-set between two remote locations — from Virgin, Utah, to Marquette, Mich., and back — to accomplish everything as planned. On Oct. 11, Semenuk traveled to the Rampage site for required in-person athlete registration, followed by a scouting session to select his line. From there, he flew to Michigan for LSPR, competing on Saturday, Oct. 15 and Sunday, Oct. 16.
I couldn't imagine coming into a dig week with the biggest, craziest jumps ever and having no sleep for the whole week before.
- Travis Pastrana
“So Brandon’s coming into Red Bull Rampage missing days of his dig. And while everybody else at the rally is going over stage notes, he’s going over stage notes and getting back to his dig team on, ‘Hey, maybe this is good, maybe this is not,'” Pastrana says. “At Rampage you’re risking your life, needing to be in the best physical shape. And stressing about Rampage when the weight of the world is on him with Subaru and having a chance to take down a legend [Ken Block]. It was literally David versus Goliath.”
Semenuk entered the event trailing Block by just two points in the American Rally Association standings. (Block, a motorsports legend, passed away in January.) He’d need to win to take the U.S. rally championship title. At the time, Semenuk pegged the win as improbable, but close enough to attempt. In the meantime, however, he wouldn’t be able to stay in Virgin for an all-important week of digging to lay out his Rampage run.
Justin Wyper and Evan Young have been by Semenuk’s side at Rampage for about a decade, building championship-worthy runs and providing him with the moral support needed to take on one of the most intimidating sporting events known to man. Semenuk’s Rampage Session was decked out in inside jokes as a tribute to their camaraderie. Normally, Semenuk would be alongside them to build his run, but his rally obligations left Wyper and Young in Utah to do a three-man job with 33 percent fewer hands.
Semenuk knew he’d be burdening his friends to do both rally and Rampage, and had been considering skipping Rampage out of fairness to them. Wyper and Young convinced him otherwise.
“I can’t thank those guys enough for what they did,” Semenuk says. “They were honestly a big part of the decision in going to the event. It felt like I was putting a lot of stress on other people, and they didn’t deserve that. So I was like, ‘You know what, I don’t need to do the event. I’m OK without it. I don’t want to put that on you guys.’ And they were like, ‘No, no, no, we’re down. Let’s do it.’
“That was [Young’s] 10th Rampage. That’s a big landmark for him. And he was stoked to be there.”
As Young and Wyper were working tirelessly in Virgin, Semenuk was in a drag-out battle with Block. Semenuk trailed Block by nearly 25 seconds after six stages when Block took himself out of the competition, going off the track and into a ditch on Stage 7, vaulting Semenuk into the lead at the end of Day 1. From there, he had to hold off a hard-charging Pastrana, who took back nearly 25 seconds on Semenuk on Stages 8-10.
Semenuk couldn’t let off the gas, but he wouldn’t have even if he could. It’s not in his nature to let up.
“He ran his absolute 100 percent on every stage,” Pastrana says. “And his theory was, ‘Look, I’m trying to learn from every stage. I’m going to try to get the most out of my car. I’m going to try to get better every single stage to understand what the notes have to be for the next year.'”
Semenuk and Williams won the 2022 U.S. rally championship and celebrated on the podium after the sun went down. Then they slipped out to a local airfield, hopped on a plane, and landed in Utah just after midnight on Monday, Oct. 17, four days before Rampage. After a night of tortured sleep, he skipped the first ride day to help with the build. The next three days were spent rapidly finishing, riding and adjusting features. Semenuk, Wyper and Young rush to complete a top-to-bottom run before their deadline. Semenuk’s line wasn’t finished until, he says, “five minutes before dark on the last dig day.”
Somehow, Semenuk never had to deviate from Plan A. If even a modicum of bad weather had rolled into the desert at any point over the course of 10 dig days, Semenuk would have had to make due with an incomplete run. Instead, Wyper and Young finished the job, and then some.
It was one of those things where while I was doing it, I wasn't totally 100 percent certain on anything. We were just fingers crossed.
- Brandon Semenuk
Semenuk took on Rampage for the 11th time, and finished third for his sixth career podium. He also took home Best Trick with an acid drop off the starting platform. Once again, Semenuk survived a stunningly thin margin for error — if anything had gone wrong during his first run, he wouldn’t have gotten another chance after high winds rolled in and canceled second runs.
Just like that, Semenuk’s work was done. He found himself breathing again after a breathless three weeks.
“Typically there’s a build up to big moments like that, and you kind of see it coming. Like, ‘This is the goal and I’m gonna work towards it.’ But everything was just happening so fast, everything was changing so fast,” Semenuk says. “It was one of those things where while I was doing it, I wasn’t totally 100 percent certain on anything. We were just fingers crossed.”
Semenuk accomplished what he came to Virgin to do: Put on a show. He might have preferred to win, sure, but his one true lament is that Wyper and Young weren’t awarded as Rampage’s Best Dig Team.
“It was an insane amount of work. And then they tackled that crazy chute at the top, which was an insane build,” Semenuk says. “And obviously I’m biased, but I have a hard time believing they weren’t the best diggers of that event. Especially looking at their track record the last 10 years, the craziest builds we’ve done, it blows my mind that they haven’t gotten that award. And absolutely in my heart, they won that, hands down.”
People are important to Semenuk. His close friends are his net. They’re made up of some of the coolest people on earth — other obscenely talented mountain bikers, but also some of the best photographers, videographers and overall creative minds in the business. Semenuk understands that he could never have reached soaring heights alone.
“He just really likes to surround himself with the right people, and people that make him comfortable. They all work hard together, and they know exactly what each other brings to the table,” Howard says. “He doesn’t have time for people that aren’t going to benefit the whole event, whether it’s a rally, or Rampage, or filming a video project. He wants his friends around, which is a very comforting thing.”
He just really likes to surround himself with the right people, and people that make him comfortable.
- Ryan "R-Dog" Howard
In the end, Semenuk completed something few people in the world could even fathom. There have been a lot of incredible dual-sport athletes throughout history — Bo Jackson, Jim Thorpe, Babe Didrikson Zaharias — but few can say they’ve performed at the highest levels of two different disciplines in a span of five days. It takes a special individual to seamlessly alternate between two distinct sets of muscle memory, all while navigating a logistical nightmare.
“My brain when I get back from rally, I don’t talk to anyone for two days,” Pastrana laughs. “And he’s got to do the press. He’s got to do the media. He’s got to do the dig. He’s got to be stressed about the jumps and everything else. The fact that he was able to go out there and not get hurt, I mean, that’s on another level.”
There’s much more to this story than Semenuk’s singular athletic greatness (though there is that.) Sure, every great athlete is preternaturally gifted to some extent. Plenty of people want to be as good as Semenuk; very few can. But being born with generational potential doesn’t guarantee results.
If anything, Semenuk’s rally/Rampage double reveals how much superhuman feats are built upon traits within anyone’s grasp. Semenuk put in the time. He did the work. And maybe most importantly, he leaned on a community that he had cultivated himself. He brought on people who wanted to help because they believed in him — people like Wyper, Young and Williams.
“That’s sort of Rampage as a whole. If you were out there by yourself, that would never happen,” Semenuk says. “But when there’s 60 of your good friends around you, it motivates you to keep going and keeps you stoked. That’s why we do these crazy builds. You need those positive, good energy people around you to motivate you through those tricky days.”
If Semenuk seems superhuman it’s because he has plumbed the depths of his humanity, summoning bottomless reserves of determination and willpower, though never at the expense of empathy and friendships. His Rampage/rally double showed the potential within us all.
Would he do it again? Hell no. But sometimes one time is all you need.