The JB Vault // All Hail Bill Gusse and the Epic Moose Run

Bill Gusse’s Moose Run remains as the last bastion of true single-track woods racing.

Bill Gusse and his co-workers. Photo: John Gasso.

 By Jerry Bernardo

By Jerry Bernardo

Two hundred kilometers west of Chicago lays the small farming town of Morrison, Illinois. This sleepy hamlet lies host to an off-road legend, a so-called grumpy (and sometimes evil) old man named Bill Gusse who puts on the hardest races around that preceded the current crop of extreme enduros by a good 40 years. Gusse’s Off-road Motorcycle and ATV (OMA) Nationals remains one of the few race series in the world where one can still enjoy true woods racing that challenges technical riding skill and not just flat-out speed. The “enjoyment” you derive from racing a Gusse event is gauged by your ability to press on regardless of the elements and the terrain.

The crown jewel of the OMA Nationals has always been the infamous Moose Run, first run in 1976. This is the biggest race of the year for the series, the one that strikes fear in the hearts of many a novice off-road racer. In fact, it’s not billed as novice-friendly so those with less-developed skill sets are encouraged to ride the tamer version on Saturday.

Morrison—or Fenton, more specifically—is primarily a rural farming community so it’s chock full of gently rolling hills covered by sprawling fields of corn or soybeans.

Not all land is cultivated, though, and thickets of undeveloped woods the locals refer to as “timber” lie untouched by bulldozer. It’s in these sections where a dirt bike rider’s torture begins—and often, mercifully, ends. It takes a lot of land to lay out a 50-mile loop, but Bill and his son Monty somehow find a way into the hearts of local farmers who allow them to weave a diabolically serpentine course in the area with “Big Bill’s” farm as the epicenter.

Jimmy Jarrett captures the cornfield holeshot. Photo: John Gasso.

Some twisted people love the Moose Run and, conversely, others hate it. Some just plain stay away in fear of not finishing or the rumours of costly motorcycle abuse.

In comparison to contemporary extreme enduros, the Moose Run is a cakewalk. Limited classes (C riders, Women and 60-plus) are required to do only one loop; everyone else must complete two full laps to record an official finish.

Four-time OMA National champion Jimmy Jarrett filled us in in what makes Bill tick and why he comes back the Moose Run year after year.

Jimmy Jarrett demonstrates proper technique for crossing "The Log," one of the many dreaded obstacles in the Moose Run. Photo: John Gasso.

Jimmy Jarrett: I don’t think that there’s any series or races to compare it to; it’s definitely a one-off. There’s nothing I’ve ever ridden to compare it to. That’s why I come back year after year. I grew up trail riding in the woods with my dad and the OMA Nationals remain a true off-road series. Bill gives the rider the “good stuff” week in and week out. That’s why I keep coming back.

There are series in this country that are massive and get tons of riders, but you end up riding a jeep trail that they have ridden on for years. Bill takes the time to cut fresh trail almost every race. The woods are virgin. When we go out on our first lap, there’s no trail, just arrows through the woods. The OMA courses are always long and tough but also a hell of a lot of fun.

"Nothing warms Bill Gusse’s cold, dark heart like the anguished curses in the distance from a mentally, physically beaten dirt bike racer who’s stuck on one of his courses." – Mark Kariya, internationally acclaimed off-road journalist

What sets the Moose Run apart is the unique aspects of this course. There aren't many places that you can get a 50-mile loop on all private land. Bill co-ordinates [the loop] with about 40 different farmers and that is a feat in itself. Out of the 50 miles, about 30 of it is stuff that we have never ridden on or only raced on once or twice; Bill always puts in the work to change it up for us riders.

I’ve also raced the Moose Run when it was downpouring rain and a 50-mile lap times two turns into a six-hour race. It becomes pure survival as you battle the elements. This race is something that you can’t get anywhere else in the U.S.

Monty Gusse interviewing Jimmy Jarrett. Photo: John Gasso.

The thing I like about Bill Gusse is his dedication to the core off-roader. He could probably do it all different to please the masses, but that’s not why he runs this series. He puts on races and courses that he would have enjoyed riding back in the day. That’s what keeps guys like Jeff Fredette coming back; Jeff has done everything you could possibly do on a motorcycle and yet he still comes back to Morrison, Illinois, for the Moose Run every year. The same goes for me. I won’t be doing the entire OMA series next year because the travel is difficult for me, but I will not miss the Moose Run.

"Back in the early Moose Runs that were run in the spring, you never wanted to lead the first lap, as it was hard to even find or see the trail. Riders in front would just hit logs and be down. Then the second lap you were wondering how you were going to get through the many mud holes.” – Jeff Fredette, eight-time Moose Run winner (he’s competed in 35 of the 40 Moose Runs)

Gusse loves to run us over what he calls “timber” (logs). You may have seen the highly photographed section called “The Log.” It’s not as big as it used to be; over the years Mother Nature has whittled it down a bit. The harder logs are the ones you don’t see that are hidden under the leaves, the ones that catch you off guard and throw you on the ground. At this race, there are a hundred of them [at] the wrong angles on every corner—you definitely have to be on your game.

If anyone that rides could ever get a chance to do the Moose Run, definitely put it on your bucket list—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it’s a race you will never get to do anywhere else.

Chris Bach on his way to the 2015 Moose Run win. Photo: John Gasso.

2015 race winner Chris Bach: It’s been a few years since I’ve competed at the OMAs or a Moose Run. I’m not going to lie: The nostalgia of this particular race coupled with the nightmare memories of failed Moose Run attempts in my early big-bike years had me doing a mental dance. I found myself between succumbing to the intimidation factor and trying to tell myself that “I am awesome and I can crush these guys” if I keep it all together. The track is so different from anything we race on anymore. It’s tight, it’s twisty, there’s logs—lots of logs. You go over them and sometimes under them. There’s no thought of “this course needs to be made so C-level enthusiasts can finish” like in so many other events. There’s nothing that is made to be tough, like man-made. The course is just cut in such a way that the natural elements and lay of the land is a real ass-kicker. When you're 6-foot, 4-inches tall and you’re bending under your 10th massive tree for the day or wiggling through the tightest fence posts between sections of land, you think to yourself, “This is so dumb! I’ve been racing for over three hours and I’m still putting myself through hell. I will never do it again—I’m smarter than this!” That probably goes for everyone out there racing.

But then at the finish line you don’t see a single person not crossing the checkers without a huge smile and a great sense of accomplishment. The ones that won’t finish claim they’ll be back to conquer the beast next year.

"I spent Friday morning helping Bill hang signs. He was telling me how anyone who did this as a job would have quit long ago. He spent every day, morning to dark, for three solid weeks setting up the trail. Bill said it was not a job for him; it is his duty to the riders." – John Gasso, photographer

This t-shirt (designed by the author) pretty much sums up the Bill Gusse approach to off-road racing. Image: John Gasso/Artwork: Jerry Bernardo.