No one can say Troy Lee doesn't have a sense of humor; his business card says he's a "sign painter." Renowned for his custom-painted helmets and apparel line, he never lets anything get too serious-except the quality of his work and his dedication to motorsports. And it all started, as many things do, with one race.
Troy's father, Larry Lee, is also an artist. "My dad is still traveling around like a gypsy in a camper, doing pinstriping and lettering." But, like his son, Larry Lee had another passion: "Dad was painting helmets while he raced speedway." The elder Lee was a Southern California racing legend. "He won the flat-track championship at Ascot Park in 1961-the year I was born. Another racer named Troy Lee won while my dad was in the grandstands. He thought the name had a nice ring to it, and since the guy won that night, my folks named me Troy. I don't think I had a choice; I was born into this!"
Troy Lee started painting helmets when he was 11 to help his father. "I would do the pinstriping and my dad would letter them. The first helmets I worked on were for [car racer] Jim Busby, who I still do helmets for. My family went from Newport Beach to Mammoth, where we lived in a camper on the creek for two years. They'd stock the river with trout. We would catch fish and live off the land. We had a generator, so we'd also be making signs. We did the original logo for the Stove Restaurant. Then we moved up by Nevada City, and my dad had a shop in Reno. He raced for Checkpoint Cycles, and let my brother and me ride his CZs, though they were a little big for us."
When Troy turned 15, his father bought a Yamaha TZ350 roadracer and moved the family to Sonoma, California. He kept a shop near Sears Point Raceway (now Infineon) and the family lived in the camper. This was a tough time for the family. Troy ended up moving to Missoula, Montana, with his mom. After working as a fly-fishing guide during the summer and running ski lifts in the winter, he eventually got a job using the lettering and pinstriping skills he'd learned from his father.
It was then that his interest in motorcycles blossomed. "My grandfather owned Tustin Honda. When the CR125 Elsinore came out, he shipped two of them to my brother and me for Christmas. It was my first bike. We lived in the boondocks; our closest neighbors were 20 miles away. We just tore those things up, burning up gas. They were awesome!"
After all that, Troy was determined to get better. Faster. "I moved back to Southern California with my mom in '79, and started racing KTMs. Later, Anaheim Suzuki helped me a little bit." Pretty soon, just going fast wasn't enough. Troy wanted his bikes to stand out as well, so he painted them white. From Suzuki, Lee switched brands after Mitch Payton and his Anaheim Husqvarna team pulled a practical joke on him. "They took all the plastic off my bike heading to the Golden State Series. We got to be good friends after that, and I started racing Huskys."
Troy matured as a racer, sharpening his sense of humor along with a reputation as the life of the party. "With all the road trips, it was a time I'll remember for the rest of my life. Mitch and I used to have food fights at the Golden State Series races. We'd put Playboy centerfolds all over the back of his van, and he'd wonder why everyone was looking at him weird."
It wasn't long before Troy found a way to get his artistic side into the mix. "I started building pipes for Bills Pipes, and then went to work for Mitch building all his pipes in his parents' garage in Norco. By '81 I was doing helmets out of the back of my house for Jody Weisel [then as now editor of Motocross Action], and he ran a little ad in the back of his magazine. The first ones I did were for Wardy [Jeff Ward] and Magoo [Danny Chandler]. I'd put my name up underneath the visor or something. When I did one for Jody, he said, 'Dude, put your name up on top of it!' Pretty soon I had to tell Mitch there were too many helmets to paint. I didn't have time to weld pipes."
It wasn't much of a leap from painting helmets to customizing visors. "All the guys wanted these different visors," Lee recalls. "Johnny O'Mara wanted more arc on his; Magoo wanted his a little bit longer. I had been cutting and fixing them, living in the garage with the helmets and compressor. At first I was making them with my mom's oven, vacuum-forming them myself with a vacuum cleaner until my mom got mad and kicked me out because her house smelled like burnt plastic.
"I moved the operation to an airport hanger, where according to the rules I had to spend 40 percent of my time doing things aviation-related, so I was painting airplanes like [car racer] Pete Halsmer's ultralight." Despite time spent painting planes, the visor component was increasing business enough that Lee was able to go to Japan to get molds made. Eventually, Malcolm Smith agreed to distribute them. It wasn't long before Lee's custom helmet designs found their way to Indianapolis and a brand was born.
"I couldn't come up with a name the first year. I wanted something bitchin', and my Mom made me cards that said 'Troy Lee Designs.' It was hard to accept at first, having my name on the product. It seemed like that wasn't cool. But for Christmas, Mitch made me my first 'Troy Lee Designs' T-shirt and that was that!"
Custom-painted helmets not only put Troy Lee on the map, they also gave rise to the one-off special-event helmet. Troy has created helmets for Jeremy McGrath, Ryan Villopoto, Wayne Gardner, Tommy Hayden, Roger Lee Hayden, Scott Russell and many others. Troy Lee Designs now offers a complete line of motorcycle, bicycle and even auto-racing pit-crew helmets.
Despite all his success, Lee's quest for fun continues. Supercross legend Jeremy McGrath recalls one such incident: "Troy used to make these hats that made you look like one of those Troll dolls with the hair on top. On the way back from a banquet on Catalina, they were lighting these things on fire while they were wearing them! Troy's been a character all his life. That's what everyone loves about him. He's not scared to have fun."
Former AMA 250cc Grand Prix racer and fellow designer Roland Sands has equally fond memories of Lee's humor: "I have a vague recollection of a sushi bar in Indiana-polis that involved broken glass, temporary blindness and some form of nudity. A night out with Troy would usually involve someone getting hurt, a near-arrest and something expensive being broken or crashed."
While running a business and designing cutting-edge gear, Troy still maintains his love of motorcycle racing. For years he has sponsored legends like Ward, McGrath and Russell in supermoto, and he recently started a supercross team. Troy often races himself, and has been involved in promoting events like the unforgettable AMA Supermoto series round at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, in '06. "Troy has been a great asset to supermoto for sure, and all kinds of racing," says roadracing hero Scott Russell.
Troy is an ambassador for, and participant in, virtually every form of motorcycle racing right on up to MotoGP. Watching Troy run his hands over the carbon-fiber bodywork of Suzuki's latest MotoGP racebike, it's easy to appreciate that his design process occurs as much by feel as by appearance, like a sculptor. "As an artist, you don't know where to stop," he says. "I always think I can do it better, whether it's a goggle, a snow ski, a helmet or a book. Your mind gets in the way sometimes." No wonder Troy Lee has found success in motorsports. It's the sort of vision one needs to be fearless in both art and racing."
Roland Sands sums it up best: "In Troy's case, I think he views the world as his personal finger painting. He runs around with paint all over his hands, taking it all in and painting it all as he goes. He is a guy I have always looked up to for his artistic skill, business sense and his ability to have a good time, which is really what it's all about."