Troy Lee is the Founder and Owner of Troy Lee Designs, and is the son of the late artist and motorcycle racer Larry Lee, and grandson of the late Bonneville Speed Trials co-founder Marvin Lee. Troy was an aspiring professional motocross racer in Southern California in the early 1980s. He started painting the motocross helmets of several of his pro racing friends, eventually giving up the pursuit of racing fame to devote his full time and efforts to painting helmets. By 1998 TLD started to develop a line of motocross apparel, which by 2004 had grown to a full line of motocross and mountain bike apparel, helmets and protective gear. Troy began working with Polaris several years ago, initially with a clothing line. We caught up with the legend recently at the launch of (not one, but three) new custom, limited edition Troy Lee Designs machines which Polaris and TLD debuted in typical So Cal style!
UTVUG: Troy your story is fascinating and legendary among not just West Coast based motorcycle enthusiasts but now internationally with the success of your company Troy Lee Designs. We’re curious though about those early days, and in particular the point at which you made the decision to become a full time artist and let go of the pursuit of being a racer. How old were you at that point and what was it like to make that change and go all in on custom paint work?
TL: “It was 1981, so I was 20 years old when I made that jump. It was definitely a little painful to leave my dream of doing professional motocross but it wasn’t too far from “home” because I got to work with all the people that I admired and my idols. And, I loved art. My grandfather and father were artists. It was painful but it was also the beginning of where I thought wow, maybe this is really where I belong.”
UTVUG: How did you make the leap from painting helmets to producing clothing over those initial 20 years of business? Are there any milestones that you can point to and recognize as being key to your success?
TL: “Well I started painting helmets but then I did stickers, fins, and visors and eventually printing t-shirts because I was friends with all of the racers and they started wearing them. From there, I was like wow if they’re wearing my t-shirts and they are doing a better job than my competition, the answer was simple as to why I should do it. And I believe that with everything I do, its simple. I can be successful as long as it’s better than the competition.
UTVUG: The explosive growth of the sport UTV industry took a lot of us by surprise. When did the sport utv as a platform first catch your eye? And how did you come to connect with Polaris a few years ago on their clothing and then signature model General machine?
TL: “Well, I started working with Craig Scanlon designing his clothing. He came and it helped support our team and liked all the clothing we were designing for our own race team so we started building the designs out for his race team and then from there we started working on Polaris clothing. So I got a couple practice laps from Craig Scanlon before Polaris so thank you Craig!”
UTVUG: Polaris is obviously the global leader right now in both the design and technology of the sport model UTV with the RZR platform – what is it about this program that made you want to put your name and your spin on graphic design on this new custom machine?
TL: “I think having those practice laps on those vehicles with Craig’s team- the Paris to Dakar vehicle, some other race vehicles and then we worked on RJ Anderson’s vehicle. At the time, Mike Emerson worked for me and was a big part in making it happen. He identified that Polaris being a leader in the industry along with our brand and the overlap of our athletes and partners and really helped put the opportunity together. It’s always a good idea to capitalize on the opportunity to work with the best.”
UTVUG: As people tasked with producing fresh creative for a variety of clients and projects – we’re acutely aware of how easy it is to become stuck on a certain look or approach to design. I’m curious where you get your inspiration from. What artists or art gets you fired up to sit down and work on your own projects?
TL: “*Laughs* Everybody always asks that question but really for me it is always about just being open to looking at every kind of art out there. Whether its wine labels or sunglasses or anything you know. I’m a customizer so anytime I see something, I feel like I have a new approach and I keep my eyes wide open. I’m always looking for new mediums and how I can implement some kind of cool new art into the racing category.”
Given the direction and trajectory you’ve had with Polaris – and the sheer size of their portfolio – will we see this partnership cross over into other Polaris brands like Indian and Slingshot?
TL: “I saw some of the new vehicles and they look insane. I can’t wait to get started. I like to work on anything that goes fast.”
Author: Josh Martelli