Off-road racing dog has skill and a need for speed

This photo taken Jan. 13, 2010 shows Mike Schelin riding a motocross bike with his dog Opee, a 8-years-old blue merle Australian shepherd in Perris, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

PERRIS, Calif. -- Opee is only 8, but he's already a popular veteran in the down and dirty sport of motocross.

He can pull 6 Gs. He's been the centerfold for Cycle News and poses regularly for fan photos. He's a survivor of the grueling Baja 500 and has racked up more than 10,000 hours on a dirt bike.

Sometimes, you can barely see the 70-pound pooch -- a blue merle Australian shepherd -- through the dust on his goggles and his custom helmet, complete with cam.

"I am his biggest fan," said Mike Schelin, Opee's owner, race partner and a purveyor of used motorcycle parts from a shop next to his home.

Schelin got the dog in 2001 shortly after his divorce. He raises him with other dogs and two horses at a spread he calls Miracle Flats. Known as "The Dogfather" to some in the sport, Schelin always takes a back seat to Opee.

This photo taken Jan. 13 shows Mike Schelin riding a motocross bike with his dog Opee, a 8-years-old blue merle Australian shepherd in Perris, Calif.

"He was my instant best friend," Schelin said. "He slept in my tool bag. There was something about him. He's had charisma since Day One. I knew I had a dog who could make a difference."

Schelin, 41, realized he had a four-legged motocross fan as a pet when he started riding in the desert with Opee on the chase.

"I felt bad for him, he would run so long." So Schelin bought a four-wheeler and they went desert riding together. The dog didn't like the dust in his eyes, so Schelin got him goggles. One day, Opee ditched the four-wheeler and hopped on the motorcycle tank, where he's been ever since, Schelin said.

If the bike isn't moving, Opee will just fall asleep on the tank. They keep it bare because they've never found a covering that's comfortable for the dog, Schelin said.

Reaction to Opee was magic. He was an instant canine ambassador to off-roading. Finding sponsors was no problem and soon Opee had his own custom gear. He got his American Motorcycle Association card and his SCORE International card, the latter so he could race in Baja.

These photos taken Jan. 13 show Mike Schelin riding a motocross bike with his dog Opee, a 8-years-old blue merle Australian shepherd in Perris, Calif. (CHRIS CARLSON ~ Associated Press)

The dog has also been a search and rescuer, a California assistance dog and visits children in hospitals with Schelin. They regularly work crowds at races in the area, including the Supercross in Anaheim, Calif.

Opee appears to be Schelin's biggest fan as well.

"From what I see, he loves Mike and would go anywhere with him," said Ricky Johnson, a seven-time national motorcycle champion who owns Perris Raceway near Schelin's place.

Opee and Schelin race, but not to win. Because they're different and for safety's sake, they always start in the rear and they only compete with the cyclist in front of them, Schelin said.

Schelin's greatest triumph came when his five-member team -- with Opee in the driver's seat for 276 miles -- finished the cross-country Baja 500 with 10 minutes to spare. They completed the race in 17 hours, 49 minutes, 36 seconds -- and ahead of half the pack.

"The average person races eight times before he finishes," he said.

In the beginning, Schelin had trouble seeing around Opee, but they worked out shifts and leans and it's seldom a problem now. Schelin also uses voice commands.

"When we come up to a jump, I tell him to set it up and he will drop down and give me more of a view," Schelin said. If they're at the bottom of a cliff or big hill and there's too much weight, he just tells Opee to get off and meet him at the top.

Even the most skilled motocross racer has a plaster cast past and Opee is no exception. His worst crash came in the 2006 Baja 500.

"We took a spill at 75 mph in the dirt and went into a 40-foot skid," Schelin said.

The dog isn't tethered to the bike or Schelin. He skinned his nose and scraped his paw. Schelin sliced his leg.

"I would never do anything to hurt my dog," Schelin said. "Opee keeps me in check at all times. If he doesn't jump up on the bike, we don't go."

Schelin is not only racing partner but stage dad for his dog, with a few goals for the future: Do a back flip with Opee into a foam pit ("he would hold on the same way I do -- gravity"); see Opee recognized as the fastest dog on the planet (he's written to Guinness); and go to the movies to see Opee in a major motion picture.

Schelin hasn't heard from an agent he contacted and is still looking for representation. Opee, he said, is too talented to go undiscovered.