The Birth of Motocross: 1924 Through 1939
There has not been a great deal of historical research about motocross. While periodical publications in both Europe and America have reported on the sport extensively, one can count on two hands the useful books that have been written about motocross. And many of the books on the subject have basically been art books, containing lovely photographs with captions, but very little historical text.
Consequently, until recently, most motorcycle historians have been willing to accept that the origin of motocross has been lost in the mists of time, often assuming – due to its name – that motocross originated somewhere in France.
Taking to the first-ever motocross, or “scramble”, aboard a 1924 Velocette, 250cc two-stroke. (photos courtesy The Motor Cycle)
Early Motorcycle Competition
The earliest motorcycles were little more than bicycles with small internal combustion engines attached. When people began to race with motorcycles, sometimes they even used the tracks built for bicycle racing. In the earliest days of the century, manufacturers entered their motorcycles in competitive events to publicize their brand and prove their performance and durability, just as they still do today.
The most common types of events were track races, endurance trials, and hill climbs. Endurance trials were run over both roads and rough terrain (and often the early roads were barely distinguishable from rough terrain), and would sometimes cover hundreds of miles over periods as long as two to six days. Early hill climbs were not like the rough-and-tumble events on short, steep hills we see in America today, but were usually over a long road snaking up a big mountainside, sometimes for several miles.
While all types of early motorcycle competition emphasized both vehicle performance and rider ability, the English developed an event designed especially to test rider ability and style. Called an observed trial, it featured difficult sections where a rider’s ability was evaluated and scored by judges.
One of the earliest of these was the Scott Trial, sponsored by Yorkshire engineer and designer of the Scott motorcycle (founded in 1909) Alfred Angus Scott, in conjunction with an annual outing for his company’s employees. A course was laid out over the rugged northern English terrain, including bogs, rocky sections, and stream crossings. While top speed was not the objective of the event, a time limit was included, requiring participants to move briskly from one observed section to the next, where their ability to negotiate obstacles was judged and scored. The victor was the rider who completed the course with the fewest mistakes in the shortest period of time.
Regional Rivalry; the Sport Evolves
The Scott Trial became a prestigious event, and by the early 1920s, it had contributed to the notion that Yorkshiremen were the best and toughest riders in all of Britain. Southern Englishmen took exception to this claim, and a club in Camberly laid down a challenge, proposing to organize an equally difficult event in the South so riders from each region could test their skills on both home and strange terrain. However, the local club decided to host a cross-country event over a 2.5-mile course where speed was the only factor. No observed sections were included.
The motorcycle press of the period acclaimed this idea, but the Auto Cycle Union, England’s governing body, had a problem. Because there would be no observed sections, the event would not be a trial, so it had to be sanctioned under another name, yet to be determined.
In the search for a name for this new type of event, one club member opined, “Whatever we call it, it will be a rare old scramble!” Hence, the event was officially entitled the Southern Scott Scramble, and on March 29, 1924, the motorcycle sport of scrambling was born (1).
There were 80 starters, and 40 finished. Unlike modern motocross, riders started at intervals, one at a time, and were timed over the course. However, due to steep hills and rough terrain, riders often bunched up in groups for close competition, providing plenty of action and excitement for the spectators. The winner was a local rider named Arthur Sparks, who finished the 50-mile race in two hours, one minute, and 51 seconds. He joked that due to wheel spin, he was sure his motorcycle had actually traveled a hundred miles. Frank Dean was declared the best Northerner, finishing third. Though the Southern riders finished higher, due to consistency the top 12 Northern riders turned in a better average time than the best 12 from the South.
So the rare old scramble at Camberly Heath failed to settle the debate over whose riders were better, and the rivalry continued.
Historian Bryan Stealey writes in Racer X Illustrated, “Scrambling was quickly recognized as the next big thing on both sides of the English Channel. The French seized the new form of motorcycling and gave it a slight makeover, shortening the tracks and adding laps and a few man-made obstacles like jumps. They also changed the name to ‘moto-cross’ – a combination of ‘motorcycle’ and ‘cross country.’(2)
Over time, in Great Britain, the long loops like that at Camberly Heath would be shortened to loops consistent with modern motocross courses, which makes more sense in terms of land use and better convenience and viewing for spectators.
England’s Golden Era
During the 1930s, motorcycle racing became enormously popular in Great Britain. British Brands, including BSA, Norton, Matchless, New Imperial, Rudge, and AJS, became known as the best racing motorcycles in the world, and factory-supported teams spawned great racing talents. Arguably, the best was BSA, whose riders dominated the sport for a decade and defined the 1930s as Great Britain’s golden era of motocross.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the competition was curtailed, but when it resumed following the war, Great Britain emerged again as the producer of the best riders in the world. This was proven without a shadow of a doubt when motocross officially went international in 1947. But this is a story we will address next month.
The American Coincidence
Ironically, within two years of the first British scramble at Camberly Heath, the Crotona Motorcycle Club of Crotona, New York, created an event similar in nature, which they called a “TT,” for tourist trophy. While it had few similarities to the Isle of Man TT road race, the Crotona club chose that name because riders aboard “touring” motorcycles (normal street machines) started the race at timed intervals, just like at the Isle of Man.
It is not known whether the Crotona club knew about the Southern Scott Scramble, and it would seem that if they had, they might have adopted that name, rather than TT. At any rate, Crotona’s first TT was much like an early motocross, only shorter. Riders chased over a winding path through an apple orchard near Armonk, New York (3). Why American TT and British Scrambles had similar beginnings but evolved differently, is a topic we will explore in future installments.
At any rate, suffice to say that motorcycle racing evolved very differently here and across the pond, and it would not be for another 40 years that motocross would officially arrive in America.
As for now, we need no longer accept that motocross was invented in France or that its true origin is lost in the mists of time. Thanks to the scholarship of Bryan Stealey, we have a very strong argument that today’s motocross can be traced back to England’s first scramble, which took place in March 1924.
First-ever motocross “win ad”?
Motocross Goes International 1947 Through 1965
England’s Golden Era
The Great Depression affected motorcycling differently between Great Britain and America. With an abundance of affordable Ford to provide basic transportation, the American motorcycle industry very nearly disappeared during the 1930s. (4)
However, in England, where motorcycles, especially with sidecars, were still widely used for transportation, the British industry went from strength to strength. This popularity of motorcycles spilled over into sporting use as well, and large crowds turned out at famous venues like Red Marley, Rushmere, Donington, and Lilleshall to see their favorite riders aboard BSAs, Nortons, Ariels, Matchless, New Imperials, Velocettes, Rudge's, Cottons, AJSs, and other well-known brands. (5)
Racing machines of the era differed little from machines used on the street. They had rigid rear suspensions and were set up similarly for hill climbing, scrambles, and road racing. In fact, “road races” sometimes ran over an unpaved course, and some events used both smooth and rough sections, almost like a modern supermotard. (6) Scrambles, which had begun in 1924, continued to grow in popularity.
This fun and games came to an end in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, initiating the Second World War. Following the war, Great Britain had a further depressed economy, though not more so than other nations throughout Europe. Its motorcycle industry had weathered the storm with military production, and the continuing need for economical transportation made it a centerpiece of the post-war British industry. (7)
It was during this era that BSA became the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Consequently, while fuel, rubber, and money were hard to come by, the motorcycle sport resumed, based on its strong popularity and traditions.
By now, British scrambling had been taken up on the Continent, where it was given the French name “moto-cross.” Motorcycle competition provided a common ground on which the previously warring or occupied nations of Europe could re-establish relationships and return to normalcy.
Motocross Goes International
In 1947, the Dutch national motorcycle federation decided to host a competition for national teams and staged a motocross event on an estate near Duinrell, the Netherlands. Only three nations entered the competition: Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The riders raced two eight-lap heats over a two-mile circuit, and team scores were determined by computing the aggregate times of the best three riders from each national team. The British, represented by Bill Nicholson, Fred Rist, and Ray Scovell on 500cc BSAs, and Jack Stocker and Bob Ray on 497cc Ariels, won the event, besting the Belgians by only nine seconds.
This was the beginning of the Motocross des Nations, and the extent to which the event gained popularity was demonstrated at its second staging at La Fraineuse, Belgium where 30,000 spectators turned out to see the international stars.
One of England’s top riders, Dave Bickers, was a member of the country’s dominating Motocross des Nations teams of the 50s
Supported by its vital motorcycle industry, especially BSA, the British quickly established dominance in international competition, and teams composed of talented riders like Bill Nicholson, Fred Rist, and John Draper, and later Jeff Smith and Dave Bickers won the Motocross des Nations 15 times during its first 20 years. With Bert Perrigo running its racing program, BSA became the overdog of motorcycle racing.
Its big four-stroke singles set the standard for performance and design and were copied by Continental brands such as Husqvarna, Monark, and FN. In fact, BSA gearboxes and other components were sometimes used in the construction of works racers in other nations.
Stiff competition over the natural terrain of motocross led to technical improvements for better handling. Rigid frames gave way to plunger suspension by the early 1930s, and swinging arm suspension appeared by the early 1950s, several years before it was incorporated on production street machines.
As the sport gained in popularity and importance, in 1952 the FIM, motorcycling’s international governing body, created an individual European Championship, then upgraded it to a World Championship title in 1957. Through their depth of talent served the British well in the team competition, in the individual competition they found themselves hard-pressed by riders from other nations.
In the five years that a European title was offered, John Draper won aboard a BSA in 1955 and Les Archer won aboard a Norton in 1956. Otherwise, Belgians, including Victor Leloup, Auguste Mingels, and Rene Braeton dominated, earning first and second in the championship in 1952, ‘53, and ‘54. Likewise, from 1957 through 1965, Belgians or Swedes won the 500cc World Championship except for ‘64 and ‘65 when England’s Jeff Smith took the title. Swedes Bill Nilsson, Sten Lundin, and Rolf Tibblin – with two titles each — took control, except for 1958 when Belgian Braeton earned the title.
As engine design and power improved, competition for 250cc machines – the category in which the two-stroke came into its own — began to gain in popularity. In 1958 the FIM created a European Championship title for the 250cc class and upgraded it to a World Championship in 1962.
The brands of choice in this class were the Czechoslovakian CZ, the Swedish Husqvarna, and the British Greeves. It was largely through the 250 class that the importance of lightness and agility in motocross became apparent. Designers of racing machines began to adopt the new low-weight, high-strength materials that had been developed during the Second World War, primarily by the aircraft industry.
The Rickman brothers of Southampton pioneered the use of chromium alloy tubing with their famous Metisse frames, and at one point BSA experimented with an all-titanium frame. However, what would become the greatest motocross machine of the next decade was never intended as such.
Sweden’s Husqvarna, known mainly for the manufacture of weapons and sewing machines, had been in and out of the motorcycle business since the beginning of the century. After the Second World War, Swedish society was starved for personal transportation, and Husqvarna decided to reenter the market.
To increase its sales potential, the firm wanted a motorcycle that could be sold to young people, and to qualify for the teenage market under Swedish law, the motorcycle had to come in under a strict weight limit. Consequently, with the development of the 175cc Silver Pilen (meaning “Silver Arrow”), Husqvarna made extensive use of light alloys for its frame, brake drums, rims, and engine castings. The Silver Pilen was never intended to be a racing machine, but young riders like Rolf Tibblin quickly saw the potential and began to modify it for racing, including increasing the engine capacity for the 250cc class.
In the meantime, a young engineer in East Germany achieved a technical breakthrough that advanced the use of two-stroke engines and ultimately revolutionized the worldwide motorcycle industry. Walter Kaaden (at right), who had worked for DKW before the war, was charged with making the MZ brand competitive in international road racing.
Studying harmonics, he discovered the principle of the expansion chamber, which, when properly shaped, instantly increased the power of a two-stroke engine by over 25 percent. This, plus experimentation with improved cylinder porting and rotary disc valves, gave the two-stroke engine a power-to-weight ratio that easily exceeded the four-stroke. Besides, a two-stroke was less complicated and much cheaper to mass-produce, and practically every industrial nation, including Germany, Czechoslovakia, Great Britain, Sweden, Spain, and Japan quickly embraced the new technology.
By 1963, Husqvarna began limited production of a purpose-built motocross racer powered by a two-stroke engine and making extensive use of light alloys. It would become the vehicle on which a Swedish storm would carry motocross out of Europe and into America.
Edison Dye and His Flying Circus
During the 1960s, America broke free of its traditional isolationist attitudes as a youthful post-war generation explored and embraced new ideas in music, style, and sport coming from England, Europe, and Eurasia.
Dye (second from left) chats with a few of “his” riders, (from left) Dave Bickers, Roger DeCoster, and Joel Robert
One of England’s great cultural imports was the comedy troop “Monty Python and the Flying Circus,” which aired on the BBC from late 1969 through the end of 1974, and that quickly developed a devoted following among American television viewers.
Such was the popularity of Monty Python that its style and delivery heavily influenced American television and humor throughout the 1970s, popularizing ridicule of authority and traditional social conventions. A segue between Monty Python skits was often the catchphrase: “And now for something completely different!” The phrase became so popular that Python used it as the title of an anthology of its best work in 1971.
“And now for something completely different” could have been aptly applied to the introduction of another foreign cultural import during the 1960s when an entrepreneur named Edison Dye turned America on to motocross. All Edison Dye wanted was to sell a lot of Husqvarna motorcycles, but in the process, he helped revolutionize the American motorcycle sport.
Indeed, motocross was not entirely new to America. Motocross was referred to in the AMA rule book and sanctionable by the AMA as early as 1959, because by that time it was already being promoted in Grafton, Vermont by the New England Sports Committee at the Bell Cycle Ranch, a 400-acre plot owned by Maico dealer Perley Bell. On the opposite coast, the promotion of motocross can be traced back to the spring of 1966 at Sycamore Park near Irvine, California. Paul Hunt won that event aboard a Triumph-powered Rickman Matisse that he had just imported from England. Hunt was among a handful of Americans who had already visited Europe to get a taste of motocross.
So we cannot credit Edison Dye for introducing motocross to America. What Dye did was introduce motocross done in a spectacular and athletic European style that was well beyond what Americans were accustomed to with traditional “scrambles.”
Mario Edison Dye was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa on May 10, 1918. His family moved to California while he was still a child, settling in San Diego where Dye earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from San Diego State. During the Second World War, he supervised the manufacture of components for B-24 bombers at a plant in Texas.
After the war, he returned to California where he set up a trucking business to supply lumber to the booming housing industry. Dye had been a hot rod and motorcycle enthusiast since his teens and in the early 1960s he set up a service taking Americans to England and Europe for motorcycle tours, figuring it was an ideal way to make money doing what he enjoyed. It was in this way that he witnessed his first European motocross.
The potent, light-weight Husqvarnas were moving to the fore, piloted by young Swedes who were noted for their aerobatic riding style and incredible physical condition.
Dye at the Husky factory
Dye was hooked. He was dazzled by this Husqvarna (claimed to be 20 pounds lighter than a Greeves), which at that time was being built in only about 250 units a year. He could see the potential for this machine in the vast and growing American motorcycle market, and he negotiated a deal to become a U.S. distributor.
Dye introduced the product at a desert race in California’s Imperial Valley in February 1966 where it won, piloted by Don McCarley. This was an impressive debut for the Husky; however, Americans, accustomed to big four-stroke powered desert sleds, at first looked upon it as a spindly curiosity, not to be taken too seriously.
The light, agile two-stroke Husky demanded an entirely different riding style than Americans were accustomed to, and Dye realized that he had to demonstrate the bike the way it was designed to be ridden. To that end, in the fall of 1966, at the end of the Grand Prix season, Dye brought to America world champion Torsten Hallman to ride in exhibition races up to and down the west coast. Hallman dazzled the fans and devastated his competition, winning effortlessly at Corriganville, Hopetown, the Kiona Cross Country Championship, and the Canadian Northwest Motocross Championship.
No one had ever seen the kind of acrobatic riding that Hallman did routinely. He was incredibly fast and had the stamina of a bull. He demonstrated competitive riding at a level Americans had never seen and could barely comprehend. It would be several years before any American could ride like Hallman, but they realized they could own the kind of motorcycle he was riding right now! Dye met his objective.
“Nothing affected the sport so much in my lifetime as the Europeans coming to America!” said Dick Mann, speaking largely of Torsten Hallman (above)
Through this enormously successful publicity stunt, and with the help of Eastern Husky U.S. distributor John Penton, Dye launched the Husqvarna brand into two decades of near-dominance in the American off-road motorcycle market.
Though Hallman’s exhibitions were successful in their own right, they opened Dye’s eyes to another exciting new possibility. If one Swedish champion could dazzle American fans, how might they react to a whole field of Europe’s greatest motocross riders; a whole “flying circus,” as it were, traveling across the face of the land, displaying their spectacular skills weekend after weekend, from the east coast to the west. No doubt, it would sell more Husqvarnas, but a man might also make a buck as a race promoter.
Dye returned to Europe during the 1967 Grand Prix season, recruiting riders to come to America at the end of the year to ride for a fee. Of course, he was still interested in displaying the superiority of the Husqvarna brand, but Dye pursued deals also with Roger DeCoster, Joel Robert, and Dave Bickers, the world-class pilots for Husky’s arch-rival CZ.
DeCoster recalls that they earned $240 per race. It seems a miserly offer, but in the late 1960s, it was not a very hard sell to bring the best riders
aboard. DeCoster explains, “I had decided when I was a little kid I would someday go to America, so the chance to come to the United States to race for money when the GP season was over was a tremendous opportunity.” DeCoster recalls that it was great fun for all of the Europeans. He claims that as soon as they arrived in America, Joel Robert was mad to find a place where he could purchase a cowboy hat and a six-gun!
Joel Robert Taming an MX course
In the autumn of 1967, Edison’s Dye’s great flying circus arrived. In its first iteration, it was not truly a national tour. However, it proved extremely successful. Americans got a chance to see motocross, European style, and for motorcycle racers in America, nothing would ever be the same. Dick Mann, who rode against Hallman in 1966, and was arguably America’s greatest all-around champion of the era, later declared, “Nothing affected the sport so much in my lifetime as the Europeans coming to America!”
The Changing of the Guard
Edison Dye’s Inter-Am series in 1967 – and the years that followed – was both an artistic triumph and a financial success. It exposed Americans to an entirely new style of motorcycle racing, it provided an exciting opportunity for the European champions to race and earn in America during the offseason – where they were acclaimed as gods and heroes – and it undoubtedly improved Dye’s financial net worth. Any number of people who were there at the time laughingly tells the story of Dye trying to close the trunk lid on his rental car while the pressure of the falling lid caused cash to come flying out around the edges (14).
Early American MX hero Dick Burleson
It was an era of new things in motorcycling, one of which was Cycle News, which came on the scene in 1965 to introduce news journalism to the motorcycle industry. Previously, by the time you read something in the monthlies, it was practically ancient history. But Cycle News’s weekly frequency and regional distribution allowed promoters to buy advertising at a reasonable price, and it informed readers of the current racing news on a timely basis.
There is little doubt that the extensive coverage given the Inter-Am by Cycle News greatly benefited Edison Dye’s flying circus. And while it was not as timely, the monthly Cycle World and specifically its editor Joe Parkhurst played an important role in the success of the series. Thanks to Parkhurst’s attention to the international sport, stars like Dave Bickers, Roger DeCoster, Torsten Hallman, and Joel Robert were household names among American motorcycle racing fans long before they arrived on American shores.
World Champion Joel Robert
From the outset, motocross was media-friendly. The excitement of the Inter-Am, the international flavor it delivered, and the Olympic ability of its European stars appealed to the general media. Local papers began to announce the coming of the Europeans as the Inter-Am crossed America.
The series achieved a media breakthrough in 1969 when ABC’s Wide World of Sports chose the race at Pepperell, Massachusetts for its first-ever broadcast of motorcycle racing. Barry Higgins became a national star when he became the highest-ranking American aboard his CZ at Pepperell in 1969. However, the Inter-Am remained a European romp as Hallman beat the Americans in 21 straight motos.
In the meantime, some important changes were going on behind the scenes in the politics of racing. By the mid-1960s, the AMA has shown no interest in motocross. Heavily invested in its Class C flat track tradition, for more than four decades the organization had taken little interest in the international competition organized under the auspices of the FIM, the Federation Internationale de Motoclisme. Some AMA directors and American promoters had been openly hostile toward the FIM and its “European ways.”
What small amount of international racing that existed in the United States fell under the auspices of MICUS, the Motorcycle International Clubs of the US. MICUS was a one-man operation run by an entrepreneurial businessman named Wes Cooley, the father of Wes, Jr. the road racing hall of Famer.
In the vacuum willingly left by the AMA, Cooley went to Geneva and established a relationship with the FIM as its official representative in America. Thus, when Edison Dye brought the Inter-Am to America he dealt with Cooley and MICUS for his international sanctions, rather than the AMA.
However, by 1969 a more progressive leadership was emerging within the AMA; this included publisher Bill Bagnall (right), who was President of the AMA, and Russ March, a member of the Board of Trustees who later became its Executive Director. March and Bagnall attended the FIM Congress in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia in the fall of 1969 on a fact-finding mission and an effort to see if the AMA could have a place in the international sporting community.
With the AMA’s 100,000 members, 1,000 affiliated clubs, 3,000 sanctioned events a year, and a high level of visibility, it did not take long to persuade the FIM to reconsider how it was represented in the United States. Cooley could see the writing on the wall and negotiated a graceful exit.
It was agreed that during 1970 the AMA and MICUS would function as joint representatives of the FIM in America, but that by 1971 the AMA would become the sole affiliate. The same month that Bagnall and March were meeting with the FIM in Yugoslavia, the AMA-sanctioned its first professional motocross at a track near Croton, Ohio.
It proved to be a promise of things to come, as Dick Mann, America’s most accomplished star in traditional AMA Class C competition, and Gunnar Lindstrom, one of Husqvarna’s super Swedes, did battle. Lindstrom won the 500 class, but Mann, riding an OSSA, edged him out in the 250 class.
The AMA’s involvement in motocross was pretty rocky at first. The old guard within the organization angered a lot of people late in the year in 1969 when they suspended the licenses of riders and tried to punish promoters who participated with Edison Dye and the Inter-Am. According to the old-policy AMA, these were “outlaw” races (not AMA sanctioned), and such well-known leaders and popular racing stars as Dick Mann, John Penton, Bob Hicks, Joe Bolger, and Charlie Vincent had their AMA licenses suspended.
This heavy-handed approach to individuals who were seen as visionaries within the sport had the effect of alienating AMA members and generating a lot of bad press (16). But it gave the progressives within the organization the chance they needed. By the spring of 1970 AMA Executive Director Bill Berry was out and Russ March (left) was appointed in his place.
March didn’t waste any time in developing a high-level AMA motocross program. Rather than let the transition year unfold quietly, March decided to go head-to-head against the Inter-Am by creating the Trans-AMA international championship series. The move resulted in a wealth of opportunity for the fans.
With the Inter-Am they could see the stars of the Husqvarna, CZ, and Greeves teams, and with the Trans-AMA they could watch the BSA wrecking crew and the quickly emerging Suzuki team. The AMA’s monthly magazine, then titled “AMA News”, devoted significant space to explaining the organization’s new progressive policy toward international racing, and by the December 1970 issue, Joel Robert, racing his Suzuki on U.S. soil, was featured on its cover (below). Interior pages contained large photographs of motocrossers, including Brad Lackey, a long-haired kid with a peace dove perched on his handlebars, who would one day become America’s first world champion.
Because the AMA realized that the Europeans would dominate, it decided to create a national championship title which would be conferred on the top American in the series, regardless of where he might finish. This was won by Dick Burleson aboard a privately sponsored Rickman BSA (17). Today, few realize that Burleson was America’s first motocross national champion, in part because he went on to become the most accomplished enduro rider in history, earning eight national championships in succession.
With the 1971 season, the Inter-Am was no more, and the Trans-AMA became like an after-party for the FIM motocross grand Prix as top-flight Europeans riding for all of the leading factories came to America.
The emergence of the Trans-AMA as America’s international motocross series has not always been clearly understood. It has been asserted on more than one occasion that the AMA went around to the various Inter-Am track owners and stole them away from Dye. This was not the case. When the AMA launched its Trans-AMA in 1970 it did so with an entirely new crop of promoters, and when the Inter-Am folded in 1971, Edison Dye was invited to become a promoter within the AMA series.
No doubt, from a position of income and creative control, this was seen as a step down by Edison Dye, but his series and promoters were never “stolen” from him by the AMA.
Still, the relationship came to a sorry end three years later on a rainy weekend in St. Charles, Missouri. On November 3, 1974, Edison Dye effectively canceled a round of the Trans-AMA by refusing to turn his purse money over to the officials of the event. Dye blamed bad weather, but referee John Lancione reported that the decision was based on money. According to Lancione, Dye said, “If I cancel the race I will lose $10,000 and if I don’t I’ll lose $20,000.” (18).
Since motocross is traditionally run rain or shine, this was an especially egregious breach of an agreement with the sanctioning body, the riders, and the fans. Dye’s decision to save $10,000 is likely the most expensive decision of his career since he was never again allowed to promote an AMA-sanctioned race.
There is no doubt that significant credit goes to Edison Dye for popularizing motocross in America, and this was acknowledged in 1999 when he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame at the AMA’s campus in Pickerington, Ohio. However, the growth of motocross in America can be credited to the organization brought to it by the AMA. Under its auspices other great entrepreneurs emerged, such as Gavin Trippe, Pete Weidner, and Ward Robinson who brought motocross grand Prix to America; Bill and Jerry West with their Florida Winter-AMA series, and Dave and Rita Coombs who created the vast talent factory known as the Loretta Lynn’s Amateur Motocross National Championship.
Then there is Roger DeCoster, who was introduced to America by the Inter-Am in 1967, went on to become a four-time Trans-AMA Champion from 1974 through 1977, and stayed in the States to mentor the young Americans who became the world-beaters of the 1980s.
In a recent consultation with the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in the development of its Motocross America exhibit, DeCoster declared that Edison Dye was the most important person in the development of motocross in America, but that the Trans-AMA was the most significant event in the evolution of the sport.
Gary Bailey: The Man Who Put America First
1969 was a year of widespread cultural change. After 147 years of publication, the Saturday Evening Post died, but Sesame Street was born. ARPNET, the predecessor to the Internet was launched. The Beatles did their last public performance and the “hippie era” reached its zenith when 400,000 people attended Woodstock. Later that year the music died when a chaotic Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway turned to murder.
The first temporary artificial heart was installed, the Concorde took its shakedown flight, Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, and the Stonewall riots gave birth to the gay rights movement. Hoping to ignore the political impact of a half-million war protestors on the Washington Mall, Richard Nixon sought his support in a “silent majority.” The Charles Manson family went on a killing spree and Chicago cops shot members of the Black Panthers while they slept. Dwight Eisenhower and Allen Dulles died, but Marilyn Manson and Dweezil Zappa were born.
“I raced with Hallman.” Then Gary pauses and thinks, and clarifies, “Well, I should say I was on the same race track with him!”
And Gary Bailey
became the first American to beat the Europeans at motocross. Appropriately, he did it on July 4th when all Americans celebrate their independence from the Old World.
Gary Bailey was born on October 6, 1943, in South Gate California. His grandfather, Tex Bryant, owned a motorcycle shop, first selling Indians then moving to Matchless and other British brands after the demise of Indian, and then eventually getting a Yamaha franchise.
Husband and wife team take to Daytona
Gary got a 1955 Triumph Cub at the age of 13 and began riding in competition with his grandfather and older brother Bob. They did desert, short track, and scrambles, which was always Gary’s favorite. As a proficient scrambler, he was pretty well prepared for the arrival of motocross, which he first rode at Castaic Park in 1965. By this time he was six feet, five inches tall, making quite a sight aboard a little Hodaka.
Recognizing young Bailey’s talent, American Greeves distributor Nick Nicholson offered him a ride. At first, Bailey blew him off, not understanding the offer. He says, “At first I thought it was some guy trying to sell me a motorcycle, and it took me a long time to get back to him.” While Bailey’s career eventually became affiliated with Greeves, he didn’t care what he rode as long as he had something ride.
It was not uncommon for him to arrive at the track with a whole trailer full of bikes, riding a Penton in the 100cc class and Greeves in the 250 and 360 classes.
Bailey recalls, “Riding three classes a day was common for me, and sometimes I would even bring a 200 Greeves and squeeze in another class.” (20)
When Torsten Hallman arrived to put the American motorcycle sport on its ear in 1966, American racers learned a thing or two about physical fitness. Accustomed to shorter sprint races rather than 40-minute motos, most Americans couldn’t begin to match the Europeans for endurance and stamina. Bailey, who earned his living as a grocery warehouse manager, was better prepared than most.
He explains, “I never had to train. Unloading a couple of those 40-foot trucks about three times a week gave me all the training I needed. We didn’t even have a forklift. I would empty a semi by just carrying all the crates and boxes.”
However, skill and stamina notwithstanding, Bailey went largely unnoticed at Torsten Hallman’s debut, possibly because like many Americans, he was riding a big, heavy 650 Triumph against Hallman’s agile Husqvarna. Bailey recalls, “I raced with Hallman.” Then he pauses and thinks, and clarifies, “Well, I should say I was on the same race track
When the Inter-Am series began in 1967, Gary Bailey could not afford to race outside his home state. However, that all changed at Saddleback Park on July 4th, 1969. World champion Arne Kring won the first moto, followed by American motocross pioneer Bill Silverthorn on a Husky, and Gary Bailey on his Greeves. Then, in the second moto, Bailey beat them all, finishing ahead of Stig Petterson (the younger brother of Olle Petterson), with Kring in third.
Bailey recalls, “On that last lap I knew Petterson was right behind me. It was such a hot day, and I was so tired. I just knew he was going to beat me. Then I started hearing the fans. Usually, when you are riding you are concentrating so much you don’t hear a thing. But I started hearing ‘Bay-Lee, Bay-Lee, Bay-Lee!’ and I knew that if I didn’t win that race I would let everybody down.” Bailey prevailed. Cycle News reporter Maureen Lee wrote, “Gary Bailey on his 250 Greeves burned like an Independence Day rocket and beat some of the best racers Europe had to offer, showing the improvement America has made in motocross racing.” (21)
With each man taking a first and a third, Bailey and Kring ended the day tied for points, but Bailey earned the victory by turning in the faster of the two motos, thereby making even more legitimate the claim that he had outperformed the best in the world.
Recalling that triumphant today, Bailey expresses mixed feelings: “Yes, I was very proud of my win. But then Edison Dye gave me $150 for being top American. The Europeans got paid more just for showing up. I recall driving home in my truck, pretty angry and thinking, ‘That just isn’t right!’” Still, Bailey got his rewards.
For the Saddleback Inter-Am victory, plus his performance in two other races in the summer Inter-Am series, Bailey won a trip to England for being the top American rider. This allowed him to visit the Greeves factory in England. Coincidentally, he had also won a ticket to Germany for winning the 1969 season championship with the California Motocross Club. Bailey says, “I had never even been on an airplane before. I had not traveled anywhere. Because the ticket to England was worth more, I cashed it in and flew to Germany, then took a train through Germany and Belgium, and a ferry to England.” Bailey spent more than a month in Europe, then returned to America with enough support to campaign the inaugural Trans-AMA series for Greeves as a full professional motocrosser. His days of unloading grocery trucks had come to an end.
At the Trans-AMA at LaRue, Ohio in 1970, the promoter had planned and publicized a motocross school to be conducted by one of the visiting Europeans. That plan fell through, and the promoter approached Bailey: “Can you get out there and just talk to the students and show them something? I’m going to be in big trouble if I can’t come through with this school.”
Bailey says, “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I just went out there and answered questions and talked to people about how I approached motocross. It came off well, I made a little money, and I said, ‘Hey, I can do this thing!’”
Soon Bailey was conducting 20 to 25 schools a year, taking 20 students at a time, who, in the early days, paid a tuition of $15! Reporting on one of Bailey’s schools at Shreveport, Louisiana in October 1970 Dixie Cycle News headlined its story, “Dr. Bailey’s Cure for the European Invasion.” Reporter Don Woods wrote, “He sincerely wants to see the sport improve and is a dedicated teacher.” (22) The next day Bailey reinforced his credentials to teach by winning three classes. Over time, “Dr. Bailey” evolved into “Professor Bailey,” which is an apt title for a man who practically started an industry through which countless young riders have improved their skills and self-esteem, and from which many former American motocross champions still make their living.
The tall teacher has also earned recognition as one of America’s leading temporary track designers. When plans were being laid to host America’s first supercross at Daytona International Speedway in March 1971, Daytona’s Bill France approached Bailey at a Florida Winter-AM event and asked him if he could design and build a track.
Bailey recalls, “I had a little experience helping my brother Bob build a motocross track at Ascot Park in California, which was just about as flat a place as you could find, so I told France I thought I could do it.” Bailey must have performed to the Speedway’s satisfaction at that inaugural event, because he has built every Daytona Supercross track since, for 34 consecutive years.
It is impossible to put a value on Gary Bailey’s contribution to motocross in America. As the first man to beat the Europeans, he created the hope that must have driven many others to strive harder. He created the light at the end of the tunnel. Since that day, he has spread that light by sharing his knowledge and experience with over 15,000 young people who have attended his schools to become better motocrossers.
Justifiably, in 1999 Gary Bailey was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
Boom Time: American Motocross in the 1970s
In 1965 – the year before Torsten Hallman arrived in America – the AMA-sanctioned only 15 motocross meets throughout the entire nation. Dirt track racing, which traced its roots to the 1920s when the AMA was founded, was far more popular as evidenced by more than 10 times as many sanctioned meets. All aspects of motorcycling grew exponentially during the next decade, but none so expansively as motocross. For example, while dirt-track racing grew four-fold between 1965 and 1975, motocross, when measured by the number of AMA-sanctioned meets, grew a hundred-fold! (23)
The growth of motocross in America during the 1970s was nothing less than a motorsport revolution. Many factors contributed to this change.
Some politicians speak of a “war dividend,” which is a theoretical boost that the economy derives from the capital investment and higher employment levels generated by wartime production and military spending. Whether such a phenomenon applies in most cases is doubtful, but there is no doubt it was one of the by-products of the Second World War.
The production of durable goods was driven to historically high levels, and with industry spinning at a fevered pitch, the federal government took steps to try to keep it that way when the war came to an end. Legislation to help GIs get an education, train for peacetime employment, and acquire homes kept people working and cash flowing. Unlike any time in its history, the American middle class was secure, earning, and in control of discretionary income.
Also, morale was high and there was a strong belief in the concept of “progress.” Life seemed to be getting better and better, and most Americans were confident the trend would continue. They began to devote more of their earnings to leisure activities, and during the 1960s a distinct leisure-time industry emerged to help Americans enjoy their prosperity. Motorcycles were a significant aspect of that trend.
The Biggest Generation
The “Greatest Generation,” returning victorious from the Second World War, promptly set about creating the biggest generation. 3.4 million babies were born in America in 1946, birth rate increases continued, and by 1954 more than four million new babies arrived each year. The so-called Baby Boom continued through 1964, creating a demographic bulge consisting of more than 78 million people. (24) Most of these did not know hard times the way their parents had. They were raised with allowances, ownership, and time on their hands. Many discovered motorcycles, especially when they entered their high school and college years and were confronted with the fresh idea that “the nicest people
” could ride them, as espoused by Honda.
The Baby Boom was not only a quantitative demographic phenomenon, but it produced a qualitative sea change as well, driven by the emergence of rock and roll, youth culture, and a civil rights movement. America’s young generation eschewed the tastes and values of their parents. Mouthing the slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” they embraced the new, the international, and the unconventional. Their parents might have been suspicious and unwelcoming toward Europeans riding strange motorcycles with unpronounceable names like “Husqvarna.” The Boomers were not. They took to Bengt Aberg as readily as they took to Eric Burden. Through the sheer weight of their numbers, they drove the commercial success of the Inter-Am series and the expansion of the American motorcycle market.
A Plethora of Product
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, motorcycle sales in America remained static at about 40 to 50,000 units per year, divided between Harley-Davidson, Indian, the British, BMW, and a few other minor European brands. But that all changed with the arrival of new products from Japan.
During its second year in America, Honda sold over 15,000 motorcycles and then continued to increase its unit sales and market share for more than the next decade. The other Japanese companies followed suit. Led by Suzuki, they turned their attention to the production of machines purpose-built for motocross. The Japanese manufacturers were strategically geared to build motorcycles in quantities that the longer-established European and American manufacturers did not dream of. Not only could they build more, but their products were lighter, more reliable, less expensive, cleaner, and easier to ride than the traditional big bikes from England and America, thus they appealed to a new and broader base of customers.
The greater volume of Japanese production was essential to America’s motocross boom. Even if every American wanted and could afford a new Husqvarna or CZ just like those ridden by Torsten Hallman and Joel Robert, most would not have been able to acquire one since they were assembled in only limited quantities and their manufacturers lacked the vision and the will to make the capital investments the Japanese had made. Consequently, by the mid-1970s a tremendous supply of products was available. Any American who wanted to sample off-road motorcycling – including motocross – had no trouble purchasing an inexpensive and reasonably competitive motorcycle within a few miles of his home.
Yet, while the Japanese manufacturers provided the volume of the wave, we should not overlook the role of the longer-standing European suppliers. Brands such as Montesa, CZ, and Greeves had been on the leading edge of the sport, even before the arrival of the sensational Husqvarnas.
As motocross grew in popularity practically every industrialized nation in Europe – from both sides of the Iron Curtain – supplied product to feed the needs of American motorcycle sportsmen. Between 1965 and 1975 more than 50 brands became available in the American market, amounting to greater volume and diversity of products than the motorcycle industry had seen since 1915.
A Healthier Image
In the eyes of the American public and media, motorcycling’s reputation suffered throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. Many trace the trend to the highly-publicized riots that took place at an AMA race in Hollister, California in 1947. This event became the basis for “The Wild One
,” one of the most influential motorcycle movies of all time, and that 1954 film was followed by a seemingly endless stream of Grade B biker flicks, culminating in “Hell’s Angels ’69
,” released in – you guessed it! – 1969.
It would have been pathetic had not so many bonehead bikers found something to emulate in these films. Throughout the 1960s, many traditional AMA championship venues became the annual gathering places for trouble makers and rowdies.
The relationship between local governments and visiting race fans grew progressively worse, and events like the legendary Springfield Mile were canceled. In 1967 two more of the AMA championship Class C venues – Lebanon, Ohio and Lincoln, Illinois – as well as the prestigious Jack Pine Enduro, were canceled by local authorities due to bad fan behavior or fear thereof. Cycle News editor Chuck Clayton lamented, “The 1967 season may go down in history as the blackest year in American motorcycle competition.” (25)
Maybe so, if you were focusing only on traditional AMA Class C racing, but this was only one side of the American motorcycle racing scene. 1967 was also the year that Edison Dye’s wildly successful Inter-Am played before crowds exceeding 25,000. As a kind of counterpoint to the problematic sport traditional American motorcycle racing had become, motocross was perceived as a festive, healthy, and wholesome activity.
Whereas traditional Class C racing was burdened with an image of surly young men
with ducktail haircuts, grease under their nails, and cigarettes rolled up in their T-shirt sleeves, motocross was associated with stamina, good health, athletic training, and physical fitness, a concept depicted by the young and glamorous Europeans who could ride a fast and furious 40-minute heat with apparent ease.
American parents who would not think of buying their sons' Triumphs and Harleys, or allowing them to associate with those who did, were more than happy to trot down to the local dealer and buy their kids a motocross machine. Motocross was seen as an activity in which the whole family could participate, an idea convincingly conveyed by the box office hit “On Any Sunday
,” which appeared in theaters in 1972.
A Better Mouse Trap
While many traditionalists were loath to admit it, motocross was, quite simply, a better mousetrap from the points of view of both organizers and participants. For clubs and promoters, it was less expensive and troublesome to organize than a traditional dirt track race, and for participants, it provided more fun for the buck. The increase in motorcycle popularity during the 1960s worked against traditional American forms of competition, which were built around a progressive program of many heats, semi-finals, last chance qualifiers, and finals.
Cycle News writer Maureen Lee noted in 1967 that something was already going wrong with the old model, even some nine months before the arrival of Edison Dye’s flying circus. Pondering the state of TT racing in February 1967 she wrote, “With so many little bikes now, the big bikes were left with only two-lap mains a couple of times with the last event being run in almost darkness.” (26)
Lee’s concern was prompted by the fact that the 1967 calendar of Southern California dirt bike
races were significantly smaller than the previous year.
Unlike traditional circle track and TT racing, motocross did not require much track preparation before the event, and typically no maintenance during the event. For the riders, it provided a lot to track time, and if you broke in the first heat you could still come back and ride in the second. Brad Lackey, America’s first motocross world champion, was a perfect example of a young man
living on this cusp of change.
Lackey recalls, “When we wanted to go racing for the weekend, we might have a choice of a short track and a motocross within driving distance. We didn’t care where we rode. We just wanted to ride. But it didn’t take long for us to figure out that if we went to a short track we might not qualify out of our heat race, and when that happened you were done for the day after just a few minutes of riding. But in motocross, you got to ride a 20-minute moto, and if something went wrong or broke, you could get it back together and ride the second moto, then the third. Just one moto got you more riding time than a whole Class C program, even when you qualified through to the final.”
Given these factors, it is not surprising that motocross in America exploded in the 1970s. Amateur meets drew fields of more than 300 participants. From this vast crucible of activity came the dedicated talent that would take America to the top of the motocross world in the 1980s.
The Young Americans
The team that beat the worlds best
It is customarily not considered good scholarship for historians to put themselves in the picture; but, in this case, I will indulge myself because I was there in the summer of 1974 when an official of the FIM made a prediction that then seemed impossible, but now seems inevitable. I was standing trackside at the Mid-Ohio Motocross Course with Charles Dillen, a Belgian delegate from the FIM. The AMA had applied for the right to organize a 125 Grand Prix, and Dillen had been dispatched to inspect the course and the capability of the promoter. He had come on a racing weekend to evaluate the promoter’s staff and the AMA’s officials in action. It was Saturday – amateur day – and the course was like an ant farm of youngsters practicing their motocross
I was quite apprehensive because I doubted that we were capable of any performance that would impress Mr. Dillen. After all, he was a long-standing delegate of the FIM and a seasoned official from the land that had helped invent modern motocross, and that had spawned the likes of Robert, DeCoster, and Geboers. Thus, I was understandably taken aback when Dillen matter-of-factly said, “Soon you [meaning America] will rule the world of motocross.” I needed a moment to let my mind catch up with my ears, and then I replied, “You gotta be kidding!”
Dillen raised his arm, and with his palm open made a broad, slow sweep across the horizon, like Moses parting the waters, and said, “No, it is only logical. There are hundreds of young riders here, and you have hundreds of tracks just like this across a very large nation. If tiny Belgium can produce champions from such a small population, think of what America will do. Your domination of the sport is inevitable.”
It was a logical argument, but still, at that moment in history, I simply could not believe it. Jim Pomeroy had proven that an American could win a GP the previous summer, but to me, the Europeans were still magical. America’s success would be simply a combination of opportunity and hard work seemed too simple. American domination was inevitable seemed too outrageous to be true.
In that era, the true measure of a nation’s motocross prowess was its performance at the Trophee des Nations (for 250cc machines) and the Motocross des Nations (for 500cc machines), were designed to measure the performance of four-man national teams. Having begun in the Netherlands in 1947, a full decade before the FIM created its first individual world motocross championship title; these events were rich in prestige and filled with tradition. Any country might produce the solitary superstar from time to time, but it took depth and breadth of talent to win the Motocross or Trophee des Nations.
Great Britain won 15 times during the first two decades of the program and then dropped out of sight for the next three decades. Belgium and Sweden played well through the 1960s and 1970s, with Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union winning from time to time.
Americans began to aspire to compete in the Motocross des Nations in the late 1960s. Ron Nelson, Russ Darnell, and Dan Gurney launched a private team funding campaign, supported by Cycle News, but in the absence of a strong FIM affiliated organization in the United States, their task was overwhelming. With the AMA becoming America’s FIM affiliate in 1970, it launched its first official assault on the world team championship in 1972 with Gary Jones, Brad Lackey, Jim Pomeroy, and Jimmy Weinert. Plagued by mechanical problems, they finished seventh.
From there, the project went in fits and starts. With its internal management and financial problems, the AMA was not able to mount an effort in 1973. A team was sent again in 1974, and for the remainder of the decade, Americans learned just how hard it is to muster the talent, money, industry support, transportation, and organization to field a competitive team. There was little evidence that America was making any consistent headway up the world team motocross ladder.
The 1974 team of Jim Weinert, Tony DiStefano, Jim Pomeroy, and Brad Lackey finished second in Stockholm, Sweden
True, the Yanks had earned second in Sweden in 1974 and France in 1977, but in 1979 and 1980 they had not even fielded a team. America’s top riders were not anxious to risk their good names in under-funded and poorly organized efforts, and the manufacturers did not see a lot of benefit in spending money on bikes, transportation, and personnel at the end of a long, hard U.S. national championship season.
Two men who refused to be discouraged were Larry Maiers of Hi-Point Racing Products and Dick Miller of Motocross Action magazine. Figuring a properly-funded effort would cost about $40,000, Maiers set out to raise $20,000, mostly by selling t-shirts, and Miller got the four Japanese manufacturers to commit $5,000 each in matching funds. The plan was to properly support America’s then-current superstars: Bob Hannah, Broc Glover, Kent Howerton, and Mark Barnett.
But Hannah and Howerton had been there and done that and had bad memories from it. The whole program began to unravel when Suzuki withdrew Howerton and Barnett. Then Yamaha followed suit, pulling Hannah and Glover.
America had never seen a funding effort like that put together by Maiers and Miller. Here they were with a pile of money and no team. Furthermore, Bel-Ray Lubricants had made a big in-kind commitment to the program. American Bel-Ray executive J.J. Hanfield agreed to serve as team manager, and its Belgian-based representative Thur Coen agreed to handle all transportation, accommodations, and logistics in Europe, setting out a plan designed to shield the riders as much as possible from the culture shock of poor food, bad accommodations, and difficult travel. Roger DeCoster, who had moved from Suzuki to Honda’s racing department at the beginning of 1981, came to the rescue by somehow persuading his new employer to put forward a full team, consisting of Chuck Sun, Donnie Hansen, Johnny O’Mara, and Danny LaPorte, plus motorcycles and a full crew of mechanics. DeCoster took on the job of the coach and mentor to the riders. For this he was certainly qualified, having ridden on victorious Belgian Motocross des Nations teams six times and Trophee des Nations teams 10 times!
The pundits, especially in Europe, predicted another embarrassing year for America. And why not? This was a B team consisting of less-seasoned riders. They were not even America’s best, so how could they succeed in world-class racing? They were held in so little regard, the promoter of the Trophee des Nations in Belgium refused to give them the start money of a real national team, and DeCoster’s countrymen chastised him for bringing a “second rate” team from America.
Even after the team placed first in qualifying for the event, the Europeans refused to take them seriously. Conventional wisdom within the paddock said that, yes, they were quick young boys
, but they would certainly wilt under the punishment of 40-minute motos against real motocross men.
Boys among “men”: Danny LaPorte, Donnie Hansen, Johnny O’Mara and Chuck Sun showed up the world’s best on a day in 1981 in Beilstein, Germany
This was not the case. The quartet won resoundingly. With a low score of 20 winning the championship, the second-place Belgian team earned nearly twice the points at 37. American Motorcyclist reported, “The victory was so lopsided that had all of the European riders been on the same team, the U.S. would still have won by two points!” The legendary Joel Robert, who, like DeCoster, was well beyond his racing career, taunted the president of the Belgian motorcycle federation, stating, “Next week maybe Roger and I will practice a little and ride for Belgium. You need all the help you can get!”
Thur Coen, who was especially incensed by the way his fellow Europeans had treated their American guests, got on the public address system and announced in Flemish, “We have proven that it wasn’t a joke.”
The following week’s Motocross des Nations, held in Germany, was a very different race, but the results were the same. Even with Sun dropping out with an injury, the American team came from behind to beat the British by a single point.
Cycle News reporter Henny Ray Abrams wrote, “To add to the drama the announcer read out the names of the lower placing teams first. When he got to second and announced ‘Great Britain, 43′ it was sheer bedlam for the four young Americans, their team and their many supporters. America became only the sixth nation to win the event.”
DeCoster declared, “One point is just enough. It feels better to win by one point than by 17 like last week. I think it’s maybe more exciting to me than when I won this myself.”
If this was America’s B Team, surely “B” stood for “best.” Addressing the inevitable question as to whether America’s original A-Team might have done even better, American Motorcyclist editor Bill Amick declared, “I believe that Hansen, LaPorte, O’Mara, and Sun were the perfect formula for victory. In a sport marked by intense individual rivalries, they set all that aside. They traveled as a team, though as a team, and rode as a team.”
Still, it might have been a fluke. Europe, collectively, might have been having a bad couple of days. But this is not the case. It was only the beginning. The historic 1981 world team motocross victories verified that America had become a factory for motocross talent. That factory turned out young Americans who won the motocross team championships for 13 years in a row – from 1981 through 1993 – with encores in 1996 and 2000. To punctuate the miracle of 1981, LaPorte and Brad Lackey won the 250 and 500cc individual world championships the following season.
Six years later, when America’s team won the Motocross des Nations on their soil at Unadilla, New York in 1987, they were invited to the White House for an audience with President Reagan in the Oval Office. Not only had the young Americans made their mark in Europe, but they raised motocross to a level of recognition as a major sport in their own country.
America’s world team motocross performance throughout the 1980s established a record of uninterrupted domination that no other nation is ever likely to surpass. Charles Dillen’s incredible prediction of the summer of 1974 had come true.
Taking Motocross to the People
Prague “Supercross” circa 1956
American journalists have often credited the United States as the inventor of supercross. And there may be a good argument that what we know as supercross today was made in America, but the idea of taking an exciting outdoor motorcycle sport into a stadium began in Europe nearly two decades before motocross became popular in America.
The first event on record that attempted to simulate open terrain motorcycle competition on a man-made course inside a stadium took place on August 28, 1948, at Buffalo Stadium in the Paris suburb of Montrouge. Promoter Pierre Bardel had already hosted oval track motorcycle racing in the facility, and it had proven popular, easily accessible to Parisians via subway. For his debut “motocross,” Bardel added a couple of jumps on the straights, some switch-backs in the turns, and a steeplechase-type water hazard, thus introducing the basic style of stadium racing that would one day be named supercross. Eventually, the Buffalo Stadium gave way to urban sprawl.
If supercross was born near Paris, France in 1948, it was reborn in Prague, Czechoslovakia on May 9, 1956. On that date a hundred-thousand Czechs filled Strahov Stadium on “Great Victory Day,” a national holiday to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany. Off-road motorcycling had already become a major sport in post-war Czechoslovakia, so there was plenty of interest in such an event, and plenty of talent to thrill the fans. But there wasn’t adequate public or personal transportation to take great throngs of people into the countryside, so the idea of staging a race for people to enjoy in comfort in the very center of Prague was only logical. In addition to motocross in the infield, the fans were treated to speedway races around the perimeter oval. The motocross course twisted over a half-mile circuit that included a water crossing and seven or eight jumps, which were created by piling dirt on wooden ramps.
More from Prague
Because of the political nature of the holiday surrounding the race, only Czechs and riders from neighboring Iron Curtain countries participated, and only brands from the region were raced, including ESO, Jawa, CZ, MZ, and Junak. Due to state-controlled communication on both sides of the Curtain, Western riders and motocross fans had little knowledge of or interest in the event. However, Czechoslovakia was not the only nation of the Cold War era to come up with the idea of taking racing to the people. British world champion Jeff Smith recalls participating at international meets held in soccer stadiums in Belgium. The events were run at night under very poor lighting.
Smith says, “The backside of some of the jumps were shadowed in complete darkness. It was like jumping off into a bottomless pit, and you had no idea when your front wheel was going to strike the ground.”
Likewise, motocross historian Eric Johnson reports of conversations with Eyvand Boyesen who told of stadium races in Norway in the mid-60s where the promoter put soap on the wooden jumps to create more spills and thrills for the spectators. These events, as described by Smith and Boyesen, sound more like carnival shows than legitimate motocross.
Although motorcycle racing on oval tracks in stadium-type facilities dates back to the teens in America, the first known “indoor” event akin to a motocross was hosted by the Florida Motorcycle Dealers’ Association and local motorcycle clubs in Miami Stadium – home of the then Miami Marlins baseball team – on February 5, 1961. This event was a Florida State Scramble Championship where Triumphs, BSAs, and Harley-Davidsons roared over an infield course with right and left-hand turns and jumps built with wooden ramps. Riders from as far away as Ohio entered the meet.
First known “indoor” motocross was this event on a ball diamond
With motocross becoming popular in America during the late 1960s, racers Gary and Bob Bailey collaborated with promoter J.C. Agajanian to organize weekly motocross races at Ascot Speedway in Gardena, California in 1968. Agajanian, a long-time promoter of AMA Class C races, including national championships, wanted these early stadium motocross races to receive professional sanctions from the AMA.
However, the AMA would not agree, because its professional racing rules defined a motocross as “a closed course over completely natural terrain except for the alteration or removal of dangerous obstacles.”
Ironically, if the sanction had been applied for under the AMA amateur rule book, it probably would have been approved. Those rules stated that motocross is the same as scrambles, except for different scoring, then went on to define scrambles as “conducted in a private unpaved course or field especially prepared for the meet.” The rule said nothing about “completely natural terrain,” and would have easily applied to what Agajanian and the Bailey brothers proposed.
At any rate, it did not take those who drafted the AMA professional rule book long to understand the opportunity they were missing, because by 1971 the rules had been amended to delete the words “natural terrain.” Consequently, when Bill France wanted to add a professional motocross to his Bike Week program the following spring, nothing in the AMA professional rule book stood in the way.
On March 13, 1971, a professional motocross took place inside Daytona International Speedway. Gunnar Lindstrom won the 250 class, and Brian Kenney
won the 500. At the victory ceremony, Lindstrom predicted that one-day motocross might become even more important than road racing at Daytona.
Brian Kenney takes the 500cc-class win in the first-ever Daytona Supercross in 1971
However, one could argue that this 1971 event was not yet the birth of American supercross, because it did not take place in front of the grandstand. Rather, it was run in the infield beyond the road racing course, and spectators could watch only from ground level. Given a positive response from the fans and the racing community, Daytona hosted motocross again the following year, and on this occasion built the course right in front of the main grandstand on the tri-oval.
The race, held on March 11, was won by Jimmy Weinert in the 250 class and Mark Blackwell in the 500. Daytona hosted a program of amateur motocross as well and continued to do so until the mid-1980s when concern for legal liability regarding minors in the competition ended the practice. Based on what he had learned about building a challenging motocross course on the flat infield at Ascot Speedway, Gary Bailey was chosen by Bill France to design the course at Daytona, and he still does to this day.
What most regard as the real deal in the history of American supercross was conceived by rock concert promoter Mike Goodwin who became a fan of motocross, but dreamed of its being staged in more hospitable surroundings. That dream was realized on the evening of July 8, 1972, in the legendary Los Angeles Coliseum, originally constructed for the 1932 Olympics. Viewed by 28,000 fans, the first Superbowl of Motocross was won by American Marty Tripes, who was only 10 days beyond his 16th birthday.
Many of the Europeans (Hallman, Hansen, Kring, Andersson, Bickers, Larsson, Lindstrom) were on hand but found the tight, narrow course hard to cope with. Lindstrom recalls, “At the time we Husky guys were an arrogant bunch. We failed to see the value of this new type of racing. I mean, there were always real races to go to. This had to be a one-time event, right?”
LA Times sportswriter Shav Glick remembers, “Carlsbad and Saddleback were the big deals back then, and this just seemed too revolutionary.” One motorcycle journalist noted for his sarcastic wit called it the Salad Bowl of Motocross.
But it wasn’t a one-time deal, and it was not too revolutionary for the fans, whose numbers increased to 38,000 for Superbowl of Motocross II the following year. What Goodwin brought to the sport as part and parcel of his big vision was the heavy use of drive-time radio and television advertising to attract the fans. Mark Blackwell, who was campaigning in Europe during the first Superbowl of Motocross, stated, “I realized it was just a new kind of motocross that would help American riders on an accelerated basis. Those early supercross races were kind of like sprint races, and they got the American pace up to the point where they could ride with the Europeans. Pretty soon the Americans were riding at the front of the pack.” (42)
Supercross, however, would become a great deal more than just a training ground where young Americans could hone their skills to compete with the Europeans on their outdoor terms. It would become a distinctly different form of the sport, taking motocross to more people and broader audiences, even on a world level through the use of television. It would mutate and evolve until it arguably became the most important motocross series in the world, displacing the Grand Prix for top billing.
In a sense, supercross is motocross America-style. What America imported in the late 1960s it repackaged, rebranded, and exported to the world in the 1970s as a new form of the sport. Supercross was developed to better excite the fans and be more communicable through television, and that made all the difference.
Motocross, American Style
As we know, stadium motocross was not an American invention. Stadium motocross dates back to France, 1948, and crowds larger than 100,000 attended races at Strahov Stadium in Prague in the mid-1950s. Furthermore, motorcycle competition in stadiums has a deep tradition in America as well, dating back at least to 1961 when a stadium TT race was held in Miami, Florida. (43) More significantly, PACE Management, a promotional corporation that would morph and merge into today’s Clear Channel Entertainment, launched a venture into motorcycle race promotion in 1968 with short track and TT races in the Houston Astrodome. At that time, the Astrodome was the prototype of modern American enclosed sports stadiums. It was regarded as an architectural wonder, and motorcycles under the “Dome” guaranteed greater prestige and better media coverage for the sport.
AMA Grand National racing continued in the Astrodome for nearly two decades but was eventually displaced by supercross as America’s new motorcycle sport of choice. The Astrodome TT and short track races ended in 1986, but AMA Supercross
continued while the venerable “Dome” saw its status eclipsed by ever larger and fancier indoor facilities in Pontiac, New Orleans, and other cities throughout America. As the stadiums grew larger, supercross grew as well. In a sense, indoor Grand National racing paved the way for the supercross era, because, by 1972, a lot had been learned about how to move literal mountains of dirt to build and demolish race tracks
within the tight schedules demanded by facilities hosting all kinds of sporting events and public gatherings.
Simply going indoors or moving uptown did not create supercross. Rather, it took a wide range of influences and circumstances involving promotional techniques, media management, program manipulation, and the building of a brand. We have already noted in our previous chapter how promoter Mike Goodwin used concert promotional techniques, including heavy advertising, buys on rock stations and drive-time radio, to drag curious customers into the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972. Many of these were people who might not have traveled the distance or braved the elements to watch “real motocross” at Saddleback Park or Carlsbad Raceway.
Building the Brand
The street that defines France is the Champs Elysees. When we think of Rome we think of the Appian Way. America is associated with Wall Street or Pennsylvania Avenue, but perhaps the street that best characterizes its culture – for good or ill – is Madison Avenue. Selling is what America does, and packaging and branding are what America does to make things sell. If it does not have a slick package with a catchy name that trips off the tongue and sticks in the memory, forget it. In the case of supercross, effective branding was not a preconceived stroke of marketing genius. Rather, it came out of simple journalistic laziness.
Attempting to co-opt legitimacy and a larger-than-life image from the National Football League, Mike Goodwin named his 1972 Coliseum event the Superbowl of Motocross. In truth, this lengthy moniker was something less than a brand marketer’s dream. It was more like a slogan than a name, which became evident when journalists covering the event simply refused to use the term. Paul Boudreau, who was the editor of Motocross Action at the time, recalls, “I thought Superbowl of Motocross was kind of a mouthful, myself. And I thought even less about typing it . . . so I right away shortened it to “Supercross.” I mean, it made sense to me. Besides, we had to maintain our reputation for being irreverent and slangy.”
Promoter Goodwin objected and issued specific instructions to the press that they were to refer to the event by its proper name, but it was too late. “Supercross,” born of sloth and convenience, was a brilliant band name, and it stuck, and soon Goodwin’s announcers were using the term.
The term “supercross” did not immediately make it into the AMA lexicon. The term “stadium motocross” did not appear in the AMA rule book until 1980. It was eight years later that the term “supercross” first appeared in the official rules, which declared, “A supercross is conducted in a stadium facility on a special-made dirt race track.” (46)
By this time, supercross had become big-time and begun to seriously penetrate the support accorded by the industry and fans to traditional American Class C racing. No longer did Triumphs and Harleys thunder over a TT course in the Houston Astrodome. They had given way entirely to the rattle and zing of two-strokes over twisting and turning supercross circuit. By the mid-1980s, supercross was a distinct and recognizable American brand, not just bastardized motocross scaled down to fit an area.
But you cannot achieve branding success by slapping a clever label on any old junk. You’ve got to have a good product. As sports entertainment, traditional motocross was a good product to start with. In part, that’s why it took hold so quickly in America during the 1970s.
Improving the Product
By the mid-1970s the motorcycle press still considered outdoor racing “real motocross,” but improvements were being made to the supercross program that would eventually define it as a superior product. The watershed year may have been 1976 when some significant decisions were made by the AMA that, in retrospect, proved to be sound.
First, the rapidly evolving and more powerful two-stroke works machines were on a collision course with the tighter and more technical supercross circuits. The fearsome and violent 500s that were still so loved on the big outdoor tracks like Carlsbad were simply not compatible with the confines of the stadium floor, and in 1976 the AMA created a separate point system for a supercross series and declared 250cc the main class. Experience had already shown that the smaller machines were more manageable indoors and could produce quicker lap times than the big 500s.
Also, the AMA wanted to abandon traditional motocross scoring at supercross races, and implement a progressive program, hearkening back to the American Class C tradition. A progressive program is one where riders must place well in a heat race to move to a semi-final, then place well in the semi-final to move to the final.
The final is the only thing that counts for the victory, the championship points, and the main purse, quite unlike traditional motocross where two or three heats are run with points having equal value toward the declaration of a winner, which may or may not be the fellow who takes the final checkered flag. Furthermore, in Europe, the riders earned the lion’s share of their money for starting the race, not for winning.
AMA Motocross Manager Mike DiPrete decided to test a progressive program at Anaheim in 1976. The move proved once again that change isn’t always easy. Resisting the plan, riders signed a petition to boycott, and Brad Lackey and Jim Pomeroy demanded $3,000 in start money. (47) Motocross in America was at a crossroads. Would it adapt to improve the show in a supercross environment, or would it become entrenched in European traditions?
What played out that evening was complex, and what broke the boycott was not the monetary promises of the promoter or the authority of the governing body. Rather, it was the interests of the manufacturers who discretely reminded the top riders that they were subject to the benefits and obligations of their contracts. Ultimately, only Lackey and Pomeroy – having failed to get their start money – sat out the race. The show went on and was deemed successful enough that a progressive program was adopted throughout the AMA Supercross Series in the following season. (48)
This, perhaps more than any other single development, indicated that supercross would follow its course to become a uniquely American form of motorcycle competition. Not only did it result in a product more understandable to urban fans and a television audience, but it showed that the cohesiveness and stability of the sport would be determined not so much by the relationship between sportsmen and their governing body as by their relationship with the manufacturers, who had begun to pay more in salaries and bonuses than riders could ever earn through the purse. In America, the European start money system would never take hold.
Looking back, it was sound thinking to hold to European scoring tradition in outdoor motocross, and change to a progressive program at stadium races. The result has been two strong series that present the sport with different nuances. Motocross maintains an Olympic-kind of old-world purity while supercross – and its spawn, arenacross, and freestyle motocross – have evolved toward American-style sports entertainment.
In any form of modern sports entertainment, there is a single keystone that will spell success or failure, and that is television. The ability to convey excitement through television is paramount. Supercross and television, it seems, were made for each other. Unlike the vast expanses and hostile elements of outdoor motocross, stadium racing is eminently compatible with the small screen.
There is an aerobatic excitement to the competition, yet it does not require the enormous production budgets of other forms of racing, such as NASCAR. And, as with baseball and football, the emotional interplay between the sportsmen and their fans transmits as part of the show.
Television sold supercross not only to America but to the world. It created a demand that carried the sport to Europe, Japan, and the Indian subcontinent. It became an influence that would eventually raise AMA Supercross to global brand status, and enable it to – as supercross historian Xavier Audouard asserts – openly surpass the Grands Prix in every aspect of the game.”