In 1972, a new sport came to life in America offering a different spectator experience quite unknown outside of Europe. It wasn't so much less brawn than what the country's favorite past times required but rather the instrument used to score points.
Dirt bikes, those downright scrappy and rugged motorcycles, blazed across a closed-course strip of land made of natural terrain incorporated with steep inclines, tight corners and added jumps. With open arms, America embraced the AMA Motocross Nationals, a series that invited the bravest competitors and offered a spectator sport like nothing else.
Motocross arrived to the United States from Europe in the 1960s thanks to Edison Dye, affectionately known as the "Father of American Motocross." He ran a motorcycle touring business in Europe and his travels across the pond exposed him to a new style of motorcycle racing. In the United States, dirt bikes were not an unknown piece of machinery, in fact many Americans raced in scrambles, enduro competitions and in other dirt bike related races.
Spring Creek National
However, according to Ed Youngblood and his The History of Motocross the sport was not foreign or even new to the United States. Youngblood writes that the American Motorcyclist Association referred to Motocross in their rule book and even sanctioned the sport in 1959. Additional history shows Motocross competitions in 1966 in Orange County, CA.
Dye, Youngblood states, can be credited with the "spectacular and athletic European style" of Motocross which was much different than American scrambles.
Citizens in the United Kingdom originally knew Motocross as scrambles but the sport became known internationally as Motocross. The word Motocross derives from the French word for motorcycle - motocyclette - and cross country - Motocross.
Dye's strong interest in bringing the sport to the United States took on new life once he became the US importer for Husqvarna dirt bikes. In addition to dirt bikes, Dye recruited European riders primarily from Sweden to help get the sport off the starting gate in the US. In 1966, reigning world Motocross champion Torsten Hallman arrived and had little difficulty in beating lesser known and much less talented Americans on a track in Massachusetts designed by Dye and Hallman.
Tom White, who owns and operates The Early Years of Motocross Museum in Villa Park, CA, said the sport proved popular among flat track and desert riders among other racers because those riders could buy a competition ready bike off the showroom floor.
"It generated so much interest because riders realized they could enter any moto and race," said White, who also founded the White Brothers World Vet Motocross Championship in 1985.
Additionally, the American audience, so used to flat track racing, watched the talented racers from Europe ride in a manner never before seen in the United States. Motocross also appealed to spectators who could head to the races with a picnic basket and watch the day's events, White said.
Dye eventually added more races and Hallman kept winning but dirt bike racing finally found a sanctioning body in 1967 through the Inter-Am Series. By 1970, the AMA took notice and developed its own competing Motocross tour in the Trans-AMA Series.
White said the competing AMA more or less took the series from Dye by offering more money to track owners. The more powerful sanctioning body's counter-promotions helped fold Dye's Inter-AM series in 1971. Eventually Dye went to work for the AMA promoting their series.
In a strange twist of fate, Dye left the sport in 1974 after canceling a typically "rain or shine" Motocross event in St. Louis because of wet weather to save money. It's widely believed Dye was forced out of Motocross because of this decision. Husqvarna didn't help his cause either when the company decided to control their own stake in America and bought out Dye and his import company.
The AMA Motocross Championship
Though European riders, like Roger DeCoster, Joel Robert and Dave Bickers, continued their dominance over American riders, the sport's popularity grew so fast that in 1972, the AMA enacted the AMA Motocross Championship (AMA Motocross Nationals) for the US riders. The first AMA Motocross Championship race was held at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Roger DeCoster - Courtesy Tom White
The series started using two classes of dirt bikes - 500cc and 250cc engines. Two years later, the AMA added the 125cc class. Eight Motocross championship races were held in 1972 and Brad Lackey took the Motocross crown in the 500cc class winning five of the eight races and registering 2030 points, 201 more than the second-place finisher. Gary Jones won his first of three straight championships in the 250cc class. Jones, who was also runner-up to Lackey in the 500cc class in 1972, finished the first season with 995 points, 214 more than runner-up Jim Weinert.
Gary Jones, Brad Lackey and Jim Pomeroy in 1972 - Courtesy Tom White
Motocross in the 1970s
The 1970s ushered in a new era of American riders who began to compete with their European counterparts. Bob Hannah, Tony DiStefano and Marty Smith put an indelible mark on the sport and Motocross, along with its other American racing counterpart, Supercross, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, was here to stay.
Bob Hannah at Hangtown - Courtesy Tom White
Motocross in the 1980s
The 1980s saw Broc Glover who started his reign in 1977 with three straight 125cc class wins then won three 500cc class championships in 1981, 83 and 85. Mark Burnett took the 125cc reigns from Glover with three straight championships to start the 80s. Jeff Ward became the first to win championships in all three classes starting with a 125cc win in 1985, two 250cc wins in 1985 and 1988 and 500cc wins in 1989 and 1990.
Promotion Photo of Broc Glover - Courtesy Tom White
Motocross in the 1990s
Mike Kiedrowski followed Ward as a three-class champion after 125cc wins in 1989 and 1991, a 500cc win in 1992 and a 250cc win in 1993. The AMA folded the 500cc class after the 1993 season and added Women's Motocross in 1996 won by Shelly Kann. In 2000, Jessica Patterson won her first of seven WMX championships, including four straight from 2004-07, and her final one last year which culminated in her retirement from the sport.
Supercross great Jeremy McGrath won his only Motocross championship in 1995. In 1997 Ricky Carmichael began his unprecedented and still unmatched 10 straight Motocross championship wins. He took three-straight 125cc championships from 1997-99 and then switched to the 250cc class winning seven straight from 2000-06.
Ricky Carmichael at 2007 RedBud National - Courtesy VitalMX
Motocross in the 2000s
In 2006, the 250cc class changed to the MC Class and the 125cc switched to the MX Lites Class. In 2009, the MX Class became the 450cc class and the MX Lites class became the 250cc class. The roots to these class changes began in 1997 when the AMA addressed tightened emission regulations and allowed environmentally friendlier four-stroke engines. The latest class switch in 2009 reflected that all dirt bike manufacturers had adopted the four-stroke engine.
Ryan Villopoto, who just won his fourth-straight Supercross championship, won three-straight MX Lites Class championships from 2006-08 and two 450 class wins in 2011 and 2013. Other current riders with multiple championship wins include Ryan Dungey and James Stewart.
Ryan Villopoto out in front at 2013 Unadilla National
White said the biggest changes to Motocross over the years is the bikes. First was the suspension evolution, then the disc brakes and finally the advancement to 4-strokes. All three, but especially the suspensions, helped push Motocross races faster and faster with bigger obstacles. In fact, White said, Motocross tracks have evolved from a true natural terrain track to more of a man-made with added whoops, jumps and cornering.
Today, the Motocross season is 12 races long and is often referred to as Nationals or Outdoors. The tour begins in May and ends in August. The season begins just weeks after the conclusion of Supercross. Tens of thousands of fans make their way to sometimes isolated and hard to get to closed-course outdoor tracks, braving sometimes harsh summer weather to watch their favorite riders.
Each class competes in two "motos" - or races - and the overall winner is decided based on the placement in both motos. A rider who takes second-place in both motos can be the overall winner if the winner in either of the two motos fares poorly in a second moto. Riders receive points based on their overall finish and the Motocross Champion is whoever finishes with the most points at the end of the season.
Budds Creek National at the start
Edison Dye Finally Recognized
As for Dye, he never went to a Motocross event after St. Louis and his name nearly disappeared from the Motocross annals of history.
He passed away in 2007, however, in 1999 the Motorcycle Hall of Fame inducted Dye and the same year thanks to White's efforts he received the MX Lifetime Achievement Award - the plaque is cemented in the ground at the Glen Helen Raceway. Finally, in 2001, in front of 45,000 fans at Anaheim Stadium, DeCoster and White gave Dye the Mickey Thompson Lifetime Achievement Award.