Where it all began
Conflicting information suggests motocross began both in France and in Great Britain, so it might depend on who is asked. The first off-road event was a 50-mile race called Scrambles held March 29, 1924 in the town of Surrey in England. A total of 80 men raced on motorcycles that weren’t much more than bicycles with a small attached engine, designed for road transportation. The dirt course went through fields and forests in a kind of “anything goes” race, which does have some resemblance to what is universally known now as motocross racing. Half of the field finished, with the winner coming in at just over 2 hours. When racing through acres of wooded areas, there were no spectators, so the sport evolved to closed-course races that could be watched by fans.
It was the French who took to the sport, and changed things up a bit. Tracks were shortened but laps were added, as were jumps and other types of obstacles to test riders’ skills and make the event more competitive, as well as interesting.
First appearance of Motocross
It was not until post-World War II that historians were able to find any mention of the word “motocross” (a French marriage of the words “motorcycle” and “cross country”) being attached to the sport. The FIM, or Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme, the sport’s international overseeing entity, adopted the name Motocross des Nations for a 1947 first-time event of team racing in the Netherlands. Competitors from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Great Britain were invited to participate with two-stroke 500cc bikes. Great Britain dominated for a number of years through 1967, but after that, it took the Brits nearly 3 decades to score another win.
The event has survived through present-day, has been held all over the world, and welcomes racers from more than 30 countries to race bikes capable of speeds greater than 200 miles per hour. The U.S. has been a three-time host of the games with its most recent being in Colorado in 2010, the 64th running of Motocross des Nations. In 2011, the American team took the top prize -- for the sixth consecutive year. Today’s most widely-recognized dirt motocross races are the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) as well as U.S. Motocross and Supercross Championships.
Back in 1966, Birmingham Small Arms upped the ante for the event in its quest to champion the sport and grab a third consecutive world title. The company introduced a 500cc bike created with what was then called “space-age” materials: titanium, magnesium, and an aluminum alloy, and disc brakes which, before then, were unheard of. It was hoped it would be the lightest and fastest motocross ride known to man and cost was no object, although the company’s accountants were not invited to the closed-door, closed-curtain design meetings. Upon completion, the bike tipped the scale at 194 pounds.
Unfortunately, the bike, ridden by Jeff Smith of England, lost its carburetor during the first of the race’s two legs, and in the second, the chain came off multiple times. After numerous races and numerous problems that resulted in revisions to the machine, a tragic accident during a race in England sidelined Smith’s career, and ended the life of a fellow competitor.
Evolution of gear
Safety in motocross has evolved through the years. In its infancy, motocross protective gear was a pair of gloves, a jacket, leather pants, a set of goggles, and a helmet that was open-faced. When crashes occurred, they were usually fatal. Today, FIM inspects any and every track bidding to hold high-stakes races so as to ensure that long-established safety guidelines are met. Protective gear runs head to toe, and includes full-face helmets, padding in strategic places, jackets made of highly-durable kangaroo leather, and reinforced boots and gloves that allow for movement, just not in the wrong ways. Now, falls and spills at speeds of 100 miles per hour are no longer commonplace, and if injury occurs, is often minor.
Women and Children join Men in Motocross
In a sport that began as one dominated by men, women quickly developed an interest in motocross riding in the 1940s, but as a racing sport with its established rules and regulations, it didn’t begin to become organized for women as it was for men until around 1960. In 1968, the first female motocross racers to finish the Baja 500 were the team of Lynn Wilson, and Mary McGee, who later joined forces with Cherry Stockton to become the first female team to win the Las Vegas Mint 400. In 1974, women competed for the first Powder Puff National Champion; the following year, the event was renamed Women’s Motocross Nationals, and except for 1982 and 1986, the race has been held annually.
Children also enjoy motocross with enthusiast groups and competitions for them all over the country, and for their moms and dads, all over the world, with events happening year-round.Read more articles by Kat Whitman