Motocross is a sport entrenched in American motorcycle culture. Thousands of fans attend major competitions to watch riders speed over jumps and around turns. Racers from the USA compete at the top levels of motocross, but that wasn’t always the case. The history of motocross begins with the sport being significantly less popular than it is today.
The 1960s – The Beginnings
The history of motocross begins with scrambles in the UK: cross country motorcycle races that took place during the early 20th century. As they became more popular throughout Europe, they became known as motocross, a combination of the French word for motorcycle and cross country. The sport was relatively unknown in American prior to 1960s, bearing more resemblance to the early scrambles than today’s modern races.
Edison Dye changed this when he introduced the dynamic European style in the 1960s. Dye had seen motocross racing while running a motorcycle touring business in Europe. After becoming the American importer for Husqvarna dirt bikes, he brought in top European racers to compete in the US. Dye’s efforts in promoting the sport resulted in him receiving the MX Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999 and the Mickey Thompson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.
Americans were impressed by the new athletic competitions, creating a dramatic upswing in the sport’s popularity. American racers from other types of motorsports joined motocross, excited at the chance to compete for a relatively low starting cost. By the late 60s, governing bodies formed, and more races were scheduled.
The 1970s – The Americans Catch Up
Capitalizing on the sport’s growing popularity, the American Motorcyclist Association created the AMA Motocross Championship race in 1972. The championship started with 250cc and 500cc racing classes, adding a 125cc class in 1974. Stadium-based competitions were created as a way to give spectators a more accessible view of the races. One such event took place at the Los Angeles Memorial Colosseum in 1972. Advertised as the “Super Bowl of Motocross,” the competition was the birthplace of the term supercross. Supercross and motocross eventually became two distinct styles of racing, with both remaining popular to this day.
Although European riders had dominated motocross, American racers such as Bob Hannah, Marty Smith, and Tony DiStefano began winning championships. Smith won the first two AMA 125cc National Motocross Championship in 1974 and 1975 before narrowly losing to Hannah in 1976. He added another AMA title in 1977, this time in the 500cc class. In addition to a 125cc championship, Hannah was the AMA 250cc champion in 1978 and 1979. DiStefano won back-to-back-to-back AMA 250cc national championships in 1975, 1976 and 1977. The Americans had caught up to their European counterparts.
The 1980s – The Japanese Dirt Bike Dominance
While European motorcycle companies produced many of the winning machines of the 1960s, Japanese brands began to challenge their reign. Joël Robert won the 1970 FIM Motocross World Championship riding a 250cc Suzuki bike; a first for a Japanese manufacturer. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Japanese companies led the transition from air-cooled to water-cooled two-strokes. Their machines also switched to a single shock absorber rear suspension that allowed for larger jumps and bigger obstacles.
Riding these new motorcycles, the next generation of American champions set new records for speed. While racing for Suzuki, Mark Barnett won all three of the AMA championships in the 125cc class from 1980 to 1982. Jeff Ward competed on the Kawasaki team, winning the 125cc class in 1984, the 250cc class in 1985 and 1988, and taking the 500cc title in 1989 and 1990. Ward was the first competitor in dirt bike racing history to become a three-class champion. Broc Glover had already won a string of AMA championships on 125cc Yamahas in the late 70s before he started dominating the 500cc class. He took the 1981, 1983, and 1985 crowns in the largest classification of motocross racing.
The 1990s – The Four-Stroke Revolution
In an effort to make four-stroke dirt bikes more competitive, the AMA increased the displacement limit in all three classes. Two-strokes had long dominated motocross with their relatively higher power output. By 1994, manufacturers could build a 550cc four-stroke engine and still have their machine pass homologation for the 250cc class. Doug Henry raced a prototype Yamaha four-stroke dirt bike in 1997, posting some of the engine’s first major wins. In 1998, Henry won the AMA championship riding a production YZ400F, starting the transition to four-stroke engines for all major manufacturers.
Two years prior to Henry’s historical victory, the AMA added women’s motocross, with the first championship won by Shelly Kann. On the men’s side, Mike Kiedrowski repeated Ward’s three-class triple crown by taking the 125cc championship in 1989 and 1991, winning the 500cc crown in 1992, and becoming the 250cc champion in 1993. Ricky Carmichael began his legendary string of 10 straight motocross championships in 1997, starting with three 125cc class wins before tallying seven unbroken 250cc class victories.
The 2000s – The Modern Era
The 2000s began by finishing what the 90s had started. By 2004, all the major dirt bike teams were competing exclusively using four-stroke engines. The more environmentally friendly engines had won the day. The complete changeover to the larger engines necessitated an evolution in the class names. In 2006, the 250cc class was renamed the MC Class, with the 125cc being changed to the MX Lites Class. The terms were a transitional period before the MC Class became the 450 Class and the MX Lites Class was renamed the 250 Class in 2009. The 2000s also saw a resurgence in European manufacturers, with strong showings from KTM, Husqvarna, and Husaberg bikes.
Ricky Carmichael won his last championship in 2006, the same year Ryan Villopoto started a string of three-straight MX Lites Class victories. Jessica Patterson won her first of seven national championships in 2000, the most of any Women’s MX racer.
The motocross legends of tomorrow are being written today. The sport is more popular and exciting now than ever before. More than a few motocross racers past and present have had crossover success in the offshoot sport of supercross. If you’re interested in differences of supercross vs. motocross, check out our article on the two competitions.