The History of Motocross: Part Three
by Ed Youngblood
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 catch phrase: "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, 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 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 barley comprehend. It would be a number of 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 Hallmen (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!
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-round champion of the era, later declared, "Nothing affected the sport so much in my lifetime as the Europeans coming to America!"
(1.) East Coast Cycle Sport, Summer 1959. The inaugural motocross conducted at Grafton used a 50-foot wide, 1 ½ mile course laid out around the perimeter of a 100 acre pasture so that almost the entire course was visible to spectators. When the Inter-Am international motocross series arrived at Pepperill, Massachusetts it was a huge success not so much for Edison Dye’s promotional skills as for the decade of avid motocross fans that had already been cultivated by the New England Sports Committee, beginning at Grafton.
(2.) Cycle News, April 7, 1966. In her story, writer Maureen Lee states, "...it looks as if moto-cross racing could come on in a big way... The entrance to the track was well marked and gay flags lined the fence that parallels the Riverside Freeway, inviting people who were out for a Sunday drive to come in and see what was going on. The pits were placed under big trees, providing a very attractive setting, and spectators could sit on a hill overlooking the start and the first two jumps before watching the riders vanish into the trees." Interestingly, in both the 1959 Grafton account and the 1966 Irvine story, spectator appeal is emphasized as a hallmark of motocross.
(3.) Cycle News, February 6, 1966. Edison Dye was interviewed in this story, declaring that he and Husqvarna intended to make "a determined assault" on the American off-road motorcycle market.
(4.) "Edison Dye and the American Motocross Experiment," Racer X Illustrated, June/July 2000.
(5.) Youngblood, Ed. "Mann of His Time." Whitehorse Press, 2002.