The History of Motocross: Part Four
by Ed Youngblood
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 off season – 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 tell 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 (1).
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 gave promoters an opportunity 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. In fact, 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 basically a one-man operation run be an entrepreneurial businessman named Wes Cooley, the father of Wes, Jr. the road racing hall of famer(2).
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 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(3). 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(4). 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."(5).
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 grands 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 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 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(6).
(1.) "Edison Dye and the American Motocross Experiment," Racer X Illustrated, June/July 2000.
(2.) Wes Cooley, Jr. will be inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame this coming October 9th.
(3.) A detailed account of this episode appears in the author's "Mann of His Time," Whitehorse Press, 2002.
(4.) AMA News, January 1971, pg. 8.
(5.) Cycle News, November 12, 1974, pg. 4.
(6.) Roger DeCoster letter to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum dated December 4, 2003.