The History of Motocross: Part Five

Gary Bailey: The man who put America first

by Ed Youngblood

1969 was a year of widespread cultural change. After 147 years of publication, the Saturday Evening Post died, but Sesame Street was born. ARPNET, the predecessor to the Internet was launched. The Beatles did their last public performance and the "hippie era" reached its zenith when 400,000 people attended Woodstock. Later that year the music died when a chaotic Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway turned to murder.

The first temporary artificial heart was installed, the Concorde took its shakedown flight, Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, and the Stonewall riots gave birth to the gay rights movement. Hoping to ignore the political impact of a half-million war protestors on the Washington Mall, Richard Nixon sought his support in a "silent majority." The Charles Manson family went on a killing spree and Chicago cops shot members of the Black Panthers while they slept. Dwight Eisenhower and Allen Dulles died, but Marilyn Manson and Dweezil Zappa were born.


"I raced with Hallman." Then Gary pauses and thinks, and clarifies, "Well, I should say I was on the same race track with him!"

And Gary Bailey became the first American to beat the Europeans at motocross. Appropriately, he did it on July 4th when all Americans celebrate their independence from the Old World.

Gary Bailey was born on October 6, 1943 in South Gate California. His grandfather, Tex Bryant, owned a motorcycle shop, first selling Indians then moving to Matchless and other British brands after the demise of Indian, and then eventually getting a Yamaha franchise.


Husband and wife team take to Daytona.

Gary got a 1955 Triumph Cub at the age of 13 and began riding in competition with his grandfather and older brother Bob. They did desert, short track, and scrambles, which was always Gary’s favorite. As a proficient scrambler, he was pretty well prepared for the arrival of motocross, which he first rode at Castaic Park in 1965. By this time he was six feet, five inches tall, making quite a sight aboard a little Hodaka.

Recognizing young Bailey’s talent, American Greeves distributor Nick Nicholson offered him a ride. At first Bailey blew him off, not understanding the offer. He says, "At first I thought it was some guy trying to sell me a motorcycle, and it took me a long time to get back to him." While Bailey’s career eventually became affiliated with Greeves, he really didn’t care what he rode as long as he had something ride.

It was not uncommon for him to arrive at the track with a whole trailer full of bikes, riding a Penton in the 100cc class and Greeves in the 250 and 360 classes.

Bailey recalls, "Riding three classes a day was common for me, and sometimes I would even bring a 200 Greeves and squeeze in another class." (1)

When Torsten Hallman arrived to put the American motorcycle sport on its ear in 1966, American racers learned a thing or two about physical fitness. Accustomed to shorter sprint races rather than 40 minute motos, most Americans couldn’t begin to match the Europeans for endurance and stamina. Bailey, who earned his living as a grocery warehouse manager, was better prepared than most.

He explains, "I never had to train. Unloading a couple of those 40 foot trucks about three times a week gave me all the training I needed. We didn’t even have a fork lift. I would empty a semi by just carrying all the crates and boxes."

However, skill and stamina not withstanding, Bailey went largely unnoticed at Torsten Hallman’s debut, possibly because like many Americans, he was riding a big, heavy 650 Triumph against Hallman’s agile Husqvarna. Bailey recalls, "I raced with Hallman." Then he pauses and thinks, and clarifies, "Well, I should say I was on the same race track with him!"

When the Inter-Am series began in 1967, Gary Bailey could not afford to race outside his home state. However, that all changed at Saddleback Park on July 4th, 1969. World champion Arne Kring won the first moto, followed by American motocross pioneer Bill Silverthorn on a Husky, and Gary Bailey on his Greeves. Then, in the second moto, Bailey beat them all, finishing ahead of Stig Petterson (the younger brother of Olle Petterson), with Kring in third.

Bailey recalls, "On that last lap I knew Petterson was right behind me. It was such a hot day, and I was so tired. I just knew he was going to beat me. Then I started hearing the fans. Usually when you are riding you are concentrating so much you don’t hear a thing. But I started hearing ‘Bay-Lee, Bay-Lee, Bay-Lee!’ and I knew that if I didn’t win that race I would really let everybody down." Bailey prevailed. Cycle News reporter Maureen Lee wrote, "Gary Bailey on his 250 Greeves burned like an Independence Day rocket and beat some of the best racers Europe had to offer, showing the improvement America has made in motocross racing." (2) 

With each man taking a first and a third, Bailey and Kring ended the day tied for points, but Bailey earned the victory by turning in the faster of the two motos, thereby making even more legitimate the claim that he had outperformed the best in the world.

Recalling that triumphant today, Bailey expresses mixed feelings: "Yes, I was very proud of my win. But then Edison Dye gave me $150 for being top American. The Europeans got paid more just for showing up. I recall driving home in my truck, pretty angry and thinking, ‘That just isn’t right!’" Still, Bailey got his rewards.

For the Saddleback Inter-Am victory, plus his performance in two other races in the summer Inter-Am series, Bailey won a trip to England for being the top American rider. This gave him the opportunity to visit the Greeves factory in England. Coincidentally, he had also won a ticket to Germany for winning the 1969 season championship with the California Motocross Club. Bailey says, "I had never even been on an airplane before. I had not traveled anywhere. Because the ticket to England was worth more, I cashed it in and flew to Germany, then took a train through Germany and Belgium, and a ferry to England." Bailey spent more than a month in Europe, then returned to America with enough support to campaign the inaugural Trans-AMA series for Greeves as a full professional motocrosser. His days of unloading grocery trucks had come to an end.

At the Trans-AMA at LaRue, Ohio in 1970, the promoter had planned and publicized a motocross school to be conducted by one of the visiting Europeans. That plan fell through, and the promoter approached Bailey: "Can you get out there and just talk to the students and show them something? I’m going to be in big trouble if I can’t come through with this school."

Bailey says, "I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I just went out there and answered questions and talked to people about how I approached motocross. It really came off well, I made a little money, and I said, ‘Hey, I can do this thing!’"

Soon Bailey was conducting 20 to 25 schools a year, taking 20 students at a time, who, in the early days, paid a tuition of $15! Reporting on one of Bailey’s schools at Shreveport, Louisiana in October, 1970 Dixie Cycle News headlined its story, "Dr. Bailey’s Cure for the European Invasion." Reporter Don Woods wrote, "He sincerely wants to see the sport improve and is a dedicated teacher." (3) The next day Bailey reinforced his credentials to teach by winning three classes. Over time, "Dr. Bailey" evolved into "Professor Bailey," which is an apt title for a man who practically started an industry through which countless young riders have improved their skills and self esteem, and from which many former American motocross champions still make their living.

The tall teacher has also earned recognition as one of America’s leading temporary track designers. When plans were being laid to host America’s first supercross at Daytona International Speedway in March 1971, Daytona’s Bill France approached Bailey at a Florida Winter-AM event and asked him if he could design and build a track.

Bailey recalls, "I had a little experience helping my brother Bob build a motocross track at Ascot Park in California, which was just about as flat a place as you could find, so I told France I thought I could do it." Bailey must have performed to the Speedway’s satisfaction at that inaugural event, because he has built every Daytona Supercross track since, for 34 consecutive years.

It is impossible to put a value on Gary Bailey’s contribution to motocross in America. As the first man to beat the Europeans, he created the hope that must have driven many others to strive harder. He created the light at the end of the tunnel. Since that day, he has spread that light by sharing his knowledge and experience with over 15,000 young people who have attended his schools to become better motocrossers.

Justifiably, in 1999 Gary Bailey was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

Footnotes:

(1.) All quotations from Bailey took place in a telephone interview conducted by the author on May 11, 2004.

(2.) Cycle News, Volume VI, Number 26; July 16, 1969.

(3.) Dixie Cycle News, Volume I, Number 16; October 16, 1970.

The history of MX

  1. The birth of motocross
  2. Motocross goes international
  3. Edison Dye's Flying Circus
  4. The changing of the guard
  5. The man who put America first
  6. Boom time
  7. The young Americans
  8. Taking MX to the people
  9. Motocross, American style