The History of Motocross: Part Six

Boom Time: American Motocross in the 1970s

by Ed Youngblood

In 1965 – the year before Torsten Hallman arrived in America – the AMA sanctioned only 15 motocross meets throughout the entire nation. Dirt track racing, which traced its roots to the 1920s when the AMA was founded, was far more popular as evidenced by more than 10 times as many sanctioned meets. All aspects of motorcycling grew exponentially during the next decade, but none so expansively as motocross. For example, while dirt-track racing grew four-fold between 1965 and 1975, motocross, when measured by the number of AMA-sanctioned meets, grew a hundred-fold!(1)

The growth of motocross in America during the 1970s was nothing less than a motorsport revolution. Many factors contributed to this change.

Post-war Prosperity

Some politicians speak of a "war dividend," which is a theoretical boost that the economy derives from the capital investment and higher employment levels generated by wartime production and military spending. Whether such a phenomenon applies in most cases is doubtful, but there is no doubt it was one of the by-products of the Second World War.

The production of durable goods was driven to historically high levels, and with industry spinning at a fevered pitch, the federal government took steps to try to keep it that way when the war came to an end. Legislation to help GIs get an education, train for peacetime employment, and acquire homes kept people working and cash flowing. Unlike any time in its history, the American middle class was secure, earning, and in control of discretionary income.

In addition, morale was high and there was a strong belief in the concept of "progress." Life seemed to be getting better and better, and most Americans were confident the trend would continue. They began to devote more of their earnings to leisure activities, and during the 1960s a distinct leisure-time industry emerged to help Americans enjoy their prosperity. Motorcycles were a significant aspect of that trend.

The Biggest Generation

The "Greatest Generation," returning victorious from the Second World War, promptly set about creating the biggest generation. 3.4 million babies were born in America in 1946, birth rate increases continued, and by 1954 more than four million new babies arrived each year. The so-called Baby Boom continued through 1964, creating a demographic bulge consisting of more than 78 million people.(2) Most of these did not know hard times the way their parents had. They were raised with allowances, ownership, and time on their hands. Many discovered motorcycles, especially when they entered their high school and college years and were confronted with the fresh idea that "the nicest people" could ride them, as espoused by Honda.

The Baby Boom was not only a quantitative demographic phenomenon, but it produced a qualitative sea change as well, driven by the emergence of rock and roll, youth culture, and a civil rights movement. America’s young generation eschewed the tastes and values of their parents. Mouthing the slogan, "Don’t trust anyone over 30," they embraced the new, the international, and the unconventional. Their parents might have been suspicious and unwelcoming toward Europeans riding strange motorcycles with unpronounceable names like "Husqvarna." The Boomers were not. They took to Bengt Aberg as readily as they took to Eric Burden. Through the sheer weight of their numbers, they drove the commercial success of the Inter-Am series and the expansion of the American motorcycle market.

A Plethora of Product

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, motorcycle sales in America remained static at about 40 to 50,000 units per year, divided between Harley-Davidson, Indian, the British, BMW, and a few other minor European brands. But that all changed with the arrival of new products from Japan.

During its second year in America, Honda sold over 15,000 motorcycles, and then continued to increase its unit sales and market share for more than the next decade. The other Japanese companies followed suit. Led by Suzuki, they turned their attention to the production of machines purpose-built for motocross. The Japanese manufacturers were strategically geared to build motorcycles in quantities that the longer-established European and American manufactures did not dream of. Not only could they build more, but their products were lighter, more reliable, less expensive, cleaner, and easier to ride than the traditional big bikes from England and America, thus they appealed to a new and broader base of customers.

The greater volume of Japanese production was essential to America’s motocross boom. Even if every American wanted and could afford a new Husqvarna or CZ just like those ridden by Torsten Hallman and Joel Robert, most would not have been able to acquire one since they were assembled in only limited quantities and their manufacturers lacked the vision and the will to make the capital investments the Japanese had made. Consequently, by the mid-1970s a tremendous supply of product was available. Any American who wanted to sample off-road motorcycling – including motocross – had no trouble purchasing an inexpensive and reasonably competitive motorcycle within a few miles of his home.

Yet, while the Japanese manufacturers provided the volume of the wave, we should not overlook the role of the longer-standing European suppliers. Brands such as Montesa, CZ, and Greeves had been on the leading edge of the sport, even before the arrival of the sensational Husqvarnas.

As motocross grew in popularity practically every industrialized nation in Europe – from both sides of the Iron Curtain – supplied product to feed the needs of American motorcycle sportsmen. Between 1965 and 1975 more than 50 brands became available in the American market, amounting to greater volume and diversity of product than the motorcycle industry had seen since 1915.

A Healthier Image

In the eyes of the American public and media, motorcycling’s reputation suffered throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. Many trace the trend to the highly-publicized riots that took place at an AMA race in Hollister, California in 1947. This event became the basis for "The Wild One," one of the most influential motorcycle movies of all time, and that 1954 film was followed by a seemingly endless stream of Grade B biker flicks, culminating in "Hell’s Angles '69," released in – you guessed it! – 1969.

It would have been pathetic had not so many bonehead bikers found something to emulate in these films. Throughout the 1960s, many traditional AMA championship venues became the annual gathering places for trouble makers and rowdies.

The relationship between local governments and visiting race fans grew progressively worse, and events like the legendary Springfield Mile were canceled. In 1967 two more of the AMA championship Class C venues – Lebanon, Ohio and Lincoln, Illinois – as well as the prestigious Jack Pine Enduro, were canceled by local authorities due to bad fan behavior or fear thereof. Cycle News editor Chuck Clayton lamented, "The 1967 season may go down in history as the blackest year in American motorcycle competition." (3)

Maybe so, if you were focusing only on traditional AMA Class C racing, but this was only one side of the American motorcycle racing scene. 1967 was also the year that Edison Dye’s wildly successful Inter-Am played before crowds exceeding 25,000. As a kind of counterpoint to the problematic sport traditional American motorcycle racing had become, motocross was perceived as a festive, healthy, and wholesome activity.

Whereas traditional Class C racing was burdened with an image of surly young men with ducktail haircuts, grease under their nails, and cigarettes rolled up in their T-shirt sleeves, motocross was associated with stamina, good health, athletic training, and physical fitness, a concept depicted by the young and glamorous Europeans who could ride a fast and furious 40-minute heat with apparent ease.

American parents who would not think of buying their sons Triumphs and Harleys, or allowing them to associate with those who did, were more than happy to trot down to the local dealer and buy their kids a motocross machine. Motocross was seen as an activity in which the whole family could participate, an idea convincingly conveyed by the box office hit "On Any Sunday," which appeared in theaters in 1972.

A Better Mouse Trap

While many traditionalists were loath to admit it, motocross was, quite simply, a better mouse trap from the points of view of both organizers and participants. For clubs and promoters it was less expensive and troublesome to organize than a traditional dirt track race, and for participants it provided more fun for the buck. In fact, the increase in motorcycle popularity during the 1960s worked against traditional American forms of competition, which were built around a progressive program of many heats, semi-finals, last chance qualifiers, and finals.

Cycle News writer Marueen Lee noted in 1967 that something was already going wrong with the old model, even some nine months before the arrival of Edison Dye’s flying circus. Pondering the state of TT racing in February, 1967 she wrote, "With so many little bikes now, the big bikes were left with only two-lap mains a couple of times with the last event being run in almost darkness."(4)

Lee’s concern was prompted by the fact that the 1967 calendar of Southern California dirt track races was significantly smaller than the previous year.

Unlike traditional circle track and TT racing, motocross did not require much track preparation prior to the event, and typically no maintenance during the event. For the riders it provided a lot to track time, and if you broke in the first heat you could still come back and ride in the second. Brad Lackey, America’s first motocross world champion, was a perfect example of a young man living on this cusp of change.

Lackey recalls, "When we wanted to go racing for the weekend, we might have a choice of a short track and a motocross within driving distance. We really didn’t care where we rode. We just wanted to ride. But it didn’t take long for us to figure out that if we went to a short track we might not qualify out of our heat race, and when that happened you were done for the day after just a few minutes of riding. But in motocross you got to ride a 20 minute moto, and if something went wrong or broke, you could get it back together and ride the second moto, then the third. In fact, just one moto got you more riding time than a whole Class C program, even when you qualified all the way through to the final." (5)

Given these factors, it is not surprising that motocross in America exploded in the 1970s. Amateur meets drew fields of more than 300 participants. From this vast crucible of activity came the dedicated talent that would take America to the top of the motocross world in the 1980s.

Footnotes

(1.) A count of AMA-sanctioned meets by type of competition shows that dirt track racing grew from 165 sanctioned meets in 1965 to 660 in 1975. However, over the same period, sanctioned motocross meets grew from 15 to 1,500!

(2.) For an excellent overview of the social phenomenon known as the Baby Boom, see www.howardsmead.com/BOOMIN~1.HTM.

(3.) Cycle News, February 2, 1967, page 23.

(4.) Cycle News, February 2, 1967, page 3.

(5.) "Mann of His Time," Whitehorse Press, 2002, page 192.

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