The History of Motocross: Part Eight
by Ed Youngblood
Prague "Supercross" circa 1956.
American journalists have often credited the United States as the inventor of supercross. And there may be good argument that what we know as supercross today was made in America, but the idea of taking an exciting outdoor motorcycle sport into a stadium began in Europe nearly two decades before motocross became popular in America.
The first event on record that attempted to simulate open terrain motorcycle competition on a man-made course inside a stadium took place on August 28, 1948 at Buffalo Stadium in the Paris suburb of Montrouge. Promoter Pierre Bardel had already hosted oval track motorcycle racing in the facility, and it had proven popular, easily accessible to Parisians via subway. For his debut "motocross," Bardel added a couple of jumps on the straights, some switch-backs in the turns, and a steeplechase-type water hazard, thus introducing the basic style of stadium racing that would one day be named supercross.(1) Eventually, the Buffalo Stadium gave way to urban sprawl.
If supercross was born near Paris, France in 1948, it was reborn in Prague, Czechoslovakia on May 9, 1956. On that date a hundred-thousand Czechs filled Strahov Stadium on "Great Victory Day," a national holiday to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany. Off-road motorcycling had already become a major sport in post-war Czechoslovakia, so there was plenty of interest in such an event, and plenty of talent to thrill the fans. But there wasn't adequate public or personal transportation to take great throngs of people into the countryside, so the idea of staging a race for people to enjoy in comfort in the very center of Prague was only logical. In addition to motocross in the infield, the fans were treated to speedway races around the perimeter oval. The motocross course twisted over a half-mile circuit that included a water crossing and seven or eight jumps, which were created by piling dirt on wooden ramps. (2)
More from Prague.
Because of the political nature of the holiday surrounding the race, only Czechs and riders from neighboring Iron Curtain countries participated, and only brands from the region were raced, including ESO, Jawa, CZ, MZ and Junak. Due to state-controlled communication on both sides of the Curtain, Western riders and motocross fans had little knowledge of or interest in the event. However, Czechoslovakia was not the only nation of the Cold War era to come up with the idea of taking racing to the people. British world champion Jeff Smith recalls participating at international meets held in soccer stadiums in Belgium. The events were run at night under very poor lighting.
Smith says, "The back side of some of the jumps were shadowed in complete darkness. It was like jumping off into a bottomless pit, and you had no idea when your front wheel was going to strike ground." (3)
Likewise, motocross historian Eric Johnson reports of conversations with Eyvand Boyesen who told of stadium races in Norway in the mid-60s where the promoter put soap on the wooden jumps to create more spills and thrills for the spectators. (4) These events, as described by Smith and Boyesen, sound more like carnival shows than legitimate motocross.
Although motorcycle racing on oval tracks in stadium-type facilities dates back to the teens in America, the first known "indoor" event akin to a motocross was hosted by the Florida Motorcycle Dealers' Association and local motorcycle clubs in Miami Stadium – home of the then Miami Marlins baseball team – on February 5, 1961. This event was a Florida State Scramble Championship where Triumphs, BSAs, and Harley-Davidsons roared over an infield course with right and left-hand turns and jumps built with wooden ramps. Riders from as far away as Ohio entered the meet (5).
First known "indoor" motocross was this event on a ball diamond.
With motocross becoming popular in America during the late 1960s, racers Gary and Bob Bailey collaborated with promoter J.C. Agajanian to organize weekly motocross races at Ascot Speedway in Gardena, California in 1968. Agajanian, a long-time promoter of AMA Class C races, including national championships, wanted these early stadium motocross races to receive professional sanctions from the AMA.
However, the AMA would not agree, because its professional racing rules defined a motocross as "a closed course over completely natural terrain except for the alteration or removal of dangerous obstacles." (6)
Ironically, if the sanction had been applied for under the AMA amateur rule book, it probably would have been approved. Those rules stated that a motocross is the same as a scrambles, except for different scoring, then went on to define scrambles as "conducted in a private unpaved course or field especially prepared for the meet." (7) The rule said nothing about "completely natural terrain," and would have easily applied to what Agajanian and the Bailey brothers proposed.
At any rate, it did not take those who drafted the AMA professional rule book long to understand the opportunity they were missing, because by 1971 the rules had been amended to delete the words "natural terrain." Consequently, when Bill France wanted to add a professional motocross to his Bike Week program the following spring, nothing in the AMA professional rule book stood in the way.
On March 13, 1971, a professional motocross took place inside Daytona International Speedway. Gunnar Lindstrom won the 250 class, and Brian Kenney won the 500. At the victory ceremony, Lindstrom predicted that one day motocross might become even more important than road racing at Daytona.
Brian Kenney takes the 500cc-class win in the first-ever Daytona Supercros in 1971.
However, one could argue that this 1971 event was not yet the birth of American supercross, because it did not take place in front of the grandstand. Rather, in was run in the infield beyond the road racing course, and spectators could watch only from ground level. Given a positive response from the fans and the racing community, Daytona hosted motocross again the following year, and on this occasion built the course right in front of the main grandstand on the tri-oval.
The race, held on March 11, was won by Jimmy Weinert in the 250 class and Mark Blackwell in the 500. Daytona hosted a program of amateur motocross as well, and continued to do so until the mid-1980s when concern for legal liability in regard to minors in competition ended the practice. Based on what he had learned about building a challenging motocross course on the flat infield at Ascot Speedway, Gary Bailey was chosen by Bill France to design the course at Daytona, and he still does to this day.
What most regard as the real deal in the history of American supercross was conceived by rock concert promoter Mike Goodwin who became a fan of motocross, but dreamed of its being staged in more hospitable surroundings. That dream was realized on the evening of July 8, 1972 in the legendary Los Angeles Coliseum, originally constructed for the 1932 Olympics. Viewed by 28,000 fans, the first Superbowl of Motocross was won by American Marty Tripes, who was only 10 days beyond his 16th birthday.
Many of the Europeans (Hallman, Hansen, Kring, Andersson, Bickers, Larsson, Lindstrom) were on hand, but found the tight, narrow course hard to cope with. Lindstrom recalls, "At the time we Husky guys were an arrogant bunch. We failed to see the value of this new type of racing. I mean, there were always real races to go to. This had to be a one-time event, right?" (8)
LA Times sports write Shav Glick remembers, "Carlsbad and Saddleback were the big deals back then, and this just seemed too revolutionary." One motorcycle journalist noted for his sarcastic wit called it the Salad Bowl of Motocross.
But it wasn't a one-time deal, and it was not too revolutionary for the fans, whose numbers increased to 38,000 for Superbowl of Motocross II the following year. What Goodwin brought to the sport as part and parcel of his big vision was the heavy use of drive-time radio and television advertising to attract the fans. Mark Blackwell, who was campaigning in Europe during the first Superbowl of Motocross, stated, "I realized it was just a new kind of motocross that would help American riders on an accelerated basis. Those early supercross races were kind of like sprint races, and they got the American pace up to the point where they could ride with the Europeans. Pretty soon the Americans were riding at the front of the pack." (9)
Supercross, however, would become a great deal more than just a training ground where young Americans could hone their skills to compete with the Europeans on their own outdoor terms. It would become a distinctly different form of the sport, taking motocross to more people and broader audiences, even on a world level through the use of television. It would mutate and evolve until it arguably became the most important motocross series in the world, displacing the Grand Prix for top billing.
In a sense, supercross is motocross America-style. What America imported in the late 1960s it repackaged, rebranded, and exported to the world in the 1970s as a new form of the sport. Supercross was developed to better excite the fans and be more communicable through television, and that made all the difference.
(1.) Audouard, Xavier. "The Great History of Supercross," Editions Lariviere, 2004. Page 23.
(2.) Johnson, Eric. "Supercross at Ground Zero," Racer X Illustrated, May/June 1998, page 47.
(3.) Interview of Jeff Smith conducted by the author, August 20, 2003.
(4.) Johnson, Eric. "View from the Fence," Racer X Illustrated, August/September 1999, page 12.
(5.) Eric Johnson's report of this 1961 stadium scramble, appearing in Racer X Illustrated, August/September 1999, is based on an article that appeared in American Motorcycling, April 1961, page 24.
(6.) AMA 1969 Professional Competition Rule Book, page 6.
(7.) AMA 1969 Sportsman Competition Rule Book, page 5.
(8.) Racer X Illustrated, October 2001, page 142.
(9.) Racer X Illustrated, October 2001, page 143.