Joel Robert (pronounced jo-EL ro-BEAR) was a legendary Belgian motocross racer of the 1960s and ‘70s who won the 250cc Motocross World Championship six times, including five consecutive titles from 1968 through 1972. Robert was also significant to American motocross. Not only did he serve as an inspiration to early American motocross racers, but he also raced in the Trans-AMA Series in the U.S., winning seven Trans Am Nationals during the 1970 and 1971 seasons.
Robert was an integral member of the group of European motocross champions who came to U.S. in the late 1960s and early ‘70s to help launch motocross in America. His presence helped lend credibility to America’s first motocross championship.
Born November 26, 1943 in Chatelet, Belgium, Robert grew up in a family of motorcycle racers. His father, Fernan, was a talented speedway rider. His uncle and cousin also raced.
“At my birth my father said, ‘We will make a rider out of him,’” Robert said. “At the age of 2 I was able to take a chain off a bike, link by link.”
In school, Robert enjoyed other sports such as soccer and basketball, but at 7 he was given his first motorcycle, a Gillet 125, and it would mark the course of his life. “I didn’t even reach the footpegs,” Robert recalled. “To start or stop I needed a wall or a tree to lean against.”
His boyhood heroes were Belgium motocross stars Rene Baeten and Auguste Mingels. Robert began racing in 1960 and within a month of starting his racing career he earned his first victory in an extraordinary way.
“It was at Chimay (Belgium) that I won my first victory,” Robert said. “It was the 11th of May, 1960, with my road Zündapp, which was clearly less powerful than the motocross bike of the era. On that day it rained and the ground was distinctly hilly. The rain turned the track into a bog. The race started and three laps later they stopped me and told me I was the winner. I was the only one to climb the slopes. All the others were broken down, clouded in smoke, vainly trying to push their machines. There were no others but me running. My first win was a win by KO (knock out).”
In the early 1960s, Robert began competing in the European 250cc championships. The 250cc series was given world championship status in 1962. He traveled with his parents to many of the races close to Belgium. At other events he would travel with follow racers or journalists, sometimes by train with his bike torn down and checked in as luggage.
His apprenticeship paid off when he earned the 250cc World Championship in 1964, riding a privateer CZ. He was just 20 years old, at the time the youngest rider to win a world motocross title. In 1965, he became a factory CZ rider. For the next three years bad luck, mechanical problems and injuries plagued Robert, yet he managed to finish runner-up in the championship each year.
In 1968, his luck finally turned around and he reclaimed the 250cc world title by two points over Sweden’s Torsten Hallman. Robert won the title again in 1969 over fellow Belgium and CZ rider Sylvain Geboers. That year was significant in that Suzuki entered the championship and made a serious bid to match the more established European makers. It had finished third with Swede Olle Petterson.
Suzuki came after Robert in the off season. It figured he was the missing piece in trying to solve the world championship puzzle.
“Suzuki offered me more money, but even more important to me was that I could see that they were very well organized,” Robert recalled of the Suzuki factory effort. “The bike was also very good. I only had them adjust the footpegs and handlebars. It was very light, very manageable and very solid.”
Robert won the 1970 250cc Motocross World Championship on the specially built Suzuki RN250, purported to be worth $20,000. It not only marked Suzuki’s first world motocross title, it was also the first for a Japanese manufacturer. He would go on to win the world championship again in 1971 and ’72 with Suzuki. Robert became the all-time wins leader in world championship motocross competition. His record of 50 Motocross Grand Prix victories stood for more than 30 years until it was broken by fellow Belgian Stefan Everts in 2004.
Robert began traveling to America in 1967 along with other world championship riders for a series of races against America’s top riders.
“It was a marvelous, unforgettable trip,” Robert remembers. “We traveled all across America. We raced and put on riding schools. To put us in the American mood we bought some Winchester rifles and cowboy hats. The Americans learned fast, very fast.”
When the Trans-AMA Series launched in 1970, Robert was there. He won six straight Trans AMA races in the fall of that year.
Magazine pioneer Joe Parkhurst solicited the help of the visiting European MX stars to lay out a motocross track on his property in Irvine, California. On a fall day in 1967, Roger DeCoster, Dave Bickers, and Robert showed up to help design what would become one of the most famous motocross tracks in America, Saddleback Park.
Robert was also one of the first riders to have replica apparel. Copies of his racing boots were sold in the U.S. under the brand name Full Bore.
Robert is remembered as one of the most naturally talented motocross riders in history. In one of the most physically demanding disciplines in sports, he was notorious for his hard partying lifestyle, lack of training as well as his cigarette smoking. Yet Robert defends himself by pointing out that during his peak he raced some 300 races per year.
“It hardly left a lot of time for training,” he said. “Yet I adored those races when the track was sandy, or conditions muddy, where most riders dread.”
American rider Jim Pomeroy marveled at Robert’s natural strength.
“We were in Finland in 1973,” Pomeroy remembered. “We were coming out of the trophy awards and my Spanish mechanic Rubio and American mechanic Arty Beamon were talking, and Marcel Wurtz said, ‘See that Volkswagen over there? Joel Robert can lift that up.’ I said ‘No way!’ My mechanics and I made a bet with Joel to see who could lift the car. I tried lifting it and could barely get the springs to lift. Then Arty and me tried it. Then Arty, Rubio and me tried it, and we couldn’t get the back wheels of the Volkswagen Bug off the ground. I watched Joel Robert come over and just grab it and lift the whole wheels off the ground and set it down all by himself. That’s how strong he was. He never trained, never worked out. How he did it was beyond me. It was just amazing.”
When Robert retired, he owned the FIM records for the most world titles, the most world championship wins with 50, the most GP moto wins with 101. Many of his records stood for decades. It was countryman Stefan Everts who final eclipsed many of the marks. Everts has nothing but admiration for the marks set by Robert.
"I was born in the year Joel won his last title, so I didn’t know anything of it,” Everts said. "It wasn't until it was explained to me how it was back in the early '60s, how Belgian motocross had gone into decline after the great years of the '50s and that Joel started a dynasty of champions which has continued to this day. Without him, perhaps it would never have happened. Joel is just a simple man but, inside his heart, he is the sweetest man you could ever meet."
When inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, Robert continued with his involvement in motocross acting as manager for Belgium's Motocross des Nations team.