Updated: Nov 30, 2020
THE RISE & FALL OF MOTOCROSS IN AMERICA
By The mid 70’s I think it's safe to say Motocross was a mainstream sport.
Motocross was originally called scrambles, and can be traced back to the early 1900’s in Europe, but when it really took off in America was in the late 1960's to 1970s after being introduced to America bye Edison Dye, He is solely responsible for bringing motocross to America (some argue this but he definitely made it popular at the very least) He Started Importing Husqvarna’s to the USA in 1966, He then brought Torsten Hallman, Arne Kring, Joel Robert, Roger Decoster, Dave Bickers, Lars Larsson And Ake Johnson to America to showcase the sport. It was a big hit immediately, he started out with 10’000 Husqvarna’s per year and sold Them all.
Then there was a combination of things happening in the early seventies that really helped the sport blow up.
1971 The Movie ON ANY SUNDAY Came out in movie theaters.
1971 the AMA Had the first professional motocross race at a temporary track at Daytona international speedway,
1972 came a national series and an indoor Supercross series (Mike Goodwin is the father of Supercross)
they introduced Honda xr75 in 1973.
Mini Dirt bikes where a huge hit a couple earlier models the Honda Z50 and Honda CT70 And Indian Motorcycle had some mini dirt bikes also Harley Davidson Released some as well in 1974.
Many of the 1970’s Mx’ers got their start on a Honda XR75.
Most People Credit the movie On Any Sunday with having a Huge impact on helping the sport grow nationwide. The movie played in theaters on the big screen, and it was a big hit, Starring Malcolm Smith, Merti Lavall and Steve McQueen. McQueen was already very famous And brought a lot of star power to the movie.
(The film by Bruce Brown was nominated for an Academy Award in 1971)
Motocross and supercross also started getting media coverage and some professional races Started to be televised on things Like the ABC wide world of sports. There were a lot less rules on where you could and couldn't ride back in the 70’S so kids made tracks in vacant fields and pretty much anywhere else they could think of, most of the time trespassing but people didn't seem to mind as much at the time.
They were selling so many mini dirt bikes even Harley Davidson and Indian motorcycle Started making them.
Jeff Ward Pictured Would grow up to be a Top pro rider and a Multi time Champion.
Motocross got so popular that if you asked a school-age boy in America if he had ever tried riding dirt bike it would be more likely that they had than hadn't. They even had high school motocross leagues in some states. Motocross just exploded it was everywhere Back then it was seen as something everyone could do, people saw it and thought I could do this, it looks fun, not that looks dangerous. and It really was less extreme the bikes were a lot slower than they are now. The mini MX bikes were mostly little mellow four strokes and even the two strokes were air cooled and didn't have as much horsepower as modern bikes have now. The bikes of the 70’s also had much less suspension travel and that also kept the speeds lower and the jumps smaller, but they still had a blast riding them and racing against each other
The bikes kept evolving and getting faster people often say the late 70’s and early 80’s YZ80’s where a game changer Getting single rear shock and in 1982 becoming liquid cooled,
The 80cc bikes were evolving fast in the 80’s and by the late 80’s they were rocket ships (fast)
By the 1980’s they were selling as many as 1 million dirt bikes per year in the USA And right by the late 70s early 80s 100cc and 125cc classes where super popular These bikes were the perfect size for kids moving up from mini bikes
125cc motocross racing would remain popular all through the 80’s and 90’s
Also in the summer of 1980 The Yamaha PW50 was released, They were an instant hit and the perfect starter motorcycle for kids 8yrs old and under, they are affordable reliable easy to ride, and are still made to this day, and almost every single current top pro rider started out Riding a Yamaha PW50.
The Sport became very Lucrative ,and Not only manufactures and The pro riders, but people Made Crazy amounts of money making Safety gear goggles boots, and aftermarket parts for the bikes.
And I found it very interesting to learn that back in the 70's and 80’s they paid prize money even in local amatuer races not just trophies, it was so popular in California that there where different clubs and tracks having events all throughout the week, now days most local races are on Sundays but back than in California a Fast kid wanting to win some money could race in different places on Saturday, Sunday Tuesday Thursday, Friday, Some during the day And some at night under the bright lights at lit up tracks
Ricky Johnson, I Started Watching Sx in the late 80’s Hero in SX Was RJ The Bad Boy.
For any younger guys that didn’t live that era, For a generation of motocross fans, Johnson is an icon
The King of Supercross
I once saw him Hit a jump so big that another pro rider was scared to just jump the jump and Travis not only jumped it but did a backflip while jumping it. Think about that another professional is scared to just hit the jump and hits it and does a backflip!
I Think of Travis Pastrana as a living legend, Like the Evil Knievel of his time. he does things on a 200 plus pound motorcycle that you only see in video games, and for anyone that hasn't seen it, I highly recommend his movie 199 lives.
I Began Riding in 1988 when I got a brand new Kawasaki KD80 for Christmas.
I lived in the suburbs large metro area and myself and several kids in my neighborhood had small dirt bikes, and at that time we could ride right from our houses, we would make little tracks in nearby fields we could also ride right to each other's houses and there were single track type Trails that we could ride on in wooded areas around our neighborhood, and it wasn't just my neighborhood this was the normal way of life at the time it was this way in other cities and states all across America and again I lived in a suburb of a large metro area, not way out of the country, my friends and I then moved up from small mellow bikes like the Honda XR80’s to faster race versions like the Honda CR80 Kawasaki KX80 Etc. Then we all started racing local amateur Motocross races.
and then from there we moved up to 125cc bikes.
but then things started to change. It was somewhere right there in the early 90s that it all started to change in our area, all the fields we rode in turned into neighborhoods or businesses or schools or golf courses I guess they call it urban sprawl.
Also corporate Farms bought up a lot of land in some States including the state I lived in which was Minnesota
now in some states there is hardly any land that is privately owned or being farmed. California and a lot of the western states seem to still have a lot of open land
but not so much in the Midwest.
Also it became more and more taboo to ride even a short ways down the street to get to riding spots and somewhere along the way it dried up completely.
Now unless you live in a very rural area way out in the country You have to have a truck or trailer to get your bikes to the track
most tracks are far and few between in more rural areas in some cases hours away,
And you have to pay a fee to practice most places now Each time you ride when I was a kid in the early 90’s we just rode everyday, These days in my opinion unless you grew up riding dirt bikes and remained into it and got your kids into it or have a very persuasive friend or family member that's into it then its very unlikely.
The chances of new people choosing to get into motocross racing that have never done it before going out and buying a $5,000 to $10,000 Bike plus at least $1,000 plus worth of safety gear helmet boots etc. before they even get to try it, the chances are very slim. These are some of the reasons why dirt bike sales in the USA have declined dramatically in the past 20 years.
What Are the Causes for the decline of Motocross at the local level?
I love the sport of motocross and everything dirt bike related, These days I have a strong desire to work in the industry, I really want to be involved and advocate for the sport, as we all know the sport has been in decline in participation at the grassroots level for a long time, I started going online more and more as the internet became more popular in the late 90's to early 2000's, surfing the internet to read about motocross daily it was kind of my escape in life, and somewhere in the past ten years I switched from reading for enjoyment to really researching and analyzing the sport. I started documenting the things that changed over the years. I studied moto like it was my job, I have thoroughly researched everything about MX and its history. Now I feel like I truly do have some answers. I hope to have a sit down conversation at some point with someone in the industry.
There are several reasons for the decline and it is a rather complex issue but the Same things come up over and over when talking about it. There was almost a perfect storm of challenges coming from every direction.
So what went wrong?
These are the most commonly talked about reasons why the sport of MX is Declining.
1. The rule change allowing double displacement 4 strokes, and the masses primarily racing four strokes instead of two strokes. The four Strokes Came in and took over. The previous 250 2t class became the 250/450 class, and the 125 2t class became the 125/250 class this rule change and the evolving technology changed the face of the sport and caused the masses to buy and race four stroke dirt bikes primarily, these four strokes are faster have more torque get better traction and are easier to ride fast on. What's not to like right? well there are a few things, they are heavier, They are more expensive to buy, they are reliable but when they do need maintenance or break they are much more expensive to fix.
being easier to ride fast is a double edge sword because at higher speed crashes are more dangerous. I think it's a good thing that the four strokes came there is definitely a place for them they are pretty awesome. but in hindsight if they hadn't mixed the two and left a 125 2t class that didn't allow 250f's, and a 250 class that didn't allow 450f's, instead making a separate 250f and a 450f class in addition to the Classes there were already at least at the grassroots level AMA Races. the sport would very likely look quite different right now, But at the very least they should have left the 125 class. I think that is pretty universally agreed-upon now. 125's are very fun to ride and a perfect stepping stone for kids coming up from 85cc bikes. But with the rules allowing 250f's to be able to race against 125's it makes it so if you want to be competitive in racing other people of your same skill level you have to have a 250f to be competitive.
2. The economy/Rising Costs, with costs rising faster than people's earnings, a large sector of lower middle class and under have been priced out of the sport in its current form. This one has affected me personally the most. I have had the desire but not the budget, And it's not only the cost of the bike its gear, gas for the bike and truck, fee's to ride and race. for me personally even at times I have had a bike in recent years I bought a cheap 2003 CR125 last summer and couldn't afford to go ride because all my money that was coming in was going to other bills family needs housing costs etc. and while living paycheck to paycheck even when I did have a little extra there was always a more logical way to spend the money when you have a family you always feel like its taking away from something else when there isn't any savings, IMO rising cost is why the sport lost a whole bracket of people in the middle class and under with the change from 2t to 4t. And in my opinion even guys that maybe still had an older bike and thought about racing feel a little bit embarrassed having to race against brand new 250f's or 450f's would it still be fun, but people do care about their image. It doesn't seem like it was quite the same feeling in the two stroke days.
3. Legal issues, Lawsuits, land owners being sued. This had a nationwide effect and led to many places being off limits, Dirt Bikers started getting chased off land, both public and private. Lawyers licked their chops and lawsuits started to proliferate. The motorcycle industry had made no provisions whatsoever to handle the glut. No land was purchased and set aside. No informational booklets were given to purchasers of new dirt bikes to tell them how to handle themselves. Bikes were loud and noisy, in fact, the industry was literally first forced into using mufflers by magazine tests.
4. Environmental eco-freak groups Like The Sierra Club and Earth first are enemies of dirt bikes. Rick Sieman said "We have never counter-attacked our enemies. We know who they are, and it now becomes a matter of priorities. The days of sitting back and hoping that your favorite riding area will be open next week are over. We either fight back or risk losing it all."
5. The Tracks. The tracks have become much more extreme going away from natural terrain tracks of the 1970's To a Lot more and a lot bigger jumps. It happened somewhat gradually over time as the bikes got more and more capable, but now to Be a beginner on some of these tracks is a bit intimidating. I heard Brian Deegan say in a podcast that he wasn't sure he was gonna let his son Haiden AKA Dangerboy race motocross at first, because he thought it was getting to Dangerous and didn't want his son to hurt. if that is Coming from an ex pro racer and pioneer of Freestyle MX What do you think the general public is thinking?
6. Lack of places to Ride. Having to pay just to have a place to ride, every single time you ride, if you don't have your own track or land or know someone with a private track, you literally have to go to open practices and pay, its cool that the option is there to be able to ride on a nice groomed motocross track. I am just pointing out if that is your only option that could get expensive very quick when I was a kid we would ride every single day after school at tracks we made on vacant land near our homes and there is no way that would have happened if we had to pay each time.
In our area and a lot of suburbs of bigger cities we lost most of our riding areas to Urban Sprawl. And most of the open land farther out of the suburbs to Corporate farm. In some states in the Midwest there is very little land that isn't privately owned and mostly fenced and being farmed.
A lot of people insist that the Four stroke era is to blame and that was the beginning of the end, mostly citing cost, and while I agree cost is an issue and I know for sure it is because it's the biggest issue for me, But I am still not 100% sold on that being the main issue, because since the recession of 2008, most other things have bounced back, including some rather expensive things that align somewhat with Dirt bikes, such as Mountain Bikes and e-bikes there are models very expensive, and selling very well, also Four Wheeler's and Side by sides for off road and overall the economy is up.
so What does that say for motocross ?
Another area that is struggling with sales is street bike's like Harley Davidson and Indian. I think that is directly related to Motocross and dirt bike riding, it has been in decline for 30 years, those kids that grew up in the 70's and 80's riding dirt bikes got the bug, the love for motorcycles, and they are the kids that grew up and bought Motorcycles.
I have actively started working on trying to find ways to get the sport growing again, and I feel very confident that I have some really good ideas. however I haven't shared them with anyone yet. which is why I am Created this spite with the hopes to meet like minded people