The Rich History of Motocross Racing
In 1894 German inventors Heinrich and Wilhelm Hildebrand and Alois Wolfmüller invented the world’s first motorcycle in Munich. This first iteration of a motor bicycle was meant for ease of travel, and it performed the job well. Soon, though, riders began to have more and more fun with these motorcycles. They made different variations of street bikes, and eventually, offroad bikes. These early single-cylinder motorcycles quickly gained popularity and the world’s first motocross event was held Surrey, England in 1924. The rest is, as they say, history! But if you’re unfamiliar, here is the history of dirt bikes and motocross.
The History of Dirt Bikes
Motorcycles and the dirt bikes that evolved from them have been around for more than 100 years. Their history involves a rich tapestry of daring riders and innovative inventors.
Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach
Even before the Hildebrand brothers and Wolfmüller created the first motorcycle, another German inventing team created the Reitwagen. The Reitwagen, German for “riding car”, was actually much closer to what we would think of as a moped.
However, Daimler and Maybach were the first folks to create a gasoline-powered bike. Their original invention, created in 1885, set the stage for what would eventually evolve into the dirt bikes we know today.
The invention of the dirt bike that we love today is often attributed to German-born Siegried Bettmann. Bettmann founded a company who you may have heard of, the Triumph Motorcycle Company. Bettmann is also attributed as the first person to modify the road bikes invented by Daimer and Maybach in 1914.
Bettman modified his dirt bikes only slightly from the original design of the Reitwagen. It had a lowered frame to facilitate a lower riding position and had a semi-automatic lubricator. This did make the bikes a little better at handling rougher terrain than the first motorcycles. However, it would take a few more decades before we see the kinds of motocross bikes we know today.
Post World War II, motorcycles were seen as something only for the rougher crowd. There was no real popularity of motorcycles (or dirt bikes for that matter) among the civilian population. A young Japanese man by the name of Soichiro Honda wanted to change that.
Honda could easily envision a world where motorcycles were no longer just for thugs and troublemakers. That’s why he established Honda Motor Co., Ltd in 1948. Throughout the 1950s, the popularity of motorcycles surged in Japan, and soon abroad.
The bikes were incredibly popular. So much so that people didn’t want to just ride them on the streets anymore. They wanted a motorcycle they could take to the lake, down unpaved roads, and generally explore with.
Honda met this demand by making motorcycles with stronger suspensions to handle uneven roads. Additionally equipped with much larger tires with better tread patterns to grip the dirt and keep the bike steady. Honda was building off of the ideas of Bettmann. However, it was his motorcycle that was popular enough to warrant further innovation into off-road motorcycles.
Yamaha and the Dirt Bike Gold Standard
Honda did a lot to popularize the use of motorcycles by civilians who eventually took them off the streets. The Yamaha Motor Corporation took this rising popularity and solidified its presence in the public consciousness by perfecting its offroad use.
Yamaha released the DT-1 trail bike in 1968 and flew through its initial production of 12,000 models. It was the first motocross bike to truly fit into the frame of how we know them today. Yamaha improved upon Honda’s innovations by providing more ground clearance, block-pattern tires and more forgiving suspension.
The DT-1 would forever change the world of motorcycle racing by giving riders the real advantages they needed off-road. But where did motocross racing come from? Let’s take another step back.
The History of Motocross Racing
The term motocross is a portmanteau of the French word for motorcycle, motocyclette, and cross country. By its official definition, motocross is a form of racing for off-road motorcycles on enclosed, off-road circuits. Of course, just like the dirt bike itself, it took us a little while to get there.
The Early Years of Motocross Racing
The earliest forms of motocross racing weren’t actual races at all. The Auto-Cycle Union, the governing body of motorcycle sports in the U.K., was founded in 1901. In 1906, they began holding time trials where motorcycle riders would compete for the best times completing off-road obstacle courses. Racers would travel over various types of terrains for dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of miles. Of course, they were using the earliest motorcycles, which simply couldn’t cut it.
They were the first folks to begin trying to make these modifications to their bikes. Modifications that led to Bettmann’s innovative designs just a few years later! The early years of motocross racing is an important piece of the history of dirt bikes.
Competing for the best time and bragging rights wouldn’t be enough for these racers forever. Soon they were itching to take the next logical step: racing. This led to the first dirt bike races, referred to as “scrambles”, in Camberley, Surrey, England in 1924.
For the very first time, folks were using their motorcycles specifically designed to be taken off-road and racing them. Riders instantly realized this is what they were looking for. The sport remained very popular in England throughout the early 20th century. Motorcycle clubs continued to spawn and the sport was gaining a lot of popularity.
FIM Championships and the United States Introduction
The world motorcycle governing organization, the FIM, introduced the European Championship in 1952. This race featured 500cc bikes racing across varied terrains, and it became a yearly event. In 1962, the FIM’s World Championship featured 250cc dirt bikes which were much lighter and easier to ride. European motorcyclists began touring the United States in the mid-1960s, introducing the sport to enthusiastic Americans. They instantly fell in love.
Americans loved it so much they were quick to begin organizing their own events. The United States did not truly begin adopting the dirt bike until over half a century after it’s creation. However, we were the folks to hold the world’s very first motocross event at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972.
Dirt Bikes and Motocross Racing Today
That was all it took to get America hooked! Since this introduction and first motocross event, the popularity has never died down. Dirt bike racing was not an American invention, but now you can’t find a bigger fan base.
We are a nation that loves to push the envelope and stretch the imagination of what’s possible. The history of dirt bikes and motocross racing almost exclusively comes from a place of innovation. It’s no wonder we took to it so heavily and never looked back!