SI Vault
Thomas McGuane
May 03, 1971
America revs up to the 'millennial thunder' of the sport of motocross, whose implausibly deft riders perform on the ragged edge of disaster in an astounding landscape of rushing machinery
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May 03, 1971

Riders On The Brink

America revs up to the 'millennial thunder' of the sport of motocross, whose implausibly deft riders perform on the ragged edge of disaster in an astounding landscape of rushing machinery

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The fastest way to go from point to point on the face of the earth, assuming that you do not prepare the ground in front of you but take it rough and unimproved, is on a motorcycle. The right bike in the right hands can travel full tilt in bumps, slides and vaults over ground that would gunnysack Land Rovers and power wagons. In the hands of the cyclists who dominate motocross racing, Europeans all, the progress is made with a power and alacrity that make your hair stand on end.

Motocross, almost unknown in this country until recently but gaining familiarity very rapidly, is easily one of the more popular sports in Europe. It is, to attempt a definition, a kind of motorcycle racing that is done on courses that epitomize the rough terrain of enduro or desert racing. The courses are all different; those of Russia are unlike those of Spain, say, or California; and the courses of some regions have notorious problems—the deep sand of Belgium, for instance—that sometimes allow local heroes to upset the established international stars. Belgian racers topped the Swedes in 250-cc. racing last year, but at the moment Sweden still dominates world motocross competition in the 500-cc. class.

Motocross is very properly considered a sport. It requires strength, the balance of a slack-wire walker, incredible coordination and endurance. It requires a lot of training. The paunches and bubble-butts of other motor sports are not seen here. A contending motocrosser can expect to play out around 28 years old, sooner than a fighter or football player. There is no retirement plan.

But in Europe motocross offers access to daydreams of folk-heroism, much as baseball does here. The great Swedish champions, Torsten Hallman and Bengt Aberg, had at one time both entertained dreams of being soccer stars, a parallel route off the farm. Hallman, whose reputation emboldened him to an autobiography, recounts a career that is both mildly picaresque and yet utterly integral to the wishful daydreams of innumerable young Europeans. When you hear of Hallman and a companion driving down from Sweden towing a trailer that carries their racing motorcycles, crossing into Poland and Russia and Czechoslovakia to hit any race going, bringing back trophies or wrecked motorcycles or nothing, you cannot avoid thinking of knights-errant. Nor when you see Hallman or Aberg or Christer Hammargren or Ake Jonsson or any one of the northern superriders can you quite think you are watching yet another West Coast internal-combustion lunacy.

It was new to me. I have since made a rather selective picture of motocross in my mind; in effect, a reconstruction whose components are largely drawn from the Inter-Am events at Morgan Hill, Calif. and at Saddleback Park, near Orange, Calif. Inter-Am is a sanctioning body, one of the groups fighting over American motocross as it makes its start here. The entrepreneurs are in on it too; and, in general, the money boys are atwitter.

In the crowd there is something ghoulish. The day is gone, after all, when you could watch a hanging; and there is one part of you that is a spectator at the event because something might happen.

So there is that. There is also a rather comfortable sense of its being merely a sporting crowd; you might bet on the outcome; there are certain expectations; there are those who could admire the good riding. There are families, friends of racers, couples, hippies, kids who have rigged a balloon on the Schwinn to make it roar. Everywhere, it would seem, are the archetypal California females: the nifty incipients in bathtub-fitted button-up Levi's, Indian moccasins and loose peasant blouses or white T shirts, the latter possibly with that no-bra, tapioca jiggle.

Another ubiquitous California woman is there—a rather unappetizing item in a pants suit, weirdly dyed as though the material had been on the scene when Krakatoa let go, and possibly silver slippers, owl glasses and any number of fashion accouterments that could have made Orwell's vision of an uninhabitable future so much more convincing. The first of these women that I saw, cross my heart, shot through the crowd on a three-wheeled ATV (all-terrain vehicle), spangled Capezios working the aircraft pedals with a certain élan you couldn't ignore, braked up shy of a refreshment stand and ordered a Diet Pepsi that she consumed, at speed, one arm authoritatively steering the buggy among the legs of the other spectators.

Another I saw wore a jump suit identical to her husband's, both advertising STP in huge letters. Still another wheeled a pair of infants in matching "Sock it to me!" playsuits. Virtually all the rest of the crowd were just regular people—but who wants to talk about just regular people? The hubby of the mommy of the "sock-it-to-me" twins caught up with his family and asked the little woman, "What's happening?"

She replied, "Me and the kids is gonna boogie over to the refreshments for a hot dog." I meant to make my way through and head for the pits. But on the way I bumped into the lady of the ATV. A man standing over her kept looking down at the machine and saying, "Fyantyastic!"

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Torsten Hallman 1 0 0
Sweden 207 0 1
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Europe 533 0 31
United States 8021 0 232