By Carl Bastedo
Even though we have never enjoyed the status of a major “motocross country” the sport does have a rich tradition in Canada, dating back more than five decades. And, over the years, many great champions have gone into the record books. Most of us, however, are at a loss to name more than just a few, if any. In an age where things move at the speed of light, and fame and recognition are more fleeting than ever, the old adage of “here today, gone tomorrow” is more aptly expressed as “here today, gone later today”.
So. Who cares? Why care? Should we care about yesterday’s champions and the other top riders they had to beat in their quest for glory? The answer is an unequivocal “yes”. Champions set the standards for those who follow: they are a source of inspiration, someone to emulate. Someone to surpass! A sport that doesn’t honour its past heroes can look forward only to a future where winning championships becomes diluted and next to meaningless.
Although early Canadian motocross may have lacked the glamour and sophistication of its modern counterpart, one thing the sport did not lack was enthusiasm and colourful heroes. At a time when riders still went to the track solely to race for the sake of racing and sportsmanship, names like Vern Amor, Jack Hunt, Bill Sharpless, Yvon Duhamel and Zoli Berenyi Sr., to name a few, ruled the day. The latter three names should be familiar to any self-respecting Canadian motosport fan, as these men were the founders of very successful racing dynasties.
Canadian motocross comes of age
During the 1950s and 1960s there were numerous motorcycle clubs in Canada actively promoting the sport of off-road competition under the banner of Canadian Motorcycle Association (CMA) sanctioning. Back in those days it was still called “scrambling”, the name given to all-terrain racing by the British, inventors of the sport in the mid-1920s. The term “motocross” originated in Belgium, the first country circa 1934 to embrace motorcycle off-road racing after the British.
While 1969 will be remembered for such milestone events as mankind’s first landing on the moon and the Woodstock Music Festival, in Canada it marked the true coming of age of motocross. On Sunday, November 2, 1969, the first high-profile International Motocross race featuring a number of European guest stars was held at Copetown, Ontario. Until the late 1980s the name “Copetown” was synonymous with Canadian motocross. Like most of the tracks of the early days, Copetown encompassed no less than four different venues over the years; these were staked out in farmers, fields and bore little semblance to today’s permanent facilities.
The success of the 1969 event at Copetown, both in terms of rider participation and paid attendance, led to the prestigious CanAm Series. The best homegrown, American, and European riders of the era were drawn to participate in this series. At that time Canadian Motocross was enjoying a rapid growth in popularity and would continue to do so until the early 1980s. By the mid-seventies, World Championship GP Motocross had become a fixture on the Canadian Motocross calendar, although the action was limited to Quebec and Ontario.
Many of the giants of World Championship Motocross like Roger De Coster, Heiki Mikkola, Gerrit Wolsink, Jan Eric SÑllqvist and Graham Noice came over to ride the Canadian GPs as part of their regular schedule. One of those early GPs proved a benchmark in international competition. In 1974 Dutch star Pierre Carsmakers won the 500 Grand Prix at Copetown aboard a screaming red Honda RC400. It was the Japanese factory’s first GP victory.
The 1970s witnessed a real motocross boom and would prove to be the “Golden Age” of Canadian motocross. It was a time of genuine factory rides, adequate rider sponsorships, plenty of mainstream media attention and big-budget events such as the Molson Series and the Labatt’s Grand Prix of Canada. There was also an abundance of spectator interest. The 1974 500 Grand Prix at Copetown attracted 10,000 enthusiastic fans, figures that even today are rarely reached.
For a while it looked like the party would never end. While the early 1980s reaped some of the previous decade’s harvest, a gradual decline in the sport’s popularity set in. In part this can be attributed to the growing cost of racing, economic recession, dropping bike sales, industry downsizing and a lack of focus by many of those involved.
Near death and rebirth
By 1990 the sport was in shambles. Clubs had all but disappeared. Motocross politics and conflicting interests left riders, promoters, officials, and the industry disillusioned. Even the popular supercrosses were dwindling until only Montreal remained on the calendar.
For the first time in its history the CMA, which had enjoyed a sanctioning monopoly for decades, had company: the California-based Continental Motosport Club (CMC). The resulting sanctioning wars proved to be counterproductive for close to five years. Imported by Mark Stallybrass, a former rider and Yamaha Motor Canada motocross team manager, CMC gradually staked a claim and started attracting more and more riders from the CMA stable.
By the mid-nineties, when Stallybrass renamed CMC the Canadian Motosport Racing Club (CMRC), the new sanctioning body was well on its way to dominating the motocross scene. Today, with full support of the motocross industry, both OEMs and aftermarket, and non-industry related sponsors that have included Snapple Beverage Corp, Ford Trucks, Coors Light, Export “A”, and Monster Energy and televised coverage of its National Championship Series, CMRC has taken over the sport in Canada. To further support the growth of the sport there are numerous Internet Websites dedicated to Canadian motocross, two motocross specialty magazines and coverage in additional national motorsport magazines.
Since the beginning of the new millennium Canadian motocross has jumped into high gear. With a number of regional and national race championships that cater to amateurs as well as the pros, more industry involvement than ever, and more professional teams than ever, Canadian motocross is alive and well. A new Golden Age has dawned. Not only is motocross doing well nationwide, the popularity of arenacross has made the sport close to a year-round affair.