MXA INTERVIEW: MALCOLM SMITH ON THE SPORT HE HELPED GROW
DID YOU EVER IMAGINE WHEN YOU WERE A BOY THAT YOU’D END UP WHERE YOU ARE NOW? Not at all! I never had any plans. I just did one race and did as well as I could. As soon as that race was over I forgot about it, and instead focused on the next goal. Whether I would fall down in the race or get broken, I had the ability to forget about the bad and move on. I’ve been that way in business, too. I look forward, because there’s no sense in looking back. I always keep trucking forward.
“ON ANY SUNDAY” WAS THE CATALYST THAT SPARKED THE OFF-ROAD MOTORCYCLE BOOM IN THE 1970S. WERE YOU AWARE OF THE MONUMENTAL IMPACT THAT MOVIE WOULD HAVE ON THE INDUSTRY? I didn’t have a clue. “On Any Sunday” made a big difference for motorcycle business. Even now I meet guys who tell me that “On Any Sunday” got them into riding motorcycles. Think of it this way; what would your life be like without motorcycles? Once you experience that joy of riding it’s impossible to get rid of. I thought the movie would play for six months and be forgotten. However, I can watch it right now and the movie will still excite me to go riding.
IN YOUR MIND DO YOU THINK THAT YOU CAN STILL RIDE AS WELL AS YOU DID IN “ON ANY SUNDAY?” I wish, but I can’t ride like that anymore. I’m sorry to say that. I remember riding up a hill on a trials bike, pulling in the clutch, and coasting down backwards. These days, I could try it a million times, but I won’t be able to do it anymore. I used to be able to do it so easily! I would ride up, shut my brain off, and let my body do the rest. In my mind I think that I can still ride fast, but then I’ll go riding with my son and realize that I’m not fast anymore [laughter].
HOW DID YOU BEFRIEND FILM MAKER BRUCE BROWN? I worked on his motorcycles. Bruce had an old Husqvarna. He would bring it out from Dana Point. It was a 16-mile drive. I would work on his bikes, and then we would ride together. We would sneak into Camp Pendleton Marine Base and ride in there. It was a fun time.
WHAT’S THE MOST DIFFICULT PART ABOUT OWNING A MOTORCYCLE DEALERSHIP? ? I hate paperwork. Luckily I have people that do it. Alexander, my son, is running it now. Joyce, my wife, ran the shop for about eight years. I’m really good at seeing if things are going well, but she’s really good at figuring out how to fix problems. Joyce is much more organized than I am. My attention span changes a lot. I jump from one thing to another and sometimes don’t get things done. Basically I’m a typical motorcycle rider [laughter]. Alexander is a racer, but he took a lot of classes in International Banking and Finance. He’s really sharp.
Bruce Brown, Mert Lawwil and Malcolm Smith at the AMA Hall of Fame.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PIVOTAL CHANGES THAT HAVE MADE THE OFF-ROAD MOTORCYCLE INDUSTRY BETTER OR WORSE? Everybody was riding big, heavy four-strokes back in the old days. They would ride Matchless, BSA and Triumph bikes. Then the lightweight bikes, like the Greeves, Husqvarna, Bultaco and Maico bikes were a big change. Then “On Any Sunday” came out and made motorcycle racing more popular. Then the Japanese started making lightweight motocross bikes and winning races. That was a big change from what had been the norm. When the modern four-strokes came out they made two-strokes practically nonexistent. Motocross is mostly all four-strokes now.
DO YOU LOOK AT FOUR-STROKES AS A GOOD CHANGE FOR THE SPORT? It’s a bad thing on the cost to keep them running, especially the 250 four-strokes. They rev so high and can blow up. Whereas a father and a son can buy a 125 two-stroke, get a new piston on a Saturday morning, do a top-end overhaul, and go race on Sunday. Now you see all these 250 four-strokes blown up and sitting in the back of a shop with a $2500 bill to fix the engine. It has pushed a lot of people out, because it’s not so affordable anymore. A 250cc two-stroke will run forever, and it doesn’t cost you a lot of money.
HAS MODERN TECHNOLOGY BECOME TOO ADVANCED FOR MOST RIDERS? You can buy an awfully good motorcycle now, which is great. Keep in mind that you can spend just as much money on a high-end mountain bike as a 450cc four-stroke, but you don’t have to pedal up the hill on a motorcycle. I don’t think the sport is too expensive for a weekend warrior who rides a few times a month. If you ride all the time and constantly need to replace tires and things like that, then it’s very costly. As for the technology, I was worried about electronic fuel injection. I figured there would be a lot of broken-down bikes in my shop. That didn’t happen. There’s actually less trouble with it than a carbureted bike. Down in Baja we have to use gas that isn’t very good. Electronic fuel injection handles the fuel no problem, and we actually get 20-30 percent better gas mileage.
“IT WASN’T JUST THE FACT THAT ROCZEN LEFT KTM, BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY HE LEFT ROGER.”
WHO DO YOU THINK IS THE GREATEST RACER EVER? Roger DeCoster. He was a great racer, and he transitioned into a career as a successful team manager. He has gone to several different teams, and the team always won after he began working there. He’s still winning. Roger can pick the young guy that has the ability and drive and will to win. He’ll spend the time working with that racer and get him on top of the podium. That’s what he did with Ken Roczen. Ken made a big mistake by signing somewhere else. It wasn’t just the fact that Roczen left KTM, but more importantly he left Roger.
WHO IS THE MOST TALENTED RIDER YOU’VE EVER SEEN? You can choose yourself if you like. No, I’m not even close. Compared to the motocross guys I’m not even in the ballpark. James Stewart comes to mind. He has a lot of talent. Gosh, if he could just control himself a little bit and know when he should go fast or back it down a bit. Ken Roczen is very talented, too. Ryan Dungey and Ryan Villopoto also come to mind. Those last two are so determined to win. To me, the magic is in watching Stewart ride a track. He makes my heart pound. You haven’t experienced Supercross until you stand at ground level and watch what the top guys do. It’s unbelievable.
IS IT POSSIBLE FOR MOTORCYCLE BIKE SALES TO RETURN TO THE GLORY DAYS, WHERE PRACTICALLY EVERY KID AROUND THE BLOCK WOULD RIDE? It would be very hard. It’s much more difficult now for a guy with a regular job and normal income to have enough money to ride and also afford bikes for his kids. I do think that vintage motocross is pretty cheap, and the danger isn’t there. Tracks are dangerous now. There are pretty big jumps on motocross tracks, and everyone is expected to do them. I never encouraged my son to race motocross for that reason. I wanted him to stick to off-road.