The first time I saw Marty Smith race it was when he won the High School Motocross Finals race that acted as intermission at the Superbowl of Motocross in 1974. I never liked Marty Smith when I was growing up. After all, how could I when as the sole Yamaha partisan at my Junior High School I was faced with a daily onslaught of antagonism from the kids who rode Honda XR75s and celebrated each of Smith’s National wins with strident anti-Yamaha taunts. Still, when a photo of Smith eating strawberry yogurt at a race appeared in an early MXA, I made sure my mom bought some home for me to take to my next race at Saddleback, so I could be more like him.
Marty Smith may have been of the enemy camp, but back in the mid-‘70’s he was the one rider who electrified the nation of motocross grommets and wannabe factory riders. Two-time 125cc National Champion, plus a 500cc National title, third overall in the Europen GPs, and a runner-up to a Supercross title, not bad. Marty Smith was Ryan Dungey, James Stewart and Trey Canard all in one...with a little David Cassidy rolle din. He was a SoCal hotshoe with golden locks, tanned skin, a big smile…and oh yeah, nearly unbeatable.
Like so many of his old school cohorts who have remained active in the sport well beyond their competitive years, Marty remains involved in the sport. Recently he added “Team Manager” to his credits as he’s now involved with the privateer team assembled by Bruce Slaton. In all my years of working with Motocross Action, I can say that until now, Marty Smith was the one Motocross icon whom I had yet to meet. Finally, we came together when we sat under his team tent and talked about the new team, his motocross school, and of course, countless topics about the old days – when Marty Smith was the king of American motocross. Although it was over 30 years ago that Smith enjoyed his greatest success as a racer, five minutes was all it took to realize that, like many of his co-horts at the time, he is still very serious and passionate about the sport.
The 54 year old three-time champ still loves to ride and go to the races.
MXA: What is your involvement with the team and how did it come about?
Marty: Bruce is a local contractor who loves the sport and has sponsored a team for the last few years. I guess he knew I was still doing my schools, so one day he called me with the idea of joining the team. Bruce is a real enthusiast about motocross and he likes helping out young kids. He had already gotten some good help from sponsors like AT&T, Temecula Motorsports and Blanca Basura and he wanted to see about putting a program together to take it to the next level in 2012.
MXA: So what exactly is your job?
Marty: A little bit of everything, basically I'm just trying to keep the ship on a straight course, but I did all the contracts with the riders and I help them with training advice and riding technique. Right now it’s just a 250 West Coast Supercross deal, but we might so some Nationals and maybe the X-Games.
The team setup.
MXA: How have you found it working with riders from the new generation?
Marty: There’s a lot of attitude out there! Quite a few kids I meet act like they’ve already won an AMA National title when in fact they haven’t done anything and even having trouble qualifying for the night show. There’s a lot cockiness, but maybe that’s what you need these days. With the guys on our team I don’t say things just to make them happy – we’re here to win races and sugar coating the truth isn’t the way to make that happen. I think if they’re able to get just a morsel of what I had it will help make them better riders.
MXA: What are some of the attributes that you point to in your own career that led to your success?
Marty: My dad always told that the only way to get better than the other guys was to do more than them. So I worked out pretty hard, but the one thing I always made sure to do was to ride all the time. That was the one thing my dad was real believer in and that’s what I tell these kids I’m working with. When it comes to the weekend you want to be as comfortable on your bike like it’s the recliner in your living room
Marty had two rides on the Type II RC125 and he beat Bob Hannah both times with it, including his win at the Mid-Ohio USGP.
MXA: I was a big Bob Hannah fan back in the day and in 1976 he came on the scene and took your title away. What was that like?
Marty: In 1976 we were having a lot of trouble with the Honda. The year before the bike was great, but they didn’t make a lot of changes and Bob showed up on that trick water-cooled Yamaha – it was hard to compete against that bike. Halfway through the season Honda brought out the Type II and that thing was a rocket. I beat Hannah at the USGP and then beat him again the following week at the Delmont National. Unfortunately, Honda was afraid that the bike would get claimed so they took it back. Everyone knew that Hannah would be fast because he was racing the local CMC races before he came to the AMA Nationals. If I had that Type II from the beginning of the year I think I would’ve had something for him, I think it might have been different. I’m not taking anything away from Bob. He was hungry and he wanted to win, where I had already won the title for the previous two years.
Marty (1) and Brad Lackey (711)
MXA: How did you get the factory ride with Honda?
Marty: In 1973 I was a factory rider with Monark. They paid me $100 a month. That year the Dirt Digger’s MC held at race at the original Hangtown course in Plymouth and I won that. The next day when I got home from school Honda called and said they wanted to sponsor me.
MXA: Between the factory ride and winning the high school race at the Coliseum, you had a pretty exciting life as a teenager.
Marty: I did, but really all I wanted to do was race motorcycles. There were a lot of groupies at the races, but I had met my wife Nancy in 1975 when we were both seniors at Point Loma High School. I asked her to come to the National at Hangtown in 1976, which was her first race. The day after the race I flew to Europe for the GP’s and I remember calling her and asking her to come over. She did, and then she went to a few races with me over there and we’ve been together ever since.
Marty did double duty in 1976 and rode a Japanese spec CR125 in Europe. Honda kept the trick RC125 Type II at home.
MXA: In 1976 you did the unthinkable by racing both the 125 Nationals and Grand Prix in the same year - how did that come about?
Marty: Honda suggested it and I was okay with the idea. It actually wasn't that hard. The two schedules worked out pretty well and I was never that tired flying back and forth. I ended up getting third in both series' which was pretty good.
The Carlsbad 500 USGP was a local race for both Marty and Tommy Croft (56S) who were best friends off the track and teammates on the track.
MXA: Of all your teammates, do you have a favorite?
Marty: I’d have to say Tommy Croft. We grew up racing together, we flew to the races and roomed together and we got into trouble together. We still hang out all the time and go to Glamis with our bikes and buggies. I remember when we raced against each other in the Support class at the USGP at Carlsbad. That was so cool because it was like a local race for both of us and we both had all our friends and family there cheering us on.
Marty at Suzuki.
MXA: I remember it was a pretty big deal when you left Honda?
Marty: Yeah, after achieving so much with them from 1974 to 1979, it wa a big deal. After my hip injury in 1978 I wasn’t racing at the same level. I don’t think I loved the sport as much then as I did when I started out. Team Suzuki was good to me. Mark Blackwell was a good team manager and the bikes were good, but I just never felt comfortable with them. The difference between the two bikes was pretty major and the Suzuki just never seemed to suit me as well.
Marty with the Cagiva for his one race.
MXA: How did the Cagiva ride come about?
Marty: That was in 1983. Even when I was at Suzuki I knew that I was done racing. My heart just wasn’t into it anymore, but one day Cagiva called me up and offered me a six-month deal to be an R&D rider for them. They wanted to pay me as much as I got in my whole last year at Honda. It was kind of hard to turn that down. It was just an R&D deal, so I felt okay with it. And then, sometime in that six-month stretch they wanted me to race a Supercross. The problem was that the bike was only 190cc so I was at a pretty big disadvantage. But I did the one race and I got smoked – I’m not saying I would’ve won, but I do wish more people knew I was riding a 190!
MXA: And how did your race in the Baja 1000 come about?
Marty: That was after I had quit racing motocrtoss. Kawasaki was supporting my school back then and the motocross team manager at the time, Mark Johnson, would call me every once in awhile. Then he started calling like every other week and I soon found out that one of their Baja riders had gotten hurt and he wanted me to fill in. At first I was like “no way,” but then I told them I would but only under certain conditions. I told them I wouldn’t ride at night and I wouldn’t ride through any towns or on any asphalt sections. So they found me a piece of desert that was not gnarly. But, when I got the bike we were two minutes down to Team Honda and when I handed it off to the next guy we were 14 minutes ahead and we went on to win. It wasn’t that scary really. I had grown up riding in the desert. Even the 120mph top speed wasn’t hard to deal with, but slowing down was! It took me a while to figure out how much earlier I had to start braking, but before I figured it out I was blowing through so many turns.
Marty and Mike Bell share a handshake after Marty passed Mike to win the High School Motocross Finals held at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1974.
MXA: When you won the High School Finals in 1974, was that your first Supercross?
Marty. Oh yeah, I had never even been to either of the two Superbowls they had before that one. It was cool, but I thought it was crazy and that the whole concept would never last!
MXA: So, beyond the sheer dollar amounts being spent, as much as you can gauge, what’s the biggest difference between being a factory rider back in the day versus now?
Marty: You know back then none of us wanted to be factory riders, we just became factory riders, whereas a lot of kids today have only one thing in mind and that’s to get a factory ride. We rode because we loved to ride motorcycles—we loved to race them. I’m not so sure all the young kids racing today are racing for the same reason. I think a lot of them are racing for the business because it has become a big business. I’m not saying it’s wrong, or, that I would be doing anything differently. Still, when you see these minicycle kids showing up with a huge coach and trailer and they have all the spare bikes and gear and their parents are out there with the stopwatches and everything, it does make you wonder what they’re in it for. We used to take our bikes to the races in a trunk of a car! Today, I’m not sure it’s really for the love of the sport or not. I actually wonder if the kid is really having any fun.