Jeff Smith was one of the world’s leading motocross racers of the 1950s and ‘60s. The British-born rider won the 500cc World Motocross Championship in 1964 and 1965 riding for BSA. He was also a six-time member of the winning British Motocross des Nations team. Lesser known, perhaps, but equally significant was Smith's success in the International Six Days Trial (now called the International Six Days Enduro), in which he competed 11 times and earned gold on eight occasions.
After his world championship racing career, Smith moved to Canada and worked in various leadership positions for Can-Am. In 1990, he became executive director of the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) and led that organization through a period of rapid growth.
Smith was born in 1934 in Colne, England and grew up during World War II. His father was a trials rider and he brought home to young Jeff an old two-stroke Triumph when he was nine.
“This was the last two years of the ‘39 to ’45 war, so gas was rationed,” Smith explained. “From time to time my father would give me a pint of gas and I would ride it around the field in the back of the house. I recall coming home from school and riding from about 4 o'clock until it got dark.”
After the war, Smith’s father bought him a 125cc two-stroke BSA Bantam and Jeff began riding in local trials events. His father also had a Norton trials machine he occasionally let Jeff ride. In one famous incident in the Smith family, Jeff’s father encouraged him to ride through a particularly tough section in third gear. Jeff cleared the section, but was in second gear. His father got on the machine to show his son what he was talking about.
“He approached the hill in third gear, and of course he had to continue in third because that was the gear that he had decided that the hill should be completed in. And he fell off in a very spectacular fashion and broke his finger. I ran up to him and as he was lying underneath the machine he said, ‘You can have the Norton now, because you obviously know what you are doing.’”
Smith progressed and was so successful on the Norton that the manufacturer asked him to become a works rider in 1952. He went on to become the British Trials Champion in 1953 and 1954 after moving to BSA. He not only rode as a BSA factory rider, but also worked in the factory.
Smith’s transition from trials to motocross came at a blinding rate. He’d raced only a few local British Scrambles events with some success when BSA asked him if he would like to race the Dutch Motocross Grand Prix as part of the factory team in 1954. He was not expected to do that well, but was there to simply fill out the roster of an impressive BSA squad. Smith jumped at the chance and not only raced the prestigious event, but shocked the motocross establishment by winning.
“Fortunately it rained like mad, so it was really more of a trial than a motocross,” Smith said. “When I got back, the head of BSA racing told me that perhaps they should let me race in more scrambles and motocross events.”
Within weeks of returning to England, he won the Experts Grand National, a prestigious scrambles event in England. In 1955, he won the British Grand Prix and his motocross career was off and running.
Smith enjoyed a very long career at the world championship level, competing from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s. He raced before some of the largest crowds ever to witness Motocross Grands Prix.
“The biggest crowd I raced in front of was in Leningrad [now known as St. Petersburg in Russia] in about 1962 when there were over 100,000 people watching the event. In Prague the next year there were over 90,000 spectators,” Smith says. “I mean that’s a very big crowd.”
Smith was a master at preserving his machines during a period when motocross machine breakdowns were a constant threat. Motocross bikes were not yet the robust, almost worry-free machines they would become after the Japanese took over the sport. Many a rider lost races and even championships due to mechanical DNFs, but Smith’s factory BSAs had an exemplary finishing record.
This was even more impressive considering the fact that the four-stroke motocross bikes of the era were being pushed closer and closer to their mechanical limits by the onslaught of lighter and more powerful two-stroke machines.
During his first 500cc Motocross World Championship-winning campaign in 1964, Smith rode his BSA B40 (what started in production form as a 350cc punched out to 420cc) to six victories in 13 rounds and never once finished off the podium. He won the title that year by a narrow margin over Swede Rolf Tibblin, who’d won the previous two world titles. The championship wasn’t decided until the final race.
“By then I was 30, and I have to say that I thought I was never going to win the world championship,” Smith said. “Obviously, experience and an excellent machine came together at just the right moment and I managed to win the championship.”
In 1965, Smith was so dominant that by halfway through the season he’d already clinched his second world championship. The second half of that year, BSA, with the title already secured, asked Smith to abandon his works bike to have him try to win a Grand Prix on a stock model.
“I have to admit I couldn’t do it,” Smith said. “I tried and the best I did was finish sixth in the East German Grand Prix. So I earned one world championship point on the standard machine.”
Smith’s 1965 title proved to be the last hurrah for the thundering four-stroke motocross machines of the era. The next year, 1966, saw East German ace Paul Friedrichs score the first of three consecutive 500cc world titles on CZ two-strokes.
“BSA very much wanted me to win a third consecutive championship,” Smith said of the 1966 season. “They assigned a team of engineers and put together a program to build the most technically advanced motocross bike ever assembled. But then things went awry because not all of the engineers were motorcycle engineers and somehow the whole project got out of hand. We had a motorcycle that was basically made out of titanium and it was dubbed by the motorcycling press as the Titan.
“Too many cooks spoil the broth I’m afraid and unfortunately the machine… well it eventually became successful. It would eventually become the B50, but it took four years for that machine to become successful. So we had the whole year in 1966 when we had many problems with the bike on the racetrack. We were really developing the machine at the Grand Prix events and that’s not the way you should do it.”
In all, he earned nine British championships in addition to his two motocross world titles. Smith also came to America in 1970 and won the first two Trans-AM races ever held, the first in La Rue, Ohio and the next in New Berlin, New York (Unadilla).
His career in racing earned him a visit to Buckingham Palace in 1970, where he was bestowed the honorary British title of Member of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to motorcycling.
Many consider motocross of the mid 1950s to mid 1960s as the Golden Era of the sport. Smith doesn’t disagree, but he qualifies his answer.
“Of course the Golden Era of Motocross is a shifting thing,” Smith said. “Many consider the time when I rode as a Golden Era of Motocross, but I have no doubt in my mind that Ricky Carmichael has just completed a Golden Era of the sport.”
After retiring from full-time competition, Smith helped develop Can-Am’s motocross machines in the mid 1970s.
“We tested the motorcycles every day in the desert mountains around Las Vegas,” Smith recalls of his early days with Can-Am. “We stayed in a Casino hotel, but I think we were too tired from riding all day to ever do any gambling. We did see Elvis Presley and the guy with all the rings (Liberace).”
He stayed with Can-Am throughout its years of producing motorcycles. He then went on to head up the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) in the 1990s and directed that sanctioning body through a time of rapid growth when the organization went from around 800 members to over 5000. He retired from his leadership position of the AHRMA in 1999.
Smith also served multiple terms on the Boards of Directors of both the AMA and AHRMA.
When inducted into the Hall of Fame, Smith and his wife, Irene (sister of another famous British racer, John Draper) were retired and living in Wisconsin. Their son and daughter also became vintage motocross racing champs. Even through his 70s, Smith still won various vintage championships on 1960s-era machines such as his beloved BSA.
Smith approaches his vintage racing a little lower keyed than his world championship days. “My wife said to me 20 years ago, ‘It’s time for you to stop racing,’” Smith says with a laugh. “I said ‘OK, I’ll just ride from now on.’ So I just ride these days.”