Marty Smith was the AMA’s first 125cc motocross champion. During the 1970s, Smith won three national titles – the 1974 and ’75 AMA 125cc and 1977 AMA 500cc motocross championships. He won a total of 18 career nationals and was one of the few to score wins in 125cc, 250cc and 500cc AMA Motocross Nationals as well as Trans AMA competition. In addition, Smith won the 125cc U.S. Grand Prix of Motocross in 1975 and 1976.
Smith became known as one of the most stylish riders in motocross history. According to his mechanic Dave Arnold, there was never a bad photo of Smith. His riding style was textbook perfect. He won all his championships with Honda and the company featured him in its advertising, using his long hair and youthful good looks as a selling point. He was on dozens of magazine covers riding the legendary Honda Elsinore, donning the famous red, white and blue racing colors. Smith became the first teen idol in motocross and legions of young fans followed his every move.
Born in San Diego on November 26, 1956, Marty started out riding with his dad, Al, a San Diego firefighter, on a little step-through Honda 50. Al and his friends used to go out to the desert to trail ride, and one day, they picked Marty up and put him on the pegs, gave a little shove and sent him on his way. Marty was so small then, there was no way he could reach the ground, so he rode on the pegs standing up the whole time. Marty believes that this early riding technique gave him the foundation for his smooth riding style.
After desert riding for a few years and moving up to bigger bikes, he got the urge to try his hand at racing. His parents took him to the legendary Carlsbad motocross track when he was 14. Marty watched practice and asked his parents if he had to race since they’d already signed him up. Smiling, they said it was all up to him. He went over, leaned against the fence for a long while and said: "They don’t look like they’re trying to knock each other down. I think I’ll race.”
After forgetting to turn on his bike’s fuel petcock in the first moto and running it out of gas, Smith charged from the back of the field and earned a fifth overall.
Smith became a regular at Southern California tracks and started winning races on a regular basis. During his formative years of racing, he had no teachers and learned more by carefully observing the fast guys, then applying what he saw. His riding style stayed smooth and he rarely crashed. In fact, as Smith would say, "I almost never raced 100 percent. I always wanted to be in control and during my career, this approach kept me from a lot of the injuries that most motocrossers encounter."
At times during the early years in his career, he was such a teen idol that girls would literally pursue him. There would be knocks on hotel doors at night, giggling autograph seekers giving him big hugs. Eventually a tanned blonde named Nancy Sauer won his heart and the two were married in 1980.
Smith’s first major victory came aboard a Swedish-made Monark at the Hangtown Motocross Classic near Sacramento in 1973, one year before the wildly popular West Coast race became an AMA National. A week after his Hangtown victory, Smith got a call from Honda asking him to join the team as a factory rider in 1974.
Still a senior in high school, a 17-year-old Smith began his first full season on the AMA circuit in 1974. He contested the newly formed 125cc National Championship riding the eye-catching fire-engine-red factory Hondas. Smith won the very first AMA 125cc Motocross Championship race at Hangtown on April 8, 1974. He dominated the four-race series that year and won the inaugural 125cc national title, nearly doubling the point total of the second-ranked rider, Bruce McDougal. Honda swept the top four spots in the championship that year. At the time, Smith was the youngest rider to earn an AMA Motocross Championship.
Smith’s popularity was a boon to the new 125 class and helped the series gain instant credibility.
Smith said racing full time and still going to school was tough.
“I would fly to the races on Friday and try to take the earliest flight back to get to classes on Monday,” he said. “I missed quite a few days, but still graduated with a B-plus average.”
The 125cc championship was greatly expanded in 1975 and the talent pool was much deeper. Yet the results were the same. Smith and his factory Honda utterly dominated the championship, winning six of the seven rounds and scoring the No. 1 plate by an amazing 543 points over Yamaha’s Tim Hart. It marked the biggest winning point margin ever recorded in AMA motocross. Smith also raced select rounds of both the 250 and 500cc nationals that year and finished inside the top 10 in each series.
Smith wrapped up his amazing 1975 season by winning the inaugural 125cc United States Grand Prix of Motocross at Mid-Ohio in Lexington, Ohio. He repeated the feat in 1976.
Smith’s reign atop the 125 motocross world came to an end in 1976 when a then unknown Bob Hannah charged his way past Smith.
“I was disappointed to lose the ’76 championship to Bob,” Smith said. “We had a lot of issues with our bike breaking that year. If we hadn’t had those problems, I’d like to think we could have given Bob a run for his money, even though that water-cooled Yamaha he rode that year was a rocketship.”
In ‘76, Smith also split his time between America and Europe. He raced in the 125cc World Motocross Championships, won a round, and finished a very respectable fourth in the championship despite missing several rounds. Smith found that he didn’t enjoy his time in Europe.
“I got a cold reception over there to say the least,” Smith recalled. “I didn’t like anything about Europe, so that pretty much ended my desire to contest the world championship on a full-time basis.”
Coming into the 1977 season, Smith was on top of his game. His goal was to become the first rider to win the AMA 250 and 500cc Motocross Championships in the same season and he came agonizingly close.
He won the opening 250 national of the season and took the series lead. He built on that lead with another win on the sandy Southwick (Massachusetts) circuit. All of Smith’s hard work and dedication would not be enough, however. In the second-to-last round at Red Bud in Buchanan, Michigan, his Honda’s transmission blew up and it dropped him from the title chase.
“That broke my heart,” Smith said.
His pain was eased somewhat later that season, though, when he beat archrival Hannah for the 1977 AMA 500cc Motocross Championship. The series had gone back and forth all summer between Hannah and Smith, with both riders scoring two national victories. The title was on the line in the final moto that year. Hannah led when his Yamaha’s throttle cable failed and Smith rode past on his Honda to secure a satisfying championship. It was his third AMA national title and ultimately proved to be his last.
Smith was brimming with confidence as the 1978 season got underway, but then came a fateful crash in the Houston Supercross that proved to be a turning point in his career. He fell in the first turn while running at the front of pack and was hit by several following riders. The impact dislocated his hip. He lay on the ground in excruciating pain for the entire race before being taken to the hospital. Once there, Smith was left in an emergency waiting room until the following morning, the pain so intense that he went and out of consciousness. It was the first serious injury Smith experienced and it had a profound effect on him.
He was slowed for most of the 1978 season due to the hip injury. In spite of this, he was still able to finish third in the 500cc outdoor nationals. But everyone could see on Smith’s return that something seemed to be missing.
“I was able to come back after the crash in the Astrodome, but my heart wasn’t in it,” Smith said. “For my entire career, I always felt in control on the track. I lost that to a certain extent and the pain I experienced in the Houston crash was always in the back of my mind. I never wanted to have to go through that again.”
1979 marked the end of an era in AMA Motocross when Smith’s relationship with Honda came to an end. He was ready to retire from the sport at that point, but Suzuki convinced him to return for two more seasons. Even though he was still clearly capable of scoring podium finishes, he was no longer battling for championships. In 1980 and 1981 with Suzuki, he finished third and sixth respectively in the 500cc class.
At the end of 1981 Smith quietly retired from racing.
Many riders wanted to emulate Smith’s picture-perfect riding style and he received frequent requests to do a riding school.
“I didn’t know if I could teach riding,” Smith said. “I’d always raced with just sheer determination and guts, but I finally did my first school and it went well and just grew from there.”
When inducted in the Hall of Fame, Smith was living in Southern California raising a family with Nancy and teaching his schools. He said he gets as much joy out of watching his students progress as he did when he raced professionally. Smith occasionally showed up to compete for fun in veteran or past champions events and still showed the skills that led him to three national titles. His son, Tyler, began his racing career in the early 2000s.