John and Rita Gregory created JT Racing USA, which produced innovative motocross gear for two decades during the 1970s and 1980s. From humble beginnings—selling motocross socks out of the back of their car to racers in California—they built JT Racing into the dominant force in motocross apparel in this country, and influenced MX apparel makers who followed.
John was born on March 19, 1940, and Rita on May 8, 1945. They met in Weatherford, Okla., at the municipal swimming pool where Rita was a lifeguard. John was attending pharmacy school. When John graduated from school two years later, he and Rita packed up a brand-new Chevrolet Corvette convertible and set off for California.
In California, they opened a pharmacy and John got involved in AMA District 37 (Southern California) desert racing through friend and Honda dealer Floyd Burke.
"In those days, on any Sunday, you could go to the desert and watch thousands of Southern Californians take off at the drop of a banner and head straight for a smoke bomb," Rita recalls. "These riders were a scraggly bunch, wearing leather pants, jerseys of every kind, telephone lineman boots and wool Army surplus socks. The socks unraveled when making contact with the first 'pucker bush' encountered, were hot, scratchy, stinky and shrunk in the wash!"
In 1968, John and Rita found some soccer socks in a sporting goods store in Tijuana, Mexico, and thought those would be the hot ticket for California's desert and motocross racers.
"They were long, cotton colorful things, rolled up nicely over the tops of pair of lineman boots, and, with the exception of turning everything red in the washing machine, cleaned up nicely," Rita says. "That $20 purchase was the commercial beginning of JT Racing USA."
The Gregorys then began selling the socks out of the trunk of their car at racing events. In 1970 they went to get a business license and needed to come up with a name on the spot.
As Rita tells it: "John looked at me and said, 'Well, how about TJ Racing since we got those socks in Tijuana?'" But Rita didn't want the company associated with Tijuana so she suggested that the letters be flipped—to JT—and John agreed.
They began selling the socks by mail order and famed motocrosser and Hall of Famer Lars Larsson of Torsten Hallman Racing asked to be a distributor for the socks. Within the next three years, JT Racing also began signing motocross stars to endorse their products, including legendary Belgian MX World Champion and Hall of Famer Joel Robert.
"We gave him $100 a year and all the socks he wanted," John says.
Says Rita: "So began the endorsement of motocross racers for gear in the sport of motocross."
Under the Gregorys' leadership, JT Racing USA sponsored just about every big-name motocrosser of the 1970s and '80s, including Motorcycle Hall of Famers Kenny Roberts, Roger DeCoster, Marty Smith, Marty Tripes, Ricky Johnson, David Bailey, Bob Hannah, Johnny O'Mara, Broc Glover and Jeff Ward.
Besides MX socks, JT Racing USA initially sold rugby jerseys from Australia, air filters from Holland and nylon-and-leather MX pants from Finland. Over the years, JT Racing USA expanded in other product areas as well, such as chest protectors and helmets.
"They changed how motocross riding gear was manufactured and marketed," Broc Glover says. "They brought style to the sport and sponsored powerhouse riders. They were industry leaders, and set the benchmark for other apparel companies. JT is the company that others judged themselves against.
"The Gregorys brought in the first vented clothing. Their ideas were innovative," Glover adds. "For me, on a personal level, I wore a set of pink gear. There was the DayGlo that David Bailey wore, the ALS helmet. They designed the V1000 and V2000 chest protectors, nylon pants and synthetic gloves—they were innovative. They had a lot of cool stuff."
The Gregorys credit much of their success to their sponsored riders.
"I have to give them a lot of the credit," John says. "I told [then-Yamaha factory rider Bob] Hannah I had a big overstock problem with yellow and blue pants. Yamaha colors were yellow, black and white. He wore the yellow and blue pants at a Supercross on a Saturday night. By Wednesday we didn't have any in stock."
In the early 1980s, Marty Tripes told the Gregorys about the rising sport of paintball. About the same time, other companies were luring away JT Racing USA-sponsored riders with big-dollar endorsement contracts. So JT Racing USA started selling paintball gear.
"I had a good time doing it (paintball) and they were using shop goggles, motorcycle goggles and ski goggles, and guys could get blinded," John says. "So we got into paintball. From about 1983 to 1993 we evolved into a paintball company, so by 1993 we were no longer in motocross. We sold the company in 2001."
The Gregorys were inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2010.