Skillfully commanding a four-wheeled speed demon with a 78-mph rating and 5-speed gearbox on varying landscapes takes more than just guts. It requires long hours of practicing and perfecting maneuvers alongside racing smarts and a well-equipped ride. This feat is undoubtedly the aspiration of many a rider. With the help of today’s article, you may be on your way to making this dream come true.
For new riders, getting into ATV racing entails researching the different racing disciplines, choosing an appropriate quad, studying competition guidelines, investing in protective gear, doing extensive practice, and getting the necessary certifications, training, and licenses.
In addition to subsets and riding techniques, this guide will cover ATV racing tips and essential references. But should you wish to delve into more specifics, consider enrolling in an advanced course or training program or joining a club. Doing so will enhance your understanding of the sport’s nuances and ensure you’re well-prepared to participate in local and national tournaments.
Choose Your Subset
Imagine it’s been a while since you graduated from your learner ATV. Now, you’re riding your 350cc speedster and thinking, “Maybe I’ll try joining a tournament this season.” If you are in this phase, it might be time to up the ante with your weekend recreation.
But before jumping the gun with ludicrous mods and signing up for next year’s racing season, several essential things need your attention — starting with deciding the type of race you want to participate in. Contrary to some riders’ belief, ATV racing isn’t standalone.
This dynamic sport encompasses several subsets, each featuring distinct challenges and race formats that underscore the versatility of ATV racing. In this section, let’s explore these diverse segments while covering the unique challenges and required expertise for each:
Motocross (ATV MX)
This branch of ATV racing involves navigating a closed circuit with natural terrain features, often incorporating jumps, bumps, and turns. It requires high-speed maneuvering, adept jumping, and skillful handling on challenging motocross tracks that vary in length and difficulty.
For those getting into the sport, ATVMX offers 38 courses, ranging from 50cc Automatic classes for young riders aged 4—6 to 450cc AMA Pro classes for advanced adult riders. In the latter category, participants compete in races comprising 18+2 laps using powerful 450cc 4-stroke quads.
Cross-Country (ATV XC)
Arguably one of the most prestigious subsets of ATV racing, cross-country ATV racing is held in high esteem by riders and enthusiasts who value extended-duration races across diverse terrains. ATV XC races require endurance, navigation, and adaptability to changing topography, including open fields, mountains, and wooded trails.
The GNCC website offers 53 national classes grouped under four racing categories — micro, youth, amateur, and pro. The pro class, in particular, consists mainly of open-class, XC1, and XC2 races.
This segment of ATV racing is probably one of its more undervalued subsets — to the non-savants, at least. But for those in the know, it holds some of the more exhilarating aspects of the sport. This is mainly due to its prominent association with WORCS Racing and the iconic Baja 1000.
Through these events, dune racers get to navigate challenging desert terrain and cover a course spanning hundreds of miles. Red Bull PH describes the latter as an amalgamation of Mad Max, The Twilight Zone, and the Dakar Rally.
Ice Racing is a specialized form of racing where ATVs are adapted for competition, typically on frozen lakes or specially prepared ice tracks. Mods often include ice screws or studded tires to provide traction on the slippery surface.
AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) and NWIRC (Northern Wisconsin Ice Racing Club) organize some of the most renowned ATV ice races. The latter offers 46 classes (quad and motorcycle races combined), with nine added into rotation only if the race minimum is met.
Another specialized form of quad racing, this subset involves all-terrain vehicles engaging in straight-line racing on a prepared drag strip or flat track to determine the fastest acceleration. Participants typically compete in a bracket-style format based on their four-wheeler’s performance capabilities.
Among the most prestigious tournaments in this segment are the High Stakes Shootout and ATV Wars. These events attract top racers and feature modded ATVs in intense head-to-head matchups.
Learn the Competition Guidelines
Given the different disciplines of ATV racing covered in the preceding section, their rules and point systems will vary significantly. I won’t delve into their respective regulations in great detail to avoid information overload. However, I will provide links to the best references for each subset.
Motocross (ATV MX)
These events include multiple motos, each with a set number of laps. Points are given depending on finishing positions in each moto, and riders may go through qualifiers to determine their placement in the main events.
Cross-Country (ATV XC)
XC races encompass varied landscapes, with points awarded based on overall finishing positions. While some events may have qualifiers, the primary focus is on the main race.
ATV Desert Racing
These events unfold in expansive desert terrains, covering considerable distances in point-to-point races. They typically lack laps, and points are assigned based on finishing positions. While some races may have qualifiers, it’s less common than motocross.
ATV Ice Racing
Ice races are often short, and points are given depending on finishing positions. The format may include qualifiers to determine matchups in the main event. AMA-hosted competitions follow the AMA Rulebook, while other organizers implement their own.
ATV Drag Racing
Drag races are brief, covering specific distances, and points can be assigned based on finishing positions or elapsed times. Qualifiers are common in drag racing to establish competitive matchups in the main competition.
The American Motorcyclist Association is the sanctioning body for most ATV racing tournaments, and its rulebook is considered the bible by motocross, cross-country, and ice racing event organizers.
In contrast, references for desert and drag races are more dispersed. The SCORE rulebook referenced above is only true for ATV desert racing in the US — rules and point systems will differ for events held in other regions.
Invest in Safety Gear
As you probably already learned from competition rules, appropriate protective clothing and gear are crucial to preventing unforeseen incidents and ensuring safety. These encompass eye protection, brightly colored body armor, and a DOT-/ECE-approved crash helmet (among other things).
Here’s a more comprehensive but non-exhaustive list detailing essential safety and protective gear for the different disciplines of ATV racing:
Motocross (ATV MX)
- Full-face motocross helmet with a sturdy chin guard
- Impact-resistant goggles with a wide field of vision (for trail navigation)
- Chest and back protectors or body armor like Leatt Brace Chest Protector 6.5 Pro Adult (view on Amazon)
- Neck brace
- Durable, ventilated motocross jersey and pants
- Full-fingered gloves with reinforced palms
- High-ankle motocross boots
Cross-Country (ATV XC)
- The first three bullets above
- Comfortable and durable riding gear with moisture-wicking properties
- Full-fingered gloves with flexibility
- All-terrain boots for comfort, support, and protection
- Full-face helmet with excellent ventilation
- Dust-resistant goggles with anti-fog features
- Lightweight, breathable gear to counter high temperatures and heat buildup
- Ventilated gloves for grip and hand protection
- Neck buff or collar
- Hands-free hydration pack
- Elbow and knee guards
- Full-face helmet with a dual-pane shield
- Goggles with thermal features
- Snowsuit or insulated riding gear
- Cold-resistant, waterproof gloves
- Insulated, waterproof boots
- Neck gaiter or Balaclava mask
- Full-face helmet with a clear visor
- One-piece leather suit or jacket and pants (for abrasion resistance)
- Gauntlet-style gloves
- High-ankle, reinforced boots
- Back protector
- Neck brace
Other mandatory items are usually indicated in a specific subset’s competition guidelines or rulebook.
Make Your Quad Racetrack-Ready
In my other post comparing Motocross and Supercross, there’s a particular section where I highlighted the various displacements within each category. Although the article primarily focused on dirt bikes, the race classes discussed therein apply universally to both two-wheelers and four-wheelers.
I find reiterating this point necessary, considering that making a quad race-ready largely depends on the category — determined primarily by its engine displacement. Of course, this assumes you’ve already determined the ATV you need based on your chosen discipline and the regulations you must meet.
Hence, it’s crucial to understand that preparations on a Pee Wee quad differ significantly from those of a 450cc 4-stroke. Similarly, even same-class quads exhibit considerable nuances if one is intended for motocross and the other for desert racing.
On this note, it would make more sense to enumerate must-have specifications respective to the nature of the subset where the quad will be utilized.
Motocross (ATV MX)
In the Stock Class for motocross, approved ATV models (listed on the AMA website) can’t have modifications in specified areas like the airbox and frame (to name a few). Electric quads have additional constraints on the battery pack, internal gear reduction, motor, and motor controller (view on Amazon).
Equipment violations lead to disqualification or suspension, while cosmetic ones may result in warnings or fines.
In sanctioned ATV competitions, modified class engines must be production models with allowed crankshaft configurations.
Superchargers, turbochargers, and nitrous kits (view on Amazon) are prohibited. Engine displacement must adhere to class limits, and the frame used during qualifiers cannot be changed.
The front suspension must be adequate in strength and size for the ATV and its use in all types of competition. Suspension alterations, including shock linkage and spring rates, are allowed for stock and production classes.
Frame and Chassis
ATVs must keep normal ride height without lifting the spreader bar, with approved models featuring standard transmissions and allowing custom clutch levers (omitting starting systems is optional).
Legal production-class ATVs require original frames and engine cases, permitting only bolt-on changes. Reinforcement is allowed, but frame geometry must remain constant.
Brakes are mandatory in all quads except in brake-free meets where aluminum axles and any wheel type are allowed. Bumpers and nerf bars are also mandatory, with the former requiring a tubular, round-edge design.
MX ATV tires are specifically crafted for loose track conditions, featuring robust lugs, stiffened knobs for reliable cornering, and a wide-spaced tread pattern for enhanced grip and easier debris removal.
All ATVs must feature a tethered kill switch that disengages the engine when the rider separates. It must be paired with a self-closing throttle and an operational taillight that stays lit when the kill switch is disconnected.
Handlebars, made of AMA-approved materials like steel or aluminum, may be altered but can’t be cracked or repaired. Control levers need a ball end of at least half an inch.
The battery pack must be Lithium-Ion with a 60V DC maximum output and a battery monitoring system (BMS). Internal gear reduction is required for efficiency, while electric propulsion allows a single motor to be mounted centrally.
The motor controller integrated with the motor must bear OEM markings; only OEM-supplied systems permit programming changes.
Cross-Country (ATV SX)
Cross-country racing demands a modified motor for enhanced power and torque. Bore kits, cylinder enhancements, and optimized pistons improve performance.
Additional upgrades like special cams and oil coolers contribute to durability and efficient power delivery, which are crucial for navigating varied terrains.
Investing in a high-quality suspension system is imperative for XC ATV racing. Adjustable compression, triple-rate shocks with piggyback reservoirs, and dual-rate setups ensure optimal handling and control.
Lowering the quad’s center of gravity and increasing wheel travel is essential for navigating changing landscapes in cross-country courses.
This discipline of ATV racing also demands specific tire configurations for traction, durability, and performance across diverse terrains. Upgrading to racing tires, such as Maxxis M934 Razr2 ATV Rear Tire – 20×11-9 (view on Amazon), mounted on quality wheels, enhances grip and maneuverability.
Enhancing the quad’s aesthetics while prioritizing protection is crucial for cross-country racing. Nerf bars, skids, and bumpers from reputable brands provide necessary protection against collisions and obstacles.
In like manner, custom-fit plastic fenders and team graphics not only improve looks but also contribute to rider safety.
Adequate Lighting Systems
Cross-country races often extend into varying light conditions, including dusk and dawn. In such situations, well-regulated lighting requirements add rider safety and a secure racing environment. Furthermore, they allow participants to navigate effectively, especially during low-light situations prevalent in cross-country racing.
Emergency Kill Switch
A functional tether cord kill switch attached to the rider is crucial. It provides an immediate and efficient way to shut down the ATV in case of emergencies, preventing accidents and enhancing overall rider safety.
Nerf Bars or Floor Boards
Since desert racing often involves high speeds and challenging terrains, mandating nerf bars or floorboards adds an extra layer of protection in case of collisions or rollovers. These add-ons reduce the likelihood of injuries to riders by providing a barrier between the ATV and obstacles or other vehicles.
CVT-only mandates in specific classes contribute to fair competition in designated categories by ensuring a level playing field among racers. This restriction helps standardize performance aspects and prevents certain modifications.
Stock Geometry for Production Classes
In certain production classes, adherence to stock frame geometry and motor center case may be required to maintain fair competition standards. It prevents participants from gaining an unfair advantage through extensive modifications, promoting healthy competition based on rider skill.
Sound Level Compliance
Meeting sound requirements is necessary to minimize environmental impact and adhere to racing standards. For Pro and Pro-Am entrants, the MIC standard of 96db is required before competing.
Conversely, amateur racers must meet 98db. In both instances, a 2% variance in sound level after the event will be acceptable.
Achieving an ideal balance of horsepower within specific allowances is crucial for ice racing, as too much power can lead to traction loss on slick, icy surfaces. As such, classes often require modifications beyond stock motors to find the right power-to-traction ratio.
Adaptive Suspension Systems
Given the variable nature of ice conditions, adaptable suspension systems from brands like Elka Suspension allow riders to fine-tune their quad’s performance, optimizing handling on different types of icy surfaces.
Studded Tires and Fenders
Essential for traction on icy surfaces, studded tires feature carbide or steel studs protruding from the tread that enhance grip on frozen terrain. These tires must adhere to rules governing the construction of front and rear wrap-around ice racing fenders. The fenders must be sturdily built, fully cover the tire width, and follow a curved design for strength and protection.
Non-Studded Tire Mods
In non-studded classes, modifications like removing front brakes contribute to weight reduction and less rolling resistance, which is crucial for optimal performance on ice.
Dimensions and Safety Features
Studded classes have specific requirements, including a maximum width of 51″ (50″ for some racing clubs) and the necessity of nerf bars like Motorsport Products Ez-fit Nerf Bars Aluminum 400ex, Black (view on Amazon) extending to the outside edge of the rear tires. Additionally, all ATVs must have a functioning tether switch for emergency shutdown.
Fuel and Sound
Rules cover the types of fuel allowed in all classes and the maximum sound limit aligning with state law. The former typically includes pump or race gasoline.
The maximum sound limit is often set at 96 dB using standardized tests like the M.I.C. stationary sound test recognized by AMA and DNR (Department of Natural Resources).
High-Horsepower (Hybrid) Engines
Competing ATVs often have high-performance engines modified for increased horsepower. In other instances, they’re equipped with diverse engines, such as three-cylinder snowmobile engines utilizing CVT-style transmissions.
Coolant Gel System
Many custom-built drag-racing four-wheelers forgo traditional radiator systems and use a coolant gel that allows short-term engine operation for drag strip racing.
Drag-racing ATVs vary based on the chosen class, with some adopting stretched frames, wheelie bars for optimal speed, and a minimalist build without suspension.
Custom Builds and Modifications
Racing quads range from fully custom builds to machines resembling quads like the Yamaha YFZ450 but powered by four-cylinder street bike engines.
Sharpen Your Riding Skills
Elevating your riding skills doesn’t and shouldn’t end with graduating from the beginner phase. You need to devote more time to honing them the deeper you get into the sport.
Continuously improving your racing adeptness often begins with attending local races to get firsthand ATV racing experiences. It’s also an excellent opportunity to observe different classes, track conditions, and race dynamics.
With this interest in ATV racing, it’s reasonable to presume you’ve mastered the fundamental riding skills. Now, your focus should shift towards honing these existing skills.
Depending on your chosen subset and machine, you may need to further work on one (or all) of the following: strength, finesse, precision, and control. Enhancing these skill sets would entail honing your adaptability to changing weather and landscapes, expanding your mechanical savvy, and getting the execution of certain maneuvers close to perfection:
Motocross (ATV MX)
Focus on proper body positioning, maintaining a neutral stance, and learning to control the ATV’s trajectory mid-air. Start with small jumps, gradually progressing to larger ones.
Practice controlling the quad’s pitch and landing smoothly. Work on weight distribution to maintain balance during takeoff and landing.
Concentrate on mastering leaning techniques, choosing the right lines, and understanding when to accelerate out of a turn. Do this by practicing cornering on a variety of tracks.
Experiment with different body positions, inside and outside foot positions, and throttle control. Focus on looking ahead to anticipate turns.
Rhythm Section Riding
Many motocross tracks feature rhythm sections with consecutive jumps. Learning to navigate these smoothly is essential for maintaining speed and avoiding mistakes.
Start with simple rhythm sections and gradually progress to more complex ones. Work on maintaining a consistent speed, mastering the timing of jumps, and adjusting body position to tackle consecutive obstacles.
Cross-Country (ATV XC)
Endurance and Stamina
Building endurance and stamina are crucial for maintaining consistent speed throughout the race, given the nature of this subset. That said, incorporate cardio and strength training into your fitness routine.
Practice riding for extended periods, gradually increasing the duration. It’s also advisable to simulate race conditions with off-road trail rides.
Mastering this skill is essential for avoiding delays and minimizing the risk of accidents that rocks, logs, and mud may inadvertently cause. You can practice navigating different obstacles in off-road environments by focusing on weight shifting, using proper body positioning, and selecting the right line to tackle roadblocks efficiently.
Map Reading and Navigation
Learning to read maps and navigate effectively is crucial for staying on course, as cross-country races may involve treading unfamiliar terrain. Practice using race-specific navigation tools or GPS devices. Develop the ability to quickly interpret maps and make on-the-fly route decisions.
Focus on developing the ability to handle your ATV at top speeds. Gradually increase speeds in open areas, practicing throttle control and steering responsiveness. Work on maintaining a stable riding position and reacting quickly to changes in terrain.
Sand Riding Technique
Mastering sand riding is essential for maintaining momentum in sandy stretches and avoiding getting stuck. During your practice, focus on weight distribution and keep a consistent throttle. Experiment with tire pressures to find the optimal setting for dune riding.
Breakdowns can be challenging since desert races cover long distances. Hence, learning basic ATV maintenance and repair skills is crucial. Get to know your ATV’s mechanics and learn basic repairs such as changing tires, adjusting suspension settings, and handling common mechanical issues. Carry a toolkit and spare parts during practice rides.
As a beginner, focus on techniques to maximize grip and control. Practice on icy surfaces, experimenting with different studded tire configurations. Learn to modulate throttle and brake inputs for optimal traction. Focus on weight distribution and body positioning to prevent skidding.
Developing precision turning skills is essential for navigating tight turns without losing control. Do this by practicing turning at varying speeds on icy surfaces while experimenting with different turning techniques, such as sliding turns and controlled drifts. Focus on looking ahead and anticipating turns.
Cold-Weather Gear Familiarity
Be familiar with and comfortable in cold-weather gear by riding in full ice racing gear during practices. Ensure that your gear provides both warmth and flexibility. Experiment with layering to find the right balance for comfort in freezing temperatures.
Develop the ability to control and maintain a slide by delicately modulating the throttle and steering. Develop a nuanced feel for the ATV’s response by experimenting with controlled slides in different conditions.
Initiate practice on broader turns, progressively advancing to tighter ones as your confidence and control on the slippery surface improves.
Practice on varied icy surfaces to understand traction nuances, experiment with throttle control in different conditions, and adjust your riding style accordingly. Gradually increase throttle input in controlled environments, honing your sensitivity to the machine’s mannerisms and learning the optimal balance between acceleration and preventing wheelspin.
Optimize drag racing performance by adopting a low, streamlined profile, ensuring balanced weight distribution, and refining posture to reduce wind resistance and enhance traction for swift acceleration. Fine-tune your body positioning through subtle adjustments, carefully observing their impact on your ATV’s stability on the drag strip.
Obtain Memberships and Certifications
To engage in ATV racing, essential membership in the All-Terrain Vehicle Association (ATVA) is imperative. Distinct from local racing clubs, ATVA affiliation is akin to the AMA for dirt bike enthusiasts. Without this membership, participation in AMA- or ATVA-sanctioned races is impossible.
But transitioning from casual rides to ATV tournaments warrants more than just membership. Overtaking strategies, defensive maneuvers, and winning techniques necessitate proficiency — all of which are covered in ATV rider courses.
The All-Terrain Vehicle Safety Institute (ASI), a non-profit organization, offers comprehensive programs that bridge the gap from recreational riding to competitive racing.
Specific subsets may have additional requirements besides an ATVA membership and ASI rider course. Nonetheless, an ATVA affiliation is often a fundamental requirement.
For more specific details on necessary credentials, I recommend consulting the protocols of the particular ATV racing subset or series you intend to participate in.
Conclusion — How to Get Into ATV Racing
With the insights shared in this guide, venturing into ATV racing should be a thrilling experience. While the sport has its fair share of challenges, proceeding intelligently and cautiously should settle you in no time.
Bravado, coupled with a systematic methodology for learning the racing ropes, is guaranteed to have you eventually master the techniques necessary to thrive in this exciting endeavor!
Kris is an avid off-roader and outdoor enthusiast who loves to brave the elements and take on challenging terrain. He also enjoys sharing his passion and knowledge with others so that they, too, can appreciate the ride.