Motocross, a thrilling and adrenaline-pumping off-road motorcycle sport, has a rich history and a unique set of characteristics that set it apart in the world of motorsports. This article will delve into motocross’s origins, evolution, and defining features while providing a comprehensive overview of this dynamic sport.
So, what is motocross? Motocross is an off-road motorcycle discipline featuring short, intense races on purpose-built tracks with jumps and obstacles. It’s a high-adrenaline sport that emphasizes agility, skill, and speed. MX bikes, in particular, feature high ground clearance and maneuverable designs.
This simplified definition falls short of capturing the essence of motocross. Beyond the allure of modified bikes and international competitions lies a profound satisfaction and the thrill of pushing personal boundaries that just draws enthusiasts in.
Motocross proves to be more inclusive than it initially seems — a discovery you’ll make in today’s guide, along with other insights.
What Is Motocross?
A while back, I defined motocross in my post on What Is Off-Roading? (Definition, Meaning, & Guide) as “an adrenaline-pumping, high-octane off-roading sport that combines speed, skill, and daring maneuvers. It typically occurs on closed-loop tracks, where riders navigate a series of jumps, tight turns, bumps, and obstacles while competing against one another.”
Based on this definition, it’s clear that motocross is a sport. Given its conditions and skill requirements, it’s also called motocross racing.
However, there’s a subtle distinction between these two terms. ‘Motocross’ is an umbrella term encompassing the sport’s recreational and competitive aspects.
Meanwhile, ‘motocross racing’ specifically highlights its competitive nature. It involves riders participating in organized races, competing against each other to complete laps around a designated motocross track.
MX enthusiasts have the Brits to thank for the genesis of the sport. In the early 1900s, UK auto-cycle clubs organized time trials, evolving into off-road events known as ‘scrambles.’ The inaugural scramble occurred in Camberley, Surrey, in 1924, marking the official start of motocross.
From these humble beginnings, motocross found its stride when it landed on American shores. While the sport grew in size and popularity in its homeland, it truly took shape off-shore.
From the ingenious British scrambles, motocross racing transformed into the fast-paced, short-duration races we know today, officially sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association as early as 1959.
The proliferation of motocross racing in the US made for thrilling competitions with emerging international rivalries. The inaugural stadium motocross race unfolded in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on July 8, 1972. But while the 125cc World Championship debuted during this time, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the US started clinching victories in international competitions.
These spirited racing events (among other influences) pushed further innovation in motocross racing and motorcycle design. In its earlier years, MX bikes were virtually no different from their road-going counterparts. But with the introduction of the liquid cooling systems and rear mono-shock suspension, distinct traits eventually took shape, ultimately distinguishing motocross racing from other two-wheeled disciplines.
Two of the biggest misconceptions about motocross and motocross racing are that MX bikes are the same as regular motorcycles and that the sport is exclusively for extreme athletes. Both of these statements are untrue — and today’s guide is a perfect opportunity to clarify these notions.
While motocross racing requires skill and athleticism, it isn’t exclusive to extreme or professional athletes. In truth, riders of various skill levels, including amateur and recreational enthusiasts, enjoy motocross. Furthermore, motocross tracks often have different skill sections that allow riders to choose areas matching their off-roading adeptness and racing proficiency.
As for MX bikes being no different from regular two-wheelers, this notion cannot be further from reality. Motocross bikes are purpose-built for off-road racing, often with specialized suspension, high ground clearance, and aggressive tire treads (inclusions typically non-existent in standard commuter bikes). Hence, they differ significantly from street-legal motorcycles since they’re optimized for the demands of off-road racing.
Motocross vs. Cross-Country
To further understand what motocross and motocross racing truly are, it makes sense to put them against other off-road motorcycling sports they’re commonly confused with. Among these is cross-country or XC racing.
Although both are two-wheeled sports, the primary differences between motocross and cross-country racing lie in the nature of the tracks, the types of motorcycles used, and the specific requirements of each discipline:
Nature of Racing
Motocross racing occurs on enclosed, short, off-road tracks with various jumps, turns, and obstacles, typically in a series of laps around a designated motocross circuit.
On the other hand, cross-country or XC racing involves longer, more endurance-focused races. The latter requires riders to cover more extended distances and navigate natural obstacles and challenging landscapes.
MX tracks are purposefully designed with jumps, berms, and other technical features to challenge riders’ skills and agility. The emphasis is on short, intense laps.
Meanwhile, cross-country courses are more expansive and diverse, incorporating natural elements like hills, forests, and fields. These tracks test a rider’s endurance, navigation, and off-road riding abilities.
Motocross bikes are typically designed for quick bursts of power, agility, and maneuverability. They are optimized for the demands of short, intense races on motocross tracks.
Conversely, XC bikes have specifications tailored for endurance racing. They often feature electric starters for convenience during longer races. Their transmission options may also be configured to handle varied terrains encountered during cross-country courses.
Motocross vs. Enduro Racing
Points similar to the above can be said when comparing MX and Enduro racing. The items below specifically detail the notable differences between these two disciplines:
Race Format and Timekeeping
While motocross races emphasize quick, intense competition (with races usually lasting for a shorter duration), Enduro races are endurance-focused (like cross-country racing). These events cover longer distances, often conducted over several hours or even days. Riders navigate through a series of timed special stages interspersed with liaison or transfer sections. The cumulative time across all stages determines the overall standings.
As established earlier, the design of motocross tracks is more intentional than that of other off-road motorcycling disciplines. MX tracks are compact, purpose-built, and feature specific technical elements that challenge riders’ skills.
Conversely, Enduro courses cover a mix of natural terrains like hills, wooded trails, and open spaces, making them more expansive.
Given the nature of their races, motocross and Enduro bikes are purpose-built to match those conditions. Motocross bikes prioritize quick bursts of power and agility, often featuring high ground clearance and aggressive tire treads.
In contrast, Enduro bikes are designed for versatility and endurance, equipped with larger fuel tanks, electric starters, and a more balanced power delivery.
Motocross vs. Ice Racing
While motocross is typically associated with dirt tracks and off-road terrain, it isn’t commonly done in snowy conditions. Snow and ice can pose significant challenges and safety risks for riders. The slippery and unpredictable nature of snow can make it challenging to control the speed and direction of the motorcycle, leading to an increased risk of accidents and injuries.
However, specialized off-road motorcycle racing takes place in snowy conditions. One example is ice racing, where riders compete on frozen lakes or specially prepared ice tracks. These events often involve modified motorcycles with studded tires for better traction on the ice. They shouldn’t be confused with snowbiking (the hybrid design that takes after dirt bikes and snowmobiles).
The mods on a motocross bike like the Honda CR500 don’t change its fundamental classification. Environment-specific adaptations — such as adding studded tires or adjusting the suspension (view on Amazon) and other components to handle different surface conditions — make the motorcycle better suited for specific challenges and off-road applications.
Motocross vs. Dirt Biking
For various reasons, ‘motocross’ and ‘dirt biking’ are often used interchangeably. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that no clear distinction exists between the two. Instead, they shouldn’t be directly compared since dirt biking encompasses a variety of off-road riding activities, both competitive and recreational. Context greatly matters in the use of either term.
However, I’ll go with these definitions to simplify the difference in their connotations. Motocross is specifically associated with competitive racing in an organized and regulated setting, where riders navigate a designated course designed for racing.
Meanwhile, dirt biking can refer to a wide range of off-road activities — such as trail riding, adventure riding, or recreational riding in natural settings — that may or may not imply a rider’s participation in organized racing events.
Motocross Must-Dos and Must-Haves
Of the above comparisons, dirt biking and motocross racing have the most overlapping semblance — mainly because dirt biking is a broader term encompassing the latter both in the outward appearance of motorcycles used and their application.
For this reason, I’ve listed down previous articles on dirt biking that prove to be of great benefit, especially if you’re new to the sport. I’ve also added relevant off-roading topics that cover the following points (motocross-specific tips are discretionary):
- Repair, recovery, and safety kits
- Clothing and protective gear
- Driving tips and maneuvers
- General guidelines and maintenance
- How to Get Into Dirt Biking: Beginner’s Guide
- Dirt Bike Cornering Tips & Techniques: Master the Turn
- How Long Do Dirt Bikes Last? (& 15 Maintenance Tips)
- What Is Snowbiking? (Winter Sport Guide)
- Essential Tools & Gear for Off-Roading: Checklist
Recommended Features on MX Bikes
Having covered the kits, gear, tips, and maintenance essential for the sport, it’s time to delve into what makes a motocross bike. There are several key features and parameters required for these machines, but we’ll try to narrow them down to these essential requisites:
Motocross bikes need sufficient horsepower and torque for navigating obstacles and tackling varied terrain. Depending on the engine size and model, MX bikes for adult riders range from approximately 35—60 hp (25.7—44.1 kW) or more.
Adequate ground clearance is essential to navigate rough and uneven terrains without bottoming out or tipping over.
A heavy-duty suspension system with longer travel is critical for motocross racing. Since the sport involves navigating varied terrain (including jumps and uneven surfaces), having a high-quality suspension system is crucial for rider control, comfort, and performance.
Motocross bikes use specialized off-road tires for better grip on dirt and mud. These knobbies typically feature aggressive tread patterns, reinforced sidewalls, and compounds that balance traction and durability.
MX bikes need responsive and durable braking systems for maintaining control during landings and high-speed maneuvers.
Motorcycles used in motocross typically have sturdy frames to withstand the stresses of off-road racing. Frame composition generally is based on materials that provide strength, rigidity, and light weight, like aluminum alloy and steel frames (or a combination of both).
Terrain Management Systems (Manual)
While motocross bikes may not have specific modes, riders often manually adjust their settings based on the terrain they are riding on.
Skid Plates (view on Amazon) — Optional
These safety add-ons aren’t commonplace in motocross racing, as MX bikes are designed to avoid obstacles rather than plow through them.
Waterproofing — Optional
While some waterproofing measures may be in place, motocross bikes aren’t designed for water fording like certain off-road vehicles.
Trail Riding Compliance
Generally, MX motorcycles aren’t rated for this in the same way that off-road vehicles might be. The reason is that motocross bikes are designed and optimized for motocross tracks and racing environments. The terrain is more controlled, and the courses are designed for competitive racing.
Items #3 to #6 can be met with aftermarket parts. The first two, however, are decided during production. The last four are optional — contingent on specific needs (like protecting sensitive electricals from moisture and water encountered as slush or melting ice) or personal preferences.
In addition to the abovementioned features, here are other must-have considerations for an MX bike specific to motocross racing:
- Quick-change air filters
- Adjustable suspension settings
- High-quality, durable plastics and graphics
- Frame guards or protectors
- Handlebar grips specifically designed for motocross
- Quick-release fasteners for components like seat and side panels
- Engine mapping options
- Lighting system removal option (since daytime conditions are standard for motocross racing)
- Brake and clutch lever guards
- Chain adjusters
- Race-ready exhaust like JFG RACING Dirt Bike Slip-On Exhaust and Muffler Pipe Full Kit (view on Amazon)
- Traction control (select models)
If your motocross bike isn’t originally equipped with traction control, retrofitting it for this feature may not be straightforward. Traction control systems are complex electronic systems that often integrate with the bike’s engine management system.
There’s also the issue of compatibility. That said, consider OEM support or professional installation before attempting any aftermarket modifications.
Conclusion — Motocross: History & Overview
The evolution of motocross reflects the spirit of innovation, transforming from a British pastime to a global phenomenon. Its dynamic nature, characterized by adrenaline-pumping races and continuously evolving bike designs, continues to draw a passionate, avid following.
As the sport thrives in the motorcycling landscape, its legacy inspires riders to conquer dirt tracks and reach new heights in off-road racing.
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.