You’re probably the most famous guy in off-road motorcycling, but I don’t think most people realize that you are part Canadian.
I was born in Canada, British Columbia, and I have dual citizenship because I was born in Canada. My mother was a U.S citizen. I never needed a passport or anything until I went to the Six Days for the first time, and then I needed to prove my citizenship. It was actually kind of difficult, but I found a record where my dad, a Scotsman, had served on the Grand Jury in Alaska before it was a state, just a territory, so that qualified him as a citizen even though he was a Scotsman. They said he couldn’t have been on the Grand Jury unless he was a citizen. So I snuck in but I had to argue a bit.
And you still get up to Canada quite regularly?
I love it. I love that area, British Columbia. We went up there this summer, five of us with 68mph Sea-Doos, and went ten days north and went up all the inlets. A friend of mine had a boat, a big yacht, but all my kids and my wife had their own Sea-Doos. Kind of like a big family trail ride. I didn’t realize how much gas cost in Canada…we went through a lot of fuel…
Do you spend a lot of time on the water?
We have a house in Mexico, in Baja California, and we have Sea-Doos down there and go up and down the coast. I have stand-up watercraft too, and we race them up the rivers. I love them in the rapids…it’s like the jumps keep changing shape as you come up to them…the track never stays the same and it’s hard to time it. It can be really mellow and then by the time you get to it it’s a big hump.
Is that love of water sports what connected you to Bruce Brown [director of ‘On any Sunday’, ‘Endless Summer’ and tons of other classic surfing films] in the first place?
No, Bruce had a motorcycle. All the surfing guys in Dana Point and Laguna Beach and Newport Beach bought dirt bikes because they were a lot like surfing. Bruce was one of them, and I did all the work on his bike and on Steve McQueen’s bike.
Did you start your career as a mechanic?
No, I was a floor sweeper first. I had an old English bike, a Matchless, and I had no money. To keep it running I would raid the trash cans of the motorcycle dealerships in San Bernadino California, and one dealer got tired of seeing me in his trash can and hired me as a sweep up boy. I washed floors for a long time.
Back when you were pushing a mop did you ever dream of what you’ve become?
I’ve just built a new building, right next door to the old one. I took seven houses down to make room. It’s right on the freeway and the building is 35 feet tall. In my wildest dreams I never dreamt of this! I was in college when I decided to quit and go to work at a motorcycle dealership. My parents hit the roof, said I was going to starve.
You’ve obviously got lots of business sense…or else some really smart friends or family that helped you out…
The first guy I worked for was an old board track racer, and when I met him he was about 75 years old and had a wooden leg. He’d lost his leg in a board track accident, and I was always very curious how the business ran and how he made a profit. One time I saw an invoice for some parts and I said ‘You’re doubling you money! How can you be such a crook?’ He sat me down and said ‘Ok, I bought that for ten dollars, and it cost me 2 dollars for rent and a dollar for electricity…’ He added it all up and said out of that ten dollars I get to keep a dollar of it. He was a big help.
I had a Chinese stepfather that loaned me the money to get started. He was a real numbers guy, and he would sit down with me and help me learn how to make money. Both of them said, ‘Always pay for what you get, don’t cheat anybody, treat everyone like you want to be treated, and you’ll be successful.’ It’s not always an easy thing to do, but it works…
Do you get a lot of pressure to race some vintage events?
I get a lot of calls but I’m not interested in riding an old bike. Once you ride a new bike and get used to it, it becomes hard to see a third gear jump and just roll over it on an old bike. I have a 1981 430 Husky that we built for Pikes Peak, and it won’t run below 3000 feet. I take that out once in a while, and if I haven’t ridden a new bike for awhile it feels pretty good. The brakes aren’t there and the suspension is lacking, but the motor and gearbox are great.
How do you feel the industry, compared to 1970 or 1980, has progressed? Is it scary at all?
The bikes are so much better; the business is so much better. It’s more competitive, but there is more business out there. What scares me now are all these sub-quality bikes that are coming in from China. They will make good motorcycles later, I know they will, but right now they are alienating so many customers. They get these bikes, they break down, and they can’t get parts. They buy their kids a bike, it runs a day or two then it quits and they can’t get parts. They might not realize it, but if they bought a Honda or Yamaha or Kawasaki or Suzuki minibike it’d be running a year from now, and you can sell it easily for close to what you paid for it.
What do you think will be the next big thing in motocross development? Something like the automatic clutch?
I have one on my 400 and it works great, with a rear brake lever on the bars where the clutch used to be. I don’t think it’d be good for motocross though, where you need that instant snap. I think fuel injection and electronic damping controls on suspension will be the next step.
Do you think all the thumpers will take away the ‘son and dad’ aspect of the sport, since so many guys are afraid to work on them?
If you go to a lot of motorcycle dealerships you’ll find a pile of 250 four-strokes out back, blown up. If it was a two-stroke dad could fix it. I think the rising costs are a bad deal.
Are you fussy about what you ride these days?
Oh yeah. The older I get the more perfect the bike has to be. The clutch has to be perfect, carburetion perfect…I used to ride any old hunk of junk but now the steering head bearing has to be adjusted just right…(laughs) You’re ability isn’t there so the bike has to make up for it.
What’s your favourite bike now?
I have a 400 KTM EXC…I like that. I love the 200 too, and the 125 runs just about as good as the 200 for torque. For KTM, the two-strokes, especially the 300 and 250, have made a comeback. I love the lightweight…the 200 just feels like a mountain bike with a motor in it. We bought all the Husqvarna TC450’s, the motocross ones, they had left and sold 57 of them in two weeks. They’re real good too.
The situation in California with land use is famous, but we run into the same problems in Canada and hardly anyone even lives here…
I think noise is a negative step. For sure two-strokes are a little bit loud but it doesn’t carry very far. In know in Canada a couple years ago the Canadian models had bigger, longer mufflers than we did in the ‘States, European spec. That’s how it ought to be in the ‘States, or even lower than that. I’m a snowmobiler too, and snowmobiles are quiet now but are still really fast.
You think the noise is part of marketing?
When a kid hears a 450 rip through the gears they have to have it, because they think it sounds cool. Actually, it does sound kind of cool…to me at least, but not my neighbours.
I think you could make it loud enough to be exciting and quiet enough that it wouldn’t piss everybody off.
How would you like to see the sport progress, in your perfect world?
Less kids hurt. Less supercross style tracks and more European style tracks. I’m old fashioned or something, but I’d rather not see kids exposed to things pros are afraid of. Vets are getting hurt or paralyzed. Once the top guy clears that big jump everybody is expected to do it. Big jumps are ok, just fill in the gaps between them. What if you blow a shift or a master link breaks? No margin of error.
Do you still do the industry trail rides?
Yes, we’re doing one in West Virginia, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico.
And you’ve done them in Canada in the past as well?
We used to do them with Motovan near Quebec City or Montreal, Kamloops B.C, the Vancouver area.
You’ve raced all over the world. Is there one spot that is your favourite place to ride?
I think the best bike riding is Williams Lake, British Columbia. We had a ride up there and the forest is very rocky but not so thick that you can’t ride between the trees and make your own trail. We had a ride up there about three years ago.
Sunday, 20 May 2012 20:18
The Vault: Malcolm SmithPosted by Suzanne Howie
The Vault is a series of stories that have been published over Inside MotoX & Off Road's ten year history. This story was originally printed in Volume 5 Issue 2 from July/August 2006.
Legends of Motocross
The Canadian Connection
Into the life of MSR forefather Malcolm Smith
By IMX Staff
The documentary ‘On any Sunday’ made him famous worldwide, and his exploits at the ISDE [International Six Day Enduro] and Baja 1000 have made him the living legend of off-road racing. For the record, Malcolm Smith holds eight ISDE gold medals and six Baja 1000 victories (three times in a dune-buggy!) along with a win or two at just about any other off-road race you can name. You probably wear his MSR brand riding gear. You may have even heard rumblings that Smith, the guy with the biggest smile in dirtbikedom, was at least part Canadian.Last modified on Wednesday, 23 May 2012 13:21
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Published in Feature Stories