Block-chipping: The Smith name still ruling off-road
Next to the 91 Freeway in Riverside a huge 70,000sq feet building houses two floors of hundreds of bikes from all brands and high walls of apparel and parts. There is a distinct KTM section with a plethora of motorcycles covering almost the entire Austrian range. Upstairs off-road racing legend Malcolm Smith, 73 years old multi Baja rally and ISDT/E medal winner and star of the 1971 seminal ‘On Any Sunday’ movie, works in an office crowded with memorabilia and photos from a hugely influential career. Downstairs and towards the rear of the facility 28 year old son Alexander Smith smartly wears the ‘Malcolm Smith Motorsports’ black shirt in his role as manager of the Service Department.
While Malcolm presides over a successful business intrinsically built on the basis of his sporting achievements it is Alexander who is increasingly turning more heads, and his non-professional competitive urges reached a zenith last November when he conquered the prestigious Baja 1000; a perilous chase through the Baja Californian desert that his father won on six occasions.
Smith Senior was one of the first to race and import Husqvarnas into the USA back in the 1960s but he forged a strong link with KTM from the late 1980s. Into his 70s Malcolm still rides even though he admits that he’s out of the saddle in our visit due to a recent back operation. “I ride a 250 two-stroke now”, he says. “I switched from Huskys as soon as they were sold to Italy in 1987 and when those non-Swedish designs came out. I switched to KTM and haven’t changed. I raced a Greeves – which was my first sponsor – a wheelchair manufacturer that made a lawnmower that they called a motorcycle! Then I rode Huskys and then KTM, that’s all.”
“The difference from the bikes then and now is like night and day”, he continues. “If you look at the old bikes then there is two-three inches of travel. They had a lot of horsepower but only at the top rpm. The clutches did not work very well. People are spoiled now! You have a 220 pound motorcycle that starts at the touch of a button, six-speed transmission, nothing breaks … in the old days when I raced only 40% of the people would make it to the finish line.”
“To see KTM now…unbelievable. It went from bankrupt to booming. It is [through] the vision of the owner and a lot of dedicated employees. I remember thinking that they would never recover from bankruptcy and look at them now.”
Smith’s KTM dedication rubbed directly onto Alexander. “I’m a real orange bleeder and it is probably the single brand that I am most passionate about other than our own personal brands [MSR] here in the shop”, Smith Junior admits. “KTM is the brand I grew up with. I’ve never seriously ridden or raced another motorcycle. My Dad was riding for them and so KTM have always been there. We’ve been a KTM dealer since ‘day one’ and we’re the oldest in the United States. The business relationship with KTM USA and Austria has always been very close. I think that helped a lot and the fact that Dad was riding the bikes made me think ‘that must be cool’. When the 200cc two-stroke first came out that was my first real bike and it was always about two-strokes until about three or four years ago when I started riding four-strokes in the desert.”
Ah, the riding.
Alex has been part of the Smith business on a part-time basis in school and then full-time since graduating from college. Now after five years as Service Manager he’s about move into a new role learning about all aspects of running the company (“I’ll be a professional student for the next few months”). However he obviously knows how to win a race and has grown up around motorcycle competition; an environment that would surely see many people attempt to follow in their father’s footsteps. But it wasn’t a priority for Alex. “It was never really something I focussed on”, he says. “Racing and riding was something in addition to ‘normal life’. Something that I did when the business allowed and when I could. I would never call it a ‘career’.”
Was there a point when you could or would have considered it as a profession?
“No. Ever since I was a little boy I wanted to race motorcycles but also I knew it was something that I never wanted to do professionally. Growing up I was never really on a motorcycle that much. It was only when I was fourteen that I was riding one consistently, and on a bike that was mine! Before I was riding friends’ motorcycles or borrowing from somebody. It was only later that it became a bigger part of my life.”
Why was that?
“It wasn’t something that my Dad wished for me to do. I always was around motorcycles and at races but ‘two-and-two’ never went together and I didn’t start riding more until I was older. It got to a point where I said to my dad “I need a motorcycle” so we went and got one. Before that I never realised that I had to have one and my Dad never pushed it on me.”
This seems surprising. Especially with an expert like Malcolm in such close proximity. “He is a very good rider, very smooth, on the pegs and in control”, he assesses. “I was watching him out there and usually I don’t see that much because I’m riding as well but to see him sideways out of the corner and feet on the pegs … if he would have pursued it then I think he would have been really good at it.”
“You know, honestly, I didn’t want him to race, so I’m glad it worked out like that”, Malcolm continues. “He loves riding and did a really good job on the Baja 1000. He built the bike himself and had his friends giving pit support. It was 27 hours on the motorcycle and he got off for just four minutes when they changed the tyres.”
Why the aversion for Alex to race?
“The danger. I didn’t even want him to race the 1000 because I knew how many close calls I’d had. He wanted to do it so I supported him when he made up his mind.”
Would it have been harder or easier for him to race as a Pro as ‘Malcolm Smith’s son’?
“It would be hard to follow my fame, I guess, even though he is a better rider now than I ever was.”
“Yeah, the whole sport elevates. Every year you get faster guys who are stronger and better and that’s the way it goes. In the Olympics people are skiing faster … everything gets better and more competitive all the time.”
A young Malcolm Smith now would have moved with the times also …?
“Yes, maybe. I was very determined when I entered a race. I was a nice guy until the flag dropped. It was every man for himself. Don’t fall in front of me because I’m coming through! If you’re stuck in the mud then I’m using your bike for traction. The finish line and first place is my goal.”
Do you think Alex saw some of that when he was a kid?
“I think he might of. I really don’t know. One time I went to Hokkaido, an island north of Japan that is like New England, and rode a four day event on a KTM. The importer over there sponsored me to travel. I was a little older than fifty and the local TV station interviewed me and said I’d be the oldest rider to ever finish that race … if I could. I won it. Japanese riders are so polite. When they got stuck on the muddy hill then they’d all wait their turn whereas I just charged up, crashed through them and kept going. I am actually very relieved that Alexander is not racing professionally. You have to go awfully fast and hard now.”
Can you relate to your parents’ concerns when you were competing with Alex heading to the start lines?
“I think I do … but my mother never came to a motorcycle race. She never saw me ride. She would never admit that I was a motorcycle racer. She was a school teacher; very proud and proper. Then the movie ‘On Any Sunday’ came out and then she was ‘my son, the motorcycle racer…’! My father died when I was nineteen. He was about 99 years old at that time. My mother remarried and my stepfather was a big supporter. He came to the Baja 1000 with me and was my financial backer when I started in business. He loaned me the money and I had to pay a standing rate of interest and penalties for late payment. One time I asked him “Ray, why are you so mean to me sometimes?” and he said “I’m teaching you the real world” and he was right.”
The Baja 1000 was a momentous occasion for the Smiths even though it was clouded in tragedy with the accident and subsequent death of Kurt Caselli. The crash would sadly highlight the concerns Malcolm had over Alex participating across the Mexican soil. “The night before the race started I could not sleep thinking of the close calls I’d had”, Malcolm says. “Most of the really dangerous ones were through missing cars that were coming the other way, or missing animals that stand out from behind the bushes. You could be going down a narrow track at night at 75mph and a cow would just step out. You’d have to swerve to miss it and plough through the cactus and hold your breath. The first Baja 1000 I did I handed over the bike at the midpoint to the next rider and got in the sleeping bag to have some rest but I kept having nightmares about some of the near misses. There were three or four where I barely got out of the way of an oncoming car.”
“I was worried about Alexander”, he adds. “I sent him a text message, a big long lecture about what to do in the race. I wrote ‘Ride smart, love Dad’. He is a lot smarter rider than I ever was and I don’t think he takes many chances. My deal was always ‘do or die and win’ whereas he is more calculating. When it happens to someone like Kurt … I don’t care how good you are on a bike a tragedy like that can just happen. That many miles, that many blind rises and corners … .”
“Last year’s Baja was two very big extremes”, recounts Alex. “I didn’t hear about what had happened [with Caselli] until the day after the race. During the rally it was all things you’d expect: hard, tough, mentally draining. I was totally ‘done’ riding motorcycles at one point and I was only half way to the finish! There was all that exhaustion and fatigue but then crossing the finish line gave this whole different sensation: the elation and feeling of ‘I’ve done it’. The next day I woke up with this surreal realisation that I had won. It didn’t seem real and then the team told me about what had happened with Kurt and it goes from one extreme to the other. It was really tough.”
Now that Alexander has carved out his own piece of recognition what lies ahead? Can racing become more of a full-time occupation?
“I think winning a race like that means that there is always a reaction from the section of the motorcycle racing community that know how much of a serious deal it is. Although the people at KTM, especially over here, know that it is not what I want to do for a living.”
So you will basically remain a very fast hobbyist …?
“Exactly. I’m not looking for a contract or something like that.”
Just some trick motorcycles now and again …?
“Yeah! If they happen to have a KTM 450 RALLY lying around somewhere … ! I’m thinking of doing the Dakar in a couple of years so that would be great.”
“He’ll probably do the Dakar”, says Malcolm. “He did the Glen Helen 24 hour a couple of times before he won it. I’m just hoping that the KTM guys don’t call him to be on the off-road team. The speed that you have to go for the team to win is really risky. It is right on the edge. If you don’t get at that pace then you let the team down.”
Until that call for more potential rally glory comes Alexander will focus on the other half of being a successful Smith, principally as a businessman. As the sun dips and bounces off the windows of the magnificent building in Riverside it seems he has the dream job for any motorcyclist. “It is definitely a candy store”, Alex grins. “We have a fairly strict demo policy here and it applies to everyone including myself. I have maybe a few more demos than other people … ! I am fortunate. We went to the Husky demo recently and I rode the TC125 and I hadn’t spent that much time on a 125cc bike but I really liked it. So I think one of those will end up in the garage in a couple of weeks.”