On Any Sunday stars (left to right) Steve McQueen, Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith, the
Close your eyes and you can hear the theme song: On Any Sunday, stretching up, reaching high, leaving my Monday world behind…
And when you do close your eyes and hear that song, what scene plays across your internal movie screen? Mert Lawwill broadsliding a Harley-Davidson XR-750 on the Mile? Steve McQueen masquerading as Harvey Mushman at the Elsinore Grand Prix? JN Roberts dodging Mojave Desert puckerbushes? Freckle-faced Jeff Ward wheelying a Honda Z50? Or is it Malcolm Smith blasting across Baja on a red-and-chrome Husqvarna? Each of these is among the most iconic—and enduring—images in all of motorcycling.
Choosing a Motorcyclist of the Century was infinitely more difficult than choosing a Motorcycle of the Century. For the motorcycle, we only had to consider each model. But for the motorcyclist, we had to consider every single person who ever threw a leg over a bike.
For the better part of a year we conducted surveys, formal and informal, and almost to a man, everyone we asked said something about On Any Sunday. Bruce Brown’s Academy Award-nominated documentary film introduced a whole generation to motorcycling, and continues to do so today, 40 years after its 1971 release.
That movie had a few “stars,” but only one of them was an actor. In terms of box-office appeal, Steve McQueen was the Tom Cruise of his day (only taller, and cooler), and it terrified movie moguls that he spent his weekends risking life and limb racing motocross. Who better, then, to star in (and fund) a movie about motorcycling? Mert Lawwill was the defending AMA Grand National Champion. His derring-do on a dirt-tracker and roadracer was something to behold. Either one of these riders, or filmmaker Bruce Brown himself, would have been a fitting Motorcyclist of the Century, and truth be told, we thought of honoring the entire ensemble.
But there was one name that was mentioned more often than all the rest, and that name was Malcolm Smith. Then as now owner of Malcolm Smith Motorsports in Riverside, California, Malcolm was a successful racer in the 1960s and ’70s, but he wasn’t a professional racer. Sure, the scenes in On Any Sunday of him winning the Mexican 1000 and the Elsinore Grand Prix, and earning a gold medal at the International Six Day Trials in El Escorial, Spain, painted a portrait of a Pro racer. But Malcolm never chased points; he simply competed in whichever events he thought would be the most challenging, and the most fun. More than anything, it was Malcolm’s ear-to-ear grin that endeared him to viewers, and made them (meaning us) want to ride motorcycles. Couple that with the fact that he still owns one of the largest dealerships in Southern California—stop in for a tour of the museum upstairs—and Malcolm may be responsible for putting more people on motorcycles than anyone else.
Malcolm never really retired from racing; in fact, he competed in the 60-plus class at the resurrected Catalina Grand Prix in 2010. Now 70, he still leads shop dual-sport rides, including an annual trek to Baja that raises money for the El Oasis orphanage at Valle Trinidad. And he’s a tireless supporter of off-road riding. When the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s “Lead Law” effectively banned sales of youth motorcycles, Malcolm made headlines by breaking the law to sell mini-bikes to Jeff Ward and Troy Lee for their sons to ride. More recently, he garnered positive press for motorcycling by announcing his plans to run for president as the “ride-in” candidate. His tongue-in-cheek campaign slogan: “Four more gears!”
There were numerous contenders, but in the end, our quest to name a Motorcyclist of the Century was like that scene on Lake Chapala in On Any Sunday: Malcolm Smith, all alone out front, trailing a dust cloud behind him. And casting the longest shadow of any motorcyclist in history.
Malcolm Smith: Motorcyclist magazine's Motorcyclist of the Century!