On Any Sunday
There is a saying: “There are old racers and bold racers, but no old, bold racers.” It may be difficult to grasp now that they’ve had 45 years to establish themselves as otherwise, but in 1967 Malcolm Smith and JN Roberts were both more than a little bold.
The pair has beaten the odds, and they know it. “I can’t believe I lived through being young and racing in the desert,” says Malcolm. “I’d put my Greeves in fourth [high] gear and just hold it wide-open without ever letting off. The bike would be swapping sideways and kicking, so I just held on. I was so out-of-control that my boots put dents in the gas tank! Sometimes I’d fall, but most of the time I’d get through somehow.”
At the time, AMA District 37 Hare & Hounds were extremely important for motorcycle makers to advertise their riders’ wins. This was before motocross came to the USA, and with the magazines all based in Southern California, these “local” races were national news. Some desert racers were better known than all but the AMA Grand National Championship contenders!
With literally thousands of entrants sitting on starting lines, becoming a regular winner was tough work, but it had its rewards. Being young and fast with a competitive drive to win put Malcolm and JN in the right place at the right time. Connecting early with Edison Dye and his new-to-the-USA Husqvarna brand was the right move. In fact, switching to the Swedish bikes was the first step on the path to becoming racing legends.
Neither Malcolm nor JN won a H&H overall before getting on a Husky. In ’66 Malcolm won his first, while JN was running near the front on an outclassed 250cc Honda twin. The next year, JN won his first—and 10 in a row, a record that still stands today. Later that year the pair bolted down a place in history when they teamed up to win the inaugural Baja 1000.
Their desert-racing acumen and that Baja performance eventually earned both riders significant roles in On Any Sunday. Both were able to transform the elusive currency of fame into careers and lasting financial stability. In JN’s case, the switch to Husqvarna ignited a bonfire of race wins that made him the acknowledged King of the Desert. He eventually notched 33 overall wins and one #1 plate. His win record is second only to fellow Husqvarna alumnus Dan Smith. JN’s racing took off in ’67, but by ’69 he had begun doing movie stunts, and by ’73 he was largely out of racing and concentrating on his new career.
For decades JN was in demand as a stuntman and, sometimes, an actor, but after a heavy work schedule on Tom Cruise’s NASCAR flick Days of Thunder, he was ready to start dialing things back. He relocated to his current 1400-acre working ranch near Helena, Montana. There he has an 18-mile trail loop, but these days he rides more motocross, so he also has a 2.2-mile MX course complete with dirt ramps that let him fly over the multiple barb-wire fences.
Perhaps because of On Any Sunday, Malcolm is known as a desert racer as well. “I was working quite a lot,” says the owner of Malcolm Smith Motorsports, “so for me racing was one or two times a month. If it sounded like a good course, then I would race. Other weekends I’d go hiking or enjoy other activities. I never chased points.” He even had to make the choice between racing motocross GPs in Europe and remaining in the USA. Making family a priority, he let potential motocross stardom go untested.
As the owner of first a repair shop and then a dealership, Malcolm the racer was quick to recognize products that would appeal to the American market while his business instincts led him to brand and distribute them. While growing his dealership, Malcolm nurtured Malcolm Smith Gold Medal Products into Malcolm Smith Racing. Eventually he sold the distribution company, but he continues to work on products for the MSR brand while growing his multi-line mega-dealership. He still loves to ride off-road, and follows his old habit: race when it sounds like fun at events like the resurrected Catalina GP and the Pikes Peak Hillclimb. Unlike JN, MS stays far away from MX tracks nowadays, and while he still loves riding in Baja, his favorite trails require first or second gear rather than sixth.
While their careers separated them for many years, the duo reconnected through motocross star Goat Breker’s resurrection of the Elsinore GP. They then went on to be part of two more motorcycle movies: Dust to Glory in ’05 and Full Circle, The Legend Lives On in ’08, where they again teamed up to compete in the Baja 1000.
Baja is a special place for the riders and racers who have competed there, and in ’95 Malcolm found a way to give back to the local community through the creation of a foundation that supports children in the area. Nearly all Baja rides and races pass through Valle de Trinidad, a farming community between Ensenada and San Felipe. Now it is also home to the El Oasis orphanage, serving under-privileged children from the streets of Tijuana and Ensenada.
It was only natural that JN should want to do his part to support these children and his old riding partner. So when Jim Filanc of Racing For Life asked JN if he could use his ranch to host a fundraising ride, JN was more than happy to comply. The first event was held in 2010, and it returned bigger and better for ’11. A group of 20 riders donated $1000 each to El Oasis and paid all of their expenses for the chance to ride with Malcolm and JN. The 2011 event was a true classic, as it coincided with the pair’s 70th birthdays and the 40th anniversary of On Any Sunday.
After riding with this pair of legends, it's easy to see why riders are more than willing to pay for the privilege. Malcolm is as fun and unassuming as his screen presence led us all to believe. JN is an extremely gracious host, and opened his garage and his ranch to the riders gathered for the ride. Yet today, MS and JN have styles as different as they did in the ’60s. Despite welcoming everyone with open arms, JN rode sweep on the morning loop, rather than dicing with the leaders at the front. After that, he spent time enjoying the company of friends and family and playing host to his guests. During dinner and a celebrity auction and awards ceremony, he was at ease with the microphone, but just as ready to stand back and shoot video of the proceedings.
Like all riders of my generation, I had read a great deal about JN, but my off-road beginnings were in motocross at roughly the same time JN was winding down his desert racing. Plus, he gets credit for saving my butt in the early ’90s when I encountered anti-freeze in a Topanga Canyon corner. A magazine story in which he demonstrated how to crash a streetbike came back to me as my life passed before my eyes, and his tips really worked! Lately he has been getting some old injuries tuned-up with surgery, and he wasn’t at full fitness yet, but you wouldn’t have known it. His recent MX experience has paid off, and his riding style isn’t old-guy, but fully new-age—even over jumps. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was a kid!
Malcolm, on the other hand, has physical limitations that make him look less spry. At times, depending on flare-ups, the way he walks makes you wonder if he will be able to ride at all. But while Malcolm may not mount a tall motorcycle as effortlessly as he once did, he remains the Real Deal on board. He was right at the head of the ride, having fun with the trail leader on every outing. It isn’t that he feels the need to prove anything; he just wants to enjoy riding—and that means at his pace, out of the dust and where those paying for the ride can come up and join the fun to get their money’s worth. The tighter and more technical the trail, the more proof there is that in his prime, Malcolm was one very quick and talented racer. He may not have chased points, but he easily could have—and to good effect.
Off the bike, Malcolm is a fabulous storyteller with a quiverful of tall-but-true tales that will curl a listener’s toes. At the same time, he is attentive to all with the ease and grace of a man with many decades of success in the retail business. And through it all, his famous ear-to-ear grin is prevalent.
In the end, the Malcolm Smith Motorsports Foundation (www.malcolmsmithmotorsports foundation.org_) and Racing For Life (_www.racingforlife.org_) raised $24,000 for El Oasis. Along the way, a group of dirt-riding diehards had their chance to ride with these old, bold legends. And if they were able to follow closely enough, to hear the _On Any Sunday theme song playing in their heads.