40 Years of Women's MX
If you’ve been following motocross for a while, names like Windham, Villopoto, Tortelli, Roczen, McGrath, and Langston all bring to mind legendary races, killer comebacks, and top-level riding. But if we mention the names Fiolek, Golden, Fish, Gonzales, or Akin, would the same images come to mind?
Head out to any motocross track across the country or for that matter the world, and you’re likely to find a lot more female riders than there were, say, 10 years ago. However, in truth, women have been notably racing motorcycles of all kinds as far back as the 1920s. And although their presence isn’t as strongly felt like that of their male counterparts in areas like sales and demographics, that doesn’t detract from a rich and proud history that has steadily been gaining momentum over the last several decades.
The Once and Future Queens
I had the chance to attend the 40 Years of Women’s Motocross celebration at Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernardino, CA. The event, which was put together and sponsored by CALVMX and Women’s MX History, was filled with legends like Mary McGee, Lisa Akin, and Mercedes Gonzales, along with modern riders including Jolene Van Vugt, Steffi Laier, and Sayaka Kaneshiro. The day’s events, which included various class races, a Legends and Heroes display (with autograph signing), videos compiling forty years of race footage, and a commemorative awards ceremony, were all organized to honor past champions as well as to showcase the new talent that is currently making history in Women’s MX.
I had the chance to speak with many women at the event including Women’s Motocross Association (WMA) founder, Miki Keller. Keller not only helped organize the event but also ran the Women’s Nationals from 2000 to 2008 and brought Women’s Supercross to The X Games. “We can trace this event back to the first women’s motocross national race which was held in 1974 at Indian Dunes in California and was won by Nancy Pane. Looking around today it’s great to see so many people come out and show their support for the sport. Women provide a healthy boost to the motocross market and participation from women in the sport continues to grow year after year."
Mercedes Gonzalez, Sue Fish, & Carey Steiner
I also had the pleasure of sitting down for a small Q/A with the super friendly multi-national champ and Women’s MX racing pioneer, Sue Fish. A 2012 inductee into the AMA’s Motorcycle Hall of Fame, Fish was one of the first women to hold an AMA racing license. Dubbed “The Flying Fish,” Sue also doubled for Linda Hamilton in The Terminator and exhibited with world-famous stunt rider Evel Knievel.
[TR] How important is it to continually encourage women to get out and ride, and what are some steps the motorsports industry could take to do so?
[SF] I believe women are absolutely the most important demographic out there right now in motorcycling and MX and will be for a while. There’s no reason that [the industry] can’t and shouldn’t be doing all we can to help out. We’re definitely going to need a lot more publicity, and female athletes getting paid what they’re worth is a big issue right now. There needs to be a women’s union that can go out and speak for a lot of these girls because, with the riders’ schedules of training and racing, they just don’t have time to do it themselves. Women need to grab every opportunity that they can…you can’t wait for a company or industry to recognize your needs; you have to speak up and make your voice heard. There’s so much more opportunity now than what we had when I was coming up and you can’t be afraid to just go for it.
[TR] How has motocross changed since you first started racing?
[SF] In general it’s a lot different from when I first started. We were all in it because we absolutely just loved to ride and I think that has to be your motivating factor, not fame or endorsement deals. It’s become very corporate and with the TV sponsorship and extreme sports really being pushed, I see a lot of parents taking their children out of school into homeschooling and trying to mold them into the next who’s who. I personally don’t think it’s the right thing to do.
[TR] What do you think of the current talent in Women’s MX?
[SF] I love seeing Vicki Golden out there making a name for herself and it was such a pleasure today to see Steffi Laier along with Sayaka Kineshiro just ripping it up. They’re on a skill level now that’s so high and fast you can’t tell if it’s a guy or a girl until you’re riding right next to them. The talent coming up now is only going to get better and who knows what you’ll see in the next five years. I bet it’s going to be amazing.
[TR] Now that you are retired, how active are you in the motorcycling community?
[SF] Well sadly I’m nowhere near what I used to be with all my surgeries (she laughs), but I do have a street bike which I love to ride—my Honda VFR800—and I do a lot of cycling and mountain biking where I live in Santa Barbara. I really can’t ride dirt like I used to but I still stay as active as I can.
[TR] If you could offer any advice to young racers what would it be?
[SF] If it’s something that they really want to do, they’re going to have to live, breathe, eat, and sleep it; what makes you a success is that you have a genuine passion for it. It’s great to go out and practice with your friends on the weekend but really making it takes a lot of hard work and dedication. It’s really about enjoying the journey, the more you train and race you start to realize winning is a great feeling but the podium isn’t the end result. The journey is the most fun because the trip that it takes to get to the top of the podium is what makes it worth it and what feeds your soul.
Attending an event like the 40 Years of Women’s MX Celebration really makes you aware of the number of fans, both riders, and non-riders, who came out to show their support for the growing number of female competitors. Hundreds eagerly waited to meet their heroes of the past and to welcome the new blood who will undoubtedly take their place at the autograph table when it comes time for the 60 Years of Women’s MX event.
Recently there have been some dark clouds surrounding the future path of Women’s National racing and where it is headed on a professional level. However, more than anything else, the problem continues to be a numbers game. At the end of the day the more women who get out and ride, the bigger the sport becomes. The more the sport grows the more attention it receives, and sooner or later the swell of voices becomes too big to be ignored. So if you’re a girl and thinking about whether or not you should try your hand at riding or racing, take the advice of our favorite 77-year-old Women’s MX pioneer, Mary McGee. “Just get out and do it! Take a motorcycle safety training course, get the right gear, and just go for it. Chances are you'll find out it's a lot more fun than you can imagine and at the end of the day it doesn't matter how fast you go, or if you win or lose, it will add to your life in the best of ways."
Check out my video and photo gallery below for some highlights of the day’s action. For more info on women’s racing heritage, current racing events, or if you just want to ride in SoCal, visit one of the following links: Women’s MX History, AMA Amateur National Motorcross Championship, CALVMX.
Top Row From Left: Carey Steiner, Tania Satchwell, Jolene Van Vugt, Bonnie Warch
Middle Row: Kaitlyn Morrow, Kristy Shealy, Dee Wood, Sue Fish, Mercedes Gonzalez, Dede Cates, Steffi Laier, Mary McGee
Bottom Row: Lisa Akin Wagner, Miki Keller, Tami Greenhill