The Original Supercross Champ

Forty years after winning the inaugural AMA Supercross crown, Pierre Karsmakers came to Anaheim to see how things have changed.

Pierre Karsmakers headshot

One might reasonably assume that when Pierre Karsmakers lined up behind the Daytona start gate on March 9, 1974, for round 1 of the first-ever AMA Supercross championship, he had no idea the nascent sport would grow into the spectacle it has become 40 years later. Amazingly, he says that’s not the case. In fact, Karsmakers had seen the writing on the wall at the same site a year earlier, during an early, non-championship supercross event.

“Of course, at Daytona, there were always a lot of people,” Karsmakers recalls, “and the first time somebody passed each other in the race, I heard the spectators. I thought, ‘Wow! This is super! This is going to grow in America for sure.’ And it happened! I’ll never forget that.”

Over the years, AMA Supercross has attracted many top riders from outside its borders, and Karsmakers was an early example. Prior to coming to the U.S., the Dutchman had won three national titles in his home country, as well as a number of big, international races, but he still lacked a factory GP contract. He came to America for the ’72 Trans-AMA Series, and with European riders still outperforming their American counterparts, Yamaha hired him to spearhead its U.S. effort and to share his training secrets with younger riders.

“It was just a matter of not being recognized in Europe,” Karsmakers says. “All the contracts were going to the Belgians—Roger De Coster, Joel Robert, Sylvain Geboers. I had beat them many times, so I didn’t think that was correct.”

Karsmakers repaid Yamaha by earning the ’73 AMA 500cc National MX title. At that time, there was still no official AMA Supercross series, but the sport was nonetheless gaining momentum, thanks to Michael Goodwin’s original ’72 Super Bowl of Motocross in the Los Angeles Coliseum, as well as other one-off events. For 1974, a three-round “Yamaha Super Series” was born, and Karsmakers was ready.

AMA Supercross race action shot

“Supercross races are more like sprints,” he explains now. “You have to leave the start gate at 100 percent and stay 100 percent committed until the checkered flag. That’s different from outdoors, where the races last longer, and they’re hotter or muddier. We were trained very well physically, but we had to conserve our energy during the race to be able to make the difference in the last 10 minutes. With supercross, you can’t do that. You have to go full-on, and you have to have really quick reflexes. I knew that I had to adjust my training by doing more intervals, rather than endurance training.”

His plan worked, and Karsmakers took the win at the Daytona opener, following it up with a runner-up finish in Houston and a fourth-place result in Los Angeles to earn the 250cc title (Gary Semics won the 500cc crown, which would be discontinued after two years).

Karsmakers switched to Honda the following year, and although that historic '74 SX championship would be his final crown, the Dutchman did win several more AMA outdoor races before retiring from racing after the '79 season, at age 34, and returning home. He has fond memories of his US adventure. "I loved being in America," Karsmakers says. "I loved the atmosphere, and I was treated very well by Yamaha and Honda."

Still very fit, Karsmakers currently resides in Belgium and regularly rides trails and enduros all over Europe. He still follows supercross, so he was pleased to hear from Feld Motorsports when the current AMA Supercross promoter commemorated the series’ 40th anniversary by inviting all of the past 22 champions to attend the third round of 2014, at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, on Saturday. During the day, the veterans signed autographs for an extremely long line of fans at Alex Moroz’s Legends & Heroes of Supercross rig, and they were presented on stage during the opening ceremonies.

Ryan Villopoto salutes 1974 500 and 250cc champs Gary Semics and Karsmakers

Past and present: Reigning AMA Supercross Champion Ryan Villopoto salutes ’74 500 and 250cc champs Gary Semics (left) and Karsmakers.

Obviously, the sport has changed a lot in 40 years. “The biggest difference is that the factories are more involved,” Karsmakers notes. “They have bigger teams, the money is probably bigger—at least that’s the way it looks!—and the riders are prepared physically very, very well. They have trainers, masseurs, physiotherapists, and they know how to eat. We didn’t have that in our times; we didn’t know, so we had to do it ourselves.”

Appropriately, considering the important guests, that evening featured some of the best racing the sport has ever enjoyed, with Ryan Dungey, Ryan Villopoto, James Stewart, Ken Roczen, and Chad Reed all battling hard throughout the main event. On several occasions, the large crowd was on its feet, cheering loudly, particularly when Reed (who will turn 32 in two months) took the checkered flag, having worked his way up from sixth on lap 1 to earn his first victory in two years.

As he watched from a suite, high above the stadium floor, AMA Supercross racing’s original champion was impressed, but he wasn’t surprised.

Pierre Karsmakers signs autographs in the Anaheim pits. The Legends & Heroes of Supercross event drew a large number of spectators.

Past and present: Reigning AMA Supercross Champion Ryan Villopoto salutes ?74 500 and 250cc champs Gary Semics (left) and Karsmakers.

As evidenced by the main event at Anaheim II, the 2014 iteration of AMA Supercross is quite spectacular, but as Karsmakers notes, it was already impressive 40 years ago.