Beginner's Guide to Motocross: Part One
Getting started in motocross can be intimidating for beginner dirt bike riders, but if you don't own a piece of property or have some trails nearby, the motocross track may be your only option to get some seat time and learn how to ride a dirt bike. Thousands and thousands of riders were once beginners and felt just as unnerved as you might be feeling, but riding on a motocross track isn't as daunting as it may seem at first glance. Here are a few tips to help you get started. *Note - this article covers the basics of getting started on the motocross track as they pertain to an open practice day, but doesn't go into the classes, scoring, or rules of actual motocross racing. We'll cover that in a separate article.
Open practice vs. Race day:
Most motocross tracks offer open practice days, and as the name suggests, it's a time for riders to ride the track for practice, not to race. There's no race gate, no scoring, and no points awarded. The number of open practice days depends on the size of the track and number of riders in the area. There are thousands of motocross tracks across the country and although most tracks follow AMA (American Motorcycle Association) guidelines, there's no one set of universal rules so you need to find out what the rules are at your local track. Motocross people are very nice and were once a beginner rider themselves, so if you're not sure of something - ask!!
You don't need to be told that helmets are mandatory. The dirt is going to be flying everywhere so goggles should be at the top of your safety gear list along with gloves, especially if there's a chance of inclement weather which will turn the track into a mud pit. If you've been riding in work boots, you need to find out if they're allowed at your track. The AMA's only rule pertaining to boots is that they need to be steel-toed and at least 8" tall, with a combination of buckles and/or laces, but it's the track owner who's liable and is the one who has to pay the insurance premium, so check to see if they require motocross boots. Motocross boots aren't that expensive and if you need some suggestions you can read our Entry-Level Motocross Boots article. Chest protectors, neck braces, and knee braces round out the safety gear arsenal and it's up to you and your wallet to decide what other MX gear to buy beyond the basics.
For those with no experience riding a dirt bike or who haven't yet mastered the basics of riding (clutching, shifting, braking, and riding while standing), or who might feel very intimidated by the other riders flying by on the track, it's a good idea to attend a motocross school. You need to be able to control the bike to avoid causing an accident or becoming one yourself. There are hundreds of dirt bike schools for adults across America so search for motocross school [your State] to see what's available, or try searching for motocross club [your State]. At the very least, practice riding a mountain bike on some technical trails to get more comfortable standing, leaning, and keeping your head up.
You need to know what the various motocross flags mean even though you won't see all of them on an open practice day. You can read our Motocross Flags article in you need more info. The flags you'll probably see during an open practice are the checkered flag to let you know when practice sessions are over, the yellow flags will indicate there's an obstruction on the track and you need to slow down, and a white flag with a red cross indicates EMTs are on the track.
Trail vs. MX bike:
If your dirt bike is a beginner's trail bike like the TT-R230 or CRF250F, check with the track officials to make sure it's okay to ride a trail bike on the track instead of a motocross bike. If they say it's okay, they're probably going to require that you remove the kickstand, and if the bike has a head or taillight, you'll most likely need to tape over the lights. It's best to ask ahead of time so you'll have the tools you need on hand.
Once you arrive at the track, you'll pay the admission fee and fill out some kind of waiver form. If you're given a wristband or armband, you need to wear it so they know you've paid the fee. If this is your first time at the track, don't be one of the first to arrive. Let other riders arrive and follow their lead as far as parking, unloading the bikes, setting up the area around your vehicle, etc. If everyone else has a 10' x 10' area to set up some chairs, gas cans, coolers or a small grill, do the same. Find out the location of a potable water source, toilets, medical tent, concession stand, and location of the track officials. You'll want to bring extra gas or premix, bike stand, basic tools, snacks, water, drinks, chairs, paper towels, rags, and some type of shade if it's hot.
Accessing the MX track:
Once you've got your bike unloaded, fueled, and fired up, it's time to get the tires dirty. Depending on the size of the track, there will either be an acceleration ramp or just an opening in the fence for you to enter the track. Traffic is one-way at all times so if there's only an opening and no acceleration ramp, make sure you're entering the track in the correct direction. If you're not sure, let a few bikes go by, or wait for another rider to access the track and follow. The first few laps will give you an idea of how the track is laid out, and your main goal should be to feel at ease riding amongst other riders. Although another goal is to learn how to jump a dirt bike, you shouldn't start jumping until you feel really comfortable. You can simply roll over the jumps in the beginning. Some tracks even have smaller jumps or go-rounds for less experienced riders. There's no such thing as a 'safe' jump, but the tabletop is the best best for beginner riders. The image below shows the difference between a tabletop jump and a double jump. If you miscalculate on the tabletop and come up short, you'll land on a flat surface instead of the incline or decline ramp of the double jump.
Keep to the right:
Early in the day all experience levels will be riding together but as the track starts to get crowded, they'll probably split the groups by age and/or experience, such as kids or beginner riders first followed by the more experienced riders. Each group will get a set amount of ride time, usually 30-45 minutes. No matter how many riders are on the track, keep to the right and don't weave or zig-zag all over the track. The faster riders will navigate around you as long as you hold your line. If you crash, try to get off the track so you're out of harm's way. This is especially true if you crashed on the downhill side of a jump where other riders can't see you. When you've gotten your bearings, retrieve the bike once it's safe to do so.
Even though it's an open practice and not a race, the more experienced riders are going to be practicing as if it were a race. When you're getting started in motocross, make a concerted effort to pay attention to the flags, always ride within your abilities, don't weave across the track, and always expect the unexpected. In 2004 at Glen Helen Raceway in California the conditions on the track that day were very dusty and the riders had limited visibility. Eleven-year-old Brett Downey had just crashed his 80cc bike, and while he was getting to his feet someone on a 450 didn't see him because of the dust and ran into him, killing him instantly. You don't want to be on either end of a tragedy like that.
Tips for getting started in motocross:
- minimal safety gear is helmet, goggles and boots
- know what the motocross flags mean
- know your local track's rules
- hold your line - don't weave or zig-zag across the track
- if you crash, get out of harm's way
- don't let your ego get the better of you - ride within your abilities
- try to relax and have fun
Here's a helmet cam video that does a good job of showing what happens on the motocross track both during a race as well as an open practice. Around 2:06 there are a couple of slow-motion shots showing how easy it is for a rider to lose control on the jumps, and why you always need to expect the unexpected.