Marty Tripes was a leading AMA motocross and Supercross rider of the 1970s and early 1980s. He will always be remembered for winning the Superbowl of Motocross at the Los Angeles Coliseum in July of 1972, just a few weeks after turning 16. That race was a seminal event in American motocross history and was considered the first true stadium Supercross race.
In all, Tripes won 11 AMA nationals during a career that spanned just over a decade. He also won the first United States 250cc Motocross Grand Prix at Unadilla in 1978 against Europe’s best. His riding was described by motocross buffs as one of the most fluid and stylish in the history of the sport. Tripes made racing a motocross bike look effortless with his stand-up riding technique and he’s often been described a one the sport’s true natural riders. It’s also notable that Tripes was perhaps the biggest rider to win AMA motocross and Supercross races, at 6’-1” tall and weighing over 200 pounds in his racing prime.
Tripes was born in San Diego on June 29, 1956. He grew up riding bicycles in what he described as the era that gave birth to BMX. As a kid, Tripes became a schoolyard legend for once launching himself and his bicycle and clearing 32 steps of the school’s front entrance.
He first began riding motorcycles when his dad borrowed a 90cc Honda step-through for a family camping trip.
"It took a year for our neighbor to get his motorcycle back," Tripes joked.
He was about 9 when he attended one of Edison Dye’s first motocross races in America in the San Diego area, featuring many of the best European motocross racers. That race made an indelible impression on Tripes.
"I thought those riders were Superman," Tripes remembers. Motocross World Champion Joel Robert was Tripes’ childhood idol. He tried to emulate Robert’s style on his mini-bike. Tripes’ younger brother, Mike, also took up the sport and later became a leading motocross rider in California.
Tripes’ natural talent on a motorcycle was first noticed when he asked a group of older riders if he could ride with them at a local motocross track. He hung with the older riders and one of them told Tripes’ dad that he needed to get young Marty into racing. His first race, at age 12, wasn’t a success however.
"I led into the first turn," Tripes recalls. "And the sound of all those motorcycles charging up behind me scared me to death and I pulled off the track."
It didn’t take long for Tripes to overcome his fear on the track, however, and he quickly became a motocross prodigy. He developed into a talented rider at such a young age that he used a fake ID to enter his first professional race.
In the 1971 Denver Inter-AMA race, Tripes, who was just 14 at the time, raced to an amazing fourth overall, and first American finisher, against some of the best motocross racers in the world. His early pro career was cut short, however, when a follow competitor, who didn’t like being beating by a 14-year-old, told the AMA about Tripes’ real age. That incident cost Tripes his AMA license and he was suspended from all AMA-sanctioned races until he turned 16.
Tripes came back where he left off upon his return to racing. Just a few weeks after his 16th birthday, he shocked the motocross establishment with a dominating victory aboard a Yamaha in the inaugural Superbowl of Motocross in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The field at the Superbowl included a who’s who of American motocross racers as well as many of Europe’s best. It marked one of the most surprising victories in the annals of AMA racing and quickly launched Tripes into motocross superstardom.
He was the youngest rider to win an AMA national. In his rookie season, Tripes finished eighth in the Inter-AMA Series while racing a limited schedule. He was also the top-scoring American rider in the season-ending Trans-AMA race in Orange, California.
Tripes signed with Honda in 1973 and returned to the Coliseum and defended his Superbowl of Motocross victory. He also scored two wins in the AMA 250 National Motocross Championship and finished the year ranked sixth in that series.
In 1974, Tripes accepted an offer to ride with Husqvarna, but by this period the Swedish manufacturer that had helped launch motocross in America was seriously overmatched by the Japanese makers. Tripes struggled with inconsistent results. In spite of the bike’s deficiencies, Tripes won a round of the 250 outdoor series in Mexico, New York. He switched to Can-Am late in the season and, against all odds, finished the season a very solid second in the AMA 250 National Motocross Championship.
The revolving door of manufacturers continued for Tripes. He signed with Bultaco in 1975 with mixed results. He finished 1975 ranked sixth in the AMA Supercross Series. By this time, Tripes was becoming discouraged with the rides he was being offered and he took a year off to enjoy life. Always an avid outdoorsman, Tripes enjoyed hunting, boating, camping and the unusual hobby of coyote calling.
He returned to racing full force in 1977 with the ill-fated Harley-Davidson motocross effort. He scored a couple of top-10 finishes in the Trans-AMA Series aboard the Harley, but the program was terminated at the end of the season.
Tripes re-signed with Honda in 1978 and had the best season of his career. He was one of the few riders who made the red-hot Bob Hannah look human that year. Tripes won two AMA Supercross races and eventually finished second in the series after challenging Hannah for the title all the way to the end of the season, until a transmission locked up on his bike in the second-to-last round. Also that year, Tripes took the win in the first-ever World Championship 250cc Motocross round held in America. Perhaps not as well known as his victory in the Superbowl of Motocross, many consider Tripes’ victory at the 250cc USGP in Unadilla, in New Berlin, New York, as the biggest win of his career.
Tripes recalls the atmosphere at Unadilla that year.
"There were a ton of fans there and they were rowdy. They wanted to see the Americans beat the Europeans and we proved that day that our riders were the best in the world."
It was not only an intense atmosphere, but also perhaps one of the most intense motocross races ever in this country. Tripes’ Honda teammate and area hero Jimmy Ellis, along with Tripes, set a torrid pace in the first moto and motored away from longtime GP competitor Hans Maisch.
"I just need a strong, mistake-free second moto and I could win this thing," Tripes said excitedly between motos to a reporter. "I’ve always dreamed of winning a GP, but I never thought it would be this year."
In the second moto, Tripes, full of adrenaline, sprinted away to a big early lead, but Bob Hannah, smarting from losing his front brake in the first moto, was charging through the field with a vengeance. He caught Tripes, who was in no mood to go wheel-to-wheel with the aggressive Hannah, especially since he was on his way to the overall victory.
He waved Hannah by then proceeded to plant his bike on the rear wheel of Hannah’s Yamaha. Late in the moto, Tripes, who took a hard hit in a near crash in moto one, began developing leg cramps. At this point, Ellis, who himself was in bad condition from a large rock hitting him in the stomach, began closing in on Tripes. Both riders knew the overall victory hung in the balance of the combined time of the motos and both pushed their bodies past the point of exhaustion to try for the win.
In the end, Tripes finished second in the moto and was barely able to get off his bike. Ellis rolled past the finish line third and promptly fell over from sheer exhaustion. The timing was tabulated and it was announced Tripes had won the race by 7/10ths of a second. Ellis finished second overall and Hannah third, giving American riders an unexpected sweep of their home Grand Prix.
Tripes returned with Honda in 1979 and finished third to Hannah and Suzuki’s Kent Howerton in the AMA 250 Motocross Championship. That year, Tripes won two nationals. His victory at the Red Bud National in Buchanan, Michigan, in July of that year would prove to be his final AMA national win.
Tripes returned with Yamaha in 1980. He still scored an occasional podium result and ended the year ranked eighth in AMA 250 Motocross and 10th in AMA Supercross. It would prove to be his final full season of professional racing.
After retirement from racing, Tripes became a pioneer in safety gear design in the paintball industry. He also runs a successful gourmet mushroom business that sells to grocery chains.