Women’s Motocross: The Next Level

July 28, 2010
JC Hilderbrand
JC Hilderbrand
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Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA's Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn't matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.

Womens Motocross: The Next Level
Ashley Fiolek takes the lead in Women’s Motocross. Women have been participating in the sport ever since its beginning, with Nancy Payne winning the Powder Puff Championship back in 1974 – the series mutating to its current WMX form.

Why do we race motocross, because it’s fun? Muscles ache, lungs burn and the heart pounds. Weather conditions vary from skin-prickling cold to scorching heat that pours sweat into your eyes. Rocks and dirt pummel every inch of your exposed body like a blast from God’s own shotgun. It’s close quarters and it’s no BS. Motocross is a man’s sport.

Well, not exactly.

Women have been riding and racing MX since the sport originated. From scattered die-hard individuals to grassroots amateur gatherings and finally fledgling professional organizations, the sport has evolved into a full-blown pro national championship. Starting in 2009, the rebadged Women’s Motocross (WMX) Championship reached new heights in popularity, legitimacy and acceptance. But it wasn’t always that way.
The Powder Puff National Championship was held in 1974 and was the first opportunity for women to claim a national title. Nancy Payne made history as the inaugural Powder Puff champ, and the only one, as it turned out. In searching for a more appropriate name, the event remained but the name was changed to Women’s Motocross Nationals, and operated through the years under an assortment of banners including the International Women’s MX Association (IWMA), Women’s Motorsport Association (WMSA) and US Women’s Motorcycle League (WML).
Many of the so-called “National Championships” were actually single events, similar to the current amateur national championships like the Mini Os or Loretta Lynn’s. It wasn’t until the WML began in 1996 that an actual professional series was established. Known through her moto career simply as Mercedes Gonzalez before marrying speedy MX racer Derek Natvig, Mercedes Gonzalez-Natvig is very familiar with this time period as one of the most prolific racing figures in women’s motocross history. Mercedes guided a long career with Kawasaki’s Team Green which saw the Madrid native achieve success previously only dreamed of. At that time, the Women’s National Championship consisted of three races (125cc, 250cc and combined), which gave racers the opportunity to rack up multiple titles in a year. The Nationals were always held after Loretta Lynn’s which was, and still is, the race that really earns a rider that big sponsorship.

Womens Motocross: The Next Level
Mercedes Gonzalez is one of the most famous figures in women’s motocross history after having won 14 titles throughout her career.

“If you won Loretta Lynn’s, that’s when you got something. If you won the Nationals, that was great, but that wasn’t the race that the manufacturers were looking at,” she admits.
Today’s top females earn peanuts compared to what the men are making, but even these paltry wages are a major contrast to the lack of funding throughout women’s moto history. Gonzalez is a nine-time champion but her support was limited to some bikes, parts and an occasional support truck at the races – and she was in the top position. Because there wasn’t much assistance to speak of, Mercedes worked full-time as the Regional Sales Manager for AXO Sport America, leaving little time for training and practice. “Back in my day we never did this as a living,” she says of herself and her competitors. “It was considered a hobby even though some of the girls had financial support from their parents and could do it full time.”
Competition breeds success, and Gonzalez-Natvig is the perfect example. The Kawasaki rider trounced everyone for most of her career, and she recalls wistfully that during her span of dominance how only two women could offer any form of real competition. First it was Kim Douglass who retired, and finally Lisa Akins-Wagner who left in 1989, leaving Mercedes virtually unchallenged. At that point, with the level of competitiveness depleted, there was little reason for her to stay in the saddle, and she too left to pursue other interests, retiring in 1993.
Mercedes made an appearance once the sport was on the rebound and had some structure within the WML, scoring a pair of podium finishes at Hangtown and Glen Helen. The results prove her premature retirement wasn’t for a lack of speed, and shows a strong rider base in the amateur ranks can’t be overestimated. Fortunately, local, regional and national racing events are hosting more and more women’s classes. MX Sports also controls the Loretta Lynn’s Amateur National Motocross Championship. The nation’s largest amateur event offers two designated women’s classes, but ladies are allowed to compete against the men in any of the divisions. Providing support for these girls and young women as they progress is the key to maintaining a legitimate professional series over time. Not only that, but to possibly break away and stand apart from the men.

Womens Motocross: The Next Level
Jessica Patterson is one of the prime contenders for 2010 in WMX. 

Miki Keller took over the WML operation at the turn of the century and gained four years of working practice before founding the Women’s Motocross Association (WMA) in 2004. Though essentially run solely by Keller, the move was critical in taking another step forward as a sport. The Bend, Oregon, resident was able to work with the AMA to get full sanctioning and start the integration process of men and women’s MX. Keller knew that if the ladies were ever going to get their time in the limelight, piggybacking with the popular men’s series was going to help transport them quicker.

“The WMX, and women’s motocross in general, has long been searching for credibility,” says MX Sports VP, Davey Coombs. “Miki Keller has been a tireless advocate and done her very best to get the girls the series that she, and a lot of people, felt they deserved… she never gave up on the idea that there would be some sort of equality, or at least strong recognition for women’s motocross.”
For more than half a decade, the AMA series tried to accommodate Keller’s struggling WMA. During that time, individual promoters for the Nationals were faced with hosting not one, but two professional events. The result was that some wanted to participate and others didn’t, but from the WMA’s perspective, teaming with the men’s circuit was imperative. The fans were already assembled and the promoters were already preparing the facility to host, meaning it was just a matter of finding space in the program to squeeze in a couple motos. Keller fought to get six rounds on the coattails of the men, but the best agreement with the AMA and National Promoters Group was to have one moto during the Saturday qualifying schedule and the second during Sunday’s race program. The women were finally getting to show their skills in front of the thousands of traditional MX spectators, but the scenario was far from perfect.
“I wanted to make a real difference between the amateur and pro, and build women’s professional racing to be like men’s professional racing,” Keller says of her early goals.

Womens Motocross: The Next Level
WMA officially became WMX in 2009 once MX Sports stepped in, which incorporated women’s motocross into the men’s schedule.

As Coombs explains it, sorting the sponsorship packages between the women’s and men’s series was one of the primary obstacles when MX Sports stepped in. “In order to make it part of the men’s tour you had to have a common sponsor,” he says. “You couldn’t have a motocross series sponsored by Toyota and the women’s motocross series sponsored by Chevrolet, so to speak.”
The WMA became the WMX in 2009 when MX Sports took over the commercial development of professional motocross – using the opportunity to incorporate the women into the schedule and giving the ladies equal treatment. They use the men’s rulebook, have a consistent purse, pit alongside the men, get equal practice time and have both motos included in the Saturday-only racing program. By most accounts, it’s the best thing that could have happened, and according to insiders of the deal, it came at precisely the right time.
Constantly battling upstream had begun to wear on Keller, and a very disappointing fall-out in the 2008 season had the WMA’s head honcho looking at things with a bleak perspective. The possibility of the WMA coming unglued was more realistic than ever, but the winds of fate and some supportive enthusiasts within the MX Sports family saw the opportunity to step in and try to make things bigger and better.
Once the deal was finalized, growing attention from media and sponsors in 2009 unearthed another benefit of working with the women. Whether it’s natural inclination, an underdog’s desire to promote the sport, or both, women racers are tremendously anxious to participate in promotional activities. Autograph signings, press conferences, accommodating sponsorship obligations… even longtime men’s promoters are noting just how easy it is to work with these ambitious riders – and they’re being rewarded for it.

Womens Motocross: The Next Level
Women’s motocross has received growing attention from media and sponsors in part because the women riders have a strong desire to promote their own sport.

“This year, the proof of what a good success it’s been can be seen in the amount of support the girls are now getting,” says Coombs. “Times were that only Ashley Fiolek was getting support from Honda Red Bull Racing (see sidebar), but now not only does Ashley have a gig, but Jessica Patterson is with the DNA Shred Stix Star Racing Yamaha team, Sara Price has a gig with Monster Energy Kawasaki. Sherri Cruse, Vicki Golden, Mariana Balbi… all those girls have been brought onto men’s teams. I think that’s the greatest testament to the momentum of the series.”
Keller contracted to stay on as a counselor with MX Sports for one year to facilitate the sport’s transition. Even though the reins have been passed, she hasn’t gotten far away and continues to act as a liaison between the racers and organizers as well as court outside sponsorships. In fact, she was partly responsible for getting MotoUSA.com signed on as the holeshot sponsor in 2009 and then expanding to title sponsor for the current season. For 2010, the professional roster holds over 40 names, many of whom are under 20-years- old. Growing numbers and upcoming young riders show a positive trend in the sport. “There are a lot of girls in the girls’ classes at Loretta Lynn’s, so the future looks bright for women’s motocross.”
Joining forces with the men’s tour has elevated women’s moto to a new level, but there are still some things about the series that could use improvement according to WMX insiders. For instance, two motos on Saturday is great, a big improvement over the previous Saturday/Sunday format, but the ladies still ride last, meaning they have to contend with a track that’s as rough as it’s going to get. They also are most susceptible to schedule changes, leading to shortened practices and race delays. So things can still be improved, but the big question is, will the WMX ever have the monetary support, rider base, infrastructure and fan population to run independently? It’s debatable.

Womens Motocross: The Next Level
While much progress has been made for women in MX, issues such as schedule changes and race format still need to be addressed.

“The benefit of a stand-alone series is that they would be the premier class,” says the always enthusiastic Mercedes, “so they wouldn’t have the crappy track, they wouldn’t have a short practice… It’s going in the right direction, but the problem I see is that the girls are really antsy and they want it now. We can’t change overnight. It’s already taken huge steps in the right direction. They’re doing the right thing and they just gotta hang in there and keep making it grow.”
Keller also hopes to see the WMX eventually separate itself from the men’s pro series. “It’s racing, so there’s a lot of competitiveness, and it’s a pretty exciting thing to watch. They’re very dedicated and they love the sport. I think one of the misunderstandings is that because there’s a motorcycle involved that women should compete against men and that somehow it makes them equal. But in reality the sport now is so highly physical, even though women have certainly come a long way, in order for women’s motocross to grow they still need to race in their own championship… It’s just a different thing and it shouldn’t necessarily be compared to men’s pro motocross.”
Coombs also acknowledges that the WMX is in a tremendous position, but not necessarily one that can support itself entirely just yet. However, the vice president has pledged the wholehearted support of MX Sports in the coming years to make sure the progression doesn’t stop here.
“I think that all the possibilities are there,” he says with reserved optimism, “and in the end it will ultimately be up to the girls themselves. We’ve done our best to present them with a platform if they feel that they’re ready to go 12 races. The girls have been accepted pretty much across the board. When it’s time to take the next step we’ll leave it up to them to determine their own destiny.”

                                                          Women’s MX National Champions (1974 – 2009)

2009 – Ashley Fiolek                                         
2008 – Ashley Fiolek
2008 – Vicki Golden*
2007 – Jessica Patterson
2007 – Tarah Gieger*
2006 – Jessica Patterson
2006 – Tarah Gieger
2005 – Jessica Patterson     
2005 – Sarah Whitmore*
2004 – Jessica Patterson
2004 – Tarah Gieger*
2003 – Steffi Laier
2003 – Sarah Whitmore
2002 – Stefy Bau
2002- Jessica Patterson                                                     
2001 – Tania Satchwell
2001 – Stefy Bau*
2000 – Jessica Patterson
2000 – Jessica Patterson*
1999 – Stefy Bau
1999 – Jessica Patterson*
1998 – Dee Wood
1998 – Shelly Kann*
1997 – Traci Fleming
1997 – Kristy Shealy*
1996 – Shelly Kann
1996 – Kristy Shealy*
1995 – Kristy Shealy*
1994 – Dee Wood
1994 – Dee Wood
1993 – Kristy Shealy
1993 – Dee Wood 

*Amateur National Title
Source – WMA Archive


1992 – Cindy Cole
1991 – Mercedes Gonzalez
1991 – Mercedes Gonzalez*
1990 – Mercedes Gonzalez
1990 – Mercedes Gonzalez*
1989 – Mercedes Gonzalez
1989 – Mercedes Gonzalez*
1988 – Lisa Akin-Wagner*
1988 – Mercedes Gonzalez
1987 – Mercedes Gonzalez
1986 – Mercedes Gonzalez
1986 – Mercedes Gonzalez
1986 – Mercedes Gonzalez
1985 – Lisa Akin-Wagner
1985 – Mercedes Gonzalez
1985 – Mercedes Gonzalez
1984 – Lisa Akin-Wagner
1984 – Lisa Akin-Wagner*
1984 – Mercedes Gonzalez
1983 – Lisa Akin-Wagner*
1983 – Kim Douglass
1982 – Lisa Akin-Wagner*
1981 – Kathy Holman
1980 – Dede Cates
1979 – Sue Fish
1978 – Carey Steiner
1977 – Sue Fish
1976 – Sue Fish
1975 – Teri Kezar
1975 – Sue Fish
1974 – Nancy Payne