If winning is your aim, Jeff Smith knows a thing or two about how it’s done.
Words: Tim Britton Media Ltd
Pics: Mortons Archive
So you want to win? Well, Jeff Smith told you how in 1960 – and his views are as relevant today as they were then.
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Every competitor likes to experience the high of winning. It doesn’t matter if it’s crossing the line ahead of the pack in an MX GP or a first class award in a club trial; there’s nothing better for a competitor than the adrenaline rush success creates. Equally it’s doubtful anyone lines up at the start of an event and doesn’t think they could win. At my end of things the thinking often goes: “Well if they all drop out then I could do well here…” But the fact remains none of us sets out to lose, it’s probably been the same way since the dawn of time and if there is one thing which intrigues us as competitors, it is: just how do you win?
On the face of it such a question has a simple answer which is ‘in order to win, one simply has to finish first’ and to finish first brings the equally straightforward saying ‘to finish first, first you have to finish’ which is where it becomes complicated. Now these historic pieces are taken from the archive accumulated by The MotorCycle and MotorCycling from their start in 1902 and often an idea for the archive piece will arise as I’m looking for something else. In this case it was while looking for information on Scott Ellis’ BSA and I happened on a series of features written by Jeff Smith in 1960. In these features Jeff set out his path to finishing first and tried to show how to corral the elements to give a rider the best chance of winning in off-road motorcycle sport. At the time he was starting a seven-year run of British scrambles championships, had won most of the important national trials and also been a star performer in the International Six Days Trial so knew a bit about winning. Even 63 years on, the information imparted in these features is as relevant now as it ever was and reveals a thinking rider’s strategy for success. Though aimed at the scrambler rather than the trials rider, Smith’s words carry importance for those involved in either aspect of the sport.
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It will be no great revelation to state while the information is broken down into four main sections – strategy, reading terrain, machine preparation, training – they all tie in together and are interdependent on each other. For instance taking things literally and overly simplistically it is a bit pointless to have a superbly prepped machine if the rider is out of breath trying to start it, or a rider might be physically at the peak of perfection but the first change in terrain puts them on their ear – and so it goes on. What Smith tried to put over was the importance of all four of these aspects in relation to each other. It would be fair to point out Jeff Smith had the backing of a major factory which would greatly ease the bike fettling aspect and within BSA’s workforce were Olympic sports people who could and did help with training – but strategy and reading the terrain in an event were all down to Smith himself. So, to set away let’s go with things in the order The MotorCycle ran them and start with Putting the Mustard On The Beef…
Smith started by pointing out the obvious: there were differing types, scramble or motocross, and they required different approaches. For instance, a local club or open-to-centre scramble with maybe six laps of a shortish course doesn’t give a lot of time for any tactics other than getting to the front as soon as possible and staying there. Of course staying in front is the tricky bit but further on in the series Jeff offers advice on what to do in the melee which often accompanies short races.
His technique for longer events such as the Grand Prix races which can be 20 laps or more is more involved. It is generally a mistake, we learn, to rocket away and head the field in a longer race; this puts the leader in a position of having to do everything. The Smith Method is to hang back for a lap or three, even as far down as 10th place before reeling in the leaders as they tire. Jeff hinted at psychological tactics by saying a leader who knows someone is on their tail will tend to keep looking behind and try to pull away. What this does is reveal the leader’s lines in all of the corners and while Jeff hesitated to claim an MX GP could be leisurely, he allowed it was less hard on the second place man who paid attention and saw where to pass as the only time a racer needs to be in front is actually when crossing the line. He was honest enough to admit in the feature he had, on occasion, been in the leader position and done the glancing back bit and been passed by the likes of Sten Lundin for instance.
As he summed up the strategy part of the series Jeff stressed the importance of paying attention to starters and they may subconsciously signal their intent to drop the flag by a shrug of the shoulders or a rub of the nose as examples. Once the starter does this, Smith is on the go as a vital second can be gained which may mean the difference between winning or not. He added candidly the sport of racing motorcycles off-road is an often brutal thing with very little quarter given but stated clearly underhand tactics such as deliberately barging other riders out of the way had no place in sport.
Within this though there is often the unintentional incident. Perhaps a faller means an instant change of direction or the rider themself maybe loses the front end and all of a sudden there is a pile-up. Jeff’s example of this was his first forays to Holland when the whole startline rocketed off, leaving young Mr Smith not standing but well back. A few yards down the start straight he was passed by a riderless machine which did its best to have him off before attacking a barn. On negotiating the first bend he found the entire field ahead of him in a heap and tangled under the course ropes. He says: “I found myself in the lead and should have carried on for the win but was so surprised at this I didn’t…” He finished his first article by saying his next feature would include reading the terrain.
You can’t steer in mid-air
In the modern times we live in – 2023 in case you’re picking this magazine up in an antique store sometime in the future and are intrigued by these quaint old ‘motor’ vehicles powered by internal combustion engines rather than an eco-friendly source of power – it seems an MXer spends 98% of their time in the air and showing how far and high they can jump. This may impress some people but in the days when racing was considered important those doing the most winning had wheels on the ground rather than in the air. I know it’s a novel concept but when someone with a couple of world championships and several British championships to their name says: “You can’t steer in mid-air” it is probably best to listen to what they say. So important was it to someone like Jeff Smith to have his wheels on the ground he titled the whole feature in this vein.
It should be obvious to state the motorcycle in the air not only can’t be steered but can’t accelerate either. However in the rough and tumble world of scrambling it is impractical to expect the wheels to remain on the ground all of the time, indeed even in the black and white world of the olden days fiendish organisers would put a jump in as a crowd pleaser. Our man explains in his article he would inspect the course prior to practice, walk it if possible and see if there were any hazards likely to require a jump to happen. If it did then note would be taken of where the best point to jump would be and an idea of what sort of speed this should happen at. In the actual race Jeff would endeavour to land back-wheel first, the front 18in higher than the rear; he conceded this wasn’t always possible and it could be good to practice the odd front wheel landing just in case.
There were and presumably still are situations where keeping the front wheel up is acceptable and any rider who has dealt with racing in sand will know if the front wheel digs in, a trip over the handlebars is likely to happen in the immediate future. In this case the front wheel is kept light with the power well on and the rider positioned further back so his weight is over the driving wheel. Smith did add shallow sand could be treated in the same way as mud and should receive the same caution lest the rider suddenly find themselves exiting turns rear wheel first and a close inspection of the course is the result.
In this feature of terrain-reading it becomes clearer and clearer winning isn’t just about going fast; in fact it is more about going at the right grade of ‘fast’ at the right time and factors can add up to determine what is right. These factors may be as varied as the course cutting away to expose rocks which can damage a rim or puncture a tyre or even as simple as wet or dry spots on the course. If the day is wet then it may be a sensible option to stick with the grassy areas as they’re likely to be less treacherous than bare earth but should the day be dry then the bare earth could be more predictable. Smith named this terrain-reading as surface-consciousness and decisions should be made in the knowledge of what could happen should chances be taken – but by studying the terrain these consequences can be lessened.
Seeking out trouble
There is a saying which is common in motorcycle sport but on reflection can be applicable to other areas too… this saying goes ‘fail to prepare then prepare to fail.’ You’ve likely worked out what this means – not paying attention in the workshop means the bike will break on the track. We’ve all done it, not changed something or left something unchecked and convinced ourselves it will be okay then found ourselves sidelined at a scramble or stuck as far from the finish of a trial as it is possible to get. This is bad enough for a hobby but if your employer is expecting your results to sell motorcycles then sitting by the sidelines isn’t an option.
So in order to lessen the chances of a bike failure Jeff follows a strict routine once back at base. To start with, the bike is washed off and in the Sixties at BSA this involved a hosepipe with a bit of flattened copper pipe in the end and lots of hot soapy water. Once the grime is gone then the inspection can begin. Never dismiss the looking over of a machine, you’re not admiring it – what you’re doing is looking for damage. Off-road sport is hard on motorcycles, much harder than the equivalent roadster sees. So is the frame cracked? Has the oil tank split – old four-strokes only – or has the petrol tank split? Is anything loose, such as ancillary components or spokes?
Have the tyres crept on the rim and so on? Any damage found at this stage comes under the ‘repair’ tag and once dealt with, then the checking over and making sure bit can happen. What’s going on in this stage is getting all the muck out of the workings and making sure there’s grease in where it should be.
If a certain sequence of work is followed every time then there’s less chance of anything being missed, so the Smith method is to test the rear suspension first; if it works smoothly then it is left alone. Attention turns to the front end and the fork oil is drained, then the engine, gearbox and chain case have their oil removed and Jeff takes off the outer primary case. This allows both chains to be checked over. The Smith way is to replace chains sooner rather than later to ensure no drive-train problems halt progress. We all know the slots and tangs on a clutch assembly need to work smoothly for the best possible action and Jeff pays attention to removing burrs and notches. On reassembly a pointer is made to ensure the plates lift true then Jeff wires the clutch nuts to ensure the plates will stay lifting true.
Ignition system comes next – the points are stripped and cleaned and the spark plug checked to see if the mixture is correct. While on the cylinder head Jeff checks the valve clearances before moving to the carburetion. Off with the air filter and its housing, both are cleaned and dried, the filter oiled and the inside of the housing greased to make sure dust sticks to it rather than the air filter which will upset the mixture. Some attention is paid to preventing water and mud making its way into the carburettor by using sections of rubber tube.
Work shifts to the wheels and as well as making sure all the pivots work smoothly Jeff let readers into one of his secrets: a bolt goes in between each spoke head in the hub flange. What this does is prevent any snapped spoke coming adrift and fetching all the others off too; it adds a little weight but ensures the rider will finish a race. What all this work is doing is ensuring the best possible chance of nothing breaking but what it can’t do is remove incidental or accident damage during an event. As part of his preparation Jeff would carry a stock of bits and pieces which could be fitted on the day should the need arise.
Of course it’s not just the bike which needs to be kept in prime condition and the rider needs a bit of attention too during a meeting. Jeff always had on hand soap, water, a towel and plenty of his favourite rehydration tipple – water or unsweetened lemon juice. This is a fitting end to this bit of the feature as Smith’s final feature in the series carries on the physical preparation and how to win races before the start.
The body prep
Jeff Smith was noted for his personal preparation and had a slight advantage in that one of BSA’s line workers was Olympic steeplechaser Maurice Herriot who was more than keen to help torture… er… sorry ‘keep Smith in prime condition…’ Part of Smith’s training involved riding trials in the winter months – pre TV scrambles days of course – and this meant not only did the muscles remain toned but also the reflexes. Undeniably a part of off-road motorcycle sport is the odd incident when rider and machine part company. In such situations it helps if the rider knows how to fall. Like many young men of his time Jeff completed National Service during which he took great advantage of the training available to him there and did judo several nights a week until falling safely and without injury was almost a subconscious action. With regular exercise, attention to the machine, surface-consciousness and practice all taken into consideration it may be thought the Smith lectures had covered everything but there’s one last element… rider comfort. Smith is as particular over his riding wardrobe as he is over his machine preparation so he starts with well-padded leather race jeans and a comfortable shirt with a light, tough jacket over the top. Holding the middle of Smith in place is a task done by a leather body belt and on his feet are sea-boots with smooth soles. Topping him off is a helmet a size larger than it should be.
Says Jeff: “Scrambling is a hot sport and one’s head does swell in the heat, to the point where it can feel as though it is in a vice. I do pad the inside with sweat absorbing handkerchiefs too.” The final bits are the goggles – well ventilated and treated with anti-mist compound – and leather gloves with the lining removed. He signed off his feature with a reminder to enjoy the sport, hoping his writing had encouraged newcomers into off-road riding and had also encouraged the old-stager to do a bit better.