In the annals of motocross there are numerous stories, fables, and myths. Although most have been erroneously embellished over time there are a few that can actually be substantiated.
In that equation, Marty Tripes certainly has the distinction of being perhaps the most talented, unpredictable, enigmatic professional rider to ever throw a leg over a motocross bike. His stellar career, despite numerous race wins, was actually hindered from reaching its full potential courtesy the erratic nature of youth.
Marty Tripes sprang onto the scene in 1972 in unquestionably the most dynamic, fairytale fashion when-just a few weeks after his sixteenth birthday-he stunned the motocross community by winning the first ever SuperBowl of Motocross.
Riding a Yamaha, Tripes decimated the established field of American superstars, along with some of Europe’s best, in the 3-moto format. Literally overnight the teenager’s star was cast into motocross stardom’s firmament.
Actually, Tripes had already had a brush with fame a few years earlier that, for the people who witnessed it, portended the Santa Ana resident’s future. At the Inter-AMA race in Denver in 1971 Tripes earned top American with a fourth place finish.
Unfortunately, he had lied to get a pro license. Tripes was only fourteen. One of the racers (most likely one that finished behind the teen) tattled to the organizers and Tripes had his pro license revoked and was suspended from any AMA events until he turned sixteen. Winning the inaugural SuperBowl of motocross two years later certainly must have been very sweet revenge.
Tripes, coached in Europe, had adopted an unusual feet on the pegs, standing riding style. Even in deep berms Tripes would often be up on the pegs. His fluidity and grace on two wheels was like nothing the motocross world had seen before.
Tripes’ smooth, effortless style, combined with a constant battle with weight (he often had a slightly pudgy gut due his love of Mexican food that had him averaging 200 pounds) seemed to disguise his true speed.
Tripes rode a coffin-tank CZ in late 1972 and part of 1973, bashing the outclassed Czech machine around in impressive fashion and earning numerous top-five finishes. At one national Marty snapped the left peg off his CZ and simply put his foot up on the engine case and continued to lap at an incredible pace – jumps and all.
The factory Honda squad nabbed Tripes in 1973, which he rewarded by winning the second SuperBowl of Motocross. However, Honda soon learned-the hard way-about the erratic behavior of youth. Tripes had signed an outside apparel deal only to discover, at a national event, that the Honda brass expected team riders to wear authorized Honda gear.
The situation threatened to cost Tripes some serious income. To show his displeasure Tripes actually covered over the Honda logo on his CR with duct tape and then proclaimed he was going to go out, lead the moto, but to spite Honda, would pull over just shy of the finish line and let everyone go by. When the green flag dropped Tripes easily got into the lead.
The Honda execs watched with baited breath as the moto wound down. Tripes got the white flag and then, to the astonishment of everyone, did exactly as he said he would do. One lap later, he pulled over just shy of the checkered flag.
As second place came around, Tripes rolled the Honda across the line to take the win, much to the relief of the Honda brass. Teams immediately perceived Tripes as unpredictable while the fans were awed by his rebelliousness.
Tripes had a very laid back and calm demeanor. Seemingly immune to the pressure cooker atmosphere of professional racing he could easily drift off to sleep between motos. He didn’t care much for training either.
In fact, it was reported that when he was going to the gym and eating a carefully constructed diet of healthy food, he actually slowed down. When he went off training and back to Mexican food, his pace would increase dramatically. Such is the reality when an athlete possesses an abundance of natural talent.
Over the ensuing years Tripes’ rollercoaster career delivered a number of national wins but never a championship title. Perhaps his most significant win was the first ever 250cc USGP at Unadilla in 1978.
Tripes would race, quit, come back, announce retirement, only to return and dazzle yet again. In 1979 he was the only rider to run with the sensational Bob Hannah (a blown tranny at the final race costing him the title that year).
During his topsy-turvy career he exhausted his natural talent’s good graces with the major factories and ended up riding for Bultaco, Husqvarna and even Harley-Davidson. But Tripes understood the motocross world’s perceptions of him and his perplexing choices and actions.
This was evident when he returned to racing aboard a Bultaco. Having finished eighth the previous season, Tripes-in a very pointed statement-put a white number 8 inside a black ball squarely on the back of his jersey. He was saying he knew his reputation and career were behind the eight ball.
Eventually, as it does to all athletes, the cruel hand of time would usher Tripes to the sidelines, making room for a new slate of talent. However, anyone who ever saw Tripes ride will never forget the flowing, effortless grace that made him appear as though he were floating over the rough.
Today, Tripes indulges his lifelong love of food and owns a gourmet mushroom company. The affable Tripes makes an occasional appearance at a vintage pro race and astonishes with speed, despite having gained a few extra pounds.