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Redux: Chinese Motocross

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With the 2019 FIM Motocross World Championship visiting China and Hong Kong, we decided to look back at the time Tony Sandstrom attempted to win the 2007 China National Motocross Championship. This story originally ran in the March 2008 issue of Racer X Illustrated. Subscribe today!

BY TONY SANDSTROM

I retired from my semi-pro motocross career over ten years ago, just before the ’97 Washougal National. The end was a big crunch on a 65-foot triple, leaving me with two broken ankles, some wheelchair time, and a year in rehab. After swallowing the hard truth that I wasn’t going to race again competitively, I did some soul searching, roaming the earth, looking for more adventures. Strangely enough, for the past six years I’ve found myself DJing professionally throughout Asia’s clubbing scene. And although I had traded my Scott goggles for beer goggles years ago, I always secretly longed to throw on some gear and ride on one of the new “thumper” four-stroke motocross bikes.

I got my chance when my friends took me to a local motocross-club facility for my birthday last year, and this is when I met Angus Lai from the Hong Kong MX Club. I was shocked that we could rent a Honda CRF250R! I said to myself, Wait, this can’t be true—the lawyers and insurance companies would never allow this back in North America. In my 30 years of riding, I have never seen a public MX bike rental facility. I certainly had a blast that day, ripping around on my rented CRF250R; the last time I rode a bike, they still made that wonderful, high-pitched ring-a-ding-ding-ding sound. Here’s where it gets strange: After I shook off the rust out there on the track, Mr. Lai and I had some long bench-racing discussions, and after hearing about my once-upon-a-time racing days, Angus asked me if I wanted to race for his team in the China National Championships! I laughed it off, but after a while, the thought of racing in the mysterious country where all my T-shirts are made started gaining traction. Okay, getting asked to race for Angus Lai in China wasn’t quite like Mitch Payton giving my fellow Canadian racer Darcy Lange “the call” for AMA Supercross last season, but it was pretty cool.

Once I found out that you can actually count all of the foreigners who have ever raced motocross in China on one hand, I went all Rocky Balboa: my inner moto ego was suddenly screaming to get back out after my previous career was cut short. Finally, I gave in—I was going to be the national champion of a country with more than 1.5 billion people! 

For 2007, a massive industrial company called Jialing, which manufactures motorcycles for the Chinese military, stepped up as title sponsor of the entire China MX National Series, as well as Angus’s Hong Kong MX team. And while Jialing makes the army bikes, it’s the army that makes most of the actual riders, as many learn to ride in the motorcycle division of the military! How cool is that? Then they branch off onto teams that hire them to ride. Anyway, the deal was all kind of last-minute, and I only had about two months to clean the cobwebs off of my throttle hand.

The first round was held in Suqian, which is somewhere in the middle of China, so we jumped on a two-hour flight from Hong Kong, the famous city on the southeastern coast of mainland China—and which belonged to Great Britain until 1997—to Nanjing International airport. It seems no matter where you go in China, there are people everywhere. Wherever you are, at almost any given moment, there are at least four or five people you don’t know standing beside you. (I now understand the extreme need for the “one-child-only” family policies over there.) Obviously, space is limited, which really showed when we somehow crammed nine people, four large gear bags, and all of our personal luggage for the weekend into a Toyota minivan. That was followed by a hair-raising four-and-a-half-hour drive up to Suqian, a small town near the race track.

The deal with China highways is this: pure chaos! There is absolutely no method to the madness. Along the harrowing journey, we passed (and near-missed) countless buses, transport trucks, heavy-duty machinery, vehicles, every type of three-wheeled device know to man, buggies, motorcycles, tuk-tuk, and bicycle thingies. We even passed a steamroller ripping along at two miles per hour! We passed about a thousand or so of these absolutely ridiculous, primitive, two-wheeled, roto-tiller farm tractors pulling trailers packed with people, chickens, pigs, pots, pans, and anything else they could stack up there!

Another thing I soon realized is that all of these weird and wonderful contraptions may or may not be going the same direction as you are, day or night, lights on or lights off, even on a major highway. Oh, and did I mention the hundreds of children on bicycles meandering along the slow lane just after school is out? I’ve ridden in cars and taxis on five different continents, but nothing I’ve witnessed compares to the complete disorder that is the Chinese road system. We finally made it to Suqian, ate dinner with our team sponsors from Jialing Motorsports, and went to bed early for the next day’s practice.

MADE IN CHINA

When I arrived at the track, I was completely unprepared for what saw. The Suqian track was an absolute perfect mix of fine, dark, rich soil and clay, perfectly groomed by a few dozen men with shovels and a single, one-man roto-tiller that was 3 feet wide (and which I’m sure we passed on the highway at some point). The track was quite simple and not dangerous, with 1:15 lap times. The surrounding grounds were like an outdoor arena, enclosed by tall, wooden fencing. I was impressed!

The China Motosports Association (CMSA) runs FIM sanctioning rules, with only four classes: 80cc, 125cc (250F), 250cc (450F), and the entertaining 150cc “official” China model class—and there are maybe 100 different motorcycle brands from China, though none are anywhere near modern Japanese race bikes. There were less than 50 riders at the event, yet it was held over the course of five days: two days of practice, a track-maintenance day, and a two-day split-moto system. There was also a “Team” event, allowing extra recognition for the team sponsors by combining the score from each team’s riders, taken from only the first moto. I was surprised to see a few Yamahas and a single KTM racing on the circuit, as almost the entire field of entrants rode Honda CRF250Rs. As David Pingree knows, the current technologies that Japanese MX bikes offer are quite superior to that of the Chinese models, to the extent that all the Japanese bikes were running China manufacturers’ logos and stickers Japanese stickers. As for the 150cc China model class, no Japanese brands were competing, let alone the Austrian one!

The track was prime. There were all of these perfect little knobby-sized dirt chunks littered all around the track, perfect corner ruts formed, and there wasn’t a rock in sight. In my twenty-five-plus years of racing, this self-proclaimed dirt-logistics would have to say this soil was the cream of the crop, probably on par with Washougal back in the early ’90s. I heard that the rest of the China National Series tracks are the polar opposite of what we were riding at this round, so I knew I had to make the most of this day. After a short practice session, followed by electronically timed qualifying, I was shocked to find myself with the fastest time of the day.

The first-moto gate dropped and my 18-year-old Jialing teammate Sean Hewitt, the 2006 China National 125cc Champion, pulled a massive holeshot and immediately started to pull away from the pack. I floundered around off the start in seventh for a while and picked off a few riders by the second lap. I then used all my experience and grit, trying to be John Dowd or something, and slowly caught and passed second-place rider Vincent Lai, my other teammate. We were barely midway through the moto when we encountered lappers, and that allowed me to catch Hewitt, who had been holding a comfortable lead. After following for a few laps, I made a quick inside pass just before the finish-line jump and took the lead with three laps to go. Shockingly, I won the moto!

The last day’s events would start early and be finished by noon. (Why the need for a two-day event? I really don’t know.) The grounds were filling up with approximately 5,000 spectators, mostly local villagers, and the local TV stations were there beaming up their systems for a “live” broadcast. We waited through the opening ceremonies, which hosted the team sponsors and what looked like official government members. Then they lit up the skies with ten large military cannons and about fifty or so thunderous bangs that echoed through the skies with burning flames, all while releasing a few thousand balloons and hundreds of what must be “good fortune” pigeons into the air. Those cannons must have terrified the poor birdies!

This time I snagged the holeshot (I’m still waiting for my Racer X Holeshot money—must be lost in the mail), and I had a clean ride all the way through. I led from start to finish, and with the exception of a small tip-over in a rutted berm, where I kept the four-stroke running to keep the lead, it could not have gone better. As soon as I finished the race, there were a few quick photos and an out-of-breath TV interview. Soon after the final 250cc race was completed, everyone went to the podium stage for the awards ceremony. Things started to get a little chaotic, with lots of press, photographers, awards, champagne, and dozens of trophy girls. The best was when some of the crowd members were literally jumping on stage, trying to swipe our Jialing caps off our heads, then wanting us to autograph them and give them back to them. Crazy!

It was a great day, and our Jialing team posted the top three on the podium. Later that day, back at the hotel, I was surprised to see the race on TV just a few hours later—turns out the race showed a few times that day. There were more than six TV camera positions, and they really shot the race well. From the wide views to close-ups, every corner and straight on the track was totally viewable. In all, I was quite impressed with the first round of the China Motor Sports Association event, and I was still shocked that this was even happening to me.

CHINESE DEMOCRACY

In the week leading up to the second event in Xi’An (the home of those remarkable terracotta warriors that were unearthed and pop up in National Geographic from time to time), I found out that pretty much all the other competing race teams had all called up the CMSA and series sponsor Jialing Motorsports to protest me. I was told that they were all angered that a new guy came out of nowhere and beat them, leaving them with no chance for their riders to finish on the podium and win recognition and contingencies. The CMSA was forced to hold a special meeting with all the teams, and after proving I had all the current proper China and FIM licensing, I was given the green light to race.

Nigel Hewitt, one of our team mechanics and managers, explained that the racing in China is a bit bureaucratic, and it’s quite common for teams to trade off wins to keep their sponsors happy. In fact, Nigel said another team requested for Jialing to share the wealth. Nigel simply said, “Screw that, we’re here to win!” He’s a smart man and respects the true spirit of competition—he’s not here to play patty-cake. When we arrived at the Xi’an track, I was gravely disappointed to see the exact opposite in quality of the Suqian track.

Apparently, any city or town can apply to the CMSA and pay for the rights to host an event. There must be no qualifications, criteria, or knowledge necessary to do so. The Xi’An track was whipped together in a rectangular plot of land in the middle of an industrial area. The bike paddock was in another small, dusty factory warehouse down the street, and the only washroom facilities were four sheets of aluminum siding stuck in the ground for makeshift walls, with six 10” holes dug in the ground and two bricks on each side to step on for balance. The track builders must not have ever ridden a motocross bike—or even seen one for that matter: the track was very tight, completely one-lined, and filled with numerous 180-degree switchback corners and dangerously ramped kicker jumps. Also, they only watered the track once during the four days of practice, qualifying, and races. It was so ridiculously dusty that, even with only fifteen bikes in a thirty-minute practice session, your entire mouth was caked in a fine silt, making you look like some lipsticked drag queen.

Seems that whenever I catch a cold in China, it takes me months to get rid of it. I had caught a nasty one from the first round and wouldn’t be racing at 100 percent, especially with the “Baja dust” I was sucking in through my hacking lungs. On the flipside, our USA sponsors’ One Industries “Bailey ‘86” replica graphics and DMC Exhausts Systems finally arrived that week. Our CRF250Rs absolutely ripped, and I promptly holeshot both motos but was soon passed by my teammate Hewitt. My strength faded, but I rode smart, held my inside lines, and finished second in both motos, with Vincent Lai (my third teammate and the son of team manager Angus) close on my heels, trying to pass. When I got off the track, I was exhausted and certainly not expecting the verbal chewing-out I got from Angus. He wanted to know why I never let his son pass me for second after he apparently signaled me to do so. I didn’t remember seeing any “Let Brock Bye” pit-board signals. I said, “What you talking about? I’m still in lead for championship points! I can’t pull over.”

Regardless of the rift with my team manager, Xi’an was a successful event, and our Jialing Motosports/One Industries/DMC Exhausts team completely dominated the entire event, picking up all of the top podium spots in the 125cc and 250cc classes and winning the “team” event as well. And the Jialing 150cc team has been cleaning up the wins at every event so far.

There was a month-long break between the second and third events of the China Nationals, and that is when I received “the call” again, followed by a meeting with Angus. I was now asked to either follow team rules—allowing team riders to pass me—or hit the road. Even more surprising news came when, once again, all the competing Chinese teams protested me. This time, the CMSA was enforcing some strange new rule that all riders must hold a seven-year residency in order to compete in the China Nationals.

The CMSA was apparently cleaning house throughout their motocross and road racing programs. This new rule effectively ensured that all the competing racers must be Chinese nationals, protecting the local racers from any foreign invasions. It also meant the abrupt end of my unlikely dream of becoming the National Motocross Champion of China. China is a unique land with a system most Westerners are not accustomed to.

It’s a shame the CMSA doesn’t welcome foreigners into their motorcycle competition. The people are quick to learn, not afraid to work hard, and would benefit quickly from foreign influences. But some would rather be the proverbial big fish in a small pond.

My short but sweet return to professional racing was both exciting and rewarding. I now have a full arsenal of China MX Nationals bench-racing stories to tell when I’m old. So will my teammate Sean Hewitt, the Hong Kong resident who went on to become the 2007 China National Champion but will most likely move to the UK in 2008 in search of broader competition and less bureaucracy (all the best of success, Sean).

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Nigel Hewitt for allowing me to join the Jialing/Hong Kong MX team, and also extend that to Angus Lai. I must also commend and thank our U.S. sponsors, DMC Exhausts and One Industries, for offering their support to our team and seeking the opportunity to explore into an unknown foreign market. It was an amazing ride, and I’m just glad I got the chance.