Why one of the fastest women on dirt is leaving MX to go back to the woods

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Motocross is where the money is, where the sponsors want their racers to be, and 20-year-old Brandy Richards finished the summer with MX wins at Mammoth Mountain and the AMA Amateur National Championships at Loretta Lynn's. So why is she leaving motocross to go back to the relative anonymity of the woods?

For Richards, already one of the fastest women on dirt, it's less about recognition and more about developing as a racer and returning her focus to her first true love: off-road racing.

“They kind of forced me over to motocross,” says Richards. By "they," she means Team Green, where she originally began racing in the now defunct off-road division in 2011.

“I loved that team and I wish I had a team like that still, but I just didn’t like the bike and I felt like there was more for me," she says. "I decided I need to move on to grow more as a racer, to get even better.”

After splitting with Kawasaki, within a few years she decided to take the road less traveled — one which she finds to be more unpredictable, rugged, and fast. Even with all of her recent motocross wins, that sport is still more of necessary means of training and networking. She admittedly does not carry the same confidence or enthusiasm with it as she does with off-road. Richards has switched to a Yamaha YZ250 and has truly come into her own — upping her speed and fitness game and making impressive headway in the past year.

Brandy Richards

At the final round of this year’s WORCS races in Primm, Nevada, on Oct. 21, she aimed to rank in the top five of both classes she raced in and did just that. Taking third place in the 250 A class racing against the men, a seventh win for the season in the Women’s Pro class, and completing the weekend with a 13th-position finish in Pro 2 Lights ain't too shabby. But even as a young rider who’s done an impressive job to rise in the ranks, Richards definitely remains her own toughest critic.

“Even at Loretta’s I was nowhere near where I should have been,” says Richards, refusing to be satisfied with her motocross victory. “I know I could have done a lot better. I mean I know I won, but I know that I could have won by a lot more.”

Brandy Richards

Recovering from injury, time and again

Recovering from a series of physical setbacks has been her greatest challenge to staying fit and keeping consistent momentum. Richards first began racing at age 4 on a PW-50 in the 4-6 class at Lake Havasu City WORCS in Arizona, where she was born and raised. She qualified for her first Loretta Lynn National the first year she was old enough to compete in the 9-13 class. Shortly thereafter, a torn ACL led to knee surgery in 2008 when she was just 12 years old. After a six-month recovery, she spent another six months training to get back in shape to race.

“Not racing for a whole year, all of those girls just got so much faster and catching up with that and getting into it, having the motivation to train harder than anyone else has been my biggest learning curve,” says Richards.

In 2012, at age 16, she finally made a comeback, winning her first Loretta Lynn National Championship as well as her first-ever Women’s Pro WORCS race. In January 2015, however, she went down hard again in the first round of the Pro 2 Lights she qualified for at Taft, California WORCS.

“We didn’t get a set lap or anything and going on the first lap I hit a big square I just couldn’t avoid and went over the bars real hard,” says Richards, who ended up breaking her wrist and tailbone. “It felt like it was going to be a good year and everything just kind of stopped right then.”

Things didn’t stop for long, however. Considering that was less than two years ago, the fact that she has been able to bounce back and shut down former national champs is a testament to how hard she’s worked at getting redemption. In the Moto 1 Women’s 16+ All Stars at Loretta's, Richards was in second place trailing the formerly “unbeatable” Hannah Hodges, who wound up pushed back by a lapper at the tail end.

“I was right behind her for quite a few laps, pressuring her and just watching her get tired,” says Richards, “She just wasn’t thinking and I could see that. I knew instead of trying to pass her, I would let her make a mistake and that’s exactly what she did. You know, I was just riding a bit smarter and thinking a bit more.”

Richards has definitely shown her smarts on the motocross track and will continue to ride a few MX races a year in order to keep her name out there and push herself outside her comfort zone.

“I’ve been the underdog my entire life, so I’m used to not being in the limelight, but you get a lot more of that with motocross, so I’ve tried to be good at that, too,” she says.

When asked if she has been met with any criticism for her decision to focus more on off-road next season, Richards says that for sponsors she’s had for a long time, this is nothing new.

“They’ll support me either way I go,” she says, but admits steering focus away from motocross next year will make it harder to gain new sponsors. Both Yamaha and JM Racing have been her top supporters, but Fly Racing, Oakley, Dunlop, and Bell Helmets have all been tremendously helpful throughout the years.

Brandy Richards

The next goals

Recovering from injuries at a fragile point in her career was nearly enough to make her consider an early retirement, but as we’ve seen, relenting was merely a fleeting thought. Her mission now is to take on more grueling, higher-profile races like the AMA National Hare & Hounds, the 100-mile GNCC and hopefully one day the ISDE (International Six Days Enduro). All the while, the reality of coming into adult life and balancing less exhilarating priorities looms. Despite her lucrative pro racing career, she still has a day job while she slowly works towards a degree in Sports Medicine in Havasu.

“It was hard. I had to grow up pretty quick,” says Richards on finding the balance while spending 16 of her 20 years traveling and training for one race after another. “I feel like I’m really lucky to be able to race for a living. I love what I do. I wouldn’t take anything back.”

Most of her next season will be spent off-road, but you can still expect to see number 198 working some of her favorite MX tracks with the pros at Glen Helen and Mammoth Mountain next year, as she continues to chase the dream of racing in the desert and the trees worldwide.

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