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Common Tread

A beginner's guide to dirt bike racing

Jan 21, 2021

With the rapid rise of dirt bike sales lately, you might be thinking, “Where is everyone going with those bikes in the back of their trucks?” Maybe you just picked one up for yourself and are looking for a little more action than your typical Sunday ride. 

Racing dirt bikes is one of the most challenging, exhilarating and rewarding things you can do on two wheels, but how do you get started? To an untrained eye, dirt bikes all look the same but the truth is that variations range from motocrossers to race-spec enduros to street-legal dual-sports. If you already have a specific type of dirt bike, that might determine which type of racing you want to try. If you haven't bought one yet, this article will help you decide which one to choose based on the type of racing and riding you plan to do.

Honda offers a variety of dirt bikes based on the style of riding and racing you prefer..
Most dirt bikes admittedly look alike, but different models exist based on the type of riding or racing you prefer. Honda photo

So to get started, let's break down some of the different types of off-road racing so you can decide which discipline suits you best.

Brandon Wise racing MX at NJMP
Our very own Brandon Wise (left) shredding it up at the New Jersey Motorsports Park motocross track. Photo by Kathleen Begley.

Motocross and Supercross

Plenty of folks already know about motocross (MX for short) since it is widely televised and pretty spectacular to watch. Courses are outdoors, usually one to three miles in length and consist of natural and man-made terrain that includes hills, jumps, whoops and berms over a combination of turns and straightaways. The terrain can range from dry and sandy to wet and muddy. Races begin at a starting gate with all racers in the same class starting side by side with their engines running. Races consist of two sessions that are 12 to 30 minutes plus two laps in length and are called “motos.” The scores from each moto are combined to determine the overall winner. Between practice and both motos, you will end up on the track for a total of less than two hours.

Supercross racing
Supercross is great for spectating since races are typically held in sporting arenas. Photo by Matt Broughton.

Supercross (SX for short) is similar to MX but the races are typically held within stadiums and arenas. This makes it much easier for spectators to see all of the action, whereas MX spectators can usually only watch a section of the track, and that's one reason Supercross draws more fans than any other form of motorcycle racing in the United States. Compared to motocross, Supercross courses are usually wound up tighter with bigger jumps and shorter straights. Racers can sometimes jump up to 35 feet in the air and cover 70 feet of distance.

Phil S. at the start of a hare scramble.
Former RevZilla employee Phil Somersall at the starting line of a hare scramble. Photo by Joe Zito

Hare scrambles

Sometimes referred to as “Cross Country” or XC, hare scrambles are raced on natural terrain over a course approximately three to eight miles in length. They usually do not feature the intimidating high jumps of MX or SX but generally include very tough terrain, including rocks, roots, water crossings, mud and steep hills. Racers start on rows based on the class they are racing in. Each row goes off in 30-second intervals, starting with the most advanced groups to reduce passing as much as possible, since courses include narrow woods trails. Dead-engine starts are common, where your bike must be turned off and started only when the flagman raises the green flag. Racers will typically race between one and two hours, getting as many laps in as possible, as fast as they can. Racers with the most laps and shortest elapsed time win.


Grand National Cross Country, or GNCC, is very similar to hare scrambles, but typically features longer and faster woods courses, sometimes including grass track and MX sections. Courses can cover up to 12 miles per lap and races last up to three hours. GNCC also includes classes for ATVs and electric mountain bikes (eMTB), as well.

Pat racing Greenbrier Enduro in NJ
RevZilla's Product Specialist Pat McHugh putting in the work at the Greenbrier Enduro. Photo by Off Road Paparazzi


There are a few different types of enduro races, including traditional time-keepers, restart and sprint enduros. Similar to hare scrambles, they are raced on natural terrain, but over a much longer course, sometimes 100 miles or even more, including paved sections on public roads. All enduros allow some time to refuel, make repairs, eat, etc.

Starting with traditional time-keepers, racers will go off in rows of about four at a given “key time” every minute. Key time is what keeps all racers on the same minute. For example, if the first row of racers start at 9 a.m., the fifth row will go off at 9:05, but their watches will be set five minutes late, so they read 9 a.m. No matter which row racers start on, their clocks will read 9 a.m. when they start.

There are checkpoints along the route and racers are penalized for arriving late or early. Racers must keep time by using their odometer, clock and roll chart (or enduro-specific computer) to ensure they are not going too fast or too slow. In a perfect time keeper, the racers on each row will ride together all day, never seeing or passing anyone from another row. This makes enduros feel like a great day of riding with your friends. When you sign up, you can request to be on the same row as your buds. If you don’t have any riding buddies, you will likely have some from your row at the end of the day.

There's a lot of strategy that's beyond the scope of this article, such as knowing when you might or might not encounter a checkpoint. In general, I find that typically you need to go slow on the easy stuff and fast on the hard stuff.

Restart or start-control enduros are similar to traditional time-keepers in length, terrain and difficulty, and they are also my personal favorite. Restart enduros include timed and transfer stages. During the timed stage, racers go as fast as possible to the next checkpoint. The terrain in the timed stage is generally tighter, faster and more challenging. During a transfer stage, racers may cover some easier terrain (but not always) or some on-road sections with relatively low average speeds. This gives them time to make it to the start of their timed stage, where they again take off on their minute, hence “restart.” Racers who crash or suffer a mechanical problem or other delay might not make it to the next stage on time, causing them to start a section late based on their key time, but longer breaks are built into the race for folks to catch up and get back on their minute.

Sprint enduros are a relatively new format which is sort of a combination between a hare scramble and an enduro. Racers race against the clock to get the best time possible on several test sections, which are shorter in length, similar to a hare scramble lap. Sections will vary in style from a “cross” section, including fast, flowy grass track and sometimes MX track features, to “enduro” sections including woods trails and natural terrain. Racers will get multiple attempts at each test to go as hard as possible to get the lowest time. Racers with the fastest lap times across the combined test sections win. Since this format is still growing, different organizations and regions may have slightly different rules and race structures. If you like to race the clock but prefer to keep your race loops shorter than time-keeper or start-control enduros, a sprint enduro may be exactly what you’re after.

AHRMA offers multiple racing disciplines for vintage bikes.
AHRMA offers racing for vintage bikes. If your machine is from 1999 or prior, I recommend racing in your regional AHRMA series for a low-buck-high-times approach to off-road racing. #362 in this photo is Zillan Zack Gagnon doing his first vintage race on his XR. Photo by Joe Zito.

Vintage racing

AHRMA stands for the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association and offers versions of most of the aforementioned disciplines of racing, but for older (pre-1999) bikes. I previously wrote about my personal experience racing AHRMA XC but it's worth mentioning again because folks typically think racing is very expensive. It surely can be, but does not have to be. You can pick up an inexpensive old bike, sign up for some vintage races and have a really great time on the cheap.

Two goofy racers, Joe Zito and Brandon Wise at the Turkey Scramble at NJMP.
Brandon and I recently competed in the Turkey Scramble at NJMP, which is a combination of MX and hare scrambles. The only thing better than racing dirt bikes is racing dirt bikes with your buds. Photo by Kathleen Begley.

Ready to race?

With any of these different types of dirt bike racing, start by linking up with the local organization that promotes them. There are a ton of resources online to find regional and national race series. Some will require an AMA membership, which can typically be purchased at the event. Someone will happily guide you through signing up for your first race. You will usually sign a waiver at the gate plus pay a gate fee and then sign up will be a separate line. Prices per race typically range between $40 to $80.

You may be assigned a transponder to attach to your helmet or bike to register your lap times with the timing system on the course and they will also likely assign you a number sticker, so no need to worry about numbers on your bike. They’ll let you know which class to start out in, what time your race will start and where the starting area is. Some races will require tech inspection, and some will require your motorcycle to be street-legal, with registration, insurance and lights. They will also likely ensure you are wearing proper riding gear, such as boots, pants, gloves, helmet and goggles.

Before you sign up for any race, be sure your bike is in good repair and you have spare parts, fuel, water and food. Most off-road racers, aside from MX and SX, will carry a hydration pack or fanny pack to carry some of these items throughout the race. As you could imagine, racing an enduro all day will make you very thirsty and hungry, so be prepared. Most long-distance races will include several fuel stops. Many will also provide a lunch stop for racers to refuel their bodies before continuing the race.

I really love racing dirt bikes. I have found that there is no other feeling like it on earth. Even at the most novice level, the anticipation, excitement and feeling of personal achievement is unrivaled. Don’t get me wrong, I also love Sunday-fun-day rides with my buds, but racing helps push your riding skills beyond your comfort zone. Riding new places with new people and getting official results showing your position within your class is a great way to build your skills as a rider.