A Brief History of Off-Road Racing in America

American Off-Road racing as we know it today effectively started in 1962 when the Ekins brothers braved the Baja peninsula on Motorcycles in less than 40 hours to set the Tijuana-to-La Paz, Baja Mexico record. This stunt was the spark that ignited the fire that started long-distance desert racing.

the Ekins brothers baja

The Baja 1000 and The Mint 400 were launched and both reach global acclaim. After sleeping on Sal Fish’s floor visiting the Baja 1000 Thierry Sabine launched the Dakar Rally in 1978 connecting American off-road racing to rally effectively creating “Rally Raid”.

Thierry Sabine dakar rally

The 80’s were magical. With multiple factories involved and an explosion in off-road vehicles, builders primarily in Southern California which was fueled by the magical collision between hot rod culture, the aerospace industry, and the harsh and beautiful deserts of Southern California, Baja, Nevada, and Arizona.

mint contingency

The 1980 Mint 400


Roger Mears in his Class 7 Team Nissan Factory Truck

The culture exploded! Micky Thompson was out front leading the way with SCORE desert racing his stadium truck racing series bringing the spectacle of off-road racing to stadiums all over the US, Canada, and the rest of the world.

Mears Balch x

After Micky’s untimely death off-road lost its way. But the culture was now full of innovators who weren’t going to go away. Stadium racing gave way to larger outdoor tracks in the midwest and west coast evolving from the small Micky Thomson Trucks into Pro-Lites,  Pro-2’s, and Pro 4’s birthing some of the most incredibly capable vehicles on the planet.

Rob MacCachren Mad Media

In 1994 everything changed again, Trophy Trucks or Unlimited Tucks were introduced and the world watched in awe at the incredible capabilities of these truly unlimited vehicles. Still the only truly unlimited class in all of racing. If you can build something better that will survive the brutality of off-road racing, you can race it.

Jimmy smith Russ Wernimont trophy truck jpg

Terrible Herbst Mad Media

Influenced by European Rallies The Press On Regardless Rally was first run in 1949 as a Time-Speed-Distance rally. In 1969, the POR became a stage rally. In 1972, the event was part of the International Championship for Manufacturers and then in 1973 and 1974 part of the World Rally Championship setting the stage for more Rally racing in America including The Olympus Rally in Washington state which became a WRC event from 1986 to 1988. Rally Races were held all over America including, The Rally in the 100 Acre Wood, The Oregon Trail Rally, New England Forest Rally, Mount Washington Hillclimb Auto Race, and many more.

POR webpages

Gene Henderson and Ken Pogue on their way to victory in the ’72 POR. Photo courtesy of Mark Henderson and Brian McMahon.

Rally racing in America got a massive boost with the release of Ken Block’s Gymkhana film series, the first three of which my brother and I directed and produced. High-profile action sports athletes Travis Pastrana, Dave Mirra, and Bucky Lasek also began to race Rally which eventually led to Rally being entered as a sport in ESPN’s X-Games.

Ken Block Gymkhana Mad Media josh martelli

Josh Martelli Co-Produced and Directed Gymkhana 1. He was also the only one brave enough to pilot the segway during the “Segway” stunt

Tanner Foust x games Mad Media

Tanner Foust launching at X-Games

Stage Rally much like Desert off-road racing was difficult to spectate and leaked door-to-door racing action Americans were used to with racing such as NASCAR. Rallycross started in Europe and seemed a logical next step to build interest in Rally racing in America. Embolden by the success of Rally in X-Games, ARX Rallycross launched in 2018 but only lasted 2 seasons. In 2021 Travis Pastrana picked up the pieces and launched Nitro Rallycross attached to his Nitro Circus. Passionate about Rally, Pastrana has been responsible for building dynamic tracks and attracting world-class drivers and major sponsors breathing new life into Rally Racing in America.

nitro rallycross

Born out of Jeeping 1998 Rock Crawling competitions begin and attracted people from non-desert regions to build vehicles to compete creating a new subculture of off-road racing.

walker evans johnson valley mad media x

Mad media casey currie koh

In 2007 King of the Hammers took Rock Crawling and transformed it into Rock Racing racing vehicles over rocky mountains in Johnson Valley creating a new style of racing and a new vehicle type that is still evolving, The Ultra 4.

koh shootout


shannon campbells ultra off road race vehicle

In 2012 my brother and I purchased The Mint 400 and in a few short years, we made it the biggest off-road race in North America bringing off-road racing back to a major television network and attracting hundreds of racers, thousands of fans, and major sponsors.

luke mcmillin wins the mint x

In 2006 the first sport UTV showed up, the Arctic Cat Prowler. Polaris launched the Polaris RZR platform in 2007 and completely altered the path of off-road racing culture. Now anybody with decent credit could walk into a dealership and get a nearly race-ready vehicle for a couple of hundred bucks a month. Today UTV’s are the strongest class in off-road racing with hundred of competitors showing up at each race. With these UTV’s exploding in popularity in the US and around the world we see no limits to our potential growth. UTV’s have not only lowered the financial barrier but have ushered in more women, youth, and diversification.

xpk Polaris RZR

 In 1994 Trophy Kart’s were introduced within short-course racing giving kids as young as 6 years old an opportunity to get into off-road racing. Although youth racing was not new to off-road racing Trophy Kart’s lowered the age from teenagers to kids setting up the future talent pool for off-road racing. Due to the lack of tight rules Trophy Kart build cost quickly spiraled out of control pushing out most families due to cost. In 2010 Polaris introduced the RZR 170. What was meant to be a toy for kids quickly became a race car for the youth. In 2006 my brother and I launched the UTV world championship and included youth racing for the first time in a larger race format exposing it to the world. Today we have thousands of youth racing in short-course and desert racing with no signs of slowing growth.

trophy karts racing

trophy kart

utv world championship youth race

We are currently undergoing an evolution of 4-wheel drive technology. Sounds strange but up until the last few years 4 wheel drives could not survive with the amount of wheel travel we have on trophy trucks 26 inches of travel in the front and 36 inches in the back. That means that our rear wheel can travel up and down 3 feet! Now we are able to take advantage of the superior grip and acceleration of the 4-wheel drive platform. The new platform has won most major off-road races, but 4-wheel drive is not totally dominant yet. We are still working out the kinks in reliability.

Gus Vildosola Masonwd TT

Fast Ball AWD TT Jimco Details

There are many much faster vehicles with higher top speeds throughout racing but nothing that matches our suspension capabilities. Suspension is what makes us special! Trophy trucks have an incredible 26 inches of wheel travel in the front d 36 inches in the back. This means you can hit three-foot whoops at the north of 100 mph while staying relatively level.

Off-Road racing in America racing is only 55 years old. We have a lot left to accomplish but I believe it’s all upside. The future of off-road racing in America has never been brighter!

Matt Martelli

Founder of Mad Media, a multidisciplinary creative and marketing firm and CEO of Off-Road Racer, UTV Underground, The Mint 400, The California 300, and Dirt Co. Matt is one of the biggest influences in Off-Road Racing today.