J.N. Roberts the pioneer of protective motocross gear

J.N. Roberts the pioneer of protective motocross gear

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J.N. Roberts – the pioneer of protective motocross gear

1967-68 international motocross tour, australia and new zealand
JN Roberts - International Motocross at Christmas Hills 1967

Photos:  [Left] Colorful Californian J.N. (Jimmy) Roberts (US, Husqvarna) being introduced to the large crowd at the third round of the 1967-68 International Motocross series round at Christmas Hills on 26 November 1967; [Right] Jumping Jimmy in action at Mount Kembla (NSW)  (By courtesy Tim Gibbes)

Colourful Californian on show in the 1967-68 International Motocross Series

Millions of motocross riders around the world can thank James (Jimmy) Roberts for protecting their bodies over the years.

For it was the 22-year-old desert racer from California in the United States who pioneered a number of safety innovations in the field of off-road racing in the sixties, which have influenced today’s motocross gear design.

Roberts introduced face masks, shoulder and back pads and shin guards to Australia when he competed in the 1967-68 International Motocross Series across the country and New Zealand.

He did this by incorporating protective gear from other sports by bolting a Grid Iron (American football) helmet face guard to his motorcycle helmet, wearing football shoulder pads, as well as a baseball catcher’s shin guards. He also wore one-piece leather pants and a lightweight cotton top over his protective armor.

These changes were innovative and, at the time, considered to be the first steps in the evolution of modern safety equipment in the world of off-road racing.

When “J.N.”, as he called himself, first raced down under at Mount Kembla in Woolongong (NSW) on 19 November 1967, it was actually the first time he had raced motocross.

Only weeks earlier, he won the famous Mexican 1,000 mile desert race, which later was renamed to the Baja 1000.

He missed the opening round of the International Motocross series at Snake Gully on 12 November as his flight from the United States was delayed.

And when he arrived in Woolongong, the press had a field day making fun of his racing gear, which was completely different to the Australians.

Australian Motorcycle News described Roberts as the ”most colorful visitor with his space-type helmet, grid-iron gear and bright yellow jumper and chequered panels down each side of his one-piece leathers.”

Up until then, the Australian motocross riders wore open faced-helmets, with only goggles to protect the eyes from dirt and rocks. 

One piece leather pants were only just starting to be worn, with colorful rugby tops replacing leather tops or one-piece leather suits.

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J.N. Roberts - The King of the Desert

Being a desert-racer, Roberts was not used to the tighter racing motocross circuit and close contact with the other riders and he complained to race organiser Tim Gibbes. But that is the nature of the sport!

We don’t know if Roberts ever raced motocross again, but he went on to have a very successful career as a professional off-road and enduro motorcycle racer and a film industry stuntman.

In the 1960s and early 1970s he was the most dominant motorcycle competitor in American desert racing centered in the Mojave Desert of Southern California – winning 27 consecutive desert races, which earnt him the unofficial nickname of ‘King of the Desert’.

In 1999 Roberts was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999, then in 2009 into the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall Of Fame.

Photo: J.N. Roberts dressed for safety down, wearing protective body armor under a light cotton jumper, with one piece leather pants (By courtesy Tim Gibbes)

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