Joel Robert, one of the greatest champions in the history of motocross, passed away this afternoon at the age of 77 near his home in Charleroi, Belgium. Robert, who had been in poor health for several years, had been hospitalized after contracting the COVID-19 coronavirus. He was briefly released from the hospital, where he ended up suffering a heart attack. He was placed in a medically induced coma, from which he never recovered.
Joel Robert was a major force in motocross in the 1960s and early ’70s, both in Europe and here in America. All told, he won six FIM 250cc Motocross World Championships and 50 Grand Prix events, both records that would stand for more nearly 30 years. He also helped introduce professional motocross to Americans when he joined Edison Dye’s annual Inter-Am tours, and later the Trans-AMA Series.
Robert was not allowed to start racing until he was 16, as per Belgian law. His family did not have much means, but they managed to get him a Greeves street bike, which Joel converted into a motocross bike. He first joined the 250cc World Championship in 1962, with limited success. He got his first big break before the 1964 season from the Czech-made CZ brand after they failed to lure the Swedish hero Torsten Hallman, the defending champion, away from Husqvarna. Robert ended up beating Hallman on the CZ for the ’64 title when he was just 21 years old, making him the youngest world champion to that point. Robert would finish second in each of the next three years while battling with older stars like Hallman and Russian ironman Victor Arbekov. Robert finally won the 250cc world title back from Hallman in 1968 and defended successfully in ’69.
In 1970, Robert was offered a contract from Suzuki, which was in the process of building a motocross juggernaut. He won the next three 250cc World Championships and dominated the 1970 Trans-AMA Series, winning all six rounds he attended.
By the mid-seventies, injuries began to take their toll on Robert’s body, along with his admitted heavy drinking and smoking. In an interview with MXLarge.com, Robert said, “I was a bad character, if somebody told me to do something, I would not listen. I would do what I wanted, and that sometimes meant having a good time on a Friday or Saturday night.”
Despite his self-defeating habits, Robert ranks among the greatest motocross riders of all time. He was at the vanguard of two generations of Belgian riders that would dominate the FIM World Championships for decades to come, including Roger De Coster, Gaston Rahier, Harry Everts, Georges Jobe, Andre Malherbe, Eric Geboers, Joel Smets, and Stefan Everts, who would finally break Robert’s records for Grand Prix wins and world titles.
Godspeed, Joel Robert.
Images: Dick Miller Archives