Part I: 1971 - 1980
Part I in a three part series. Click here for Part II (1971 - 1980)
reprinted from www.supercross.com without permission
Roger DeCoster has helped popularize motocross all over the world, and especially in the United States. He's won five world championships, along with numerous other championships and victories. He is motocross racing personified - he has done it all.
Roger is currently the US Suzuki Motocross Team Manager. He talks about the highs and lows of the past 30 years:
1971 - The first GP of the season was in Italy at Cingoli, and I happened to win that event. It was the first ever win for a Japanese company in the 500 class. Ake Jonnson, Paul Frederichs, and defending world champion Bengt Aberg were my main competitors during that season. There was a little set-back during the middle of the year, I broke a couple of bones in my hand in a local race a few days before the Grand Prix of Finland. I clinched my first world championship at the last round in Holland. It was the greatest feeling in my life at that point. It was everything I had dreamed of for years and years. In the fall of that year I was invited to Japan, and I got to meet Mr. Suzuki. We had a big reception in the Hammamatsu Grand Hotel, which was the largest hotel in Hammamatsu at the time.
1972 - I didn't have too many low points. Our bike was so awesome. There was no weight limit, and our bikes were very light, with many aluminum and titanium parts. And I was probably in my best condition ever. That was a wonderful year for me. I could let other people come away with good starts, yet I still had the confidence that I could win a race.
1973 - That was the year that Maico went to long-travel suspension. Yamaha also come out with the 'Mono-shock'. Those of us at Suzuki were a bit behind.
There was a rule change right before the start of the season, and our bikes were already prepared for that year. Now we had to add weight to comply with the new rules. We changed many of the aluminum and titanium parts over to metal and steel. This upset the handling and balance of the bike tremendously, along with upsetting the suspension. We had a very tough season that year.
Maico was very strong. Willi Bauer was on Maico that year, and he rode very well. I ended up winning the championship again, but it was tight the entire season.
The first long-travel chassis for us at Suzuki was made in mid-season by myself and Sylvain Geboers, who was riding in the 250 class at that time. Sylvain and I started to cut up and modify our frames to make them have long-travel suspension. We changed the frame specifications, we made our own rear shock bodies with Koni internals, we modified swing-arms. Sylvain and I worked together a lot. He might work on the frames, while I worked on the swing-arms. By working together, it made us more time-efficient rather than working independently on the 250 and the 500. The inventor of the 'Mono-shock' was Mr. Tilkens, and he was helping us too. He was very good at welding.
By the end of the year I was exhausted physically and mentally. Sometimes, because we were spending so much time modifying the bikes, working on them until the middle of the night, I was not able to train as I normally would, so my conditioning was not the best.
Of course Suzuki was not pleased with the rule change that required us to add weight to the bikes. When the rule change came about, it seemed to be directed solely at Suzuki. It appeared like the European manufacturers had banded together starting in late 1972 to make this change go forward. And funny enough, Gerrit Wolsink, who at the time was the leading representative of the privateers, had a voice in this change happening, although in 1974 we would become team-mates at Suzuki! ;)
When this rule change came about right before the start of the season, it was too late to modify our bikes, and the people at Suzuki kind of threw their hands up in the air, and gave up. We had to add about 25 pounds of weight to our bikes for that season.
It was the first time finishing in second place for me in the past few years. I felt I had given it my best, but we had some bike problems. Also, my competitor Heikki Mikkola earned it. I had, and still have so much respect for the guy. If anyone deserved it, it was Heikki.
1975 - Maybe we had a renewed determination to reclaim the title we had before. It was basically the same bike as the year before, only we had more time to refine it. The new design of 1974 had now matured. One of the changes we made was going to the upswept exhaust pipe. It was a much better balanced bike.
At the time the motocross world was centered in Belgium. All the top riders were based there including the Swedes, Finns, British, Belgians, and others. There were many important pre-season international races at that time too. During the pre-season events we had problems with the piston and engine seizures at 15 races in a row that I was leading. The Japanese were just about in tears, as the Grand Prix season was getting closer.
Once the GP season started the bike was working great and handling well. It had a very nice powerband, it was a good bike, and we won the championship again. It was a good feeling, I felt like I was back on top of the world, and it was very much like 1972.
At the end of the season, I came to the USA to compete in the Trans-AMA series in the fall, which I won too. Things were going very well, and I was happy. The new race manager at Suzuki was very much a 'fighter'. He wanted to make sure we had what it takes to win. He was also a fun person to work with. He was very aggressive, very motivating, and it was a good year.
1976 - The longer you stay at the top, the more the pressure and responsibilities. You also put pressure on yourself. As you win more, there are many requests on your time, and to do PR functions. When you have success, it's very easy to get sidetracked. You have to maintain a fine balance in your life so that you are able to maintain being competitive.
That year I had a close battle with my team-mate Gerrit Wolsink. I was leading early on in the season, but later on I had a few bad races, and Gerrit was able to close the gap between us. Coming into the last round at Luxembourg, we still both had a chance at the championship. Although I DNF'ed one of the motos with a flat front tire, I won my fifth 500cc World Championship.
Back in this era, DNF's were much more common. Today's bikes are much more reliable ... the engines, the suspension components, tires and more. When you see a DNF because of mechanical problems today in motocross, it's certainly not as common as in years past. Motocross bikes have become very reliable today.
1977 - The previous year, I had come back to the USA and competed and won in the Trans-AMA series. Maybe coming into this year I was not as prepared as I should of been. At the same time, Yamaha had a new bike that was very good, and Heikki Mikkola was strong. Mikkola and the Yamaha were a good combination, and they ended up winning the championship. Towards the end of the year, I felt like I was starting to get back to my previous form. I came to the USA again for the Trans-AMA Series in the fall, and won that for my fourth and final time.
1978 - Coming into the '78 season, as I was practicing and testing in February, I crashed and ended up losing my spleen. The injury was a bit scary. My spleen actually exploded into five pieces. At the time of the crash I'm thinking 'What's happening here? Am I going to make it?' And I could feel myself going away (as in possibly death). Luckily I was with Sylvain Geboers, who was practicing with me at this local track, which also holds a big race every year. It's in the town of Mol, Belgium. Sylvain was good friends with the head surgeon of the local hospital. I told Sylvain 'I think I'm having a problem internally'. On the outside of my body there was not a scratch. I told him we should go to the hospital because I'm feeling very strange. I felt as though I was going to pass out. I got into the van, and crawled on the floor. Sylvain started driving right away .... we left the bikes there at the track. It was around lunch time, and as I said, Sylvain was good friends with the surgeon. So Sylvain stopped at the guy's home, because he knew that he would be there eating lunch. Sure enough, the surgeon was home eating his lunch. So he jumped into the van with us, and started checking me out. He said it's a good thing we stopped by, or I wouldn't of made it.
We got to the hospital, and they started to pump blood into me. The hospital staff had a hard time getting blood into me quick enough. I had one blood pouch connected into each arm, and the last thing I remember seeing is one doctor and one nurse squeezing a bag into each arm because I was losing so much blood internally.
Apparently, my heart stopped, and they had to give me an adrenalin injection directly into my heart. Of course, I was really happy when I finally woke up. ;)
Surprisingly, two weeks later, I raced and won an international event. It's the biggest pre-Grand Prix event. It's called the 'Easter Trophy'. I won the 250 class, but I felt weird. It felt as though my insides were bouncing around. The rest of my season went just so-so. The spleen acts as a filter for your blood, and it's also a reserve area for blood. When you lose your spleen, it takes quite some time for your body to adjust fully. I don't know how much of that I can blame on my results for that season, but I ended up fifth in the 500cc championship.
1979 - This would be my last year with Suzuki as a rider, although I didn't know that at the time. I still wanted to prove that I could do well. Starting in 1978, and continuing into 1979, I think we got carried away with the suspension. It was way too tall, and the handling issues were not solved. From '77 - '79, I believe the Yamaha was the best bike, and I probably was not as good as I was before. I was getting older.
What hurt me most was that some of the people at Suzuki thought that the problem was more the rider than the bike. We had some young riders at the time, and they did not finish in front of me in championship, as I was the top Suzuki rider. The feeling within the team was not as good as it could be because we were not winning. I felt that our bikes were behind, and we needed a little more work on them.
Suzuki had no interest in renewing my contract at the end of 1979. I think the team manager felt that I was past my best, and that I was not going to win anymore. They had a certain budget to work with, and they wanted to take their chances with young riders.
I still wanted to work with the team as a consultant or an advisor or to help with testing. Suzuki had no room for it at that time, or maybe they thought that I couldn't do a good job at it. At the time, they did very little testing in Europe, most of it was done in Japan, with production bike testing done in the US. Plus it's not like today .... there was not as much testing going on back them as compared to today. Back then, you went to Japan for one week and did testing, and that's basically what you got for the entire year. The bikes did not evolve as much during the year as they started to do later in the 80's.
I could not believe that the company I had won five world championships with, and four Trans-AMA series with, did not have an offer for me. It was very hard to take for my ego.
On the other hand, I had offers from Yamaha and Honda. They had been talking to me for years. I could never make myself go to them, even though I had great offers. I felt so much like a Suzuki person because I had won all my championships with them. We had so much success together.
I had an ongoing offer from Honda, and they kept calling me. They did not seem to be bothered by the fact that I was over 30 years of age. They started pressing me for an answer, and their offer was tremendous. It was better money that I had from Suzuki at any time. But I still could not make myself do it. I told Honda that when I come to Japan, we will discuss it then.
I took a flight to Japan. I went to Suzuki first. I went to the factory, and the guys there seemed really embarrassed to see me. It seemed like they were trying to hide. They said 'Sorry, there is not anything we can do for you for next year'. It was very tough, because I wanted to continue working with the team.
It also felt good that I had this big company (Honda) still wanting me. So, I got on the bullet train, and went to Tokyo. I went to meet the guys from Honda. Everything changed. They made me a good deal. At first, it was a three year deal. The first year I would definitely be a rider, but along with being a Grand Prix rider, I would also be a development rider. They wanted me to do a lot of testing and help them develop the Pro-Link rear suspension. I like testing, so that part of it fit right it. They showed me around the factory. The Honda race manager at that time was very aggressive, very gung-ho. He wanted to dominate. After racing, I had the option of becoming an advisor to the team to help with testing and coaching of the riders.
I won my last race at the final GP in Luxembourg. It was a nice ending to my racing career to win both heats there. It was a great feeling, but it was also hard to get on the podium and say 'This is my last race'.
The following week, I flew to the US to help reorganize the motocross team. Those next four or five years I spent so much time going back and forth between the US and Europe, helping both the GP team and the American team. Almost every other week I was coming or going.
At the end of 1980, when Dave and I came back to the US, together we started reorganizing the US team. I helped to convince the Japanese bosses at Honda that Dave would make a good team manager, and they followed suite. I wanted to have the freedom to be able to go back and forth to Europe and Japan.
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