Part II: 1981 - 1990
Part II in a three part series. Click here for Part I (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:
1981 - My job description with Honda was to be an 'advisor'. But I was used for many different things. I was the link between Honda of Japan and the US race team. I was also the link between Honda of Japan and the European race team. In Europe, they had their team manager, and in the US they had Dave Arnold.
As I said, Dave and I work very well together. Areas that I was not strong in, Dave was. And areas that Dave was not strong in, I was. Because I had won championships in the past, I think I had a certain amount of respect from our riders. It was easier for me to convince the riders to do things someone else couldn't. I still rode at the time too. I did a lot of test riding. The only drawback to 1981 is that it was the only year we did not win any championships.
The high point of the year was that we (America) won the Trophee and Motocross des Nations. The des Nations events mean a lot to me. They are very important, and were always the biggest events of the year. Everyone talks about this guy is the fastest, or the 125 guys are fastest, or the 250 guys are best. But the des Nations puts everyone together in the same class at the same time. One week you rode the 250 event (Trophee des Nations) and the next week you rode the 500 event (Motocross des Nations).
We could see the potential in the Honda bikes and team members for those events. Our guys were not winning at the time though. Suzuki had Mark Barnett winning the 125 class and in supercross. And Kent Howerton on Suzuki was strong in the 250 class. Our team was Johnny O'Mara, Chuck Sun, Danny LaPorte and Donnie Hansen. Towards the end of the year, our results started to improve. We thought 'We need to go to the des Nations'.
Towards the end of August, as the des Nations approached, there seemed to be a lack of interest. No one seemed to be able to get their act together. No one was excited. Finally, I thought to myself 'Why don't we send all Honda riders as the US team?' At the time, I think that American Honda did not know too much about the des Nations events. They did not know what it would cost to send the entire team. I took a chance, but we did it. Now things were in motion. But by the time the events were to come about, the bosses at Honda started to complain, after realizing how much money we were spending on this thing. But now it was too late to do anything different. Plus we had the magazine Motocross Action with Dick Miller and Larry Maiers in helping us raise monies for the team. That fund raising and Honda paid for the entire thing.
The first event was the Trophee des Nations in Lommel, Belgium. I had problems with myself to a certain extent because it felt strange coming and representing the US. I had always tried to win as a rider for Belgium. In the Trophee des Nations, as a member of the Belgian team, I was part of the winning team ten years in a row. We also won six times in the open class (500cc - Motocross des Nations). It felt weird. But what made it easier was that the Belgian motorcycle federation never asked me for help. I had offered my help for the des Nations teams earlier to them, but they were not interested. That made me feel easier about helping the US team. Also, before the race, I had asked the Lommel club to help with financial support for travel expenses. They said 'What are you going to do here on a sand track with an American team? You are going to be slaughtered here. We are going to kill you. If you were going to come here and were the main draw, we might consider it, but you are! also-rans'. So that motivated me even more.
Our team went over early. We went to sand tracks and practiced and practiced and practiced. We initially had a lot of bike problems because we had no experience in the US riding on sand like that. But we worked thru the whole thing, and by race-time we were ready.
Of course, everything was fine when we won. It was one of the greatest wins ever. And Honda was able to get so much advertising out of that race. I think the wins also gave a lot of confidence to the team and our riders. The following year would be good for us. That was the springboard for us to do well for the next number of years.
1982 - We started a string of winning championships for Honda. Donnie Hansen won the supercross title. That was big, and definitely the high point of the season. The US won the des Nations events again, so that worked out very well.
Johnny O'Mara was our 125 rider, and he was in the hunt all year long with Jeff Ward. Donnie Hansen also won the 250 nationals. But that was a bit of a surprise, because Ricky Johnson and his Yamaha could of won ... he was leading the point standings coming into the last race in Colorado. Ricky was the fastest that day on the track. There was a downhill jump, and Ricky was jumping a lot more than he needed to. It was one of those jumps that when you landed, you landed very flat and very hard. At that time, the bikes were not as bullet-proof as they are today. His front wheel just exploded. If he had backed off just a little bit and finished in second, he would of won the championship. Obviously Ricky learned a lot from that, because he came back to win seven more titles. But that gave us at Honda the 250 national championship.
Darrell Schultz was our guy in the open class, and he won that title. He had a very bad knee. He had so much play in his knee that at times he could barely stand. We were very worried about him, especially towards the end of the year when he was in it for the championship. I remember him saying 'Rog, don't worry, I'm going to win'. He had such a strong mind, and was able to take pain so well. I tell you, that guy had character. It took sheer will-power for him to win under those circumstances. We won three out of the four championships that year.
1983 - David Bailey won the supercross title for us at Honda. Bailey also won the 250 nationals, while O'Mara won the 125 title. What really sticks out from that year is the competition between Bailey and O'Mara. They were friends and team-mates, but they were very competitive. They were always challenging each other .... and not just on the motorcycles. Everything became a contest. I think it helped both of them to grow stronger because they each had so much pride.
Bob Hannah came to our team then. At first Johnny and David did not like that. Bob had a different style about everything than they did. He was more rough and more crude than they were. But to Bob's credit, he really became a 'team' guy. When he had no chance at the championships any more, he really rode as a team member. He was very professional.
1984 - We had an awesome team. We had David Bailey, Ron Lechien, Bob Hannah, and Johnny O'Mara. O'Mara won the supercross title. Bailey won the open title. We felt like we were on top of the world.
1985 - It felt like a bad year. We only won one championship. We had a great bike, and that was the last year for factory bikes in the US. The production rule would be starting next year. Before this, we had never worked with the production group at Honda, but now we were starting to work with them to make sure we had good bikes for 1986. At the time, our factory bike was awesome. It was much better than any of our competition by a long ways.
1986 - We had Bailey, O'Mara, and new riders Micky Dymond and Ricky Johnson. We won everything that year. Dymond won the 125 class. Johnson won the 250 class and supercross. Bailey won the open class. As a matter of fact, we went 1 - 2 - 3 in supercross and 250 outdoors with Johnson, Bailey, and O'Mara. And 1 - 2 in the 500 class with Bailey and Johnson.
1987 - David Bailey, our defending 500 champion was injured in February. I was there with David, and went to the hospital with him. His wife was there also. It was bad, because we are there, yet we felt so helpless to do anything. Here was this young guy injured in his prime. At that time, I felt 'Is racing really worth it? Should I still be doing this?
We think racing is so important. We think nothing can stop us. Is it really that important?' With all the success we had the year before, and then something like this happens, and you start thinking 'Why are we doing all this? Maybe it's stupid.' And I think I was not the only one to think this way. Dave Arnold and I both felt that maybe it was time to do something else .... let's quit this.
But then, day by day goes by, you have things you have to do, and pretty soon, you just keep on going. I think it had a much greater effect on Johnny O'Mara, because Johnny and David were so close. They were such good buddies. It was quite a blow to Johnny, especially as the season went on.
There were some days when I just wanted to shut off my mind. I was in a situation where I felt guilty by working with and encouraging all of our remaining riders. Part of it was that if it happened to a very wild rider, it would be one thing. But it happened to David Bailey, who was so controlled as a rider. Ricky was more of a gutsy rider, a guy with more 'balls'. Ricky would swap and scare you as he was racing. Sometimes after practice, we would tell Ricky 'Hey Ricky, you need to work on this part of the track'. Rick would say 'Don't worry R.D., when race time comes I got it under control!' For Rick, most of the time it was so. But if you were to estimate who on the team would be out of control and get in an accident, it would be anybody but David, because he always rode within his limits and was very smooth and conservative. His timing was perfect, and he did not take any chances on the track. I saw the crash. It was not a big crash. He just landed the wrong way, and tweake! d his neck.
I was the team manager for the des Nations team. It was the first and only time it's been in the US, at Unadilla. Bob Hannah really wanted to be on the team. He had been on the team before in '78 and '79, but had never been on a winning team. At the time, it was not so clear who should be on the 125. Micky Dymond had won the 125 nationals, and Hannah had some injuries earlier in the year.
It was a miserable day on the track itself, because it never stopped raining the entire weekend. Bob came thru on the 125. It was a very difficult situation because of the mud and ruts. Some of the time riders could not even make it up some of the hills in those conditions. You could not find someone better than Bob because he was very tough ... he didn't give up.
The US team won, and we were invited by President Ronald Reagan to the White House. We got to meet him in the Oval Office. It was quite a treat.
One funny story about Bob Hannah. Bob was always talking big and tough, like John Wayne. I think John Wayne was his hero. Both John Wayne and Bob like to live life 'big'. I think Bob still lives his life that way. ;)
We are all waiting in this room next to the Oval Office, getting ready to meet the President. Everyone was nervous and sweating. Bob says 'I'm not worried. I'm not going to be nervous about meeting that old guy'. As the time got closer to our meeting, Bob says 'Hey RD .... I AM sweating!' I think he was more nervous than anybody when we got into the Oval Office.
1988 - Ricky won the 250 supercross, and the 500 nationals. In the 250 outdoors, Wardy beat Rick. We won the 125 class with George Holland.
The Motocross des Nations was in France that year, and I remember something about that ;) Ronnie Lechien, who was with Kawasaki at the time, was part of the US team. It was Wardy on the 125, Ricky on the 250, and Lechien in the open class.
We were staying in this little hotel in the eastern part of France. We were all a little bit worried about Ronnie. We all knew how much talent he had, but he had a checkered past. Saturday night before the race, the entire team is to have dinner together. Everyone is there, everyone has started eating, but no Ronnie. So I go looking for Ronnie, and I find him in his hotel room. There are cases of beer everywhere. Beer on the floor. Beer on his night table. Beers here. Beers there. I'm not saying he drank them all, but there was beer everywhere. I said 'Ronnie, we are all waiting for you! Get over to the restaurant! And what about all these beers?' Ronnie said 'Don't worry, it's just all my friends. Don't worry, I'll be over there in a minute.' So he comes over to the dinner, eats really quickly, and before anyone else, he's gone again!
Our hotel rooms were across the parking lot from the restaurant. Before I am even done with my dinner, I go looking for him. As I enter the parking lot, I see Ronnie starting to drive away with a couple of girls in his car. I stopped him before he took off, and said 'Ronnie! What are you doing? I am going to kill you if you don't ride great tomorrow!' He says 'Don't worry R.D., I'll be fine.'
The next morning I make sure to wake him up. He didn't wake up too easy. We got him to the track. Once the gate dropped and the racing started, he rode so well, it was like he was riding by himself. (The US team won and Lechien won both of his heats.)
1989 - Ricky won the first five races of supercross that year. Then came the Gainesville national. Ricky got hurt in practice there.
There was a section on the track where it went thru a little hole. The top guys could jump it. Rick went slowly thru it, not jumping. The rider behind him thought 'This is Ricky Johnson, he's going to be jumping it'. The guy ended up landing on Ricky. That damaged Ricky's right wrist.
Those of us at Honda were now going thru a tough time again with another one of our guys getting hurt. Rick was our guy in supercross. We had Jeff Stanton on the team, but were not sure if he was ready in supercross.
At first, when Ricky had that injury, none of us thought it was that serious. You could see that something was broken in his wrist though. I went with him to the hospital in Gainesville. The doctor did not seem to be overly alarmed. We all thought it would just be a couple of weeks or so. Rick had dominated the first five races so much, and we did not think it would ruin the entire year. But it pretty much ended up causing his retirement from racing. It ended up being a lot more complicated. Rick had surgery after surgery after surgery on his wrist. His wrist would never be the same.
For a long time, both Ricky and all of us thought it would get better. It would cure itself after time. We all thought 'Next week he will go see a new specialist, and it will get better'. He went to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and many more places. All the doctors seemed to think the same thing - that it would get better.
After Ricky got hurt, for some reason Jeff Stanton picked up his pace. Jeff started doing better and better. And Jeff ended up winning both the supercross and 250 outdoor titles.
In the open class, Ricky had come back from his injury, and actually won some races. He finished the season in third. Wardy won, Stanton was second. We thought with rest over the winter, Ricky would come back strong.
1990 - The thing that sticks out in my mind about that year is J. M Bayle and Stanton. They fought all year long. There was a lot of tension in the entire team.
Ricky had supported Jeff. He helped him even before he was with Honda, back in the day when he rode Yamaha. He showed him how to train and practice and such. When 1990 came around, Jeff had now won a championship. Jeff had a little bit different attitude. He was not so much Ricky's friend anymore. He wanted to win championships for himself now. Ricky was still 'Ricky Johnson' you know. He wanted to be the main guy too.
Bayle had raced a few races the year before in the US basically as a privateer and then went back to Europe and won the 250 World Championship. We had signed him up for the following year to come to the US and race, although Honda management wanted him to stay another year in Europe. He wanted to come here so bad, I was afraid to lose him to the competition. I didn't want him to ride on someone else's team. Add in the fact that Bayle wanted to win, and you can see how all the tension came about.
Every guy wanted to establish himself as the main guy. All three of them. That was tough.
Rick wouldn't tell anyone, but he probably knew at the time that his wrist was not 100%. He probably was thinking 'I still have to win. I'm still Ricky Johnson. Now this guy that I've helped, he's learned everything I've taught him. And now they bring in this champion from France!'
Ricky's mechanic was Brian Lunniss. He didn't help to smooth things out either. He seemed to do everything he could to stir things up. He just wanted to create an advantage for his guy. Dave Arnold and I .... we had some rough days I tell you!
A that time, it seemed like my job was part doctor, part psychiatrist, part attorney, part babysitter. You just do whatever you can to smooth things out, but still keep them all motivated. It's a very delicate situation. Plus, we were primarily racing against our own team. We had good bikes, and we had the best guys. Stanton was the hard worker. Ricky was the proven champion. Bayle the talented guy coming from Europe. And they all had extremely different personalities.
To this very day, I've always gotten along very well with Ricky. But one thing that troubled me at this time was that Ricky started to say and do things that were out of his character. It was difficult to see that, because I have so much respect for the guy. He was doing stupid things, probably because he was under so much pressure.
One day I had to talk to him about it. I said 'Ricky, you have worked so many years, and so hard to be so good. You have the fans behind you, you have everyone liking you, why are you doing these things?'
I explained things to him, and said that no matter what, he was always going to be a great champion. He just couldn't continue doing the things that he was doing. After that, he totally came back around to being himself. I have good memories of Ricky. We had great times together.
One of the great things about Ricky is that when he was winning, he made the whole team feel like they were winning. He made everyone feel as though they had something to do with his victories. Many riders today cannot do that. When a rider can do that, and make his mechanic and the entire team feel like they are part of the winning, it's a tremendous quality. It helps the rider in the long run too.
Click here for Part III - 1991 thru 2000
Images from top to bottom:
J. M. Bayle - 1988 France
Team U.S.A. Ward, Johnson, Lechien - 1988 France
Jeff Ward - 1988 France
Ron Lechien and Rick Johnson - 1988 France
Rick Johnson - 1988 France
Ron Lechien - 1988 France
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