Roger DeCoster: “The Man” for all Seasons

June 28, 2011

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On a cold, damp Sunday morning in November 1970, I took five young men from the Bolinas-Stinson School in West Marin on a journey into motorcycle history. Like the Three Kings of Christmas, they came to witness another birth—Motocross in America.

We arrived at the race in a canyon between Tracy and Livermore and parked a borrowed Peugeot 404 in the creek bed paddock of the Carnegie Cycle Park. One of the 13 year old lads, Alex, was given a red sweater to wear by his Mom (“so he won’t get lost in the crowd”). Of course we promptly lost him when we entered the pits. We did, however, find Floyd Busby who was helping promote the Trans-Am race at the site which became Carnegie State Park in 1980. We had met Floyd earlier in the year when he introduced our students to AMA Amateur Kenny Roberts at a short track race at the San Francisco Cow Palace.

Floyd said “who do you want to meet this time?” I had photographed DeCoster for Motor Cycle Weekly in 1969 at China Camp in Marin County when he came over with fellow Belgian Joel Robert on the CZ Team, so I knew Roger was “the one” to meet. Lloyd quickly brought our entourage into the Euro-Suzuki GP Team Pits.

Over walks an elegant proto-racer out of Central Casting who could have carried on the interview in any of five languages. I briefed him on our school motorcycle shop program and he said he too started at our students’ age. He asked me what I would like to do, so I set up a photo-op with Roger and the kids behind a titanium-framed Suzuki RH500. The photo here shows the awe-struck kids who were completely (and unusually) speechless. We wished him good luck, and as we left one of the kids tripped over the Japanese mechanic who was tightening the spokes. This image appears on most Google searches for early American motocross information. I left with the impression of having met the World Motocross Ambassador for Life. He had a quality that can only be defined by the word “class.” Interesting sidebar: DeCoster crashed at Carnegie after a horrible 60 mph face plant. The next year he raced with the full coverage Bell Moto-Star and set yet another trend.

I’m still in touch with all these “kids” in the photo (who are now in their ’50s). I’m still in touch with Roger, when we take the latest batch of motocross kids to Supercross and the Hangtown race. Roger still takes time to meet and greet the youngsters while juggling a multi-million dollar race team. In the last 40 years I never experienced  a  moment where he projected any impatience at meeting us and posing for a photo.

For the record Roger is a five-time World Motocross Champ, four-time Trans-AMA winner, AMA Hall of Fame Member and managed the USA Motocross Des Nation teams to 19 World titles. He was the best in the world on the track and he eventually came to be known as “The Man”. He mentored numerous national champs while managing the Honda, Suzuki and now KTM teams.

Dirt biking and motocross has been a perennial mind-grabber for young people over the last 40 years. It is probably responsible for keeping millions of young people occupied with a sport that requires skill, strength, dedication and responsibility, as opposed to the slacker/stoner world that tries to point them onto the detours of life. How lucky they are to have a Man like DeCoster on the podium directing them back onto the highway

P.S.: We miraculously found “Alex” as we were leaving the pits. He had a great time all day, all alone, wandering around other giants like Dick Mann, John Banks, Joel Robert, Brad Lackey, and Gunnar Lindstrom.

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