Roger DeCoster: Motocross Moments
The recent news from Rockstar Makita Suzuki concerning team manager Roger DeCoster’s imminent departure, had real impact. For anyone who was around in the 70s they know that DeCoster, a five-time 500cc Motocross World Champion, renowned for his smooth style, stamina, and consistency, was known simply as "The Man."
In the same way that Rossi is MotoGp, DeCoster was motocross. There is strong speculation that DeCoster is not retiring, but headed over to manage the KTM MX Team, working with Mike Alessi.
However, there is also a rumor circulating that Chad Reed, who had previously teamed with DeCoster at Suzuki, may be making the switch to the Austrian brand as well. Word has it that KTM is funneling serious dollars into their motocross effort in 2011.
DeCoster had a major influence on me as a kid (as he did thousands of young motocross hopefuls). In 1971 I was flogging around the hills of Southern California on my Honda Mini-Trail 70. I was thirteen years old and was content with docile trail riding.
That is, until my dad took me to Saddleback Park for the Trans Am. It was DeCoster’s first year on the famous, radical, all-titanium RN370 Suzuki. The bike was rumored to weigh 168 pounds (no weight limits in those days). Teammate Joel Robert said they actually had a lighter version but that you couldn’t keep the thing on the ground.
DeCoster, a longtime CZ factory rider, had made the decision to move over to the fledgling Suzuki squad (yes, it was a fledgling team compared to established brands of the day like Husqvarna, Bultaco, CZ and Maico).
When DeCoster won the title in 1971 it signaled the beginning of a new era in motocross, introducing the first Japanese manufacturer to win the title. Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha would follow.
I can still remember watching DeCoster carrying the front end all the way up the uphill each lap, the RN’s raspy, un-silenced (no noise restrictions back then) exhaust note cracking the air. I was in awe. I went home that night and pulled the lights off the Mini-Trail. I was going to be a professional motocross racer.
There are quite a few legendary stories about DeCoster. Perhaps my favorite was when he was teaching one of the first motocross schools at Indian Dunes in 1972. He was demonstrating to the students his patented mid-air direction change involving the then new concept of a "cross-up." One of the students said that it was easier for him to do this because he was on a factory prototype Suzuki.
Without hesitation, DeCoster got on the student’s thrashed Yamaha DT-1 (stripped of lights), went out and did the exact same maneuver to absolutely awe the class. Years later DeCoster admitted he was scared to death but had gambled, knowing that if he nailed it he would have the class’ respect, but knowing full well that if he balled it up he would lose their confidence. Now that’s a World Champion.
Years later, in 1982, I was wrenching for Scott Johnson on Team Maico. DeCoster was managing Team Honda. At the Houston Astrodome I was wondering around in the bowels of the massive stadium and bumped into Roger. I’d never met the man but I was wearing my Team Maico gear and he asked if I was looking for the elevator. I said I didn’t know there was one.
He said, "Come on, I show you." He led me to an elevator that went up to the V.I.P. area. We chatted and he showed me the advantage of viewing his riders from the upper rim of the Astrodome because it was easier to discern how the bikes were accelerating.
That experience wasn’t but a few minutes, but it was interesting to be viewed by The Man as one of the guys. As we talked I played it cool, talking about various team concerns, never letting on the influence he had had on a thirteen year old kid standing at the snow fence at Saddleback Park all those years earlier.