As a fan of motocross, and growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I learned that motocross originated in Europe. MX came to the USA in the mid 60’s. But the top riders were all from Europe. And those riders raced primarily in the 250cc and 500cc World Motocross Championships. Each event was called a ‘Grand Prix’, which is French for ‘Big Prize’.
I was able to go to all the US Motocross Grand Prix events in the USA, starting at Carlsbad in the early 70’s. There was all those ‘big’ names guys racing the 250 & 500 GP’s back then – six time 250 champion Joel Robert, and Sylvain Geboers, both from Belgium. There was Czech rider Jaraslav Falta, racing a CZ. Russian KTM rider Guennady Moiseev. In the 500 class there was ‘The Man’, Roger De Coster – ultimately winning 5 World Motocross Championships for Suzuki. American Brad Lackey, who would in 1982 would become the first American World Motocross Champion. I could go on here …
But back to me getting to my first Grand Prix in Europe. All the ‘big’ GP races and historic race tracks were in Europe. Names like Payerne (Switzerland), Markelo (Netherlands), Pernes Les Fontaine (France), Farleigh Castle (England), Ettlebruck (Luxembourg), Ruskeansantaa (Finland), Sitendorf (Austria), and Namur (Belgium).
There was one reason I wanted to go to Europe and watch a GP. Roger De Coster. He WAS motocross. And what better place to see him race a Grand Prix at than his home GP on the historic circuit of Namur?
So, the trip was planned …. we’re going to Namur! The Belgian Motocross Grand Prix was always held on the first Sunday of August. And we’d also see the final GP of the year the the following weekend in Luxembourg.
So, my friend Jeff (yes, the same Jeff that I snuck into the Carlsbad GP a few years before : ) and I flew to Europe. The cheapest flight I could find was thru Icelandic Air. San Diego to Chicago on American Airlines, and then Chicago to Luxembourg on Icelandic Air. $499. Then we’d take the train from Luxembourg to Namur, Belgium.
The flight from San Diego to Chicago – no problem. Next, get on the plane that’s going to take us from Chicago to Luxembourg. Now, I’m not tall (5′ 9″ when I stand up straight) … but when I sit down on my seat on the airplane, my head was hitting the top of the airplane. Hmmmm … that was a little uncomfortable for a nine hour flight (at the time).
Then, what the airline doesn’t tell you, instead of flying directly to Luxembourg, they stop to refuel – in Iceland! And of course, they make you get off the plane, walk into the airport, and you can only walk into the ‘duty free’ shop! Nice!
We arrive in Luxembourg. First time in Europe. Just taking the bus from the airport to the train station was a trip. Different cars, different scenery, different buildings, different architecture, and then getting to the train station in the center of town – the different languages, the different clothing …. everything was so ‘foreign’. And I was loving every minute of it.
Next, we ride the train to Namur. We get off the train – and there, right in front of us, almost up above us – is the famous ‘Citadelle’. The track is actually up on top of a giant, castle-like fortification, called The Citadelle.
You can watch the YouTube video here of what I shot that weekend in Belgium … but I must warn you – the quality is not the best. In fact, it’s awful. I was young. I had an old 8mm camera. And I wasn’t a good photographer.
But there it was! The Citadelle! We arrived late afternoon Thursday, decided we would take a taxi to our hotel (about 3 miles away) and then walk back in the morning to check out the track.
Friday morning. My friend and I walk about three miles down to the track. It’s hard to put into words what it meant to us to be there. And to explain what the Citadelle is. And explain what this track is … and the environment all around it.
We could either walk up a long, winding back and forth trail thru the thick woods to get to the top, where the circuit and pits were, or we could take something like a ski-lift up to the top. On the way up – we took the ski-lift. Can you imagine? Taking a ski-lift to get to a motocross track?!? And then, once at the top – the view over the hill – you see two rivers converge into one as you overlook the town of Namur! There is a very old ‘stadium’ type seating that is part of this ‘castle’, that was built hundreds of years ago. They are restaurants and cafes lining the circuit just at the top where the start is, and the circle they make before heading off into the woods. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard that the ‘coliseum’ style seating built at the top of the Citadelle used to house chariot races hundreds of years ago.
The track – after they run a small circle around the top, heads off into the woods. And it’s like no other track you’ve ever seen. Parts of it have grass, parts of it are hard packed dirt, parts of the track are so narrow, you could barely fit a bike thru. Parts of the track were so deep in the woods, you can’t even see the sun.
After a little more than half of a lap is complete, the riders drop out of the woods, into the sunlight, and right onto pavement! The street! They race right past another cafe/restaurant, where fans can enjoy their beer or cappuccino. Then they hit a pavement jump, continue going straight, only now they are on a cobblestone road! They make a right hand corner, and go up a steep embankment that’s asphalt! They they continue on a massive uphill with big step up jumps all the way back up to the top of the circuit.
For a motocross fan, Namur is like Mecca. We couldn’t believe we had actually made it to the race track that we had read and dreamed about for so many years. And to be able to see our hero, Roger De Coster, race on his home circuit. It truly was motocross heaven for us two young kids.
At the end of the day, we decided to take the long winding walk back down from the top of the track to the street. It was a dirt walking path, completely encased in the forest. It was beautiful.
We get back to the hotel, walk in the lobby, walk around the corner, and there is …. Roger De Coster! There was a ping pong table, and we (somehow) ended up playing ping pong together. Again, as a motocross fan, … did it get any better playing ping pong with Roger De Coster in Belgium, knowing that he was going to be racing that weekend? Roger explained that he had broken his thumb, but was going to race anyway.
The next morning, us two kids pack our backpacks, and are getting ready to walk the few miles to the track. Roger comes out at the same time, and says ‘Would you like a ride to the circuit?’ Uhhhhh ……. yes! Does it get better than the 5-time World Motocross Champion Roger De Coster giving us kids a ride to the GP? I think we were speechless and didn’t say a word all the way to the track : )
Sunday – the GP. Roger was racing for Suzuki in 1979. He led both motos in the 1979 Belgian 500 GP. He was dominating. Unfortunately, in one moto he had a motor problem, and in one moto he had a flat tire. But was still fast! He would of won both motos easily without having those problems.
Come Sunday evening – we still couldn’t believe it. We had just watched the Belgian GP, but more importantly, we got to experience all that Namur is. And Namur will always be something special in the history of motocross. And in 1979, it was my first GP in Europe.
p.s. The following weekend was the Luxembourg Grand Prix. That is a story in itself, for another time. The Ettelbruck circuit is something special as well – a super long track run on thick grass, with lap times well over 3 minutes.
p. p.s. I asked Roger De Coster how he thought he’d do racing the GP’s today 2010. He said “Maybe in the top 15 or so”. I said “Wow! What do you mean???? You are one of the best riders ever Roger!!!” His reply was ….. “Yeah, well, Lex, I’m over 60 years old now!” Roger is still The Man! And much smarter than me! : )