Roger De Coster talks about the Motocross of Nations
Roger De Coster is a name which is synonymous with Motocross. He is called, simply, “The Man”. It’s possible that the sport as we know it in America would not be the same without Roger’s influence. He helped popularize the sport of supercross and motocross in their infancy in the USA, and as Roger was on his way to winning five World 500cc Motocross Championships. (And yes, Roger raced supercross too – both at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and Daytona International Speedway.)
You might know of Roger today as the racing Manager for KTM North America … but Roger has done so many things in his career, it’s remarkable. And Roger certainly is one of the most experienced, if not the most experienced person in the world, when it comes to the most prestigious motocross race in the world – the Motocross of Nations.
Roger raced many years, and on many winning Belgian teams. And he has managed Team USA for most of the past 31 years.
As KTM North America’s Racing Manager, Roger has all three of his riders competing in this year’s Nations: Ryan Dungey for the USA, Marvin Musquin for France, and Ken Roczen for Germany
There used to be two “Nations” events – the Trophee des Nations, which was 250cc machines, and the Motocross des Nations, which was 500cc machines.
In 1985, the format was changed to just one event – the Motocross des Nations, with riders able to compete with different size motors.
I asked Roger to tell me what comes to his mind when I mention various years of the Motocross of Nations.
First, as a member of the Belgian Team (500cc)
The first time I competed on the Belgian Nations team was 1967 in England. The Nations for me has always been such a big event. When I was a kid, and before I raced, the Nations was ‘the thing’ you read about in the newspapers and magazines. At that time the British and the Swedes were the dominant countries. In the 60’s, those two countries were very dominant. Before that Belgium had won a few times.
The first time we (Team Belgium) won, when I was on the team, was in 1969. It was the first time in a long time for Belgium to win. We had not won the event for a while. I was on the team with Joel Robert, Sylvain Geboers, and Jef Teeuwissen.
1972 – Norg, Holland: This was the next time we (Team Belgium) won. The track is right by the road race course of Assen, where the MotoGP is. At the time, it was some of the same people involved in organizing the events (both Nations, and Assen).
1973 – Wohlen, Switzerland: Wohlen was a fast track. We (Belgium) won with myself, Sylvain, Raymond Heeren, and Jaak van Velthoven. The USA team won there in 1982 … which I imagine we’ll get to in a few minutes.
1976 – St. Anthonis, Holland: This was a fast sand track, and they only hold a race on it once a year. Our team was myself, Harry Everts (yes, father of Stefan Everts), Gaston Rahier, and Jaak van Velthoven. The track was actually in a housing area! But it was really fast, and of course sand. It’s the same track I won my one of my world championships at in the final round. I have a lot of good memories there.
1977 – Cognac, France: The things that come to mind about this race – a lot of rocks, and a lot of dust. Of course, this is the region where Cognac (the liquor) is made. Our winning team that year was me, Andre Malherbe, Jean-Paul Mingels, and Jaak van Velthoven.
1979 – Stockholm, Sweden: I remember that I had not spent that much before with Andre Malherbe. I had raced against him in Belgium … what I remember most then was that we went running together before the race and that started a good friendship between us.
1981 I started as Team Manager for the USA for the first time – The Motocross of Nations was in Bilstein, West Germany.
In the late 70’s, there seemed to be a lack of interest in America regarding participation in the Motocross of Nations. I thought America could be strong. America was becoming stronger in motocross. America was a country so big, with so many racers and races … and it looked like it was not even able to send a team.
Dave Arnold, who was my mechanic the year before in 1980 (Roger’s last year of racing) and Team Manager at Honda, and I were both part of Honda (USA) now. We had 5 young riders, and we started talking with the Motocross Action magazine’s Dick Miller – the editor … that we should try to put a team together. We had some help from people in Europe, and in the end, Dave and I decided to go with the entire Honda team.
Our team was young then – we had Johnny O’Mara, Danny LaPorte, Donnie Hansen and Chuck Sun. Chuck was the oldest guy on the team, and he was in his early 20’s.
At that time, there were actually two “Nations” races. There was the Trophee des Nations – four riders on 250cc bikes, and the Motocross des Nations – four riders on Open class bikes. The Open class … the Motocross des Nations, was the more ‘premiere’ event. That year, we raced in Germany on the 500cc bikes.
The week before, we raced the 250’s in Lommel, Belgium. No one took us or Team USA seriously. I had asked beforehand if the club putting on the race would help with some of the travel and costs. He said “Who are you bringing over to race?” At that time, in the USA, some of the bigger names were guys like Bob Hannah. I told him we have Johnny O’Mara, Donnie Hansen, Danny LaPorte and Chuck Sun. And then his response was “Who are they? They won’t help bring people to the event or help sell tickets.” So, he was not interested in helping us.
We went over early to Belgium, we prepared in the sand, got things sorted out, … and we ended up winning the 250 race (Trophee des Nations) and the next weekend we won the 500cc race (Motocross des Nations) in Germany.
1982 – Wohlen, Switzerland: Same track we won on in 1973 with Belgium. In 1982 the USA team was led with Danny (Magoo) Chandler sweeping both races. It’s a fast track, with a lot of grass. It also has a lot of rocks underneath. That track is close to Zurich.
At that time, we still had Johnny O’Mara on the team. He was joined by David Bailey and Jim Gibson (to team with Danny “Magoo” Chandler). At both the Trophee and Motocross des Nations, Danny was running circles around everyone. (He swept all four motos!) He was unbelievable those two weekends.
1983 – Angreau, Belgium: Mark Barnett was on the team, Jeff Ward, Broc Glover, and David Bailey. That Saturday night my younger brother was killed in a car accident. I drove from the race to the hospital. And then went back to the track in the morning.
There was a great moment in the first moto – at one time the four Americans were running 1-2-3-4.
1984 – Vantaa, Finland: It’s a sand track, in the woods, right near the airport of Helsinki. We had to make some changes to the team at the last minute – but we had Jeff Ward, Johnny O’Mara, David Bailey, and Rick Johnson. We won – although David Bailey injured his wrist without even crashing. It was a rough sand track, and he hit a big bump and it twisted the bars and his wrist very hard. The following weekend at the Trophee des Nations Broc Glover took his place on the 250. Jeff Ward dominated both motos – he was incredible that day.
1985 – Gaildorf, West Germany: We had raced there in ’82 on the 250’s. It’s the same track Danny Chandler had won on three years before. It’s a really nice area, and they always have a huge party after the race – an enormous beer tent. People drink beer by the gallon there (laughs). There is also lots of food, and it’s a huge, huge party.
1986 – Maggiora, Italy: It’s in the north of Italy. That year our guys were really dominant. We had Johnny O’Mara on the 125. Rick Johnson on the 250. David Bailey on the 500. At that time for the Nations, your team was three riders. And you had to have a 125 rider, a 250 rider, and an Open rider.
What many people didn’t know was Johnny was losing his ride at Honda, and moving over to Suzuki. But we felt he would be good for the team, and also want to prove something. That was probably the best race of his life there in Italy. Johnny, on the 125, beat Dave Thorpe (the World Champion) who was riding a 500 – on a very hilly track.
1987 – Unadilla, USA: It never stopped raining – from the time we arrived until the time we left. Race day the track was a huge mess. Some guys that started couldn’t even make it around the track. Bob Hannah was on our team – he was our 125 rider.
That made seven years in a row now that we had won. President Reagan invited us to the White House. That was pretty cool. And it’s the first time I’ve ever seen Bob Hannah nervous, with sweaty palms – waiting for the President, and getting ready to go into the Oval Office (laughs).
Rick Johnson meets President Reagan, along with Roger, Jeff Ward, and Bob Hannah – The White House, 1987
1988 – France: The track is on the east side of the country. The biggest town nearby the track was Montbeliard. We had Ron Lechien on the team, and I should of brought a leash for him, so that I could keep my eyes on him. If I remember correctly he was out frequently messing around (laughs). But he kept telling me “Don’t worry RD, I’m gonna’ do it! You can count on me!”
Ronnie rode the big bike (Kawasaki 500) there. And even after all the fooling around he did, even on Saturday night before the race, … on race day he took the start and no one ever saw him in both motos. He did an awesome race. There was a time there when Ricky (Johnson) and Jeff (Ward) and all the rest of our team wanted to kill him Ronnie though (laughs).
1989 – Gaildorf, West Germany: That year the guy that was the most impressive was Jeff Ward. The track there is fast and gets really hard, and Jeff did really well. He was so good with his throttle control. Our team was Wardy, Jeff Stanton, and Mike Kiedrowski.
1990 – Vimmerby, Sweden: The following year Jeff (Ward) was really in his prime … even more so than the previous year. (Jeff) Stanton came from way back in the race. No one thought they were going to win as this race went on … but Jeff kept coming. In the last couple of laps we took the overall thanks to Jeff’s impressive comeback … after everyone had already written the USA off.
We also had Damon Bradshaw on the team. He rode the 125. Not too many people in Europe knew a lot about him.
Amanda – OK, we’ve covered many years of history – let’s fast forward to last year in France …
2011 – St Jean d’Angely France: Last year in St. Jean the track conditions were good on Saturday and our guys did a great job in qualifying. Then on race day Sunday in rained off and on, and the track got really rutted … that mixed with a lot of rocks in the soil made it very difficult.
Blake Baggett did a great job Saturday, but come Sunday, in those different conditions, he had a hard time adapting to the new conditions, and ended up crashing and getting his bike stuck underneath the fence. We thought we would lose the overall victory. He had to come in the pit and get his bike straightened, then got back on the track and kept doing all he could, but we were close to losing the overall.
Team USA wins in France, 2011
Ryan Villopoto was outstanding. He was obviously the dominant guy that weekend. Ryan Dungey was consistent and smart considering he had a crash in practice the week before, but he kept it quiet, considering this he rode great. Villopoto however did outstanding, he for sure was the dominant guy … and we did enough as a team to win the overall.
This year, 2012 – Lommel, Belgium: The track is full of deep sand. There is no bottom to it, so if you can imagine – it’s much more sandy than say the Southwick MX track in America.
It will be the first time back there in 31 years – when we won for the first time.
The fans in Belgium and Holland, and the surrounding countries know their motocross, and are very passionate. There will be a lot of support for the Belgium team. It will not be easy for the USA … but I think we have as good as chance as anyone.
Team Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, and France will all be a threat to Team USA. What Team USA has going for us is we have three great riders on the team … most other teams that have two great riders.
For example, Italy has Tony Cairoli, and Holland has Jeffrey Herlings – both great riders, both World Champions, and both capable of winning their races. Where the other teams will have an issue is with their third riders most likely.
The way the scoring works – you keep your best five scores out of six. To win you need a good result from your third rider.
But, it won’t be an easy one for anyone including Team USA. We have as good of a chance as anyone, maybe better, but it will not be one of the easier races for us.
Amanda – Roger, thank you for your time as always. We all appreciate it, and we’ll see you in Lommel.
Thanks Amanda, we’ll see you there.