Roger Decoster Interview, covering 1971 thru 2001
Roger is currently the US Suzuki Motocross Team Manager. He talks about the highs and lows of the past 30 years:
1971 – The first GP of the season was in Italy at Cingoli, and I happened to win that event. It was the first ever win for a Japanese company in the 500 class. Ake Jonnson, Paul Frederichs, and defending world champion Bengt Aberg were my main competitors during that season. There was a little set-back during the middle of the year, I broke a couple of bones in my hand in a local race a few days before the Grand Prix of Finland. I clinched my first world championship at the last round in Holland. It was the greatest feeling in my life at that point. It was everything I had dreamed of for years and years. In the fall of that year I was invited to Japan, and I got to meet Mr. Suzuki. We had a big reception in the Hammamatsu Grand Hotel, which was the largest hotel in Hammamatsu at the time.
1972 – I didn’t have too many low points. Our bike was so awesome. There was no weight limit, and our bikes were very light, with many aluminum and titanium parts. And I was probably in my best condition ever. That was a wonderful year for me. I could let other people come away with good starts, yet I still had the confidence that I could win a race.
1973 – That was the year that Maico went to long-travel suspension. Yamaha also come out with the ‘Mono-shock’. Those of us at Suzuki were a bit behind.
There was a rule change right before the start of the season, and our bikes were already prepared for that year. Now we had to add weight to comply with the new rules. We changed many of the aluminum and titanium parts over to metal and steel. This upset the handling and balance of the bike tremendously, along with upsetting the suspension. We had a very tough season that year.
Maico was very strong. Willi Bauer was on Maico that year, and he rode very well. I ended up winning the championship again, but it was tight the entire season.
The first long-travel chassis for us at Suzuki was made in mid-season bymyself and Sylvain Geboers, who was riding in the 250 class at that time. Sylvain and I started to cut up and modify our frames to make them have long-travel suspension. We changed the frame specifications, we made our own rear shock bodies with Koni internals, we modified swing-arms. Sylvain and I worked together a lot. He might work on the frames, while I worked on the swing-arms. By working together, it made us more time-efficient rather than working independently on the 250 and the 500. The inventor of the ‘Mono-shock’ was Mr. Tilkens, and he was helping us too. He was very good at welding.
By the end of the year I was exhausted physically and mentally. Sometimes, because we were spending so much time modifying the bikes, working on them until the middle of the night, I was not able to train as I normally would, so my conditioning was not the best.
Of course Suzuki was not pleased with the rule change that required us to add weight to the bikes. When the rule change came about, it seemed to be directed solely at Suzuki. It appeared like the European manufacturers had banded together starting in late 1972 to make this change go forward. And funny enough, Gerrit Wolsink, who at the time was the leading representative of the privateers, had a voice in this change happening, although in 1974 we would become team-mates at Suzuki!
When this rule change came about right before the start of the season, it was too late to modify our bikes, and the people at Suzuki kind of threw their hands up in the air, and gave up. We had to add about 25 pounds of weight to our bikes for that season.
Gerrit Wolsink gets a kiss
Carlsbad Grand Prix
1974 – We had a new race manager in Japan. We went from a short stroke engine to a long stroke engine, which was done more to emulate what Maico was doing. Maico seemed to working well, and getting more traction as a result. We also went to a frame that had more laid down shocks, and more suspension travel. That bike had potential, but it was the first year for it, and we had so many changes. We had a few problems with things breaking. I actually was still in contention for the championship with Heikki Mikkola coming into the final round of the series in Luxembourg. But in the first moto the bike broke a motor connecting rod while I was leading.
It was the first time finishing in second place for me in the past few years. I felt I had given it my best, but we had some bike problems. Also, my competitor Heikki Mikkola earned it. I had, and still have so much respect for the guy. If anyone deserved it, it was Heikki.
1975 – Maybe we had a renewed determination to reclaim the title we had before. It was basically the same bike as the year before, only we had more time to refine it. The new design of 1974 had now matured. One of the changes we made was going to the upswept exhaust pipe. It was a much better balanced bike.
At the time the motocross world was centered in Belgium. All the top riders were based there including the Swedes, Finns, British, Belgians, and others. There were many important pre-season international races at that time too. During the pre-season events we had problems with the piston and engine seizures at 15 races in a row that I was leading. The Japanese were just about in tears, as the Grand Prix season was getting closer.
Once the GP season started the bike was working great and handling well. It had a very nice powerband, it was a good bike, and we won the championship again. It was a good feeling, I felt like I was back on top of the world, and it was very much like 1972.
At the end of the season, I came to the USA to compete in the Trans-AMA series in the fall, which I won too. Things were going very well, and I was happy. The new race manager at Suzuki was very much a ‘fighter’. He wanted to make sure we had what it takes to win. He was also a fun person to work with. He was very aggressive, very motivating, and it was a good year.
1976 – The longer you stay at the top, the more the pressure and responsibilities. You also put pressure on yourself. As you win more, there are many requests on your time, and to do PR functions. When you have success, it’s very easy to get sidetracked. You have to maintain a fine balance in your life so that you are able to maintain being competitive.
That year I had a close battle with my team-mate Gerrit Wolsink. I was leading early on in the season, but later on I had a few bad races, and Gerrit was able to close the gap between us. Coming into the last round at Luxembourg, we still both had a chance at the championship. Although I DNF’ed one of the motos with a flat front tire, I won my fifth 500cc World Championship.
Back in this era, DNF’s were much more common. Today’s bikes are much more reliable … the engines, the suspension components, tires and more. When you see a DNF because of mechanical problems today in motocross, it’s certainly not as common as in years past. Motocross bikes have become very reliable today.
1977 – The previous year, I had come back to the USA and competed and won in the Trans-AMA series. Maybe coming into this year I was not as prepared as I should of been. At the same time, Yamaha had a new bike that was very good, and Heikki Mikkola was strong. Mikkola and the Yamaha were a good combination, and they ended up winning the championship. Towards the end of the year, I felt like I was starting to get back to my previous form. I came to the USA again for the Trans-AMA Series in the fall, and won that for my fourth and final time.
Carlsbad Grand Prix – First Corner
Roger is #1, Tony D. is #14, and Stackable is on the ground.
1978 – Coming into the ’78 season, as I was practicing and testing in February, I crashed and ended up losing my spleen. The injury was a bit scary. My spleen actually exploded into five pieces. At the time of the crash I’m thinking ‘What’s happening here? Am I going to make it?’ And I could feel myself going away (as in possibly death). Luckily I was with Sylvain Geboers, who was practicing with me at this local track, which also holds a big race every year. It’s in the town of Mol, Belgium. Sylvain was good friends with the head surgeon of the local hospital. I told Sylvain ‘I think I’m having a problem internally’. On the outside of my body there was not a scratch. I told him we should go to the hospital because I’m feeling very strange. I felt as though I was going to pass out. I got into the van, and crawled on the floor. Sylvain started driving right away …. we left the bikes there at the track. It was around lunch time, and as I said, Sylvain was good friends with the surgeon. So Sylvain stopped at the guy’s home, because he knew that he would be there eating lunch. Sure enough, the surgeon was home eating his lunch. So he jumped into the van with us, and started checking me out. He said it’s a good thing we stopped by, or I wouldn’t of made it.
We got to the hospital, and they started to pump blood into me. The hospital staff had a hard time getting blood into me quick enough. I had one blood pouch connected into each arm, and the last thing I remember seeing is one doctor and one nurse squeezing a bag into each arm because I was losing so much blood internally.
Apparently, my heart stopped, and they had to give me an adrenalin injection directly into my heart. Of course, I was really happy when I finally woke up.
Surprisingly, two weeks later, I raced and won an international event. It’s the biggest pre-Grand Prix event. It’s called the ‘Easter Trophy’. I won the 250 class, but I felt weird. It felt as though my insides were bouncing around. The rest of my season went just so-so. The spleen acts as a filter for your blood, and it’s also a reserve area for blood. When you lose your spleen, it takes quite some time for your body to adjust fully. I don’t know how much of that I can blame on my results for that season, but I ended up fifth in the 500cc championship.
1979 – This would be my last year with Suzuki as a rider, although I didn’t know that at the time. I still wanted to prove that I could do well. Starting in 1978, and continuing into 1979, I think we got carried away with the suspension. It was way too tall, and the handling issues were not solved. From ’77 – ’79, I believe the Yamaha was the best bike, and I probably was not as good as I was before. I was getting older.
What hurt me most was that some of the people at Suzuki thought that the problem was more the rider than the bike. We had some young riders at the time, and they did not finish in front of me in championship, as I was the top Suzuki rider. The feeling within the team was not as good as it could be because we were not winning. I felt that our bikes were behind, and we needed a little more work on them.
Suzuki had no interest in renewing my contract at the end of 1979. I think the team manager felt that I was past my best, and that I was not going to win anymore. They had a certain budget to work with, and they wanted to take their chances with young riders.
I still wanted to work with the team as a consultant or an advisor or to help with testing. Suzuki had no room for it at that time, or maybe they thought that I couldn’t do a good job at it. At the time, they did very little testing in Europe, most of it was done in Japan, with production bike testing done in the US. Plus it’s not like today …. there was not as much testing going on back them as compared to today. Back then, you went to Japan for one week and did testing, and that’s basically what you got for the entire year. The bikes did not evolve as much during the year as they started to do later in the 80′s.
I could not believe that the company I had won five world championships with, and four Trans-AMA series with, did not have an offer for me. It was very hard to take for my ego.
On the other hand, I had offers from Yamaha and Honda. They had been talking to me for years. I could never make myself go to them, even though I had great offers. I felt so much like a Suzuki person because I had won all my championships with them. We had so much success together.
I had an ongoing offer from Honda, and they kept calling me. They did not seem to be bothered by the fact that I was over 30 years of age. They started pressing me for an answer, and their offer was tremendous. It was better money that I had from Suzuki at any time. But I still could not make myself do it. I told Honda that when I come to Japan, we will discuss it then.
I took a flight to Japan. I went to Suzuki first. I went to the factory, and the guys there seemed really embarrassed to see me. It seemed like they were trying to hide. They said ‘Sorry, there is not anything we can do for you for next year’. It was very tough, because I wanted to continue working with the team.
It also felt good that I had this big company (Honda) still wanting me. So, I got on the bullet train, and went to Tokyo. I went to meet the guys from Honda. Everything changed. They made me a good deal. At first, it was a three year deal. The first year I would definitely be a rider, but along with being a Grand Prix rider, I would also be a development rider. They wanted me to do a lot of testing and help them develop the Pro-Link rear suspension. I like testing, so that part of it fit right it. They showed me around the factory. The Honda race manager at that time was very aggressive, very gung-ho. He wanted to dominate. After racing, I had the option of becoming an advisor to the team to help with testing and coaching of the riders.
Belgian Grand Prix at Namur – 1980
1980 – My first year racing with Honda. We did a lot of development, and we had problems at first because we were using many new parts and such. We did get the Pro-Link to work well, and team-mate Andre Malherbe won his first world championship. I had requested Dave Arnold, who I had known racing in the US, to be my mechanic. We got along really great.
I won my last race at the final GP in Luxembourg. It was a nice ending to my racing career to win both heats there. It was a great feeling, but it was also hard to get on the podium and say ‘This is my last race’.
The following week, I flew to the US to help reorganize the motocross team. Those next four or five years I spent so much time going back and forth between the US and Europe, helping both the GP team and the American team. Almost every other week I was coming or going.
At the end of 1980, when Dave and I came back to the US, together we started reorganizing the US team. I helped to convince the Japanese bosses at Honda that Dave would make a good team manager, and they followed suite. I wanted to have the freedom to be able to go back and forth to Europe and Japan.
Luxembourg – 1980
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. Theywere 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 tweaked 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.
Next: 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
Roger is currently the US Suzuki Supercross and Motocross Team Manager. He talks about the highs and lows of the past 30 years:
1991 – The low point was being in the middle of the Bayle/Stanton situation. There was so much tension between the two. It was very difficult. They were dominating though. The year before, Stanton won the supercross championship, and Bayle was second. This year Bayle ended up winning everything – all three championships: supercross, 250 nationals and 500 nationals.
Bayle was not good at getting the people behind him, so the crowd was not treating him well. He was like ‘the ugly European’. I think the press and the promoters instigated the feeling too. I think they put more ‘gas on the fire’. Him against the poor Americans. I guess it helped to sell tickets. Bayle was the ‘bad guy’ and Stanton was the ‘good guy’.
Not only was there tension between the riders, but there was tension between the mechanics. It was difficult, but we were still winning. That made things a little bit more acceptable.
1992 – Stanton won the supercross series. Bayle was still on the team, but he had kinda’ given up. He finished third in the supercross. That championship was very tight all year, mostly between Stanton and Damon Bradshaw. Bayle could not win the championship, but he could help determine who would win between Bradshaw and Stanton.
During the final race at the L. A. Coliseum, because there was so much animosity between Bayle and Stanton, Bayle started to help Bradshaw. There we are, trying to work as a team, and one of your riders is trying to help the opposition win the title. And I was the one who helped bring Bayle into the team.
Bayle did have some points that were valid, especially some things that happened the year before with Stanton. There was reason for Bayle to be upset. But you believe that those things can be worked out and put behind us. But the tension stayed. Neither Bayle nor Stanton wanted to give in.
With all this going on, it was only the end of the supercross season. We still had the rest of the outdoor season to finish. We talked to them and tried to get this resolved. Bayle had his mind already set – he was going to go road-racing the following year. He didn’t care anymore about his results in motocross. He accomplished his goal of winning all three titles the year before. In his mind, it was time to go road racing. He actually bought a street bike and started practicing for that.
Another thing that upset Bayle is that Honda management did not want to help him make the transition from motocross to road-racing. They did not see the point, although I was trying to help him. There was a little interest from Honda of Japan, but I could not get the American side to take part in it. In the meantime, we were trying to win the championships in the outdoor series for motocross. Stanton ended up winning the 250 outdoors.
Motocross is not like other team sports such as soccer where you might have a little bit more control. Once the starting gate drops, they are individuals. What are you going to do? Jump out onto the track and push them off? If you try to tell one of them individually that we are trying to work together as a team, he’ll say ‘Hey, don’t you remember back when he bumped me there?’
An example is 1990 at San Jose. Stanton bumped Bayle very bad. Bayle crashed. But in motocross, especially supercross, there is so much interpretation of who causes the crashes. It can be endless as to who caused what. And the riders have good memories.
We also had a situation earlier between our rider Mike Kiedrowski and Bayle. Bayle had broken his arm at Washougal, so he had no chance to win the championship. But he was faster than either Kiedrowski or Guy Cooper, who was with Suzuki then. Kiedrowski was very paranoid of Bayle. Kiedrowski was a hard worker, and very tough, but Bayle was more of a finesse guy and choosing better lines and such.
Bayle liked to make things look even easier than they really were, and he liked to make everyone believe that he did not train hard. He actually trained much more than most people think. When people started to say Bayle did not train, he would say ‘Yeah, I don’t train.’ He helped perpetuate that myth.
He rode a lot, and did things with the bike like tricks. Kiedrowski spent more time in the gym working out. Kiedrowski would pound out laps, where as Bayle would just spend hours and hours on the bike playing around.
When it came down to the last race of the year, and Bayle was out of the title chase because he had broken his arm, the championship was going to be between Kiedrowski and Cooper. We needed Bayle to not help Cooper, and to help Kiedrowski win. In practice, it was obvious that Bayle was faster than them, and he would win easily because he was so much faster.
I talked to Bayle after practice. I told him ‘We are a team, and I understand the tension between you and Kiedrowski, but I cannot have you beat him on the track today. You cannot finish in front of him.’ He said ‘I’m going to race. I’m not going to bump him, but I am going to race to win. I’m not going to hold back, I’m going to race my own race and go as good as I can.’ Dave and I were sure he was going to win unless his bike broke. Bayle said ‘If you don’t want me to beat him, then you are going to have to tell me not to race. That’s the only way I’m not going to beat him. You are going to have to decide what you want.’ So, Dave and I discussed it, and we really thought Bayle would beat him. We didn’t want that to happen. Dave decided not to let him race. We put the bike in the truck.
In a normal job, if your supervisor asks you to do something, and you don’t do it, you wouldn’t have your job anymore. But this situation had come up earlier in the year too, only reversed with Kiedrowski. It looked like Kiedrowski raced harder against Bayle than he did the rest of the field. Dave had asked Kiedrowski to do something, and he did not follow orders.
I think some of that is the age factor. It’s not like car racing where the drivers are a bit older and more mature. They are younger. Also, working within a Japanese company, things are very well thought out and planned. You cannot make decisions on the spot, and it weakens your position in front of the riders. Riders are very emotional. They want to hear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ right away. They can’t wait for an answer. When you are a team manager for a Japanese company, I think it’s much more difficult than if you were a manager with an American or European company compared to the Japanese, because you don’t need a consensus on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
1993 – I took a break from what I was doing with Honda. I had planned to have a rest, but Hi-Torque publications wanted me to help with Dirt Bike magazine. They wanted me to help with testing and evaluation of bikes, and I was going to write a column for the magazine. I did that and it allowed me to have a little bit of free time …. it wasn’t seven days per week like what I was doing before.
1994 – I continued to work with Dirt Bike magazine, and I started to work part-time with what was then the Honda 250 team in Europe. I primarily helped Yves DeMaria. I went back and forth to Europe … not for every single race, but about every other race. I think that was Yves’s best year. I believe he won six Grand Prix events. If he had been a little bit better in his training, and done better in a few of the sand races, he could of won the championship that year. Greg Albertyn ended up winning the 250 World Championship.
1995 – I started working again with Suzuki. This came about mostly thru Sylvain Geboers. Sylvain had been running the Suzuki team in Europe, and he had been asking me quite a few times to come back. I think he’s really the one that started the idea of getting Suzuki to think about me again. Also, the person that runs the road racing team for Suzuki in the US, Mr. Hito, contacted me. He asked me to come to Japan.
So I went to Japan. It was very cool. They had reunited all of the old race team. All my past mechanics, designers, engine people, engineers, and more. Of course they have all moved up and have different positions within the company. But it was so neat …. about 20 people gathered together in a room. All those memories of the successes we had during the 70′s. It was a big surprise.
That made me really feel like it was something I should do. It showed that Suzuki was very serious. Suzuki made me an offer, and I began to work with them again. At that time, maybe Suzuki did not realize how far they had fallen back with the motorcycle. It had been a long time since they had won races. But everyone started to work hard, and the feeling started to come back that maybe we could win.
When you don’t win for a long time, people just get used to it. It’s hard to get out of that rut and believe that you can win.
Our riders that year were Greg Albertyn, Ezra Lusk, and Damon Huffman. Damon did win in 125 supercross. Greg struggled because before he came over to the US for 1995, he broke the navicular bone in his wrist. He had very little time to prepare for the first supercross. He had guts though. And he had the speed. Greg has always had the speed. But he just didn’t have enough time and experience with supercross yet.
At the very first race in Orlando he got hurt . That was pretty much it, because he was hurt off and on for the rest of the supercross season. He had not fully recovered even when the outdoor season started. Greg also had some bad luck. We had a mechanical problem with the clutch in Sacramento when he was in the hunt for the win. Then when we went to Gainesville, the track had this crazy drop-off jump. LaRocco, who was still on Kawasaki at the time broke a wheel. Greg broke a wheel. Several riders broke wheels.
Those first few years with Greg were difficult. He had more heart than technique, and sometimes it got him in trouble. With supercross starting first, it usually meant he’d start the outdoor season with an injury.
1996 – The high point for us was Ezra Lusk finishing third in the 250 supercross series, although later on he signed with Yamaha for the following season.
1997 – The high-point of the year was Jeremy McGrath coming to ride for us. And the low point was Jeremy not winning.
How did it come about that Jeremy was going to ride for Suzuki? He called me. At first I thought it was a joke. It was about two weeks before the first race. It was right around Christmas. Jeremy called and asked if I would be interested in him racing for Suzuki. My thought was ‘Is the Pope Catholic?’
Then I found out Jeremy was very serious. I wanted to do whatever I could to make that happen. I made phone calls to Suzuki of Japan and Suzuki here in the US. We decided to go for it. By the time everything was sorted out because of his previous agreement with Honda, we had very little time to test or anything. The contract was actually signed two days before the first supercross of the season in Los Angeles.
That first race he ended up tangling with Steve Lamson a couple of times. By him not scoring enough points at the first round, that put him at a tremendous handicap.
By the middle of the supercross season, Jeremy was back in the hunt for the title. He and Emig were battling. At the Charlotte race, he was leading and looked like he was going to win for sure. Then he got a flat tire.
I think that Jeremy had so much on his mind that year …. it was very difficult for him. Earlier in ’96 when he was negotiating with Honda, they told him to ‘take it or leave it’, and I believe that he had too much pride to be told that. He and his family, in making the switch to Suzuki, wanted to run things like a privateer team. But there just wasn’t enough time to get everything ready like that. There were so many things up in the air at the last minute.
We also had some problems that year with the bike. We went in the wrong direction with it. We were trying to make it have more power and more rev. But later on we realized what was needed was more torque and low end power. And Japan did not respond quick enough to our needs. Things we requested took longer than what it should of taken in my opinion. They finally starting reacting when it was too late. Otherwise, I think Jeremy might of stayed with Suzuki.
That was a tough year. Greg had a good supercross season. He finished fifth overall, which is pretty good considering the level of competition here in the US. We had a lot of riders on the team too. We had Jeremy, we had Greg, we had LaRocco …… it was a busy house with a lot of commotion. Jeremy was the first rider to leave Honda. There was so much interest in him because of who he is and what he’s accomplished. The fact that he left Honda I think made him even more popular. The media went crazy. Everybody wanted a part of him.
1998 – Greg had a good fight for the outdoor title with Doug Henry, who rode the prototype four-stroke. I really feel as though we should of won that championship with Greg. But Doug was tough. At the very least it was good to be in the hunt until the last race.
1999 – I put a lot of pressure on Greg for 1999. I saw that some of the races in ’98 he could of been tougher. Earlier, he had been working with a trainer that he really believed in. I think this was not the best for Greg. At that time, Greg did not see things that way. Only later did he realize that the method of that training was not the best for him.
Greg was much better prepared physically than in ’98. Finally, Greg ended up winning the outdoor title. At the last race of the year, when Greg won the championship, it was a great feeling and a relief at the same time. We had reached one of our goals to finally get Suzuki back on top.
We were back as one of the top teams. You can make a good bike, finish second overall, and win some races. But until you win a championship, you just have not proven it. Some one has to win to confirm it, and that was a good feeling to finally have happen. Plus every one on the team worked very hard, and everyone in Japan was very supportive of us. All that work paid off.
2000 – The low part of the season was the fact that Travis did not win the 125 East supercross. He had so much speed. On the other hand though, it’s too much to expect a rider to win in his first year. But when we saw the speed he had, we thought it was possible to win the championship.
The high point of the season was Travis too. Towards the end of the year he just kept winning and winning.
What was especially exciting was the race at Southwick. He lost his goggles in the beginning of the race. He and Tallon Vohland had collided, and it bent Travis’s rear disk brake. Travis’s bike was really bad. It was so bad that the rear brake did not work, and the wheel could barely spin. Even with those handicaps, he was still able to win on what could be the roughest track of the series.
Winning with Travis is a lot of fun. He is so exciting. He gets a lot of press and attention. He shows so much happiness and has so much thanks and appreciation for the team and fans.
The Motocross des Nations was this past September. To me, the des Nations is still the biggest event of the year. It’s always good to see all the best riders in the world in the same race. When I was a rider, it was the most important race, and for me today I still feel the same way.
Until you have finished in first place, and had the honor of defending your country, you can’t realize or feel what it’s like. To win over all the other countries, it puts so much more pressure and value on what you are doing.
2001 – If I could change some things in racing for 2001, I would make some adjustments with the four-stroke allowance. I think that’s the biggest problem we are facing in this coming year. Especially the 250′s being allowed in the 125 class.
I’d like to see television coverage at better time slots. I’d like to see the riders make more prize money. The top riders make really good money these days. But it’s supported too much by the industry itself. I would like to see the factories be able to spend more of our money on hardware and testing instead of so much salary and bonuses. Maybe that can come from the promoters, thru better television coverage, and outside sponsors.
In closing, I feel very thankful that I’ve been able to live all of my life doing my hobby. When I came out of school, I went to work directly in a factory for a few years because I was not making enough money in racing. So I know what it’s like to work a regular job. I am so thankful, even to this day, that I’m able to make a living doing what I love to do the most.