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Roger DeCoster: “The Man” for all Seasons

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.

15 Comments

  1. Rob Blais says:

    I had the opportunity to meet “the man” several years ago, while in the pits at the Steel City motocross. Jeremy McGrath was riding a Suzuki that year. I took my son over and asked McGrath for an autograph. He said to see him after the races. This had happened numerous times over the previous two or three years. As we were walking away, I heard an accented voice saying “excuse me sir,” and i looked over my shoulder to see Mr. DeCoster looking at me. i asked if it was I that he was talking to, he invited me back to speak to me. He said he’d seen what happened, and was aware that it had happened before. He apologized on behalf of Suzuki, and the entire motocross community. He signed a program and my son’s arm. He was utterly gracious and charming. A gentleman. I don’t believe that Jeremy rode Suzukis after that year, either. He was cooler than Steve McQueen.

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  2. Joe Paden says:

    Ok Dave, so I was off a year… I am getting old and have crashed too many times to be accurate! Anyway, The Man was tough!

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  3. Dave Duffin says:

    Note to Joe P. De Coster crashed the year after this race at Carnegie. He was airlifted to a Livermore, Ca hospital. I took a bus load of kids for that race (40) and one of them got lost too!! He was hanging out with the medevac pilot and got a ride in the helo with RDC.

    Because of the horrible face plant crash, the next year Roger raced with the first full coverage helmet (Bell Moto-Star) and thus took away a lot of business from the dentists of North America for the last 40 years.

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  4. John Carlson says:

    Great read! Dave, your encouragement and motivating guidance for the kids over the last 40 years deserves a gold medal.

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  5. suki says:

    great read, thanks Dave!

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  6. Brent Meeker says:

    DeCoster and I are around the same age – I’m five years older. I bought my first motocross bike in 1968. I raced against Joel Robert at the Viewfinders GP in 1969 when DeCoster and the CZ team, and Torsten Hallman on his Husky, were over showing us Americans how it was done. It was my second race. Robert lapped me TWICE. I never became a motocross star, but I did beat John DeSoto in a moto in Austin when I was in graduate school. Those were the days my friend.

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  7. Jack says:

    Awesome article, thanks.

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  8. Metri3 says:

    Before it was called a crossup it was called a DeCoster. Jeese I’m getting old. Man!

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  9. Joe Paden says:

    I was also at the race mentioned in this article ands was a teenager. I saw the crash and, as I remember, the triple clamp failed when he landed off the fastest jump on the track. The fornt end of his bike separated from the frame.. My friend Phil Evard, yelled out, “Roger DeCoster is dead..!” since it looked really bad. Of course he was premature… We immediately snuck into the pits and I actually helped his wife into the box van to get ice and a towel for his face which was cut up pretty bad. He waited until the race was over to go to the hospital because he did not want the race to be blackflagged since they couldn’t have continued if the ambulance was gone. I could not agree more, DeCoster is “The Man” and has class beyond the rest of us. He is also pretty tough..

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  10. Gary says:

    I would follow motocross coverage avidly as a teen, and Roger was always in the limelight. He projected then what he projects now: professionalism and class. The true test of a champ is not how he wins. It is how he loses, gracefully, without stumbling over a bruised ego. Roger was always tops, even when he wasn’t winning.

    Nice story.

    Good luck at KTM, Roger.

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  11. Dixit says:

    As a kid from Belgium, he was my hero and I have a couple of pictures of him that I took in the seventies. I was thrilled when I got him to pose for a picture with my son at Daytona 2 years ago

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  12. paul246 says:

    When I was a young teenager I had a friend, who along with his younger brother, was involved in Moto-X racing. Both of these lads were the most disciplined riders I had ever known. Also, they respected the law. They pushed their unlicensed machines to the practice area, never once did they fire them up and ride illegally.

    I still think of Bob and his brother when I ride my XR650L across the boonies.

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  13. Stinky says:

    I always rooted for him as a kid, cheered the teams he managed (still do) go KTM! He never badmouthed anyone or any company even when he seemed to be getting the short end of things. Class is an overused word but it seems to be the most fitting description of him.

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  14. joe says:

    my first memories of motocross are from watching it on the wide world of sports on saturday afternoon, and Roger DeCoster was the feature rider.

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  15. blackcayman says:

    motorcycles are cool – motorcycle racers – even cooler. Great read this morning!

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