Roger DeCoster interview – a life of racing!
Tom Jacobs caught up with the legendary Roger DeCoster to talk about his racing career, life and riders he has worked with.
Known as, ‘The Man,’ DeCoster won five world 500cc motocross championships before heading to the USA and managing factory Honda then revive an ailing factory Suzuki team before talking over at Red Bull KTM and building a powerhouse team capable of winning supercross titles.
Amazingly, DeCoster has won supercross championships with all three Factory teams and now in his new role as Motorsport Director KTM/Husqvarna North America that began this year, DeCoster witnessed new signing Cooper Webb win the supercross title in his first year in the team!
As you will see, DeCoster is a driven winner but also very smart and talented in many other ways!
What language do you think in, is it French, Dutch or English?
It’s usually English except if I’m counting in my head, I’m counting in Flemish! It’s funny but speaking it’s usually English unless I am around my friends in Belgium then it’s Flemish.
What is your mother tongue?
In school it was French but it’s funny because at home I spoke Flemish. My mum grew up speaking French and my dad spoke Flemish but they both speak French and Flemish.
You have been a mentor to so many people in your career, who was a mentor in your life?
I grew up in trial and error. I didn’t have anybody in my family that knew about this sport, My dad when I was little he had a motorcycle for transportation but he had no racing experience. When I started following motocross in the magazine I really looked up to René Baeten, before I raced myself, Baeten was my kind of idol. When I read the magazines and I started racing I become into the Swedish riders, Bill Nilsson and Sten Lundin and Rolf Tibblin. I liked their image and when I started going to the races, the swedes almost all drove the Mercedes car and they had the trailer with the bike and they were usually the cleanest in the paddock. They would make the trailer to match the car, the same colour, the same wheels to match the car. I thought that was so cool.
Also I went to see a motocross in Belgium when I was already racing on the smaller bikes, Sten Lundin was there and he was working on the bike a lot then and he was changing the oil in the fork and I was helping, holding the bike and he was really nice to me and I thought that’s a really cool guy, I’m just a kid basically. I got to know him racing when he was at the end of my career and I was at the beginning. The Swedes were so strong at the Nations and stuff like that, I also visited Tibblin and visited his house.
In 67 I visited the US for the first time and got to know Torsten Hallman a lot better. I had raced him in France, Belgium, Italy but I got to know him and I saw how smart a guy he was. So all these things made me look up to the Swedes and Sweden as a country is beautiful, clean.
What do you look for in a rider?
Obviously the way they ride the bike and how they look on the bike position wise, throttle control, engine control and those things. Also a lot the personality when you talk to the rider, how they look at you and how they respond when you look at them in the eyes. Can they talk for themselves or do they need to hide behind another person.
Has that changed, you have been a team manager for many years, has that evolved?
More and more they get help from outside like an agent or their parents have a strong involvement. It’s always good if the rider can speak for himself because once they are on the bike they don’t have their dad or their agent to tell them what to do when they get in a situation.
There are less and less riders that really know about the bike itself, the bikes get more complicated and the riders become more specialised, they are unbelievable on the bike. The bikes can do a lot more but the riders have also, what they can do is impresssive. If you have a rider that can help you and give you good feedback on the bike that helps the team also be better on race day and progress more.
Do you have an example of a rider you have had that you have been able to get more out of him? It’s somehing I think you need to learn to give this feedback and express what you feel?
The riders there is such big differences between the riders, it’s also up to the team. If the team is really good then they can get the information out of the rider and respond properly, another team may not be able to do that with the same rider.
There is a personality thing also, if the leading people on the team have a good match for the rider and there is a trust then the riders make comments that are maybe not always correct because they are afraid to say the wrong thing. It is not always what they feel because they are maybe afraid of saying what they feel or afraid to say I don’t feel a difference, because they are afraid to look stupid. So it’s important the rider has enough confidence to be honest. Sometimes it may hurt the feelings of the team but the team has to be able to accept that if he is honest and it’s true then it’s true.
We now have so much data…
Typically with suspension in motocross and supercross, it’s the most difficult to be accurate on and difficult to measure accurately also because half the time the bike is not touching the ground.
In road racing the bike is always touching the ground and the ground is always the same every lap, it may be a little bit more wet or dry but in motocross it changes every lap, pretty much every lap is different, it keeps changing as the race goes on so it’s much more difficult to make sense of data actually, there is so much bounce ad the effect of the rider, what he does with the throttle and the position on the bike, how he absorbs the bumps in his legs and his arms, it makes such a big difference on the bike.
If two riders go over the same bump on the same bike one is going to bounce 1 metre and the other could bounce 2 metres and they have the same equipment, because your body is very complicated shock absorber basically. Today, some guys are so good at keep low by turning in he face of the jump and scrubbing, the riders have got so good at compensating for what the bike doesn’t do well and in some cases using even a negative reaction from the bike to their benefit.
Who impressed you in adapting to the bike?
Basically all the top guys. Each one of them has some of those qualities. I remember when I was a rider coming up I watch Hallman a lot because he never looked spectacular because at the finish line he wa many times up front. He was able to, already in the 60s, able to keep his bike lower than the others over a jump and keep more forward momentum and he did that without being spectacular.
The build of a rider makes a big difference over what can do a tall rider or a small rider, they both have advantages and disadvantages. The key is to be able to make the best average.
You were involved quite heavily early on as a rider as to how to improve your bike, mill parts and so on, where did that initiative come from?
I went to a technical school and learned to work in a machine shop when I was in school and worked in a motorcycle shop early when I was 12 years old so I had a hands on feel. When I was able to make a little part or something it always made me feel good to make something or to look at some part that is made in a nice way, I feel satisfaction. When you make something with your hands it’s different, it doesn’t matter what, if you make it nice it’s a good feeling,
Is that one of the reason you like to stay involved, of course your role has changed…
Yeah but I still spend time in the machine shop. I like to do it because I like to work on the machine but also it keeps my knowledge up to hats happening with the bikes and understand what the factory is doing and things like that,
How much are you involved day to day with the riders since you have changed roles?
It’s hard to say exactly because it changes during the year but we share an office, Ian and myself, we overlap a lot on what we do. I am aware of 95% of what he does and vice versa he knows pretty much everything I do. We try to compliment each other. I do a little bit less hands on now than I did before because I have to sign off on more things, every contract and all that.
Expense reports, they have me involved with WP US, contracting new people or if we have issues, if we have terminate somebody’s contract I’m involved with that, sponsors, the marketing people like to have some input form the race team so I have to sit in a lot of meetings also. But I still go to mist of the tests, especially when we are preparing for a knee season. There always seems to be something needing cut or modified or a little part needed to be made, I’m still involved a lot in the making and preparing of the suspension, the chassis.
It’s crazy you are still in it and you still have this hunger! Is that something you are surprised with yourself?
I feel I am lucky that I can still work with competitive people and feel I can still hang with them and I’m not completely left behind. The computer I am not so good but I feel I am lucky and as long as they want me around to be part of it and I am able to bring something to the team and catch some things that maybe the rest of the crew did not notice.
People see from the outside and man that has been incredibly successful but they don’t see the hard work or the tough time. Is there a time a failure set you up for success later?
We failed winning the MXoN now six years in a row! So it’s not always victorious and all that but I don’t look back much. I forget pretty quickly the bad stuff and think what we can do next and think more about tomorrow more than yesterday.
That’s a great point. I was really impressed with Cairoli in France this year, he hit the start gate and fell three times but he was already smiling in the press conference like he has reset a button. You see other riders who are on a really high level as well but if something goes wrong they are gloomy and can’t hit the reset button. To bounce back and stay level headed is one of the big keys…
The strong point for a guy like Ricky Carmichael is if you compare Marvin and Ricky, technically Marvin is quite a bit better rider than Ricky ever was but as a racer Ricky was fantastic. He won so much but he was the best rider that I worked with that could make a mistake on the track and put it behind him. He wouldn’t even remember if you tried to tell him!
Whereas Marvin, he makes a mistake and he thinks about it for the next three laps you know? So his next three laps, his lap time is down and maybe another guy or two pass him and then he would be good again, but to win championships you cannot be all mistakes but most guys, very few riders can ride a full race without a mistake and that was Ricky’s strong point.
What is talent to you?
Talent can be a lot of different things. It takes talent to to be focused on what is coming, to do certain things on the track that other riders cannot do. Maybe talent is how you train, there are so many different talents you can have. I think one of the most important talent is to take responsibility of what happened to you. If you got tired, take responsibility and don’t blame the bike or the suspension was not good enough, if you got tired you need to get fitter, you cannot buy a pill to fix that, that’s work during the week. I think that’s one of the most important things that a lot of people with a lot of talent don’t have, the ability to take responsibility.
Was that something that made a Ryan Dungey shine because he was never the top kid growing up?
Ryan, he was not just thinking racing only on race day, he was thinking about it every day. He was not afraid to do the work, even before he worked with Aldon, he was probably doing more work than he did with Aldon! But he benefited from going to Aldon and working with Aldon because then he realised he was doing more than enough. Before he was thinking he was not doing enough and he wanted to do more, more and more to win.
What are the defining choices that made you who you became?
I think first of all I love racing, it’s not a job for me to race, it’s what I love to do, I love to win and I’m not afraid to do the work. The work has been my priority maybe sometimes at the expense of my family but that’s who I am.
Is there anything you would change looking back?
I would hope I could do more good things, especially early on, be better with my family be more understanding maybe and be a better dad.
Is that possible when you have to have the commitment to be successful?
It’s always possible to be better and be more efficient with times I never had a reala mentor that coached me so in a way I have been a slow learner, I have learned what I have done through trial and error. I think if I had to redo my life I would look for outside advice.
I asked questions (to the Swedes) and I also spent a lot of time with Dave Bickers, the English rider, we travelled together in America for several years and stayed good friends. He was a little bit older than me and he already had won championships and I remember asking questions, ‘Dave it’s three years in a row I got fifth in the championship, what am I not doing that I should be doing?’ He told several times just to be myself and do what you are doing that it was going to happen, that it would come and he was right.
Can you remember a race that changed the belief?
I can say that every race I went to I always believed I had a chance to win when I probably did not have a chance but I always thought I had a chance! The first Grand Orix that I won was in Italy in Gallaratta and I won both races by two minutes or something in front of second place, it went so easy that day, it was like, ‘ why aren’t they going faster?’ Of course that gave me confidence then wining in Namur gave me confidence also but I was a slow learner!
Did you have a lot of those moments, (where it felt easy)?
It was more here and there at that time, later one like in 72, that was my best year. My bike was really good, I felt my bike was the best and I was also clearly the best. I knew that I could go to the start and not to have to worry about the start, I knew I could let them start and start after them, I had the confidence I could catch them and beat them.
Have you been able to replicate that feeling as a team manager?
No, as a team manager it’s not the same, you can help a little bit but you don’t have the control. In this sport it’s still the rider, you have to have all the ingredients ready for the rider, the bike, the engine, the suspension and the bike has to be prepared so nothing goes wrong and all that but on race day it’s all in the hands of the riders. But still, winning with your rider and you work closely with him and you know you brought something to him that made a difference, it’s probably the next best thing to winning yourself you know? But it’s never quite the same.
The best riders seem to have the best teams built around them and taking accountability for what happens in the team.
Yeah and that’s an important quality for the rider, not just to be around and take the best riders they also help the team get better and help the team perform at a higher level. That’s something that Ricky Johnson was really good at, when he won the team was really part of it, so everybody on the team would work even harder. Ricky Johnson was really good with that.
When you were with Suzuki it seemed you gave a lot of chances to French riders was that budget or what was the reason?
For a long time we were focused on the 125 class also and we had to come from behind when I came back to Suzuki (95), Suzuki had fallen back to a very low level, especially in the US. In Europe they did a lot better and got better quicker because of Sylvain (Geboers) and his good work but in the US it was more difficult because they had fallen back so far. Sylvain did an awesome job in Europe with them but they had no supercross over there so in supercross it was even more difficult.
It was and it still is hard to find talent for supercross and France was the only country in Europe that had a supercross championship and had upcoming talent. And they are still the best nation besides the US as far as bringing up supercross talent.
What you have done this year is pretty amazing with Cooper Webb is pretty amazing, it wasn’t a last chance saloon but it was time to step it up and he did it.
It was nice to be able to help him. I believed in him and that’s why I wanted him. He may have come (good) a little bit quicker than I thought he would but I really believed he could do it but maybe not the first year but after a couple of races and after what he did in San Diego and the way he rode there, I could feel maybe this can can do it.
He also, when he talked to him at the very beginning before he signed, our meetings were usually Ian and I and he always came by himself. We were very straight and honest with him what he needed to do, it was not going to work if he did not put in the hard work on the fitness side and the work before the season started. He was honest with us he recognised that he was not fit enough and that he was afraid to commit to the program we wanted, because it’s not an easy program, he was afraid that he would fail but he was honest enough to tell that he was afraid of that. He did not act like many guys would, saying it’s not problem.
Being open and honest, then you can help each other, it’s super important. If he had come with an agent and the agent had been talking for him, it would have been easier for his side to say no problem, we can do that, I’m the best, I did not win last era because of the team or bike.
What was the biggest lesson you learnt from one of your riders?
I would look for some outside advice quicker. I think that’s something Americans are much better at getting help from the outside. Not only in motocross but in many sports and everyday life. It seems to be in Belgium we were a little bit too shy to ask for outside help you know? I’m talking in my generation, maybe today it’s a lot different. Americans are very open to that and open to share information on what they do to get better. I feel also as a rider before I came to America I would keep my information to myself but it’s better to be more open because you progress more.
When you came to do the international races here ( USA) did you fall in love with it immediately?
I saw that our sport fitted in America, it fitted the American mentality, the cowboy mentality. I thought motocross was going to take off here, it was going to become popular, I had that feeling from early on. They like things that are a little bit wild.
Do you have a motto you live your life by?
I don’t really have a slogan but I never give up, it’s mind of a Belgian slogan also.
What is your take on rider communication at the MEC?
I’m not for it. I think it can be used negatively, there are some positive side, if someone crashes in the track, you can warm you rider. But it’s one more thing to take care of but it’s an expense also and can be used to block other riders. I think the main reason the promoters want to go that route is they want to do away with the mechanics on the track, they don’t like the mechanics on the track.
They says it’s about TV but I think it’s more about getting rid of the mechanics area. I think the mechanics area could be done better, it could be done like they do in car racing where you have a pit lane and have a mandatory stop, although with this sort of racing it’s so short, about 20 minutes for a supercross final. I think for the promoter it’s a way to create revenue again but they don’t share the revenue with the riders, I don’t like that. They need to find a way to pay the riders further down and pay a lot more money than they pay today from the promotors side. The riders income comes 90% from the factories, it should not be that way. The income that comes from the promoter to the rider is probably less than ten percent, when in other sports in more like 40%.
Is there a way to make riding more accessible/ affordable!
Yeah, go to two-strokes, we would be Abel to support more riders you know? Four-stokes the bikes are awesome, they are unbelievably good but they are expensive.
If you had a giant bill board what would be your message?
Probably something with motorcycles is freedom, riding a motorcycle gives that feeling of power, freedom and control.
Interview: Tom Jacobs