Roger DeCoster

We all know how far motocross bikes have come in the last years. But that’s nothing compared to how far motocross contracts have come. Racing motocross might seem like a great way to have fun making a living, but it’s big business, and that means there are lawyers, managers and contracts involved.

In my racing days, contracts were simple written agreements. I won’t even mention what my deal with CZ was, but my first agreement with Suzuki was for the ’71 season. The contract was all of one page long. I got a flat fee for the year, and that was about equal to the bonus a rider gets for winning one race today. Back then we never heard of bonuses for winning. Also, there were no such things as travel expenses, rent-a-car allowances and restaurant tabs. And I was one of the top paid riders!

There wasn’t much need for a business manager back then. But times have changed. Today’s contracts are complex legal papers. Team managers must have them approved by the company’s legal department and the riders need a manager or adviser to tell them what the contract says. It got that way slowly as riders and factories ran across gray areas that needed to be covered. Just imagine how many situations have come up over the years; things like conduct, drug involvement and image all are covered in the contract now. Then Honda became one of the first companies to put heavy reliance on performance (the more you win, the more you make), which is standard practice now. So from a one page agreement, the average MX contract grew into a document that’s longer than a supercross program. And now it seems the more items that are stipulated, the more you [need] to stipulate. Once you start spelling out things that should be common sense, you need to have everything covered–how do you define something like a ‘bad attitude’ in writing? It takes pages and pages.

Making things more complicated is the involvement of clothing manufacturers. In some cases, riders end up on a certain brand of motorcycle because of a clothing contract. For example, when Damon Huffman went to Kawasaki, he might well have gone to Honda instead. But he had a year left on his AXO contract. Honda has an exclusive deal with FOX, so the only way for Damon to ride a Honda was to get a release from AXO, which wasn’t about to happen. That was exactly what AXO was trying to avoid by signing a multi-year deal in the first place. It’s remarkable that the clothing factories gained so much influence over the years. At first, factories would supply the riders with some company jerseys. Then one day, the AMA wanted the rider’s name and number printed on the back. John and Rita Gregory at JT saw an opportunity and agreed to supply various teams with whatever they needed. Before long, companies were going crazy competing to get the top riders in their gear. Who would have guessed that MX clothing would someday become a big fashion industry like ski apparel? Pretty soon the clothing maker’s logo virtually pushed the bike-maker’s logo right out of the picture. This didn’t set well with many of the teams–after all, they were the ones spending the money on getting into the winner’s circle. Honda started trying to take control of that aspect back when George Holland and Jeff Stanton were signed to wear Hondaline gear, but Rick Johnson wouldn’t leave FOX. Now, all Honda riders wear FOX, and to their credit, they look like a team.

So what else do the factories expect out of a top rider? Here are just a few of the things that are in a typical contract:
* The rider agrees to keep himself in top physical and mental condition. If requested, he must submit to an examination by a doctor of the team’s choice, and the rider can be checked for drugs.
* He must be available for a specified number of races. Beside the supercross and National series, the factories usually want the rider to show up for about four other races, like supercrosses in Japan and maybe a GP or two. When a rider wants to race an event outside his contracted schedule, he is required to ask for authorization. This is usually what happens for the fall supercrosses in Europe, where the riders get good start money. Often, the riders will be supplied with a production bike for these races. They will just carry parts like suspension and maybe a cylinder on the plane.
* He is expected to be a good citizen and display good sportsmanship.
* He can’t do anything which reflects poorly on the company he riders for.
* He is expected to dress properly, often in a team uniform (off the track).
* He must attend dealer appearances and autograph sessions in conjunction with most of the races.
* The term of the contract is generally one year. History has shown that riders with multi year contracts don’t perform as well in the last year. Of course, the problem with short-term contracts is that they discourage brand loyalty. In the long run, that makes everything a little more messy.

For example, this year we just made it to June when it was announced that Ezra Lusk was leaving Yamaha to race for Honda in 1998. It was only five months after he made the switch from Suzuki to Yamaha, and he obviously was doing very well on his new equipment. Right afterward, it was obvious that everyone was thinking contract–not only riders, but factories and clothing makers, too. No one wants to get caught with their pants down! So there was no choice but to act quickly. As soon as a couple of phone calls are made by a team manager, it seems like the word is out. Pretty soon gossip goes crazy and the stories get bigger and wilder. Eventually the strangest stories come back to me in forms so wild that I don’t even recognize them.
All this comes with big business. I suppose I should welcome the complicated contracts, the managers and the gossip as a sign of our sport’s maturity in the world of professional sports. It’s a sign that there are people making money, and that’s a sign of overall good health. So I’m sure that we’re better off than we were in the days of the one-page gentleman’s agreement, the small-time expense accounts and the low-budget race teams.
At least, I think I’m sure.


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