In 1993, Roger DeCoster wrote for Dirt Bike Magazine on a monthly basis. Here are chapters 6 and 7 from DeCoster’s 1993 handbook “How To Win.” For more of Roger DeCoster’s classic advice and strategy , click here.
The start is almost as important as the finish
I hate to destroy the most-used excuse in the world, but usually the fastest rider wins, regardless of his start. When Jeremy McGrath won four supercrosses in a row earlier this year, people said it was just because he got good starts and then didn’t make any mistakes. Then at Charlotte, North Carolina, he started in 14th place and won anyway. So much for the holeshot theory. McGrath was the fastest rider on the track that day, so he won.
When you don’t get a good start, though, it throws in an element of chance that can ruin your day. You could get caught in a pile-up or you could get hit by another rider. You are at the mercy of all the riders in front of you, while anything that happens after you have passed can’t hurt you. If someone knocks you down, being the fastest rider won’t help you. So, in general, the front still is the safest place on the track.
Here are some tips that will help you get a good start:
⦁ Watch earlier races. Watch where the local guys line up, then see if that area produces the most holeshots. It’s also important to notice where the poorest starting places are. It won’t break your day if you don’ t get the holeshot, but if you are pinched off in the first turn, it can hurt.
⦁ Watch the starter. Learn the start procedure. By the time your race gets ready to leave, you should already know his routine. Sometimes a less experienced starter will play games with the riders, trying to “fake” them out. Don’t be caught by surprise.
⦁ Think about your position. If you were to divide the gate into four quarters, starting from the inside, you will find that most holeshots come from the second quarter. If you start inside, you must get a good jump off the line. If you don’ t, riders will come in from the outside and cut you off. If you start from the outside, you need to realize that you will have farther to go. You should move inside as quickly as possible. Every starting line is different, though, so use your brain.
⦁ Point to the turn. Position your motorcycle so that it’s aiming at the first turn. Make sure that there are no rocks or obstacles in your immediate path. Don’ t worry about packing down the dirt more than a few feet in front of the gate, though. You could pack down the ground all the way to the first turn and on around the first lap if you want, and it’ s not going to have much effect on your traction. It might help you burn off a little nervous energy, though.
⦁ Get prepared. If the gate has a separate section for each rider, make sure that your section moves freely. It’s no fun to start behind the only broken gate on the line. Make sure your gas is on and you are in the right neutral before you fire up the bike. This might sound a little obvious, but make it a habit to check and recheck your petcock, even if you are certain it’s on. Someday that habit will save you a lot of grief.
⦁ Fire it up. Start the bike about two minutes before the start. At a local race, this is when the checkered flag comes out for the race before yours. If you start the bike too early, it can cost you power. This can be a significant loss on an 80 or 125. Make sure your engine is cleaned out. Put the bike in gear five seconds before the gate drops. For most 250 and Open bikes, second is the best gear to start in. First usually is best on a smaller bike.
⦁ Be precise. Hold the throttle steady at about half of maximum rpm, hold the clutch right at the engagement point and watch for the gate to move. You can’ t do this for more than a few seconds before the clutch starts to burn, so it’s important to know when it’s time to go. Sometimes you can see the operator hit a lever, sometimes you can see an actuating mechanism move just before the gate drops, but most of the time you just have to watch the gate.
⦁ Keep your head. In the instant the gate drops, you need to release the clutch smoothly. Many riders have their weight too far back and the front end gets a little light, especially on an Open bike. When this happens, the danger isn’t wheelying over (although that can certainly happen) as much as losing control of your steering. Keep your weight forward by pushing back on the footpeg rather than by pulling back on the bars. When you leave the line, you should have your shifting foot on the peg and you should get your other foot up as quickly as possible.
⦁ Go for the inside. As soon as you are free of the gate, you need to concentrate on going straight to the inside of the first turn. If crazy things start happening, this gives you more options. It’s a lot easier to go from the inside to the outside than vice versa.
⦁ Practice starts. At many tracks, practice starts aren’ t allowed. Even if they are, you don’t need many of them- they are hard on your clutch and your tires. During the week, you should have done enough practice starts to know how your bike reacts. On race day, it’s a matter of concentrating and keeping cool.
Remember, even if you don’ t pull the holeshot, it ‘s not the end of the world. It’s actually much more fun to ride up from behind than deal with the pressure of leading the whole race.
John Wayne once said to a young gun fighter, “No matter how fast you are, son, there’s always someone faster.” In motocross, no matter how fast you are, there’s always someone who can at least turn the same lap time. Even in world championship GPs, where the best lap times in practice are recorded, it isn’t unusual for the fastest qualifier and the race winner to be two different people.
So, obviously, being fast isn’t all there is to winning. Assuming you are in good shape, what’s left is strategy: the ability to think while you ride. If you can’t outride the other guy, then you had better try to outthink him.
The best “thinking riders” are ones who can quickly assess a situation and come up with the best plan for dealing with it. A race is like a chess game; there are millions of different situations that can develop, and only a few “correct” solutions to each one. Here are a few of the broader categories of race situations and strategies.
GOOD START, YOU’RE PULLING AWAY
This is a happy situation in which to find yourself. If you end up losing after this, though, it can be devastating. Obviously, the best strategy is to avoid taking unnecessary chances, and to go no faster than needed. The trick is in knowing what is an unnecessary chance, and how much speed is needed.
You need information, and the best way to get it is through a pitboard. Even though most local tracks don’t allow spectators near the course, there almost always is a “mechanics area” provided. If you run the pitboard for your buddy in a different race, he will do the same for you. If he won’t, find a new buddy. There are only three things you need to know: How big is your lead? Is anyone catching you from farther back in the pack? How many laps are left?
If everything is going well, you need to ride at a speed you can maintain. Motos where you lead from the very start can seem like the longest races, so it’s easy to let your concentration slip.
It’s also very important to breathe. Sometimes you forget! If you find yourself in the lead, it’s all too easy to get tense and seize up.
GOOD START, SOMEONE IS CATCHING YOU
Don’t look back, whatever you do. You might think that you can maintain the same speed and hold your line for a split second when you look behind you, but you can’t. When you look back, you will lose a little time, and you will break your concentration. Use your ears to determine how close the nearest rider is. There also will be some place on the track where you can see the next rider back- maybe you will be coming out of a hairpin turn while he’s going in.
In interviews after races, top pro riders usually will say something like, “I rode my own race.” That’s not just a meaningless cliche. That means they felt comfortable with their speed, and they simply did not worry about any other riders. That’s the best philosophy of all.
SOMEONE IS PRESSURING YOU
You can learn a lot from a rider behind you. If you hear him on your tail in one section, then you pull away on the rest of the track, he probably has a secret line that he’ s using. Search for it.
Don’t worry so much about being passed. If you can let a rider by early in the race, you can learn from him. The advantage in being behind another rider is that you can see his good lines, but he can’t see yours.
If you are passed by someone who seems to have the same ability and even knows all the same lines, then the best time to pass him back often is in the very next corner. He probably had to go off-line to pass you, and he might be a little out of control. Don’ t give him a chance to settle into the lead, especially if it’ s late in the race.
BLOCKING & DEFENSIVE RIDING
There’s nothing wrong with hogging the best line. If the rider behind you is faster, let him prove it by going around you. Sometimes there is a difference between the fastest line and a good defensive line. For example, if the fastest line through a turn is outside, it might be possible for another rider to sneak inside and block your exit. You both end up going through the turn slowly, but he ends up in front. Use your best judgment, depending on how tight the race is, and how close you are to the checkered flag.
Deliberately blocking other riders by moving across the track to take their line is a different matter. If you have time to do things like that, chances are you aren’t going as fast as you could. Also, you can be outsmarted easily. The rider you are trying to block can “fake” a move, then when you go offline to block him, the track is wide open for him to take the lead. Some riders will deliberately change their lines over a jump and try to clip someone else’s front wheel. Those kinds of riders have short careers. If you want to ride for a long time, ride clean.
In the first few turns after the start, you can either pass a lot of riders at once or get passed by a lot of riders at once. It pays to watch these turns in other motos. If you see a rider try an unusual line and make it work, you should give it a try.
Riders get bunched together in the early laps, so that’ s the time when you should try lines away from the main groove. If you catch yourself making mistakes, don’t keep pushing. Back off a little, relax your grip and take a couple of deep breaths. You might give up two or three seconds, but the alternative will cost you even more time.
There are hundreds of different ways to pass riders. Each track, even each turn and straight, is different. You can make opportunities by pressuring the rider in front of you relentlessly. Let him know you are there. Even in spots where you don’ t have enough room to pass, you can stick a wheel beside him just to force him into a mistake. If he’ s just trying to block you, then you can fake him out–make a lot of noise heading to the outside, then switch to the inside. He might go for the bait. I have heard of riders pretending to have a stuck throttle and scaring the leader out of the way. Passes have been made in every conceivable way, but usually the inside is the most successful.
Never give up. Anything can happen in a race- hundreds of motos have been won in the last turn. Even if you are doing really poorly, always, always race until you get to the checkered flag. Quitting is habit-forming. Next time, it will be a little easier to quit. If you are getting lapped, don’ t make dramatic moves to pull over for the leader. Just hold your line and your speed. If he’s going so fast, he should be able to pass without much trouble.
Finally, use your worst races to your advantage. Keep a log, and study it to find out why you didn’ t win. Here is some of the information you should keep: Date; track conditions (hard, sandy, etc.); jetting; tires (type, air pressure, amount of wear); suspension settings (damping, oil level); replacement of substantial parts (piston, chain, sprockets, etc.); activity during the week (training , diet); results.
After a while you should be able to learn from your notes. As long as you learn something, there’s no such thing as a bad race.