DES NATIONS GREATS: CLASSIC DECOSTER

In 1998 , Team USA’s 13-year winning streak in the motocross des Nations was in the rear-view mirror. Great Britain had ended it back in 1994 and the U.S. was struggling to reassert itself as the dominant power in world motocross. In the July, 1998 issue of Dirt Bike, Roger DeCoster looked back at some  of the greatest rides he had ever witnessed and discovered that many had taken place during that 13-year U.S. run at the des Nations. Here’s what he said.

Once in a great while, it all comes together for a rider. When all the elements are in place, when he has the will, the capability, the support and maybe a little good fortune, a rider can put together the ride of his life. He exceeds all expectations and it becomes a race for the history books. 

I was thinking back on some such extraordinary performances and realized that many came at the Motocross des Nations. Maybe it’s because of national pride, maybe the sense of unity from being part of a team. It’s certainly not for money. Even though much has been said about these performances, I thought I would look back on them now and speculate on the motivation that made each possible. 

U.S. Team, 1981: Lommel, Belgium. The first U.S. victory was one of the greatest team rides in history. The riders were Johnny O’Mara, Donnie Hansen, Danny LaPorte and Chuck Sun. It was an underdog team, especially in the eyes of the Europeans, who didn’t even know most of their names. But everything changed after that race. The riders worked together as a real team, especially prior to the start. We had problems getting the engines to last in the deep sand. But we pulled together with hard work. In the end, we had a little luck when Andre Vromans snapped a damping rod, and that was all it took. The U.S. underdogs went home as heroes. 

Magoo,1982: Gaildorf, Germany, and Wohlen, Switzerland. We have talked often of these two rides from Danny Chandler. It’s because he was just so fast. At both the Trophee des Nations and tile MX des Nations (250cc and 500cc races on consecutive weekends), Magoo was unstoppable. He won both motos at both races, something that had never been done before and will never be done again because of the change in format to one race. When everything comes together for an athlete, they say he’s “in the zone.” I don’t know if anyone has ever been so deep in the heart of the zone as Magoo was those two weekends. 

Jeff Ward, 1984: Varberg, Sweden. It was the last year that the 250 and 500 races were on separate weekends. Between Johnny O’Mara, Rick Johnson, David Bailey and Ward, each of the four U.S. teammates had won a national titIe that year. With most of the pre-race attention going to the three Honda riders, Wardy was out to prove that he was at the same level. He proved more than that in the 250 race. It looked like no one was on his level as he played with the other riders like a cat toying with a mouse. 

Johnny O’Mara, 1986: Maggiora, Italy. Johnny had finished third in supercross and in the 250 Nationals that year, yet things were not going well for him. It was known that Honda would not renew his contract, but the O-Show still had one show left in him. He came through with flying colors on the 125. Not only did he win his class, but he humiliated the new 500 world champion. Dave Thorpe was riding the same works Honda 500 with which he had just won the championship, and he couldn’t quite hang with O’Mara’s 125, even though the track was hilly. 

David Bailey, 1986: Maggiora, Italy. There was a lot of competition within team Honda that year. O’Mara and Bailey were on the team before Johnny joined, and each rider was eager to prove who was the team leader. This was especially true between Johnson and Bailey. When the team was selected, Ricky came to me and suggested I put Bailey on the 500 for the sake of the team. I think he really thought that he would have a better chance of beating David that way–the 250 was a very good bike then. Ricky’s suggestion suited everyone perfectly, but I think that Bailey had something to prove. He took the 500 to the overall win in one of his finest rides. 

Bob Hannah, 1987: Unadilla. Picking Bob for the team was controversial that year. He had declined a spot on the team in past years, and by ’87 was well past his prime. Two-time 125 National Champion Micky Dymond was the logical choice, and many people said so. I think the more people said it, the more Bob wanted to prove them all wrong. An MX des Nations win was the only thing missing from his record at the time. With Ward and Johnson on the team as well, he would never have such a good chance again. The track was terrible; muddy and rutted with pools of standing water. During the race, the rain started coming down harder and harder. It was hard for a 125 to even get up the hills. That was perfect for Hannah, who never knew how to quit. He was the top 125 that year, putting an impressive cap on a spectacular career. 

Ron Lechien, 1988: Villars sous Ecot, France. In ’88, Lechien was second in both supercross and in the 500 class, and third in the 250 Nationals. Still, I was worried about how he would do in France. I was all too aware of all the things that could distract Ronnie. On Saturday night, we went out to our customary team dinner across from the hotel and Lechien was missing. He said he would be there, so I went to his room. There he was with several of his friends having a small party. I couldn’t help but notice a few cases of beer and empty bottles around the room. He saw my expression and told me not to worry. Everything was fine. He came to dinner, ate quickly and then went back to his room. Later, I saw him leaving with a couple of girls in his car. “Don’t worry, RD,” he said. “You can count on me; everything is fine.” Ricky and Jeff knew what was going on and were furious. The winning streak was in its eighth year and they didn’t want Ronnie to foul things up. The next day, Lechien put in the ride of his life, winning the 500 class like there was no one else on the track. 

Jeff Stanton, 1990: Wimmerby, Sweden. After the second heat, it looked like Belgium and Sweden had an insurmountable lead over the U.S. Everything had to go perfectly in the final heat if the U.S. win streak were to survive. But at the start, Stanton was in the back of the pack while Allesandro Puzar and Dirk Geukens were pulling away. In the pits, the Belgian team was already getting ready to celebrate. Stanton plugged away, passing one rider at a time. He finally caught Geukens near the end of the race. After a brief battle, he moved into second, but there was still Puzar out front. Jeff caught him and passed him on the last lap! The U.S. team won by one point. 

There were other great des Nations rides; performances from Jeremy McGrath and Joel Smets come to mind. I could fill volumes with stories of underdogs and great rides. I think the one common factor is that they all had something to prove. And they had the capability to do it.

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