MY FIRST TRIP TO AMERICA: CLASSIC DECOSTER

The year was 1967. Torsten Hallman was the 250cc World Motocross Champion. CZs and Husqvamas were the best motocross bikes in the world. That was when motocross started in America. I remember these things reasonably well, because I was there.
When I made my first trip to the States in ‘ 67, I couldn’t have guessed that I would spend the next 26 years flying back and forth between continents on a regular basis. I wouldn’t have guessed that I would eventually live and work here. At the time, I was virtually unknown in America, and America was completely unknown to me. I was 22 years old, in my third year riding on the GP tour on a CZ. Thinking back, I really can’t remember what I expected to find once I got off the plane. I had long dreamed about visiting the U.S., but it seemed like such a remote place that I might as well have been traveling to the moon.

Before that, my only exposure to American racing was through Bud Ekins. I had met Ekins at the ISDT in ’64, and had immediately come to like him. I didn’t speak very much English, and he spoke virtually no French, but we managed to communicate somehow. Ekins was one of the very few American racers who was interested in European motocross. In the early ’60s, he started coming to England and the continent to race on a regular basis. He had been the dominant rider in Southern California off-road racing. Circle track racing was the only way to make money racing in the U.S. at the time, but Ekins was made of different stuff. In America, he gravitated toward the longer, tougher races, like the Catalina and Big Bear GPs. Today, he looks back at those days and declares that European-style motocross wasn’t really all that new to the America of the day. It wasn’t that different from scrambles racing. French motocross, in particular, was fast and smooth. Regardless, it seemed that other Americans did not notice the similarity quite so readily. Ekins was one of the few American who could finish a moto without being lapped in those first years.

When I came to the U.S. in ’67, along with Joel Robert, Dave Bickers, Torsten Hallman, Stefan Ennequist and Ake Jonsson, it was actually the second year of the migration. In ’66, race promoter Edison Dye had gotten Torsten to come over by himself and ride in a series of races. Dye had a very simple motivation for trying to get motocross started in the country. He also was the Husqvarna and Zundapp importer. If the sport got a foothold here, selling European dirt bikes could become big business. Dye already was a very successful businessman. During the war, he had 7000 employees building airplane fuselages. In the ’60s, he was a successful housing contractor–motorcycling was a hobby he wanted to turn into a business. Torsten’s ’66 tour had made a big impression on Americans, so Dye was ready to pay more Europeans to come over. I received $270 a week for the two-month series. Joel had already won two world championships-he got $300 a week. Money was certainly important, but it wasn’t the real reason I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to see America. Torsten had told us all about his trip and we were anxious to see for ourselves.
As I said, I don’t really remember what I expected, but all of my impressions of the country probably came from the movies. Everyone, I figured, lived in mansions and everyone drove a big car. When we landed in New York, the big cars were there. So were the big buildings–but I don’t think everyone was rich. We stayed at a Travelodge on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, and there were bums sleeping on the street in front. The big city didn’t seem so attractive. Even the storekeepers were hostile. Joel was looking at a camera in one shop and the salesman shouted, “Hey, show your money. You ain’t good enough to buy that.”
Luckily, things got better. As we traveled across the country, we made many friends. Most people we met were friendly and interested in what we were doing. It was strange to find that coffee shops stayed open all night. Gasoline was 30 cents a gallon, which was one-third of what it was in Europe.

When we got to the first track, in Pepperell, Massachusetts, the course was wide and simple in layout. When the riders started showing up, their bikes seemed all wrong. Some of them had 19-inch front tires instead of 21-inchers. Some didn’t have front fenders. A lot of them had big, heavy twins with trials tires. There were a number of two-strokes, but even they were set up strangely.
The riding style of the Americans was also wildly varied. There were riders like Ekins, Sonny Defeo and Barry Higgins who rode like Europeans; there were others who didn’t even let their wheels leave the ground off jumps. Generally, we would lap most of the Americans quickly. In later years, we gradually saw all that change.
Another thing that seemed weird to us was that the riders were wearing what looked like jet helmets. On the other hand, I’m sure that we looked pretty strange to them, wearing what they called “half-helmets.” It was a clash of cultures.
The day before the race, the promoter asked for our input on the track. We changed some of it, making it more technical and difficult. At that time, no tracks were groomed, graded or watered, in Europe or in the U.S. You just rode on the natural terrain. In fact, the first graded track I ever rode on was Saddleback, in California, years later. In ’67, almost anything could be in an MX course and not be considered too difficult. Sometimes there were hills so steep you wondered if you could climb them at all. Most of the tracks we visited were too easy to start with, and we were asked to make them harder, which we did. Our input was always welcomed.
The routine was different in every town. We would always do a few radio interviews, and the questions were always the same, starting with, “How much money do you make?” That was embarrassing. The actual number wouldn’t have impressed anyone. Did they want us to admit that we were sleeping four or five to a room, flipping a coin to see who sleep on the floor? Sometimes I would would pretend not to understand. Once, I asked the interviewer, “How much do you make? You tell me first!”
Sometimes it was difficult to find a place to work on the bikes–usually we found a motorcycle shop in the area. Joe Bolger was one of the first people we met. We visited his workshop. He was a very creative person, a real pioneer in inventing devices for bikes. Then, on our way to Sedan, Kansas, we were invited to work at Leroy Winters’ Cycle Shack. We had never seen such an elaborate motorcycle shop. There was carpeting in the showroom and a mammoth service area. It was like working on your bike in someone’s living room.
Later, Leroy took us to see his father’s “collection.” We thought it was going to be a motorcycle collection. As it turned out, his dad had a hanger full of weapons. He had enough ammunition to equip the entire Belgian army.

Torsten Hallman, Joel Robert

Joel was kind of an impulsive buyer. After seeing the Winters munitions dump, I think he caught a little of the American fascination with firearms. When we were leaving Sedan, he bought a Winchester, a Colt .45 and some other handgun, along with a bunch of ammunition. We barely got out of town when Joel had to try out his new toys. His Czech mechanic, Victor Lahita, had gotten out of the car to shoot the countryside with his 8mm camera–while Joel was shooting the countryside with his Winchester. Joel wanted Victor to film the little dust explosions as the bullets hit the earth. Victor didn’t mind until those dust explosions started getting too close to his feet. Joel was just crazy. Later, he wanted to see if the handgun could penetrate the bumper of our old van. lt could. Joel was always looking for souvenirs. I was always broke, so I didn’t bother. Once, we stopped at one of those American Indian tourist places, and Joel bought a number of things, including an “authentic” blanket. Within a few miles, Bickers and I started joking that his Indian blanket was actually made in Belgium. He turned it over and found a tag. The joke was on us: The blanket was made in Belgium!

Old friends: Roger DeCoster and CZ. This was from Joel Robert’s induction to the Glen Helen Walk of Fame.

In California, we split into two groups. The Husky guys went down to stay with Edison in San Diego, while the CZ group all ended up staying at Bud Ekins’ place in Hollywood. Unfortunately for Bud and his wife Betty, one of us had kept the phone number Bud had given us years earlier. We called up and moved in.
Bud seemed to enjoy showing us around. This was the America we had heard about and seen in movies. Every European has heard of Hollywood. I imagine that some tourists would be disappointed to visit there and not meet any stars. In our case, we did get to hang around with some famous actors like Steve McQueen and James Garner. Bud was a stuntman, so we actually got to see some real, live movie stunts. Bud also took us on a trip to Mexico, to see some of the Baja 1000. Where most of the trip to America had consisted of racing and driving, our stay with Bud was almost like a real vacation.

Back in 1993, Roger tracked down the first Husky imported to the U.S. for a feature in Dirt Bike. The serial number was 670001. At the time, the bike was owned by John LeFevre.

The two races we attended in California were Corriganville (which became Hopetown) and Castaic. Corriganville was typical of the type of racing that had evolved in California. It was a long, fast track, and because of the layout, it was very difficult to change. Eddy Mulder had been hanging around Bud’s shop all week, claiming that California would be a different story for us. He said we would not dominate quite as easily as we had in other parts of the country. We weren’t surprised when he led the entire opening lap.
The year before, when Torsten had come over by himself, there had been a traditional large stream crossing on the course. Torsten had jokingly told Malcolm Smith that he would teach the American how to cross the stream without stalling, but only after the event. Malcolm was doing well until he actually did stall in the water.
Torsten had run into some odd rules that year. Officials had looked at his helmet and declared it unsafe. He was loaned an American Bell Magnum (at the time, that was considered a “full-coverage” helmet). He said he liked it.
Another odd point about those early motocross events in the U.S.: They were sanctioned by an organization called the ACA, which was America’s official FIM affiliate. It was run by road-racer Wes Cooley’s father. At the time, the American Motorcycle Association didn’t accept the idea of MX at all. In fact, the AMA actively tried to keep its riders from participating. Dick Mann had gotten into trouble with the AMA for entering one race. It wasn’t until years later that the AMA turned around and began supporting motocross, eventually becoming the FIM affiliate.
BITS FROM THE MEMORY VAULT
• America was the first place I had ever seen women racing in motocross. In Europe, we had never heard of Powder Puff racing, but at Corriganville there was a full class of women.
• We had never seen a Harley-Davidson race motocross, either. At Castaic, one entered and finished. Later, I realized that person on the Harley had been Homer Knap, who would later work for American Honda’s road race team.
• We threw a motocross school at Castaic, and I remember one young rider who was driving us crazy with questions. It had been Russ Darnell, who in later years would set up his own MX schools. He must have listened very well.
• Before we left California, Joe Parkhurst and Vic Wilson asked if we would come out to a hilly area in Orange County and lay out a motocross course. We did. That course eventually became Saddleback Park.

When it was all over, we had raced in seven different states in roughly two months. Our schedule was so busy that we didn’t see much besides Route 66 and the various tracks. We knew, though, that our mission was to plant seeds.
I visited the States every fall from ’67 to ’78. In that time, I saw America rise from isolation to become a dominant power in the world of motocross. At the time it seemed like a slow process, with a few younger, faster riders popping up every year. When you consider that America went from 19-inch wheels and trials tires to a world championship in 15 years, though, it’s apparent that the country’s rise was lightning-fast. Not only did motocross change America in that time–America changed motocross. That, however, is another story …

Roger DeCoster originally wrote this piece for the August, 1993 edition of Dirt Bike.

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