REMEMBERING THE 1978 TRANS-AMA SERIES: CLASSIC DECOSTER

This  story was alternately written by Roger DeCoster and Bob Hannah for the July, 1995 issue of Dirt Bike. The subject was the 1978 Trans-AMA Series.

In the beginning, the series didn’t really have a name. It was just a collection of races held in the fall. Back then, it didn’t need a name It was motocross–that was all the spectators needed to know. It was a European sport, and every year a few Swedes, Englishmen and Belgians used to come over and beat the Americans to a smoking pulp. It kind of hurt. It kept on hurting for ten years.
In that first decade of American moto­cross, the fall series changed names, for­mats and promoters continually. It was called the Inter-Am for 250s,and either the Trans-Am, the Trans AMA or the Trans-USA for 500s. Whatever it was called, it remained the most important MX series in the country-and the yearly showcase of European superiority.
After that first ten years, though, some­thing strange began to happen. The Euros didn’t always win. Every now and then, a renegade American would sneak onto the victory stand. By ’78 it was all-out war. The aging Europeans had to fight for all they were worth to stave off the young Americans. The ’78 Trans-AMA series stands out as the turning of the tide.

Roger DeCoster, 1978. He would retire two years later, winning his final GP.

Roger DeCoster:
The previous year (’77) the Trans-AMA series doesn’t really stand out in my mind. I had won the se­ries for four years in a row and the only thing interesting about ’77 was that this kid named Hannah was getting a little better. In ’77 I don’t think he was as good outdoors as he was in supercross. I think he won one race. It was different in ’78. It had been a tough year for me. It started off with a terrible crash that put me in the hospital, and I wasn’t at all happy with the motorcycle. It had too much travel and that created bad stability problems. Winning wasn’t so easy anymore. When I came to the U.S., Bob was ready to race. He wanted to prove to everyone that he was the guy.

Bob Hannah would later pay tribute to DeCoster as one of the greatest riders in history. In 1978, however, the 5-time World Champion was just someone in his way.

Bob Hannah:
It’s odd, but from my whole career, I can’t remember the details of more than six or seven races. If someone tells me I crashed in the first turn at Hangtown in ’77, I just take their word for it. Not too many races stand out, but I remember virtually everything about the ’78 Trans-AMA series. That was the year that Roger DeCoster and I had a full-­on, kick-butt battle. Roger had been the man in that series. He won year after year. I rode well in ’77, but didn’t win. I can’t remember why I didn’t win, but I felt like I deserved to. In general, I felt like I deserved to win everything at the time. My battle with Roger really started in the second moto of the second round of the ’78 series. It was at Ohio. I had won the first moto, so they called me to the line first. I went to the best spot, and turned my bike around so I could burn in a groove. Roger was called second, and he just pulled into my spot. I saw this, so I turned my bike around and bumped him a couple of times. He just ignored me.I gave him a little shove and he turned around and gave me what I would call a symbol of disrespect. I couldn’t believe it. I yelled at the AMA officials to do something, but they just ignored me. Roger was like a god to them. Actually, he was like a god to me, too, but I fully planned on whipping his butt that day.
By that time, all the other good spots were taken, so I got in front of the gate and wouldn’t let the race start. Everyone was yelling at me, but I just sat there. Eventually, they pulled everyone off the gate and called us up there one by one, all over again. I got my spot, got the holeshot and won.

Earlier in his U.S. visits, Roger and the other Europeans were unbeatable.

Roger DeCoster:
Bob did things to intimidate the competition back then. At Ohio, I remember that he came bumping by me in practice for no apparent reason. He just wanted me to know that he was there, and that he was going fast. He was going very fast that day. He won the first moto.
Another thing he used to do to rattle everyone else before each moto was re­peated practice starts, lengthwise behind the gate. This annoyed me. The officials just let him do it over and over. It wasn’t fair-what if everyone decided to do practice starts that way? I don’t remem­ber it very clearly, but I think I took his start spot once, when he was doing this ritual, just to rattle him. It couldn’t have bothered him too much; he still won the second moto.

Bob Hannah’s “Thriller at Unadilla” was commemorated on the cover of Motocross Action. Note the dent in his pipe.

Bob Hannah:
The third race of the series was at Unadilla. In the first moto, both Roger and I were in the back of the pack, but we were moving up pretty fast. When I caught him, he was about third. He just let me by. I remember thinking, “Well, the old boy has finally had it. He won’t even fight with me. It’s kind of sad, really.” I got into the lead and he never really challenged me. Man, was I a sucker. I didn’t outrun him, he was just playing games. He knew that the first moto didn’t mean anything.
Looking back, the truth is, that I never really beat Roger. It was just a question of age. He was at the end of his career and I was at the beginning of mine. If you took us both at our primes, I don’t think I could have stayed close.
So the next moto, I caught him while he was leading and I thought it was all over. I thought I was going to walk away again. I was wrong…

Roger DeCoster:
At Unadilla, I remember it was a very difficult track, very muddy. Bob was faster than me in some sections and I was faster than him in oth­ers. If I was going to beat him, I knew that I had to save my energy and ride a smart race. In the first moto, I just rode fast enough to get second. I didn’t want Bob to see my lines and start using them.
In the second moto, he passed me again, and then I stayed right on his tail. We passed back and forth several times. He was much faster than me in some sec­tions and would pass me almost every lap. I would pass him back in my favorite sec­tions. There was one part of the course where there were S-turns near the Gravity Cavity. I would slow down and square it off, and Bob would commit earlier and go way outside. Near the end of the race, he tried passing me there, and it ended up being a drag race to the spot where the two lines crossed…

Bob Hannah:
At first, I thought it was kind of funny. DeCoster slammed into me and passed me back. I thought, “What do you know? He’s got some spunk left in him after all.” I passed him back, then, he passed me back; after a little while, it wasn’t funny anymore. I was riding for all I was worth. We were hitting each other and smashing elbows every lap. I remember wondering if he was still mad because I shoved him at Ohio.
It kept on going like that the whole race. In one section where I was getting airborne on the outside, he was squaring it off on the inside. We were just missing each other. Then on one lap, I thought I might have him, but he just took out my front wheel before I got it on the ground. I had to jump off. I just knew that he went down too, so I raced to pick up my bike. But he saved it. I just watched as he rode away. I was mad. There were only three laps left and there was no way I could catch him. My pipe was smashed and the bike would barely run.

Roger DeCoster:
Bob was faster, but I felt like I could reach down inside and find something extra when the conditions were bad. By the time I got to the end of the race, my bike was almost as beat-up as his, and I didn’t even crash. There were blackmarks all over the swingarm, the fork and the numberplate from where his tire had hit me. The rest of the series doesn’t really stand out in my memory. I think there was one other moto at St. Louis where we bat­tled. I remember passing him on the last lap. Maybe I try to forget the races I don’t win. But no race from that period stands out in my mind like Unadilla. That was the last year that I rode the Trans AMA series, after having come to the U.S.every fall since ’67. I retired two years later.

Bob Hannah:
The next weekend at Axton I rammed him in a turn. I was still mad. He didn’t go down. But after that, we never raced each other again. We might have been in the same race a few times, but we never had it out.I think Roger didn’t finish a race or something toward the end of the ’78 Trans-AMA, because he finished way back in the points. But I won the series that year. It was the first time that an American had ever done it. The next year, I broke my leg in August and didn’t ride for over a year. When I came back the Trans-AMA, or the Trans-USA or whatever they called it, just wasn’t a big deal anymore. Times had changed.

 

This story originally appeared in the July, 1995 issue. In 1995, Roger was the Executive Editor of Dirt Bike Magazine. He took the job seriously, especially when it came to bike tests.

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