In the ’90s, Roger DeCoster was the Executive Editor of Dirt Bike Magazine, and in that time, he wrote many timeless pieces that are still relevant today. In the August, 1993 issue, he spoke of the travel that the motocross stars of the day had to endure, and of the early years when it was even worse.
The traveling game
By Roger DeCoster
Professional motocross racer- what a job! What a title to put on your business card. What an image.
Like many things, though, the image and the reality are quite different. Sure, it’s a fantastic job and a great goal. You have opportunities that aren’t available to just anyone, you get to meet all kinds of people and see places all over the world. However, there’s the flip side as well. That reality consists of travel, hotels and airports. The truth is that most top professional racers spend more time in airplanes, airports and rent-a-cars than they do on the racetrack. The time that’s left over they spend running and working out. Just look at this year’s schedule. In January there were four supercrosses in four different states. In February, there were three, stretching from Florida to California. March saw the beginning of the outdoor series in addition to more supercrosses, and there were four more supercrosses the next month. The U.S. schedule remains like that until fall, when the riders go to Europe. Altogether, a professional motocross racer can count on traveling about 30,000 miles each year within the U.S., and who knows how many overseas. I know all about those kinds of travel agendas. For European riders the travel is even worse. Most of the travel is done by car because airfare is about three times what it is in the U.S. It seems like I spent most of the ’60s and ’70s in a car, crossing Europe on my way to one race or another. In those days, getting from one race to the next was even more difficult because of the many borders we had to cross. Back then, each and every border had a different routine. Even the U.S. was tricky to get into. There were always questions about the bikes and the parts. Today, riders bring over all kinds of things, but then if you brought a lot of tools and parts, they would probably stay in Customs until you left. If you did get them in, it would be a major undertaking, involving piles of paperwork.
Without doubt, the most difficult countries to enter were in the Eastern Bloc: Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and The U.S.S.R. Each country required its own
visa and paperwork. One year Jaak Van Velthoven, who was riding for Husqvarna at the time, was following us to the Russian GP. Bengt Aberg and I had gone to the Soviet Embassy in Brussels to get our visas months earlier. “You didn’t have to do that,” Jaak said. “They can give you a visa at the border now. You just have to wait a little longer.”
Jaak was the victim of some very bad advice. When he got to the Soviet border, they just turned him away. He had driven for a week, and they told him to go home and get his visa. He missed the race.
Another time, Joel Robert and I were trying to get home to Belgium after the Polish GP. The shortest route was through East Germany, so we were prepared in advance and had all the proper paperwork. We left Poland at the official station, getting our papers stamped, and then we crossed the Oder River and a section of no-man’s land. When we got to the East German border, though, they would not let us through, even though we had the proper visas. They said this particular route wasn’ t a “designated transit road.” They told us to use a road to the south.
When we went back to the Polish border, they said our visas had been used already, and they wouldn’t let us back in. We were stuck between the two countries! Joel was getting pretty mad by now. We went back across the bridge and explained things, but the East Germans didn’t care. Joel made a remark to me in French something about blowing up the bridge like a scene from Bridge on the River Kwai. All of a sudden we had several machine guns pointed at us, being cocked. How did we know the guard spoke French?
Eventually, we got through the East German border. We had to wait there all night, first, while the East Germans communicated with the Poles. No one was in a hurry. Except us.
The border guards always had all the cards–you had to do whatever they said. Once Ake Jonsson had to remove all the paneling from the sides of his box van for them. What else could he do? Go home?
Overall , though, we became pretty good at the border crossing game. It was routine at the time to see people sleeping in their cars for days, waiting for permission to pass through. The Russians would say Minutotsko, which, literally translated, meant “just a moment.” In reality, that “moment” could take days. The term eventually became a joke.
We knew how to hurry things along. For a time, stickers were more effective than a $100 bribe. When the border guard said Minutotsko, we would pull out a few stickers, pins or T-shirts and we would be on our way. Cash would work sometimes, but that was more risky. In all of those countries, the black market was very big. On the street, foreign currency could attract ten times the official exchange rate. It was tempting to take our meager start money and exchange it through the black market, but officials would watch for that. If you were caught, the fines were big and you could easily wind up in a Soviet jail. Russian currency wasn’t allowed to leave the country, so they would demand to know what you had done with it. If you couldn’t show them the things you had purchased, you were in trouble. Eventually, we learned to stay away from the black market, buy local goods with local currency and use stickers for bribes.
In fact, once I purchased a Soviet plane ticket with a handful of stickers. A domestic flight from Moscow to Lvov was booked full, so no amount of money seemed able to get us on the plane. I gave a Suzuki tank sticker and several Champion Spark Plug stickers to the lady behind the counter, and she let us get on the plane. As it turned out, there were people who actually had purchased tickets who were left in the terminal. They might have had tickets, but I had a seat, courtesy of a few stickers.
Eventually, the sticker game became ridiculous. Stickers weren’ t enough; they wanted T-shirts and hats. By the late ’70s, we had to carry a suitcase full of goods just for the border guards. Of course, all that has changed today. Now that the Iron Curtain has melted, those countries are back on a more capitalistic system. They just want money.
Some things, however, will never change. As long as there is professional racing, the racer’s life will be one of travel, paperwork and just a sprinkling of glory.
Not to mention the occasional bribe.