THE YEAR OF SURPRISES-NOV’97

THE YEAR OF SURPRISES-NOV’97

Roger DeCoster

This season will go down in the record book as the Year of Surprises. So many unforeseen things happened in the last 12 months of racing that I have to consider this to be one of the best, most interesting seasons ever. I think that spectators across the country must agree because 1997 has been an all-time record year for attendance. For a change, fans entered the stadiums without any idea of who would win. Anything could and did happen.
Even in the outdoor races, after things settled down and Emig became the dominant rider in the 250s, Ricky Carmichael took over and started surprising everyone in the 125 class to keep things interesting.
So, now that the U.S. season is over, I thought to would be fun to review the biggest surprises in the Year of Surprises.
1. McGrath switches to Suzuki. As I have said before, this was even a surprise for me. Our program was all set for 1997 when Jeremy contacted us at Suzuki. We made room to fit him in–we would be crazy not to. But we knew it wouldn’t be easy. In the previous season, Jeremy had marched to an outrageous winning streak. Even though the streak had already ended by the time he got on an RM, we knew that people expected him to win immediately. As a team, we were saved somewhat when Albertyn won the season opener, but that was McGrath’s worst race ever. In the races that followed, Jeremy won a few rounds and closed to within three points of Emig, but in the end he finished second, and many considered that a surprising defeat. But when you think about it, he came pretty close to winning with a new bike, a new mechanic and unreal pressure–if he had won it would have been much [more] surprising.
2. Carmichael wins a National title. At the first outdoor National, many observers could not believe what had happened. It must have been beginner’s luck, and things would be different the next race. The experienced riders were going to surface, and there was no way that Ricky Carmichael could ride like [that] the whole season. But at the next two races, it was the same story. The young Splitfire Rookie was on fire, and the other, more seasoned riders had nothing but trouble. Even Kevin Windham, the rider most picked to be this year’s young sensation, had more than his share of machine problems. Ricky only faltered once, in the soggy Mt. Morris mud, but then came right back. And at Washougal, he could have played it safe and still won the title, but he choose to battle it out with Windham head to head, and prove that he is made of championship stuff.
3. A Four-stroke wins a supercross. Sure, four-strokes have always had a hard-core following. Those guys would take a thumper over anything else for any type of ride. But even they wouldn’t have taken any bets about a four-stroke winning a supercross. One year ago, the whole notion seemed ludicrous. Yet it happened. When Doug Henry crossed the finish line at Las Vegas, he became the first four-stroke rider to win a supercross, and, for that matter, the first four-stroke rider to win a National of any kind. I don’t expect many to follow in his shoes soon. There were special circumstances that night (dry track conditions, a title on the line, injuries, etc.) that combined. But that doesn’t mean that Henry and Yamaha don’t deserve credit for beating the odds.
4. Albertyn wins the season opener. It was especially nice for me to watch Greg take his first supercross win. He surprised me and a lot of other people with his improvement between 1996 and ’97. Now, if he could make the same amount of progress for 1998, it would be great! Greg has kept a great attitude through a couple of rough learning years in the U.S. I think it’s that attitude and a great personality that have earned him a growing crowd of fans at each race. Now I think there are growing numbers who want to see Greg win a national title as much as I do.
5. Team Yamaha’s success. Yamaha has won at least once with every combination of bike and rider. Between Kevin Windham, Doug Henry, John Dowd and Ezra Lusk, Yamaha won more races than anyone this year. They have won in 125 supercross, 125 outdoor, 250 supercross, 250 outdoor and even on a four-stroke. Certainly, a lot of credit goes to the riders. But maybe it says even more for the people who built the bikes and put the program together.
6. Team Honda’s fall. After seeing Honda at the top of U.S. motocross for so long, it seems strange that the official Honda team didn’t score any 250-class wins in 1997. Damon Bradshaw did score a National win for Manchester Honda and Scott Sheak won a 125 National, but that’s a far cry from the powerhouse that won 15 straight supercross titles. You would have to go a long way back in ancient history to find a worse year for them. I know better than to dwell too much on this lack of success, though. It’s kind of like kicking a sleeping bear.
7. Improved attitudes. After voicing complaints for years with virtually [no] reaction, no one believed that things would ever change for the better in supercross. The riders, teams and press expressed their same old concerns at the end of ’97, and expected the same lack of response. This time, however, things did improve. The promoters actually acted on the topics that the riders cared about. Now the promoters are happy with the big attendance numbers, the riders are happy that they are being heard and the spectators are happy with the race action. If next year is just as good, then pretty soon you might be able to read about motocross in the regular press and see it on the six o’clock news.
That would be the best surprise of all.

 

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