WINNING STREAKS: HOW THEY START, HOW THEY END–DECOSTER
In 1996 the term “Perfect Season” hadn’t been coined, at least not in motocross. But there were winning streaks. Jeremy McGrath was at the height of his powers and it seemed that there was no one to challenge him in Supercross. That inspired Roger DeCoster to write this column for the May, 1996 issue of Dirt Bike.
It’s easy to watch Jeremy.McGrath at a supercross and wonder if anyone is ever going to beat him. He’s riding a great winning streak, one that’s lasted about three years. Sure, there have been a few supercrosses he hasn’t won in that period (usually Daytona), but he has usually been the fastest guy.
This isn’t the first winning streak in professional motocross, though, and it won’t be the last. In any given period, there usually is one rider who seems like he can’t be beaten. Just when spectators start getting bored and believing that the race is over before it starts, the streak will come to an end and someone else’s will start. I’ve been on both ends of it. When you’re the guy doing all the winning, it’s great. When you’re one of the many riders who can’t put an end to someone else’s streak, it’s frustrating. For me, there were four consecutive Trans AMA titles from ’74 to ’77, ten consecutive Belgian team wins at the des Nations, seven wins at the Belgian GP at Namur Citadel, eight consecutive Belgian 500 National Championships (nine total), and all of the races I entered at Unadilla.
Even though I won more 500 World Championship rounds than any other rider, there were also losing streaks, even in my best years. Every year, I fouled up at the Carlsbad USGP (if the bike did not break, then I would crash or manage to lose some other way). I couldn’t stop Gerrit Wolsink from winning, year after year. In ’72, Swede Ake Jonsson accomplished one of the longest win streaks of my racing days. He won nine in a row in the ’72 Trans AMA on his Maico. I remember very well how frustrated I was at my inability to stop him.
There are many different types of winning streaks. Some riders win all the races at high-altitude tracks. Some streaks are team victories, like the USA at the Motocross des Nations. Then there are riders who win by having streaks of consistency. Gary Jones won the first four U.S. 250 National Championships, winning only seven races in the process–in ’74 he didn’t win any races but became the champion. Tony DiStefano won the next three championships with a total of five individual race wins. Jean-Michel Bayle won the 250 title in ’91 without winning a single race. Consistency really paid off for Jeff Stanton in ’92: he won three races and beat Damon Bradshaw, who won a record nine victories.
No rider has ever won every single race of a U.S. National series, but four riders have come close. In ’75 Marty Smith won six of seven 125 races, but Tim Hart won the muddy opener at Hangtown. In the ’78 250 series, Bob Hannah won the first eight races, then Marty Tripes and Kent Howerton won the last two. In ’81 Mark Barnett won all but the last 125 National, foiled there by Johnny O’Mara. However, the granddaddy of all win streaks still belonged to Hannah, who won 22 straight motos in ’78. What does it take to put together a winning streak? Just look at McGrath .
There have been all kinds of winning streaks throughout history, but I can’t think of anyone who has put together so many in such a brief period. He wins six or seven races in a row, loses one, then gets right back on top with another six- or seven-race streak. He has completely dominated the sport of supercross since he moved to the 250 class. People ask what it will take to stop him, but there is no answer. If there were, someone would have done it by now. This is Jeremy’s era, and it will simply have to play itself out.
Wins tend to build on themselves. When a rider wins a few times, his confidence increases. He begins to believe that his natural-born position is first place. His rivals start believing the same thing about him. Riders who can go just as fast start letting the top guy by, because they don’t want to jeopardize their shot at second place. That feeling holds true for all of the mechanics, support people and sponsors. The people behind a winning effort start doing their job better and taking pride in being on top. Everyone is more willing to work hard and invest more effort when they feel like they will get a good return.
Nothing, however, is forever. All winning streaks come to an end. There are a variety of reasons. Once a rider loses, his confidence can be broken, then it’s someone else’s turn. Sometimes a change in equipment can trigger it. That was what happened to Ake in ’73. He switched to Yamaha, lost his confidence, and his moment passed. More often, it can be an injury. That was what ended the Hannah, David Bailey and Johnson eras. Sometimes weird circumstances can end it all. Remember when Brad Lackey finally won the world championship and then couldn’t get a ride for the following year? He had burned too many bridges. Finally, a rider can have his spirit broken by one devastating defeat. Bradshaw had a spectacular season in ’92, but after he lost the championship to Stanton in the final round, he was never the same.
Even when a rider is on top, nothing comes automatically. Winners never stop thinking about. what it takes to win, about trying to duplicate it. Maybe it’s a training routine, maybe it’s a certain diet. Maybe it’s just the type of music on the radio before the race. Most likely it’s a combination of many factors–the right amount of training, the right amount of play and the right mental attitude. Winning is a complicated balance, and the secret formula isn’t the same for any two riders. So perhaps there’s a secret CD that Jeremy listens to, maybe a secret donut shop he visits. You can ask, but you might not believe him even if he tells you. As long as he keeps believing, though, chances are he will keep winning.