Roger DeCoster: 20 Minutes With “The Man”

Roger DeCoster has come from modest roots as a child in Belgium, watching motorcycle races rip through the roads in front of his home and the nearby pub, to one of the most iconic people to ever swing a leg over a bike. His numerous championships on the FIM GP World Championship circuit are legendary and helped bring off-road motorcycle racing to American shores. When the time to retire came, DeCoster took on the role of team manager for American Honda, Suzuki, and most recently KTM. The move to the Austrian brand was one of many that helped solidify the once darkhorse efforts as a front runner in American motocross racing, and the line-up that will carry them into 2014 is the strongest yet. 

Now that we are a month from the start of the year, how have things gone with the new addition to the team, a guy stepping up to the 450 class, and new bikes?

It seems to be going good. We still have some work to do, but Ken seems to be happy with his new program in Florida and Ryan has been working hard as well. On this side, we just got Dean Ferris done and he is just learning Supercross. Hopefully he can get to a level where he can be safe and comfortable for the start of the season because he doing the West Coast in just a short time. For me I look at his first year in Supercross as a learning season, and I don’t want to but pressure on him for any great results. He should take his time and learn to do it right, instead of banzaing it and taking the chance of getting hurt. Hopefully we can get a good outdoor season with him and then next year be more prepared for Supercross.

Is it a two-year deal with Dean?

It is a one-year deal, but we never sign a rider with the idea that we are only going to keep him for one year. Hopefully everything works out well and we will continue to work together for 2015.

How was the process of acquiring him?

I saw him at the Motocross des Nations and soon after, he contacted one of our people in Europe and said that he was available and would we have an interest, because they (Red Bull KTM) did not have an interest in Europe because they had their riders signed. He asked if there was an opportunity and we looked into it, and realized that he had an agreement with his team (Monster Energy/Bike It/Dixon/ Yamaha) from this year. Things went back and forth a little bit and finally we decided to contact Yamaha ourselves and find out what was exactly going on. They were cool enough that if he did not race in Europe, they would release him, because that was his dream. They were okay to release him on some financial compensation, and that is what he wanted to do. So we took care of it and got the release from Yamaha, worked on our deal, and then got it done.

After last year, Marvin is expected to be a title favorite for the East Coast…

That is what we all hope. I think he is capable of doing it, he just needs to go in with the confidence necessary and take charge.

I was surprised to find out that he is harder on equipment than anyone else, considering how smooth he looks on the bike. Someone said he goes through twice as many pistons and rings than Ken did.

Yeah, he revs it more than Ken. Kenny is the easiest guy on the bike that we have had, and Marvin is pretty tough on the engine.

With Ryan and Ken both being on the East Coast, how do you manage them when they are a few thousand miles away?

It makes it more difficult on the team, for sure. These days, starting a lot because of Ricky, everyone seems to think that they need to be on the East Coast to be successful. I really think that there are some pluses, but there are some minuses. You are farther away from your team and cannot get the same attention there as you would locally. But that was their choice. We would not do that with a Lites guy, because it would be too much to deal with shipping back and forth, but with an accomplished rider, we are willing to bend to give them what they want.

With what you said about Ryan at the Motocross of Nations, right after that did you sit down and devise a program to figure out where things were? Or did you let him figure out what he needs to do?

We had a big meeting between des Nations and the Spain race (Red Bull Give Me Five) and went over things. There were things that we needed to work on and do better, and there were things he needed to work on and do better. He made changes in his program also and I think that after pointing it out, the things that we saw, he accepted that some of the ways he was doing things were not conducive to get the best out of himself. He was getting too wrapped up in making the bike perfect in every bike on the track instead of focusing on the good points and accepting that it is always a compromise. You can never make the best in every corner or bump on the track. We also made changes on the way we do suspension and I’m sure that we are already better and will be during the season. We acquired a really good guy to do good settings and I am confident that we will be a step better than last year.

Is there a reason that KTM have not pursued an air fork yet, but have tried an air shock, which is the complete opposite of what everyone else is doing?

The air shock is something that KTM had been working on for a long time before, when they did not have the linkage system. They somehow before last year brought it back and wanted us to have a look at it, and we did. There was definitely a performance gain, but we had the issue at A3 where we lost pressure. We put it on the backburner, but later this year we started working to find out and try to pinpoint what caused it. There was no physical damage to the shock, but it was related to vibration. We did some redesign changes to the shock and we now are putting time on it to see how it is doing.

Decoster introducing the 2014 Red Bull KTM American race team…

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Something that a lot of people may not know is how mechanically aware of a motorcycle you are. You have been around them almost your entire life, have a part of the shop where you figure parts out, and helped take Honda, Suzuki, and now KTM to new levels. Where did you gain your knowledge? Is it inherent from riding a motorcycle for years or was it something that you studied?

I did go to technical school, but I was working on bikes since I was 12 years old. I did a lot of trial and error learning. I was always interested and even when I was racing for the Suzuki factory and Honda factory, I was close to the engineering side. It is something I like to do and understand what affects the performance of a shock or engine or frame. I have learned a few things over the years, but there is still so much. Motorcycles seem to be pretty simple, but there is a lot more to it, a lot of little things that affect the performance. That is a lot to the rider more than anyone will ever know. We still learn all of the time, and it is what I like doing. It is my favorite place and favorite part of being with a race team, being on the technical side. I try to be a good link between the rider and the factory on the technical side. I try to make them understand what a rider thinks and feels.

You have been around motorcycles since they were the simple European bikes that dominated the early days to now, when we have 10,000-dollar production machines. What is the single biggest innovation or technological change that you have seen?

Suspension is very big and the improvements that they have made, and the progress that they have made with four-stroke engines is huge, also. When I started coming up, I was at the end of the four-stroke era, the original four-stroke era, and I helped to terminate the dominance of the four-stroke in the top class. It was basically Paul Friedrichs, Bengt Aberg, and me being the top-three racers of that era that did away with four-strokes. Now I was involved with Ricky and Suzuki and all of that, when the four-strokes came back and were dominant again. The electronics has played a part in that, in why the four-strokes are as good as they are. On the other hand, it is also the materials, the treatments, and the coatings, like the DLC coatings and others that are even better. Overall there is one big factor, and it is that today a rider can go as fast as he can anywhere on the track and the bike can handle it. In my generation, if I jumped down a drop-off as fast as I could go, I would bend the bike for sure. I would bend the frame, or the forks, or explode the hubs. The reaction from the factory, and it didn’t matter if you raced for Husqvarna or CZ or Bultaco, you were a stupid rider. The factory guys would tell you, “That was stupid. You should never land with the front wheel first! You should slow do for a jump like that!” The big thing that the Japanese brought was when something broke on the bike, the guys was going to the next post office to get a telex to the factory and would explain what happened. There would be some people in Japan that got on the job to redesign the part and make a counter measure. The Japanese were fantastic at that, and that was the downfall for the European makers. They did not listen to the rider, because you were a stupid rider if you broke the bike.

At every race I go to, no matter where it is, there is a line of people wanting to meet you. Do you recognize that you have an iconic status and understand why you are “The Man,” or is it just what it is?

Sometimes it is a pain in the butt, because you are trying to do something or watch the track, someone is grabbing you by the shoulder to sign something or want you to tell an old story of when you met 20 years ago some place. I understand that it is important to those people and that it is part of my job and that I need to respect them. Those are the people that make motocross what it is. I also try to set an example for my riders. Many times it is easier to just do it and sign the autograph than to come up with an excuse and say, “I am too busy.” By the time you have done that, you could have done it and made someone happy instead of pissing them off. I have seen it and done it myself sometimes, when you just can’t handle it anymore and have to turn someone down, you feel like shit after.

What is the best bike that you ever rode?

The best bikes are today’s bikes, but in a particular year, my 1972 works Suzuki was absolutely fantastic for the time. It shifted good, had good power, clean throttle response, was light, fast, and stayed together.

What was the worst bike you ever raced?

Probably my 1978 Suzuki. They got carried away and the bike was too tall and you could not control the rocking motion from it. At that time if I complained about something they would say, “Roger, you are getting too old. We need a younger rider and you should not put too much pressure on yourself because you have done your job.” They thought they needed a young rider, because that would fix things. From 1973, suspension got longer and longer every year, and I feel like in 1976 we hit the limit where everything was really good. In ’77, it was still okay but we had went a touch too far, and in ’78 it was overboard. In ’79 they came back a little bit, and in 1980 they did not resign me and I went to Honda. In 1980 at Honda, we had a really nice engine with a wide powerband for the time. The bikes today are so nice that it doesn’t matter which brand you take, even the standard bikes, you pull the brakes and stop with one finger. It’s the same with the clutch, especially with the hydraulic clutches on our bikes. Then you needed a full hand to pull the clutch, and if it was raining you accelerated when you got on the brakes. It was the same for everybody, but the bikes have come a long way.

Of all the places that you have raced at and visited, where are your favorite countries?

As far as race tracks in the US, I really like Unadilla, especially in those years when they only raced once or twice a year and there was grass on the track. I always liked the US, from the first time that I came here. I won’t say that I like every place, but I like it here, especially California. I enjoyed traveling overall and of other countries, I really like Australia and New Zealand. If you go to Australia today, it is a lot like what the US was 25 or 30 years ago. It is kind of like America, but with a more relaxed mentality and is not as politically correct. They are more plain and say how it is. In the US, politically, there is too much pressure to say the right things to make it acceptable to everybody. But there is a lot of good things about the US. If you want to work at it, you can make a difference here, more than Europe, that is for sure.

In your opinion, was racing cooler in your generation, when you traveled to so many countries, the sport was rather unknown and simple, or now, when it is technologically advanced, on television every weekend, and has its own forms of media?

There were things that were cooler then and things that are cooler now. Once you have tasted what we have now, you cannot go back. It is the same thing with traveling. There are people that grow up in one area and they stay within a 10 or 15- mile radius. Sure, they may take a trip, but they always come back to the same base. I think that has a lot of pluses, to have a base and to go back to the same place, but then there is also a lot of good in living the way that I have lived. I grew up in Belgium and started traveling in my early 20s, started coming to the US also. For several years I had a place in Belgium and here, and it was cool to make friends in different parts of the world like the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Australia. You gain something from that and it gives you a good overall perspective of things, but you lose some things. There is nothing for free, because if you get something, it costs something.