Serendipity | Flying with Pierre Karsmakers

Looking Back At A 2016 Highlight

‘Tis the season to reminisce about the year that has passed, and while home for the holidays a conversation struck up about the life we live as photographers or journalists. “That must be so cool!” “You get to travel a bunch, right?” are among the common things anyone mentions when you chat about working and shooting photos for a magazine. While those statements are true, it’s easy for the job to appear much more glamorous than it is sometimes and not everyone sees the daily grind that isn’t always glamorous. Yes the job is fun, but trust me it’s not always jet-setting and making stories happen. That being said, sometimes it is! An easy highlight of 2016 for me at TransWorld Motocross was somehow being placed next to Dutch motocross legend Pierre Karsmakers on my flight from Los Angeles to Amsterdam while en route to shoot the July 2016 cover feature on Jeffrey Herlings. You’ll read on below, but what started out as a casual conversation about a Motion Pro sweatshirt led me to a few hours of fascinating conversation with someone I was humbled to meet. I was even able to capture it on my recorder to share with readers online. If that’s not serendipity, I don’t know what is. I had to repost this story and share it once again before the new year, enjoy!

– Mike Emery, Photo Editor of TransWorld Motocross

Pierre Karsmakers | Converations With A Legend
Now a track that’s a distant Northern San Diego County memory, Pierre stands in front of what was historic Carlsbad Raceway.

Words by Mike Emery | Photos Provided By Pierre Karsmakers

*Originally published March 2016

You never really know whom you’ll end up sitting next to on a plane, and yesterday’s flight to Amsterdam from LAX proved just that. I’ve traveled a fair amount for the past several years working as a photographer and journalist in this sport, and I can safely say that this flight was my most memorable. Why? Sitting next to me on this nine or so hour KLM flight was a 69 year-old Dutch motocross legend by the name of Pierre Karsmakers. Out of the hundreds of people the flight, somehow the motocross journalist gets placed directly next to guy who won the very first American Supercross Championship in 1974. How did I come to find out whom I was sitting next to? Pierre was wearing a Motion Pro sweatshirt, and I sparked up a conversation that began an entertaining flight to Europe.

“Hey, I saw your Motion Pro sweatshirt, it’s funny I was just up for a visit to their warehouse recently.” I mentioned as we sat down. “Oh really? So you know Chris Carter then?” Pierre replied. “Yeah we just met! We were recently lucky enough to check out his collection of motorcycles, what an insane place. Have you ever been?” I asked. He went on to say that he knew Chris well, and had also recently been able to see his vast collection of bikes and parts. Small world? I’d say so. It turns out Pierre was on a return flight home after coming to the states to ride Baja with some close buddies, getting as far down as Mike’s Sky Ranch, a place I had also had the pleasure of riding. From there we chatted on, and I decided that breaking out the recorder to do an interview during our plane ride would be awesome, and the AMA Hall-of-Famer was totally down.

Karsmakers was one of the first European motocross specialists to take American motocross by storm, flying to the states in the early 70’s to see what the scene was like. Having been a successful rider in Europe prior to this, adventure overseas awaited and he would be one of the first European to make a full time splash in the United States. Winning the first ever American Supercross series as a European was the stat that hit me the hardest, and he won it having battled against names like Jimmy Ellis, Jimmy Weinert, and Rex Staten among others. He also won 250cc and 500cc titles in the early 70’s while riding for both Factory Yamaha and Factory Honda for a total of around 7 years. Remember Evil Knievel’s famous Snake River Canyon Jump? Well Evil happened to promote a motocross race that same day in which Pierre and many competed in. “I rode both classes that day, 250cc and 500cc.” he said with a smile, “Four motos at 45 minutes each. I was very tired, but remember making a lot of money there!” The stories went on, and I had to start recording at this point. Here’s my first-ever transcribed plane interview with a guy that any student in the sport should be familiar with. He even had a handful of photos (both retro and current) for me to share in this post. Grab some popcorn read on…

Pierre Karsmakers | Converations With A Legend
Pierre and his buddies outside of his Laguna Beach garage, prepped for a day of “cow-trailing.”

So let’s start this off that it’s a small world, and somehow the motocross journalist was seated next to the AMA Hall Of Famer on a flight to Europe. For those unfamiliar, tell us about your start as a motocross racer.

 So I started when I was 16 years old, 1962 I think, with a 50cc moped that I built myself. An uncle of mine raced motocross, so he was an idol of mine, and when I was young I had a goal that I had to be better than him! So I went to races, and of course racing was not so big at that moment, but the motocross virus infected me, and it’s all because of him. After racing the 50cc class I moved the 250cc class, I had bought a Greeves motorcycle, I forget the model. After that I won a couple of races and got sponsored right away by the Greeves importer. I raced for them for a year, and then I went to Husqvarna for a year, and after that I went to race a bigger federation that was sanctioned through the FIM.

So prior to that it was mainly local Dutch races?

 Yeah, and then when I was eighteen and got my drivers license I could become a racer in the bigger federation. So I became 500cc national champion there in 1967, 1969, and 1972.

And at that time you’re in your early twenties.

 Yeah, I was maybe 20 years old? Still pretty young at that time.

Pierre Karsmakers | Converations With A Legend
Here he tests Brad Lackey’s Factory Kawasaki in 72’, but turned down the offer at the time for Yamaha.

So success came to you pretty quickly, apparently!

 Yeah, I’d say pretty quickly. So then in 1972 I went to the Trans AMA races in America, Edison Dye invited me. I raced Husqvarna’s, and during those races Kawasaki and Yamaha approached me, and I chose Yamaha because I thought the people were nicer than the people at Kawasaki! (Laughs) So I raced two years for Yamaha in 73’ and 74’, and in 75’ 76’ I raced for Factory Honda, then in 77’, 78’, and 79’ I went back to Yamaha. And then I stopped racing because I was getting too old!

Let’s go back to that first Trans AMA race; you’re a European coming to America for the first time. What was that like?

 I didn’t really know the Americans that well, so I came there as a new man to see whatever I would be confronted with. It was a little like pioneering!

Pierre Karsmakers | Converations With A Legend
Brad Lackey and Pierre, 1972.

And that year in America became a success for you, correct?

Yeah, I think so. We made some money, and traveled America. For us it was ideal to have a long racing season, because in Europe in the winter there were no races. We stayed in America for about eleven weeks.

After getting the Yamaha ride, did that bring you to the States to race full time then?

 Yeah I stayed in America full time then. It was a good deal, but it was at a bad time too, you know, because in 1973 the oil crisis had hit hard. But anyway, we still had some good promotions for motocross. I did some motocross schools for Yamaha all over America, just really started to promote motocross.

Pierre Karsmakers | Converations With A Legend
Pierre’s wife, friend, and badass Toyota he had given to him that was painted with factory Yamaha colors in the early 70’s.

And you had some good competition at the time. Which names stand out that you remember battling?

 At that time there was Brad Lackey, Kent Howerton, Rick Burgetts, Mark Barnett, Marty Smith, Rex Staten, Rich Eierestedt, Tim Hart, it was a long time ago, it’s hard to remember all the names.

And when did you win your first American Championship?

1973, that was the 500cc Championship.

In you’re first year racing in America. I guess they found out who you were very quickly.

(Laughs) Yep, I won quite a few races all over the place.

Let’s discuss the fact that you were the first American Supercross Series Champion in 1974, and you were European. You saw the sport of motocross in a stadium setting from what was essentially its inception. What were your initial thoughts on Supercross?

 Oh, I knew right away that it was going to be a hit. I felt the enthusiasm of the American people, I still remember racing with Jimmy Ellis at the LA Coliseum where we passed each other and the crowd went wild. Right then I felt that this was going to be it in America.

Were the American fans at the time more enthusiastic than what you were used to back in Europe?

Yeah, Americans were much more enthusiastic than the Europeans were. The Europeans always held back a little. The sport grew really fast at that time in America. Also at that time Americans were richer than Europeans because we still suffered economically from the World War II. So in America, bike sales were up and the sport grew a lot.

Pierre Karsmakers | Converations With A Legend
Pierre, friend Kent Combs (who was the race doctor at many major events), and Comb’s then girlfriend.

Let’s talk about your initial thoughts on Supercross racing at the time. When you first rode it did the jumps and everything take you by surprise?

 Well it was big jumps, but it was the same for everybody because it was the beginning of Supercross stadium racing. Tracks got better and better all the time, and they made them more spectacular as time went by.

 So at that time there was a major call for better suspension and bike progression, correct?

 Yes, definitely. There was a time there with suspension where we wanted more and more; more stroke, and wanted everything improved. That was a developing time for motocross bikes to become better and better. We also had more power, so with more power we needed better suspension.

Talk a little more about what it was like to race the LA Coliseum back then. That’s one of the most iconic Supercross races in many people’s eyes.

 You know, there was maybe 50 or 60 thousand people inside the stadium at that time? I’m not sure, but I think that was around the number. The passing was just fantastic, and the fans were really enthusiastic. I remember like I said, one time passing Jimmy Ellis on the double jump, but nobody doubled it. I really wanted to pass him so I thought, “well I’ll have to go for it.” So I passed him in the air, I actually jumped over him. Right after the landing there was a right hand turn and I missed the berm, so he got me right back on the inside line and I can still hear the spectators scream about that pass. I’ll never forget that, I knew this would be a hit in America.

And how cool was it to go up in the stands and jump back down into the stadium?

 Yeah, that was fantastic. We rode up into the paristyles there, made a U-turn, headed into third or fourth gear and jumped all the way down, almost to the bottom! Then we made that right hand turn, hit a long straightaway with a tabletop. It was really nice racing but it was also very tiring. There was no place you could rest; you had to be in really good shape to win the races.

That’s a cool perspective to hear all these years later. Let’s touch a little on your living situation in the States, where did you call home, and what was it like being a European transplant?

 I lived in Southern California, Mission Viejo. And of course there was some resistance in the beginning because I was winning, and there was kind of a little bit of aggression between the American riders and me because I was winning and taking their money of course. So there were some protests to the AMA that I shouldn’t be allowed to get championship points. After my 1973 Championship, they decided that a foreigner couldn’t get championship points anymore. So in 1974 I couldn’t become champion in the outdoors anymore, but I could become the stadium Supercross champion because that was promoted by Mike Goodwin and was actually kind of separate from the AMA.

Pierre Karsmakers | Converations With A Legend
Taken on this trip he just completed, Pierre and the same buddy Dr. Combs that was in the previous picture stand at the door of the famous Mike’s Sky Ranch.

That’s crazy, I did not know that! So what did you do then the next year for races?

 Well I still rode them, and still won quite a few races. Yamaha really didn’t care, because they said, “As long as you still win the races, that’s the main goal.” They said they’d like to win championships, but all of their customers knew I was on a Yamaha so they figured the bikes would sell anyway.

So you rode for pride, and prize money at least?

 Yeah, that’s right. If I won the race and Jimmy Weinert got second, he was awarded the maximum amount of points.

That is pretty crazy that you couldn’t compete for the Championship!

 Yeah, but then in 1974 they made me the “Motorcyclist All Star Award” or something, that means like sportsman of the year. So everybody knew that they should give me that honor. But then they changed it back again so that Europeans could be champions, maybe in 1978 or 1979, I can’t remember.

Interesting! So these current top riders now train like machines. What was your lifestyle like back then as far as race preparation went?

 Well on Mondays after the race I always did some jogging, maybe 8-10 kilometers and light training. On Tuesday mornings I would do physical training, really hard. Tuesday afternoons I would go mostly to Carlsbad Raceway, or Saddleback Park, Indian Dunes, or whatever to do two 45-minute motos. Wednesdays I would most of the time go cow-trailing in Saddleback Park, just playing on trials bikes or motocross bikes. Thursday mornings I would have more physical training, and then in the afternoon do two more 45-minute motos. Friday I would do a light training, and most of the times we would have to fly to the races. Saturday morning I would maybe do a very light training, and the Sunday it was the race.

Pierre Karsmakers | Converations With A Legend
Pierre also shared this photo from a father son ride of the Colorado 500 recently.

That’s a lot of work, I didn’t expect that answer!

 Yeah, but I liked it. And I knew I had to be in good shape, because being in good shape your body is a good shock absorber. You can take a lot of crashes, and if you crash hard and you’re in good condition, most of the times you won’t get hurt.

Do you think you worked harder than most of the other guys?

 I think I was better physically trained as Jimmy Weinert and all the other Americans, really. Probably the same as Roger (Decoster), but I was really determined in my goals.

You probably have a million stories. Can you tell one that comes to mind?

 I have a good one. I was training at Saddleback park during one of my two 45 minute motos and all of the sudden I got passed by a 125cc rider. So After my practice moto was complete, I parked at the mechanics truck and this guy that passed me stopped by and said, “Oh, you’re a factory rider, you’re not that fast!” and I said, “Yeah, you passed me.” Then I said, “Well, it’s because I am on a 490cc and it’s very slippery here at Saddleback Park. You have just a 125cc and you can throttle it on with better grip and all of that.” He replied with “Oh yeah? Why don’t we switch bikes then?” I then thought “Can I do that with a factory bike? Will my mechanic allow it?” So I asked my mechanic and he said “Yeah that’s ok, lets do it just for fun.” He was also riding a Yamaha, so we got on each other’s bikes about 20 minutes later to go race and he said, “You take the start and I’ll go behind you and we’ll see what happens.” So after maybe one or two laps he blew right by me. (Laughs) I couldn’t believe it, and after we pulled in he came up and said, “You see?! I’m faster than you are!” or something like that. That rider was a young Bob Hannah. Right away I knew I had to call our racing manager Kenny Clark and I told him we need to get this guy on our support program, he will be a good one for our team. He got in touch with him and that was how Bob Hannah got his first factory support ride.

Pierre Karsmakers | Converations With A Legend
En route to his 73’ Championship.

That’s crazy! I imagine these kinds of stories are endless if you had the time.

Here’s another good one. I was on a flight from LA to the East Coast, and was on the plane with Marty Smith, Marty Tripes, and some others. Marty Tripes had baked some cookies, and I was a really physical guy but they were always trying to get me off my winning mood and fitness, you know? Marty kept saying “Hey want a cookie?” “Come on, have a cookie!” and I wouldn’t eat one. So that evening after we landed they all became sick, and of course I found out they were marijuana cookies! (Laughs) So he was trying to get me in a bad physical condition, or maybe get me to lose the race, I don’t know! (Laughs)

Well that story sums up 70’s motocross! That is too funny. What do you think of when you watch modern day motocross?

 The main thing I always think is that I wish I was still young, and that I could ride like that. Every time I see them I wish I were 18 or 20 again!

Any favorite riders?

 I like Jeffrey Herlings a lot, Romain Febvre, Kenny Roczen. Ryan Dungey, I really like his riding style. I also like Jeremy Martin a lot, I like the way he approaches everything.