My 1977 MX Des Nations experience.
It was late August 1977, and at that time there was a Motocross (500cc) and Trophee Des Nations (250cc). I was selected for the US team on Kawasaki along with Steve Stackable (Maico), Kent Howerton (Husqvarna) and Tony Distefano (Suzuki). Yes, there were also four riders at that time instead of three. We all just finished a long year of racing all the Supercrosses and Nationals. As a matter of fact, we had just raced two hot 45 minute motos of the 500 National in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Sunday and Monday morning we were on a plane to New York where we would make our connecting flight to Paris, France. The following Sunday would be the first race in the south of France, Bordeaux, and then the next Sunday would be the Trophee Des Nations in Markelo, Holland.
I had never been to Europe before, and I don’t think any of the other riders or mechanics had either. But that wouldn’t matter because when we arrived in Paris I would be on my own. You see, back in 1977, it wasn’t that people didn’t think the Americans had a chance at the Motocross Des Nations and Trophy Des Nations, they knew we didn’t have a chance. I guess it was just something that the AMA did to see where we stood. And besides, the AMA official was getting an interesting vacation, if nothing else. This AMA official, who’s name escapes me, was suppose to be our organizer and team captain, like Roger DeCoster has been in the more recent past. When Roger goes over with the American team he uses his resources to have practice tracks for the team to train on that are similar to the racetrack. They operate as one team and every detail is planned out. We were four riders who were sent to Europe to do these two races and figure the details out when we got there. Some of the mechanics came with us, and some would meet up with us later. My mechanic, Rick Jones, would be there later. We weren’t worry about testing and practicing in order to get ready for the race. We were more concerned with just making it to the race.
Things seemed to be going pretty good...pretty good that is, until we arrived at the JFK Airport in New York. We were all supposed to fly to Paris together. Then from the Paris Airport Husky rider Kent Howerton and his mechanic Eric Crippa would fly all the way to Sweden to the Husky factory. I really don’t remember what Tony D did, but he must have gone with them because he sure wasn’t with me. After they were in Sweden for most of the week they would take a ferry all the way to the south of France for the race. Yea, that’s right a ferry, as in ferry boat. I thought that was incredibly stupid, but that was what they were doing. Steve Stackable and I had our plan to fly from Paris to Bordeaux, where the race was, relax and get rested up for the race. So everything’s cool, we’re standing in line at the ticket counter at JFK when I look at Steve, my traveling buddy, and I see a face as white as a sheet, stricken with FEAR! Steve couldn’t find his passport, and realized he had left it at the motel in Florida. He quickly called his brother Rolf and had it mailed, next day air, to New York. This was not good. Now I would have to go from Paris to Bordeaux, get a rental car in Bordeaux, and find the motel alone. I had never been to Europe before and didn’t speak anything but English with an accent. Steve and I planned to meet there a few days later. This wouldn’t have been so bad if we were going on a joy ride, but we kind of had a little bit of a job to do, like represent the US in the biggest motocross race in the world.
It was morning when we arrived in Paris, and I had no luck sleeping on the long flight. This is where the US Team split. Howerton, Crippa, and the rest of the crew flew to Sweden and I flew to Bordeaux. It was difficult enough finding my way around the Paris Airport, but after a while I finally arrived in Bordeaux. It took a long time to get a rental car, but I was happy to be on my way to the motel and out of the airport. The only problem was that I didn’t know how to get to the motel. I must have stopped to ask directions 15 times. I picked up three hitchhikers and after five hours of driving I was still lost. All these little roads that I was driving on were unmarked and when I came to a town it was a free-for-all getting through the intersections. It was late in the afternoon by now, so I guess it was their rush hour and there were no traffic rules. I don’t know how it is now but in those days hardly anyone in the south of France spoke English. It was starting to get real weird. I had just finished the last National of the year, and I was thinking that I should be back home in California, kicking back by the pool instead of driving around lost in France. We only had a few weeks off before the twelve-race Trans Am Series would be starting back in the states. As I keep trying to find my way, I noticed one of those advertising posters for motorcycle races in a bakery window. I went in and found a nice old lady who spoke some English. She knew about the motocross race and had me follow her to the promoter’s house. I thanked her and was happy to finally have some contact of where I was suppose to be. The promoter was a big jolly man who was also happy to see me. I had been up for about 36 hours so I really just wanted to beeline it to the motel and go to sleep, but I thought I should be sociable as he invited me into his house. He wanted to have a bite to eat and drink some wine, then he wanted to drive me to the track to have a look. We made the short drive and I saw something that I thought I would never see. I saw a track that had a surface harder than Carlsbad or the old Saddleback tracks in the middle of the week in August. This track was literally rock on top of rock. There were sections that had no dirt at all. The ground was made of layers of rock, and in some places there were loose rocks on top of the layered rock. I just came from a sand track in Florida and I’m thinking, "Huh, this is different, now can you take me to the motel?"
I arrived at the motel as the sun was setting. Well, it wasn’t exactly a motel. It was a castle from the 16th century located way out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forest and grape vineyards. As I hammered on this huge front door with a ten-pound ring hammer it swung open and there stood a man who said something like, good evening won’t you come into my house. Images of vampire movies started running through my mind. I started thinking stuff like this is all a mistake, I’m in the wrong place this could be some kind of vampire castle. I know, I know, it sounds stupid but everything in that place was just like the old vampire movies. The big open rooms in the lobby area and long darken hallways, the art on the walls, the winding balconies, the dry sink and foot thick window seals in my room, the whole place had this eerie feel about it. Another strange thing was that there wasn’t anybody else around. There was just the guy who opened the door and me, that’s it. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere so I put my imagination to rest and rationalized the situation out and went to bed hoping that I would wake up in the morning. After about 15 hours of solid sleep I woke up to the sound of chickens. I swung the heavy hinged windows open from the thick window seal and gazed out across the beautiful gardens of the castle from the first story to see a bright sunny day. I thought great, I’m still alive and I’m here.
Now what do I do? It’s only Tuesday morning, I don’t race until Sunday and I’m out here in the middle of nowhere at a castle. I wasn’t going to drive anywhere, because I had nowhere to go and sure didn’t want to get lost again. I just hung out and ran through the vineyards for some exercise while I waited for Steve and the others to arrive. After a few days Steve showed up. Man, was I glad to see him. Now I had someone to do nothing with. We just hung out and ran farther through the vineyards, far enough to come close to an old farmhouse and get chased by a couple of big dogs.
Sometime towards the end of the week the rest of the group showed up. We all eat meals together outside in the garden and took a guided tour of the old castle as our guide explained its history. That was about it for the castle, it was almost race time.
I was glad to find myself in the familiar surrounding of the race on Sunday. As I said before it was a hard, rocky track. It was so hard and rocky that I broke a front hub on the 380 Works Kaw in practice. Neither my mechanic nor I had ever seen that before. Rick changed the front wheel and I was back out trying to figure the track out and get comfortable on it. After practice they had the very organized opening ceremonies that go on at big races in Europe, even bigger at the Motocross and Trophee Des Nations. After all that it was time to get down to business. Each four-man team (country) had to qualify. I don’t remember exactly how we qualified but I do remember that we qualified pretty well. For those of you who would like to know more about the race I’ll have to apologize. That was 24 years and many races ago and I don’t remember the details. I do remember that we finished 2nd overall. That was really good for the Americans at the time. We were all pretty happy with the way things turned out in Bordeaux and looking forward to next week’s race in Marelo, Holland.
We flew into Amsterdam. Man, what a change, going from this Castle in the country to an off the hook city like Amsterdam. Some of us split up, Howerton was the only guy there with his wife (Jill) so they went sight seeing or something. Tony D. wasn’t with us so he must have went with the other group. I was, I guess you could say, in the adventure group, Stackable, Crippa and my mechanic Rick Jones. We had a lot of time to be adventurous. We had nowhere to practice or do anything like that, so we had the rest of the week to wait for race day.
I remember one day for lunch we went into a restaurant in the city. We were tired of guessing things off the menu that we couldn’t read, so there were four people eating at a near by table and we all just said we’ll have the same as them. What the heck, it looked pretty good and it was. After the meal we were pretty proud of our technique. The waitress brings the bill and after we converted the Dutch guilders to US currency we were amazed that we just spent over $150.00 for lunch. 24 years ago that was a lot of money.
Then one night the four of us were walking around in town checking things out. We asked a local what there was to do around here. He told us to follow him. Where we were going was supposed to be a nightclub type deal. We started following him on foot and pretty soon were looking at each other thinking where is this guy taking us. We’re going through all these back alleys and old sandy streets. Some of the old buildings were propped up with big telephone poles because they were starting to sink into the sand. Finally we all go into this building and before we realized where we were a bunch of guys are trying to talk to us. By the time we figure out that they are trying to sell us drugs we realize that just about all the 30 plus people in this dump are tripping out. They are either withdrawing and freaking out for a fix or tripping. These guys trying to get some cash from us are not taking no for an answer. They implied that either we buy some of their goods or we may not be leaving. There were too many of them and we did see knifes, so we decided to play it safe and buy some of their fake dope so we could all leave in one piece. After we were back out in breathable oxygen we all had a good laugh about how stupid we were. That’s about all I remember from that week leading up to the race.
On race day we find ourselves on the extreme opposite type of track conditions from the last week in Bordeaux. Now I knew that Holland was sandy, but I didn’t know just how sandy that could be. The Marelo track made the Florida tracks seem smooth. It was a track that started in a big open field area. Then right at the end of the long start straight it made the traditional Holland sand track feature of going into the woods. Then the entire track would wind around through the woods until it returned into the open start area for some nice sweeping corners than head back into the woods again, not a very good spectator track. As the track wore on through practice we could see that it was different than anything we had seen before. Where the sand was a little more toward the harder side the bumps were getting deep, but closer together and not nearly as deep as where the sand was very soft and bottomless. In these areas the bumps were very deep and far apart. They were more like giant whoops. By the 2nd moto they would be so deep that if a rider and bike went down into one he would disappear. I don’t mean if he fell over, I mean he would disappear while he was still on two wheels. In order to go fast across these sections you would have to stay in 4th gear and jump from the top of one to the next, and the next, and the next and so on. At the same time the track was lined with trees. Many of these trees were about 3 foot in diameter with wire about 3 inches deep in the tree marking the track. That’s how long the track had been there, the tree grew over the wire. It took me most of practice to become comfortable brushing by shoulder on tree bark while pinned through the sand.
Did I mention that the Motocross Des Nations in Bordeaux was an open class race and the Trophy Des Nations in Marelo was a 250 race? Anyway, our team qualified. I don’t exactly remember what position we qualified but I don’t think it was as good as we qualified on the hard packed track in Bordeaux.
The starting gate in Markelo was ahead of its time. Back at that time all the gates were just one big forward falling gate. But, this gate had individual single T gates that fell straight down into the ground (a cement foundation). If you went too early you would hit the gate and cause it to stop from falling into the ground. I felt confident that I could win the start. I just had that old familiar feeling that I was going to win the start. When I had that feeling it was like I had a patent on the holeshot, the patented holeshot. And sure enough the old patent came through again. Going into the woods I was in the lead, but I just couldn’t hang with two of the Euros who started right behind me. They soon passed me and were beginning to pull away. Then Roger DeCoster was trying to pass me for third. I thought to let him by so I could follow him and learn his lines. But right after that my 250 Works Kaw had enough of the power sucking sand and blew a head gasket. I nursed it back to the pits and watched the rest of the team try to salvage the US effort.
In the 2nd moto I remember spoding around the roughest track with shocks that for some reason would only go half way down. I wish this story had a happy, heroic, ending but that only happens in the movies. The US didn’t do so well at the 1977 Trophy Des Nations in Markelo, Holland. But we did take home the experience that continued to grow and eventually helped to make the US a motocross power that knows no such word as impossible, and accepts no such end as failure.
The times they will keep a changin'!