Tucked in among the road signs along the San Diego Freeway just south of San Clemente is one that reads MOTOCROSS NEXT RIGHT. At first glance a traveler stoned on the high speeds and heavy traffic of the freeway might think, "Aha. Probably the new Vatican of another freaky Southern California religion. Motocross. Sure, they crucify a mechanical Jesus built of engine parts and then drink the crankcase oil to wash down wafer-sized bits of chrome."
Well, motocross is a religion, all right, but nothing quite that exotic. The "moto" part comes from the French slang for motorcycle, and the "cross" from cross-country. Put them together in the manner that top European and American motocross riders did in Carlsbad, Calif. last week and you have the world's first two-wheeled, two-stroke, gasoline-burning mystical experience, complete with levitation (when the bikes get airborne, which is most of the time), walking on water (as they ride fiat out through mudholes) and transubstantiation (at the end of a race a rider looks more like a tan plaster saint than a mere human being).
The occasion was the Hang Ten United States Moto-Cross Grand Prix, the first race of its kind ever run in America that counted toward the world championship of the sport. In Europe, where motocross originated, that championship falls only a car length short of the world drivers' championship for Grand Prix racers in terms of adulation, if not the money that it brings to its winner. Thus all the best European dirt riders were on hand at Carlsbad—Belgians, Frenchmen, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, Germans of both the Eastern and Western persuasions, plus a gang of Americans who had achieved expert ranking in this most physically demanding of motor sports. And to cheer them on were fully 50,000 rabid, oil-stained converts to the Church of Jump and Slide, the largest crowd ever to attend an American motocross event. And certainly the most enthusiastic: under a sun that raised temperatures to 108° and dust as thick as the fallout from Krakatoa, they consumed vast quantities of grass and beer (the central sacraments of this new religion), quaking and shaking in their fervor like so many 19th-century transcendentalists.
The principal quaker and shaker of the crowd's enthusiasm was Roger de Coster, a 29-year-old Belgian who had won the world title for Team Suzuki two years running and was now in the lead for his third championship. De Coster speaketh in many tongues—French, Flemish, English and German, to be precise—but that is nothing in a motocross rider; they race in at least 13 countries per season. More to the point is de Coster's incredible balance on a bike, racketing along at up to 70 mph over a course like Carlsbad's that consists of 1.7 miles of rock, ruts, ankle-deep dirt and greasy or glutinous mud.
"Unlike most motor sports," de Coster says, "motocross demands more of the man than of the machine. You can have the best bike in the world, but you must know the ups and downs of the course—and I mean that literally."
Motocross fanatics like to compare their sport with marathon running and steeplechase riding, and they have a point. Each moto lasts 45 minutes, and two heats are run per race, thus yielding a total of an hour and a half of rump-pounding, shoulder-busting, ankle-twisting exertion. Before the lighter two-stroke machines came in about 10 years ago, motocross champions were huge men built more like weight lifters than jockeys. Even now, to one familiar with the light builds common in motor racing, motocross riders seem abnormally large. One exception is de Coster, who stands only 5'10" and weighs a tidy 165 pounds. Still, his hands are huge, scarred and calloused—the hallmark of the sport, thanks to the constant clutch-squeezing and braking on a mount that generates more vibration in one lap than all the broncs in a full season of rodeo.
"I started riding trails when I was 16," de Coster recalls, "and my main competition was Jacky Ickx, who is now in Formula I racing. Jacky is quite small but he has splendid balance, and he won the championship of our division that first year. I won it the next. Then we both tried motocross, but he didn't fit in. My main competition now is another Belgian, Jaak Van Velthoven, who stands about 6'2" and can really exert leverage on a bike through jumps."
Van Velthoven rides a Yamaha in the 500-cc. class and at the start of the Carlsbad proceedings lay third to de Coster in the point standings, with 56 to de Coster's 84. This year, for the first time, points won in each heat count toward the championship, with 15 going to the winner, 12 for second place, 10 for third and so on through the first 10 finishers. In second place with 62 points was West Germany's Willy Bauer, riding a super-short-stroke Maico. "You don't want to ride behind a Maico too long," said one expert. "They kick a rooster tail full of rocks and dirt that gets discouraging."
Of the Americans in the field, the most experienced and best mounted were Brad Lackey of Team Kawasaki and young Jim Pomeroy, riding for the Spanish Bultaco team, the only American ever to win a world championship Grand Prix race—in Spain, fittingly enough, earlier this season. Still, for all the American enthusiasm attending the event, the smart money had to ride with the Europeans, who really own the sport.
During qualifying the day before the race Roger the Roughrider won the pole handily with a time of 1:42.0, nearly a second faster than Pierre Karsmakers, a Dutchman presently living in California and leading the American National Motocross Championship for 500-cc. bikes. Bauer qualified third while Van Velthoven suffered a balky ride that placed him eighth on the grid. Well, not exactly a grid. More a line of cavalry about to charge. The start of any Carlsbad motocross is nothing less than a mass drag race by a field of 40 into the first corner, a 180-degree lefthander that compresses the racers into a bumping, jumping clot of meat and metal, only one lump of which will emerge in the lead.
At the start de Coster beat the mob through the corner, but Bauer's Maico was right on his tail pipe, and Roger could not shake him. Coming down a steep hill on the fourth lap, the German nipped past and took a lead that he was not to relinquish throughout the remaining 35 minutes of the first moto. In third place came John Banks, a burly Briton who is known as The Baron, and Van Velthoven finished only a second later.
In the second race de Coster popped his left-side shock absorber and was instantly retired to the pits. "It's not really Carlsbad," he quipped mournfully. "It is, how you say, Carlsworst!" That left the day wide open for Smooth Willy, who had a little dice at the start with American Gary Jones on a Honda but quickly showed his ascendancy once again. He won by a handy margin of 18 seconds. Thus it was 30 points on the day for Bauer to only 12 for de Coster, and as the high priests of motocross departed California, the Belgian was only four points ahead of Bauer in the world championship standings. The day's top American was Lackey, who finished eighth. The California faithful had had quite a day but it would be as nothing, when it comes to religious fervor, compared to the next race on the schedule. It is in West Germany, Bauer's very own parish.