At the dawn of time for this sport in America, the story was always the same: Us versus them. Americans versus Europeans. It is, literally, the oldest rivalry in this sport in this country.
Motocross took off here when bike importer Edison Dye realized he could sell Americans on dirt bike riding (and buying) if they could see the best riders in the world—Europeans—demonstrating what could be done. We Yanks ate it up, but were no match for European riders on the track. They had been schooled in the craft in its modern form since the 1940s. With a twenty-year head start, the Europeans were untouchable, and the early racing series in the U.S. were based all around the American theme—Trans-AMA, Inter-Am, and Trans-USA. Back then, the us-versus-them vibe permeated the results so much that awards were handed out to the top Americans, so that the best American, still undoubtedly getting waxed by the Euros, at least had something to be proud of and American fans had something to cheer for.
The battle pitting Americans against Europeans was it. The only race that ever got decent media and TV coverage in the U.S. was the U.S. Grand Prix at Carlsbad, and the annual ABC Wide World of Sports coverage of it (usually this country’s only window into the sport) centered on the Americans versus Europeans theme. It was everything.
I’m amazed that this fire still rages today, some forty years later, still the stuff of message board fodder and wonder. The rivalry has gone through so many mutations: Europeans lapping Americans, then Americans beginning to challenge and occasionally win against the Europeans. Without the “can we beat them?” drama built in, and with America’s own scene and stars big enough to stand on their own, the continents drifted apart, but by the 1980s the rare tangle-ups usually resulted in American victory, be it at Motocross and Trophy des Nations or those USGP events. Still, the rivalry was there, bringing those Motocross des Nations events to a fever pitch, to the point where the top American riders didn’t even want to compete due to the pressure of carrying Team USA’s win streak forward each year. I’ll concede that the rivalry isn’t as hot as it once was. Where the American riders once were treated as the enemy at the ‘Nations, they now come over as rock stars, with fans clamoring to get a look, and many young European riders dream of coming over here.
But at the right time and circumstance, the rivalry still exists. You can feel it in the collective soul of the American motocross world if Team USA doesn’t win the ‘Nations. You can read it, again, in the message board and social media fodder. The hype was zooming off the charts once Jeffrey Herlings declared he would come here to race Unadilla, and only his injury prevented the meltdown that would have surely come whether he won or lost. Either result would have meant something. Something huge. If Tony Cairoli ever comes here for a race, it will be the same.
America versus Europe still matters. Now Ryan Villopoto is on the clock, with everyone waiting and watching to see if these “RV to GP” rumors become reality. It would be an absolutely massive deal if it were to happen because the conjecture, like Herlings would-be appearance at Unadilla, would be huge whether he wins or loses. Everyone wants to know if RV can beat Cairoli. It still matters.
What’s interesting is that we just saw a small sample of all of this, a shot right into the heart of this great rivalry, yet it was never seen as such. A European just won the darned Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship. Hasn’t been done since nineteen-ninety-freaking-one, so nearly twenty-five years (the great Jean-Michel Bayle, and yes The Great is an official part of his name, romped to every U.S. title back then). Yes, South Africans and Australians have premiere class titles here, and Frenchmen have won tons of races. But a national championship in the big class? Roczen is the first European champion in twenty-three years, and he and JMB make for two since those final days of the Top American award. Think about that.
No, really, think about it. Roczen coolly slid right in, without an anti-Euro sentiment uttered, without any backlash from the fans, without anyone extrapolating out to what this means to the global motocross pecking order. It was not a European versus Americans or a German against Americans; it was just Ken Roczen against his competition. He is too cool to fan the flames.
And I really mean that. Last year Roczen won the West Region 250 SX title in a dramatic final race. In the end, it came down to Eli Tomac and Roczen chasing down Martin Davalos for the race win. If Tomac could win and sandwich Davalos between himself and Kenny, he’d win the title. Oh, poor Martin. The heat race hero now had a heat race that counted as a main event (as they do only at the Las Vegas finale), and in characteristic fashion he jetted out early and of course led the race at the six-lap mark (which would be the end of the heat). But this was a main and it went on to lap fifteen, and eventually Tomac caught and passed him. Now the race was on to see if Roczen could, too, with the title on the line. With two laps to go, Roczen was able to take the measure of Davalos and save his championship. I was running the Racer X Online Twitter account that night. All season long, Davalos winning heats but not mains had been a theme. I posted “Incredible that this whole championship could come down to Davalos fading.”
I expected full bore to get heat from the Davalos camp, but it never came. However, backlash did unexpectedly come from Dutch GP rider Marc de Reuver, who hit us back saying, “You blame it on Davalos because you don’t want to give a European credit for winning your championship.”
Wow. It was honestly the first time I’d even considered the European versus American angle with Roczen. He’s beyond all of that. I don’t know of any American fan, sponsor, or industry person that is anti-European as far as it concerns Roczen. You never hear “USA! USA!” chants on the podium when he wins. He’s not European. He’s Roczen.
I tried to explain myself to de Reuver, but he was having none of it. The Davalos story was a theme all year (and for years), and that’s all I was talking about. I didn’t even consider that I was using as an excuse. I get very angry when accused of bias, so I continued to defend, and de Reuver continued to hammer. Racer X has always treated Roczen with respect, and we weren’t going to suddenly stop two laps from the end of his championship run. Finally, by Sunday morning, Roczen himself jumped into the fray, tweeting both de Reuver and me to stop it, get over it, and move on.
Ken Roczen does not participate in such controversy.
He continues to act as such. Never did this season boil down to the European versus the Americans. Even more treacherous turf, a battle with a teammate, never turned ugly. He shared Ryan Villopoto’s trainer and training facility while battling him in supercross and they still got along. Roczen’s style is just too cool for such trouble. He’s respected both in America and Europe. And he deftly avoids controversy while somehow also showing personality and being outspoken. This is an absolutely amazing skill considering how polarized today’s world is, how online trolls lurk to create hate, and that English is not even his first language. Yeah, he’s taken some heat for other things on social media, but he’s too cool to care too much, and also cool enough to notice it, too. He runs the perfect balance. Never, though, is the European in America storyline at the lead of anything he does, popular or unpopular.
They say the world keeps getting smaller in the digital age. Maybe that’s how and why Roczen has been able to pull it off. He’s not really European. He’s just Ken Roczen.
Why do you think Ken Roczen fits in so well in America? Email us email@example.com and we'll discuss next week.