For this week’s 3 on 3, we found ourselves in a bit of a jam. With a magazine deadline looming, people leaving for the Motocross of Nations in Italy, and this worldwide webby thing begging for updates on Team USA, how can we get three people together who have been at enough of these races to understand America’s mostly successful but sometimes mixed results at the MXoN? How can we explain the differences in Team USA between, say, 1987 and 1997, or even 2007? Team USA is preparing to return to Maggiora thirty years after its historic win there. When we realized that DC’s magazine work was done, and he would be sitting in a dental office all day waiting on his son—sorry about your trampoline accident, Vance, and congrats on those brand new front teeth—we thought we would ask him for his take on Team USA, from 1986 until now. Okay Davey, here come the questions!
1.) What was so special about Team USA in the eighties?
Well, you have to point to a couple of things. First, there was the influence of supercross on our riders—and our riders alone. While the rest of the world was doing more traditional motocross racing on old-school tracks like Sittendorf (Austria), Namur (Belgium) and Farleigh Castle (UK), our guys were racing inside baseball and football stadiums more and more often. They learned a very different style of racing, where aggression was rewarded more than patience, racing was more intense and riding technique was more defined. Supercross was only ten years old in 1981, but by then the AMA Supercross schedule had proliferated into a dozen rounds. We were racing as many SX races as there were GPs in Europe, and it was overlapping with the outdoor nationals, which was another dozen races. Our guys were learning a whole new way of racing, and the evolution was on full display in the early eighties when we started winning.
And we kept winning in large part because of Team Honda’s Roger DeCoster, who was the perennial manager of Team USA, and the passion that he not only brought to the job, but the passion he instilled in the riders as well as race fans. The first des Nations Team USA win came from an all-Honda team, and once the ball was rolling no one said no to Roger DeCoster when he asked them to ride for Team USA. That meant that we sent our best, year-in, year-out, but that began to change in 1992 when Team USA’s streak reached double digits. DeCoster was let go by Honda, and Damon Bradshaw, Jeff Stanton and Mike Kiedrowski all begged off the race in Australia. Instead we sent 125cc riders Jeff Emig and Mike LaRocco, as well as the journeyman pro Billy Liles. They still won, but barely. The writing was on the wall—Team USA was going to lose at some point—and no one seemed to want to be a part of that imminent loss.
Of course the streak finally ended in 1994, in Roggenburg, Switzerland. The British won on a career day for Paul Malin, who bested Jeff Emig in both 125cc motos to seal the deal for himself and teammates Kurt Nicoll and Rob Herring. Emig, Mike LaRocco and Kiedrowski tried hard, but the Brits won outright—they were better that day on a very slick and fast track—and our guys just didn’t seem to know how to go any faster. That race was the one we now know as the end of Team USA’s 13-year Golden Era, but we should have probably been beaten before that, we just always got the breaks.
2.) Why did the breaks seem to stop coming after 1994, or at least for most of the decade that followed, when the Americans only won twice—1996 and 2000—until dropping out again in 2004?
Well, when you have a dozen years of mostly good luck, chances are that the script is going to flip at some point, and that’s what happened in the mid-to-late nineties. After the loss at Roggenburg, the Americans were beaten again the following year in Slovakia, where Belgium was able to win for the first time since the Americans took over. The good news was that DeCoster, the best MXoN rider and team manager of all time, was back at the helm for Team USA.
One year later in Jerez, Spain, Jeremy McGrath returned to the team at the height of his speed and led Steve Lamson and Jeff Emig to a collective ass-whipping for the rest of the world. It seemed like we were going to be back on top from there, but that wasn’t the case. The rest of the world was getting faster, and the Americans were getting more and more into supercross. For three years (1997-’99) we didn’t come close to winning. In Belgium, in ’97, Lamson had an off-day on a track so saturated with water that it was practically a mud race. The following year in England really was a mud race—the skies opened up and it rained so hard that one moto had to be red-flagged! (Credit to the legendary Doug Henry, though, who in his only Team USA appearance won the first moto in England.) And then in 1999 there was just bad luck and big crashes in Brazil.
By 2000 the world was starting to think that France was surpassing the U.S. as the fastest country in the world. They were the one country that had really picked up supercross, first with the Paris-Bercy SX and later on through a domestic series. They also had a government-sponsored youth program in place to help churn out talents like David Vuillemin, Sebastien Tortelli and Stephane Roncada, all of whom were racing full-time in the U.S. by this point. They also had Frederic Bolley winning world titles, and Mickael Pichon about to do likewise. So when the 2000 MXoN was held at St. Jean D’Angely, France, they were the obvious favorites. But no one told Ricky Carmichael, who was 0-2 in MXoN races up to that point. In France, Carmichael was able to lead the rookie Travis Pastrana and journeyman Ryan Hughes to a win over the home team, much to the dismay of the partisan crowd.
Team USA was hoping to build on that win, but the next four years would be quite different, and for a variety of different reasons. In 2001 the team of Carmichael, Kevin Windham and Mike Brown were getting ready to travel to Belgium when the September 11 attacks occurred, and the team collectively decided not to go.
The next year the event was supposed to happen in the U.S. for the first time since 1987, but for reasons still not really clear, the location would be on an Indian Reservation in Southern California, on a track yet to be built. Two weeks before the race, the Soboba Indians decided that the race wasn’t going to happen, so they padlocked the front gate and canceled the race! Team USA was done, but the des Nations reconvened in Europe, where France actually did finally get its hands on the Chamberlain Trophy.
In ’03, after a two-year hiatus, Team USA returned to the MXoN. Held in Zolder, Belgium, the world was eager to finally see a Ricky Carmichael-versus-Stefan Everts showdown on big bikes. Carmichael got the upper hand in that duel, but Belgium got the overall win as a team after Tim Ferry broke his thumb and Ryan Hughes’ chain fell off of his KTM. That year featured a one-moto format, so any sort of bad luck pretty much ruined a team’s chance to win. And the breaks certainly weren’t going to the Americans at that point.
Finally, in 2004, with an off-season approaching with some big changes—Carmichael would be moving to Suzuki and James Stewart up to the premier class—the Americans again collectively decided not to participate. It seemed as if the event didn’t matter as much as it did in the eighties, though that was soon about to change again. It would take Carmichael saying “follow me” in 2005 to get the Americans as a whole interested in winning the Motocross of Nations again.
3.) What’s changed in the last dozen years about Team USA and the rest of the world? How did we go from seven straight wins to four consecutive defeats?
That’s a little more complicated. Everyone probably has their own opinions on this, but in winning every year from ’05 to ’11 we had some great races, as well as some pretty good luck along the way. And in the four years that we’ve since lost we’ve had some bad luck—Tomac’s crash in Germany, Jeremy Martin breaking his foot in Latvia—and some bad races, like Lommel. And last year we were straight-up beaten by the French in Ernee.
For ‘Nations purposes, I do believe that it hurts that the riders are so focused on training, testing and being ready for the start of supercross, which starts in January. Riders who do the MXoN give up a month of their off-season to stay in shape, keeping pounding motocross tracks and stay on the bike. The rest of their supercross competitors will either be resting and recovering, or back on a supercross track. Also, Lucas Oil Pro Motocross ends in late August, while the GPs keep going right up until the MXoN. That’s a big plus for the non-American teams. In Europe the off-season goes from late September through the first of February, which leaves more time for relaxing and training, so it’s not that big of a deal to stay in shape for an extra fortnight to do the MXoN. They also don’t switch back and forth between SX and MX like we do here in the states.
We also have something of a burnout/injury factor now. Supercross is 17 rounds, followed by 12 rounds of motocross, all crammed into eight months. That’s a lot of work, not to mention a lot of risk, so we’ve had plenty of top guys either unwilling or unable to go do the MXoN. James Stewart, Ryan Villopoto and Ryan Dungey have all passed on Team USA at some point, and this year it’s Eli Tomac who opted not to go in order to get ready for the coming SX season.
We also don’t have a figure like Carmichael who viewed the race as a way to brand himself globally. He also felt the need to prove that he is the fastest man on the planet. With so many of the rest of the world’s best riders already here—Ken Roczen, Marvin Musquin and Christophe Pourcel were all FIM World Champions before coming here, and Chad Reed would almost certainly have won one if he had opted to stay in Europe—the urgency to prove you’re the fastest man on the planet is no longer there for this generation.
And finally, the rest of the world has caught up in regards to pure outdoor motocross. The emphasis on SX here in the states doesn’t really cross the Atlantic Ocean. Whereas supercross was a boon to Team USA in the eighties, it’s having an inverse effect now, as guys like Tim Gajser, Jeffrey Herlings, Romain Febvre and Tony Cairoli are incredibly fast and focused on motocross all year long, and they are formidable on their own tracks. The world is a smaller place now, which allows a kid from Slovenia like Tim Gajser to see a scrub on TV or online and learn to do it as well as anyone. There are no surprises like we had back in the eighties, unless it’s us being surprised by someone like Gajser or Febvre.
Having said all that, I believe Cooper Webb can become the RC-like figure to help get Team USA back on the front burner for American motocross. If he leads teammates Alex Martin and Jason Anderson to a win in Maggiora, on the 30th anniversary of that day of dominance, and then brings that momentum back to Glen Helen for the 2017 Motocross of Nations, he could have the same game-changing effect that RC did in 2005. Maybe next year he’s joined by Tomac and Dungey on another dream team, ’86-style. But that’s a year away. Right now we have our work cut out to even win this weekend in Maggiora! It should be a very interesting race for Team USA.