Roger DeCoster doesn’t think he’s very smart. The Belgian expatriate marvels at how his youngest son—who is studying to be a doctor—absorbs knowledge quickly, or the way an engineer at KTM can create a part.
“I just have a lot of experience,” DeCoster says. “I’m a slow learner, but I’ve learned for a long time.” Now 74, he has, without question, experienced more professional dirt-bike racing than anyone on Earth. He’s a five-time FIM World Motocross champion. He’s been a sport ambassador and an adviser, has shaken President Ronald Reagan’s hand, and has been a team manager since 1995. He’s an accomplished fabricator and machinist, and speaks Flemish, English, and French fluently. In Italian and German, he holds his own.
DeCoster’s ultimate job is to win championships for KTM North America. Here’s where that experience is most valuable: Marvin Musquin’s hubs were twisting under the stress of his unique riding style—heavy simultaneous braking and acceleration. DeCoster could have told technical director Ian Harrison to find a solution. Instead, he sat down with a pencil and sketched, drawing from nearly six decades of knowledge, including time as a machinist for the Belgian industrial giant, Contigea. He mumbled about something he once saw on a road racebike.
Harrison watched DeCoster. After 15 minutes, he identified the weakness and determined the hub needed to be 2 millimeters thicker in a specific area. He handed the paper to the engineers. They weren’t sold on the problem’s source, but they would look into it. Three weeks later, their solution matched DeCoster’s.
“That’s where he’s exceptional,” Harrison says. “He can get out there and make a part, and 98 percent of the time, his solution works. He also has a magical way of listening to the riders and mechanics, and finding something that’s truly going to benefit the rider and team.”
In 1967, four years before he won his first world championship, he came to America to ride. He returned every single year, but instead of glad-handing at awards banquets, his four Trans-AMA championships were accepted by a cardboard cutout someone brought on stage as a joke. DeCoster was off displaying his magic for crowds in South America or Australia.
“I always felt like it was part of my responsibility that came along with becoming a champion to try to promote motocross and make it bigger and make it more international,” he says.
When American Honda formed HRC and committed to winning championships in the early 1980s, they hired Dave Arnold as the team manager and DeCoster as a team adviser. Arnold was DeCoster’s mechanic in 1980, his last season racing GPs. “It was like motocross on heroin that whole year,” Arnold says. “Roger was always hands-on when it came to development. I was living with him in Belgium. He’d be over on the lathe making an axle. We’d go to dinner and come back, and it’d be midnight, 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. I’m like, isn’t this guy a rider? Shouldn’t he rest?”
Their ability to develop hardware and talent became legendary, producing champions such as David Bailey, Ricky Johnson, Jeff Stanton, Johnny O’Mara, and others. DeCoster also helped Ryan Dungey set a record for the most wins by a rookie during the 2010 Supercross and 450 Motocross seasons. Dungey and DeCoster’s efforts brought Suzuki the Monster Energy Supercross and Lucas Oil Pro Motocross championships that year, but on August 28, DeCoster broke the news that after 16 seasons with Suzuki, he was leaving for KTM. It was an hour after Dungey won the MX title, and they still smelled of champagne. Dungey didn’t even have to think about it; he announced he was coming too. DeCoster told the 21-year-old to wait. KTM had never won a supercross race, let alone a championship.
“When Roger came to KTM, about half the people said: ‘What the hell is he doing? That’s the dumbest move,’” says Mark Blackwell, a former racer, team manager, and industry executive. “The other half of us said: ‘Wow. Watch—in about a year, Dungey is going to be there, and KTM is going to start being a force in motocross.”
Dungey left Suzuki for KTM at the end of the 2011 season. He retired in May 2017 after winning three supercross titles with KTM. He also won two motocross championships with the brand.
DeCoster isn’t a “legacy” guy. He doesn’t think about his impact or influence. Sure, he’ll talk and laugh about the good old days with his friends who also came from those eras, but he has a tendency to forget yesterday. He cares only about progress, and he’s happiest when he’s in front of lathe or a mill figuring out a way to make a better part.
Since 1995, DeCoster has won 23 championships. If he ever feels smarter, the competition is in trouble.