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'It's easier to get hurt than to the top'

So it goes with this brand of motorcycle mayhem, say the drivers—who know. A big wheel in Europe, it drew 45,000 to the U.S. Grand Prix

The fascination of motocross rests in the numbing din of motorcycles thrashing over terrain unfit for man, beast or astronaut, and in the pageantry of its sprawling, rapt audience, baked in a happy sauce of yellow dust and grimy sweat. The men on their machines are such athletes, brave and fit, their competition so compelling, that motocross might yet give motorcycle racing a good name in America.

In Europe top motocross drivers already earn superstar salaries and draw huge crowds. And last Sunday in California, where the vision of tomorrow usually seems a little clearer (especially where internal-combustion vehicles are concerned), motocross attracted a Woodstock audience of 45,000 and made it seem Monday Night Motorcycles cannot be far behind.

For the Grand Prix in Carlsbad, Calif., which is midway between San Clemente and Tijuana, all the top riders from 14 nations were on hand—including several young American longshots. The name of the event was the Hang Ten United States Moto-Cross Grand Prix, an unfortunate mouthful that sounds like the illegitimate offspring of a Jerry Lucas memory test and a government agency. The course was much more unforgettable: 1½ miles that could have been designed by a frightened jackrabbit—an alternately dusty and muddy series of jumps, drops, twists, curves and one astounding downhill straightaway.

To survive such a course is an accomplishment; toexcel is to be able to balance courage, stamina and technique. The leader in the Grand Prix standings coming into Carlsbad was Heikki Mikkola of Finland, predictably labeled "The Flying Finn" (why must all athletic Finns and Dutchmen always be flying?), who had a chance to wrap up his first world championship. To do so he must unseat Roger DeCoster, a Belgian, who has been honored by royalty for winning the last three world titles. Mikkola had built up a 25-point lead over DeCoster, as the defending champ has been bewitched with mechanical problems. In five races he has broken down while leading.

Each motocross is split into two 45-minute heats, and it is a relentless siege. Most riders try to sleep 10 hours a night, eat their meals at precisely the right time every day and exercise strenuously. Mikkola tuned up for Carlsbad by running 10 miles a day.

The race was the eighth of 11 in the Grand Prix series, which will end next month in Luxembourg. The top riders punish themselves year round, however, to earn incomes that range into hundreds of thousands of dollars. As many as 200,000 fans have attended a single event, and bike manufacturers offer other plump dividends. DeCoster rides in 65 races a year, taking only January off. He speaks four languages and met his wife Laurie, a stunning California blonde, when she modeled at a Phoenix motocross four years ago. A ubiquitous billboard in Belgium pictures the handsome couple—as well as Roger's 500-cc. Suzuki racing bike.

While Evel Knievel holds his own esoteric bike records, no American had ever won a world-championship race until last year when Jim Pomeroy of Yakima, Wash, took the Grand Prix in Spain. Says Rolf Tibblin, a Swede and former world champion, who runs a motocross training center in Carlsbad, "There is more to the sport than just turning the throttle. It is only eight years old in America. Within three years. I think you have a world champion."

To help in this pursuit, Tibblin has introduced a new training beverage, something called a "Tibblin Tonic, the drink that's best for zest." This year the American with the best zest is Brad Lackey, a 21-year-old from the Bay Area, who is now riding for the Husqvarna team with Mikkola. Lackey has climbed to 10th place in the standings. Nevertheless. Lackey downplays the accomplishment.

"I've been riding for 11 years, racing for six," he says, "but the difference between DeCoster and me is still about 10 years' experience. He's better in every way. If you knew exactly why he's better, you'd just do it the same way, but it's secret stuff that you try to learn by watching. I'll race until I get to be the best or until I can't ride anymore, but let me tell you: in this sport it's easier to get hurt than it is to get to the top."

Injury is what has troubled Mikkola most; His penchant for recklessness leaves his fans gasping, but invariably results in one of three things: a broken bike, a flopped Finn, or a broken bike and a flopped Finn. This year he won seven of the first eight heats, but at West Germany he suffered a back injury, and since then has been ineffectual. Still, he had accumulated enough early points to hold his considerable lead over DeCoster going into Carlsbad.

Mikkola's immediate problem was getting through the start with both his fenders in the right place. In motocross the racers line up like sprinters, 40 across, their throttles open. A gate is dropped and it's every man for himself in a berserk dash to the first turn, a wrenching jerk to the left.

At the head of that flailing, jostling pack emerged Gary Semics of the U.S., chunks of dirt and a bunch of charging bikes close behind him. Gerrit Wolsink, a graduate of dental school and a Dutch teammate of DeCoster's on Team Suzuki, quickly jumped into the lead and Semics began dropping back. Meanwhile, DeCoster and Mikkola had been jumbled to the rear at the first turn and were beginning to edge their way through heavy traffic.

Slowly, DeCoster worked himself into second place, but still trailed Wolsink by 20 seconds with half the race gone. No problem. The dentist would keep an appointment. "Wolsink's job was to do whatever possible to insure that Roger took the lead," Briton Merv Wright, team manager for Suzuki, explained later. "It worked rather well." DeCoster edged into the lead with three laps remaining and held it, Wolsink covering his flank. Mikkola suffered the bad luck of a leaking tire and dropped from third to fourth in the last mile while Brad Lackey, bothered by a nettlesome foot injury, finished fifth. End of round one.

The other moto had the crowd delirious. Wolsink charged ahead from the start with DeCoster and Mikkola in his wake. But DeCoster broke his front hub while riding on rough ground, and to insure finishing an eventual third he put caution's hand on the throttle. With about three miles to go, Wolsink was in front, with Mikkola seven seconds back. The gap kept closing. They raced the final long, treacherous downhill only 10 yards apart and exploded over the finish line in a blur of churning dirt and twisted bikes. Wolsink won by a scant foot, then his bike flipped and he fell into a heap. The dentist had helped DeCoster again.

At day's end, the defending champion was five points closer to Mikkola, but he still had a way to go before making him a tail Finn.