Ride or Die: James Kohara


James Kohara posing while holding a picture of his younger self on a motorcycle. Photo by Mina Kohara 2020.

Mina Kohara, Profile

When James Makoto Kohara was still in elementary school in the 1960s, he woke at the crack of dawn every day and took his motocross bike out to the track next to his house in Kula, Maui and trained until the start of school or sunset. 

His role model was Roger Decoster who he read about often in Cycle News, which featured all the great motorcyclists and games. His passion for motocross didn’t waver and to this day he looks back on it with fondness.

“At 8, I bought a minibike and I saved up for it by doing a paper route,” Kohara said. “My parents didn’t pay for it. I had to pay for it myself, so I saved 300 bucks.” 

He claims that every Sunday he would go around the neighborhoods on his bike to deliver the newspaper. 

“I had to keep sticks and stones in my basket to throw it at the vicious dogs because they used to chase after me,” he said. “I hated the job more than anything.” 

This was Kohara’s situation every Sunday for more than two years. His parents didn’t help him pay for the sport so he worked to support his passion.

“I lived on Maui and every summer I would send my bike to Honolulu, Oahu to race at Kahuku,” he said. “That’s where they would have the official race circuit. When I was 17, I entered my first expert race. And I got second overall and won money. That was my greatest accomplishment in my motocross life. Even though it wasn’t the biggest race and I didn’t place the highest, it meant the most.” 

It taught me so many values like hard work and effort. I never regretted chasing after my dream.”

— James Kohara

Although, to Kohara’s disappointment, his 2nd place finish wasn’t recorded in the Hawaii Motorsports Association due to the fact that he was an independent rider, he was still the first Maui Rider to place that high in the Kahuku race.

“That was the hook for me,” he said. “That day I knew how much I loved it and I would continue to go as far as I could.”

James admits that there were many times where he felt the same hook in motocross but he feels that this one was the most memorable. But that didn’t mean that when he did motocross in Maui, where there were fewer races, there wasn’t any risk. 

“I got injured that same year and my doctor said that I should think about giving up motocross,” he said. “I quoted Roger Decoster and told my doctor, ‘Motocross is my only reason for living.'”

He was well aware of the risks that came with doing motocross. Motorcross isn’t the same as motorcycling. According to Top End Sports, Motorcross is an off-road sport where riders use dirt bikes to get through a course of mud and gravel. There is a high risk of injury if you’re not careful due to the fact that the course itself is difficult to go through without the proper skillset. But James didn’t want to quit just yet.

“When I showed that I was the fastest on Maui, I decided that I’m going to move to Southern California after I graduate from high school,” he explained. “There, I could race every week and it’s the mecca of motocross of the whole world pretty much.” 

In California, Kohara got a part-time mechanic job and motocross was his full-time job. Every week he had a race and until then he would train during any free moment. In those races, he placed either first or second place and continued this for three years. 

James Kohara doing a wheelie on his bicycle. Photo by his brother Rick Kohara 1973.

He eventually decided to go to college but before so he asked his father if he could try for one more year. That year he didn’t have a job and threw himself completely into motocross. His father agreed that once that year was up he would go to college no matter what. 

“The hardest thing I ever did was quitting motocross,” he said. “I loved it so much. When I finally did, I put all that hard work that used to use for motocross into schoolwork.” 

Although he wasn’t completely off the road yet. “When I was 30 after college, I moved to Japan. I started doing this type of race called Endurals which is two-hour races. It’s a little different than motocross because it’s about endurance, but I won my first race. I started getting passionate and serious about it again.”

“But I was working full time. So I didn’t have enough time to train and I’m the kind of person where whenever I do a sport I want to win. At 30 if I’m not in proper shape it gets dangerous. You can get yourself really hurt or paralyzed and once that happens you can’t have children. And so sometimes I would have issues where I would be leading a race and then I would start thinking, do I want to take the chance and push it and maybe get hurt. That’s when I realized I have to retire for good now because I didn’t want to risk it all for what now was just a hobby.”

His last race was one where he was leading by two laps but he pulled out because the possibility of him getting hurt was high and at that point, he decided that it was time to quit and think about his long term future. 

James now lives in Honolulu, Hawaii. He’s a realtor with two daughters and a wife. Last year he had to get a total knee replacement due to the injury that he had from motocross but these days motocross isn’t as present in his life. But he still looks back at the memory of when he did it and his passion for the sport is still there. 

“I loved motocross and racing so much,” he said. “It taught me so many values like hard work and effort. I never regretted chasing after my dream and to me once I rode motocross it felt like there was no going back from it.”