For the past three decades, the American Motorcyclist Association has sanctioned a class of professional motorcycle racing that features 600cc sportbikes. The 600 Supersport class debuted in 1987, and the very first race was held on March 6, 1987, at Daytona International Speedway. Doug Polen won the race aboard a Honda Hurricane 600. It was early days for “race-replica” 600cc sportbikes, with the Kawasaki Ninja 600R essentially inventing the new motorcycle category in 1985, and the Honda Hurricane 600 joining the fray in 1987. Soon afterward, the Yamaha FZR600 came along – in 1989, to be precise – and finally, in 1992, the Suzuki GSX-R600 was introduced, giving each of the Big Four Japanese motorcycle manufacturers a dog in the middleweight fight.
The Supersport class launched the careers of hundreds of road racers in America, including virtually every American AMA Superbike Champion, from Thomas Stevens, to the aforementioned Polen, to Miguel DuHamel, to Ben Bostrom, to Cameron Beaubier.
In those three decades, the name of the class changed a number of times. It was called “600 Supersport” from 1987 to 2001, then just “Supersport” from 2002 to 2008, then “SuperSport” from 2009 to 2014 (with separate “East” and “West” Championships during that era), and in 2015, it went back to simply “Supersport” with the dawn of MotoAmerica.
Also, from 2009 to 2014, there was a separate, higher-spec AMA-sanctioned 600cc road race class, and it was called “Daytona SportBike.” Now, here’s where things get really interesting or really confusing, depending on your point of view.
Daytona SportBike was a race class and an idea instituted by Daytona Motorsports Group (DMG), the previous owners of AMA-sanctioned professional motorcycle road racing and the immediate predecessors of The KRAVE Group, who owns MotoAmerica. Call it a simple act of branding, if you like, but the fact that Daytona Motorsports Group created a middleweight race class called Daytona SportBike had a deeper and, some would say, more sinister meaning. “Daytona” was obviously the common key word in “Daytona Motorsports Group” and “Daytona SportBike,” as in “Daytona International Speedway,” the very racetrack where, ironically, the 600 Supersport class raced for the very first time back in 1987.
By 2009, it was apparent that Superbikes had outgrown the high banks of Daytona. The speeds, the tires, and those omniscient and omnipresent walls at DIS proved to be an exceedingly dangerous proposition for Superbike racers. So, DMG’s solution was to designate that the iconic Daytona 200, arguably one of the greatest motorcycle racing events in the world, would be run with 600cc motorcycles instead of Superbikes. And, since DIS was clearly DMG’s crown jewel, they decided to change the name from what was formerly known as the “600 Supersport” and then just the “Supersport” class to the “Daytona SportBike” class. And so, “Daytona SportBikes” raced not only at Daytona, but at Road America, Utah, New Jersey, and all sorts of other venues that didn’t have anything to do with Daytona.
During the DMG era, from 2009 to 2014, Superbike racing was relegated to a sideshow. It’s not clear, had DMG continued, if they would have eventually eliminated Superbike racing altogether, but that’s something we no longer have to worry about.
In 2015, MotoAmerica reinstated the Supersport class, along with a Superstock 600 class, with a long-range plan to eventually combine the two classes (a plan that came to fruition in 2018). But, more importantly, when the MotoAmerica AMA/FIM North American Motorcycle Road Racing Championship debuted in 2015, the Superbike class was reinstated as America’s premier motorcycle road racing class.
But, let’s back up a moment and talk about 2008, the year before DMG took over AMA-sanctioned professional motorcycle road racing. Remember 2008? That was the year of the Credit Crunch, and it sent the prices of Japanese motorcycles through the roof. The MSRP of a 600cc Japanese sportbike suddenly was more than that of a 1000cc sportbike from the year before. But sales of 600cc sportbikes had already started to wane as many sportbike riders shunned hardcore middleweight “race replicas” and moved to roomier literbikes, standard-style machines, naked bikes, and adventure bikes – all motorcycles better suited to modern riding and lifestyles.
600cc sportbike development began to slow as a result. The once-ubiquitous Honda CBR600RR saw little more than changes in color and graphics, and their numbers dwindled accordingly on road racing grids. The Suzuki GSX-R600 hardly changed at all. The Yamaha YZF-R6, which supplanted the CBR600RR as the “it” bike in middleweight road racing, evolved a little but not radically. And, the Kawasaki ZX-6R didn’t change much, except for its much-welcomed lower MSRP in 2019.
So, even when DMG was in the process of making 600cc sportbikes the premier race class in America, their popularity was decreasing.
Don’t shed a tear for the Supersport class quite yet, however. Last year’s grids were large, the racing was compelling, and it’s still a class that breeds future American Superbike champions. In fact, all indications are that the 2019 MotoAmerica Supersport Championship is going to be another great one, just like 2018 was.
Also, remember this: everything has a beginning and end. If the world still wanted 600cc sportbikes, then the factories would still make them.
Meanwhile, the current crop of lightweight and middleweight single-cylinder and twin-cylinder sportbikes like the KTM RC390, Suzuki SV650, Kawasaki Ninja 400 and 650, and Yamaha YZF-R3 and MT-07 provide just as much fun on the street, at a trackday, or while ridden in anger on a racetrack, and are just as valuable as steppingstones to literbikes and Superbike. The 600cc sportbike era may be coming to an end, but the age of lightweight/middleweight singles and twins is just getting started.
Best of all, Superbikes are once again king in American professional motorcycle road racing.