Thirty-Nine Years Of AMA Superbike

Doug Chandler

Doug Chandler/Muzzy Kawasaki ZX-7R

Superbike. We use the term almost synonymously for any high-performance sportbike and that style of road racing can be found around the world, but the origin of the name can be traced to 1976. Appropriately enough, the AMA Superbike Championship was founded during the American Bicentennial.

Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen were playing on the radio while Reg Pridmore was racing a Butler & Smith BMW R90S against guys such as Steve McLaughlin (BMW), Mike Baldwin (Moto Guzzi), Keith Code (Kawasaki), and Cook Neilson (Ducati) en route to winning that year’s inaugural AMA Superbike title.

At the time, however, no one knew a support class called Superbike Production would catch the attention of road-racing fans and within a couple of years surpass the popularity of all other classes in America. It would also produce some of the elite riders in all of motorcycle racing.

By the mid-1980s, AMA Superbike and its stars were what fans came to see at the races. Little more than a decade after its founding, the class had spread so fast around the globe that in 1988 the FIM gave it world championship status. Fittingly, American racing hero Fred Merkel won the inaugural 1988 title.

Reg Pridmore

Reg Pridmore/Butler & Smith BMW R90S

In The Beginning
Superbike sprang up organically from the increasingly popular production racing movement at club events in the early to mid-1970s. Motorcycles like the Honda CB750, Kawasaki Z1, Norton Commando, Triumph Bonneville, BMW R90S, and Ducati 750SS, as well as the two-stroke Yamahas, Kawasakis, and Suzukis, were handling better but some had so much power that you couldn’t tap their full potential on the street. So more and more coming-of-age baby boomers took to the track on their street bikes.

Critical mass was reached by 1973. That July, race promoters Gavin Trippe and Bruce Cox invited production racers to Laguna Seca Raceway. Yvon Duhamel won Heavyweight Production over Steve McLaughlin, both on Kawasaki Z1s. Mike Clarke won Lightweight Production on a Yamaha RD350. The race proved very popular with fans so Laguna held a second event alongside the ’74 AMA national. That year, the production race was featured on the cover of Cycle with the headline: “Superbike National.” A class was born.

By 1975, Daytona International Speedway and Ontario Motor Speedway added Superbike Production to their schedules, and the AMA could no longer ignore the growing popularity of the class. (It should be noted that extensive coverage of AMA Superbike races in Cycle magazine and the on-track exploits of racer/editor Cook Neilson and tuner/editor Phil Schilling were hugely instrumental in fostering a massive fan base for the new class.)

Wes Cooley

Wes Cooley/Yoshimura Suzuki GS1000S

Europe vs. Japan
The earliest big-bore, multi-cylinder Japanese production bikes were known for brute power, not handling. That’s where the less powerful but stable Europeans— BMW R90S, Ducati 750SS, and Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans—held an advantage. The contrast on-track, a duel between power and handling, was something to see. In 1976, European machines won every race and all the races for the first half of ’77. But that August, on the high banks of Pocono Raceway, Reg Pridmore rode a Pierre des Roches-tuned Racecrafters Kawasaki KZ1000 to victory and the trend began to change in favor of the Japanese multis.

When Suzuki launched its great-handling GS series with rider Wes Cooley, high horsepower was finally mated to stable chassis and the modern Superbike was born. Gradually, European brands became less competitive. Rich Schlachter’s victory at Loudon in 1979 on a George Vincensi-built Ducati marked the end of an era. A machine from the Continent would not win another AMA Superbike race until 1992,when Doug Polen put a Fast by Ferracci Ducati atop the podium at Laguna Seca.

Fred Merkel

Fred Merkel/Honda VF750F

Big H Enters The Fray
For its first four years, AMA Superbike was a support class for Formula 1. The tide began to turn and the stakes rose considerably in 1980 when Honda entered Superbike with wunderkind racer Freddie Spencer. Even though Spencer ultimately never won the title, the presence of a rider of his stature and participation by Honda with its accompanying media blitz set the stage for Superbikes supplanting Formula1 and, in relatively short order, becoming the premier class. In 1983, the AMA recognized these 1,000cc beasts were outpacing tire technology and cut engine size for multis to 750cc (twins were still allowed 1,000cc). This displacement defined Superbikes until 2003 when 1-liter bikes returned.

During the earliest years of the class, BMW, Suzuki, and Kawasaki primarily shared the spotlight. When Honda hit its stride in the mid-1980s, Fred Merkel, Wayne Rainey, and Bubba Shobert won five consecutive titles. In 1986, Merkel became the first rider to hit the 20-win mark. That record stood for 12 years before Canadian Miguel Duhamel—like Merkel, racing a Honda—became the all-time AMA Superbike wins leader.

Doug Chandler Miguel Duhamel

Doug Chandler/Muzzy Kawasaki ZX-7R (1) and Miguel Duhamel/Smokin’ Joe’s Honda RC45 (17)

Popularity Peaks
In the early 1990s, only select AMA Superbike races were televised. With the explosion of cable TV and birth of channels like ESPN, TNN, and Speedvision, races were broadcast more frequently, and by the middle of that decade, the series was on TV full time. That, combined with explosive motorcycle sales, meant manufacturers had plenty of money to spend on racing. During a 10-year period, AMA Superbike peaked in popularity. Factory participation, fan turnouts, and rider salaries reached all-time highs.

This was also a period of unprecedented parity. Several manufacturers enjoyed periods of success, with Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki winning championships. Key milestones during this era included Doug Chandler tying Reg Pridmore in 1997 for the most AMA Superbike titles (three), record-winning streaks by all-time-wins-leader Miguel Duhamel, the start of the Mat Mladin era of domination, and, in 2002, future MotoGP champ Nicky Hayden became the youngest-ever AMA Superbike champion.

Ben Spies Mat Mladin

Ben Spies/Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000 (1) and Mat Mladin/Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000 (66)

Series Of Rivalries
AMA Superbike has long been marked with red-hot rivalries between riders and manufacturers.The earliest big-time rivals were Wes Cooley, Freddie Spencer, and Eddie Lawson, who enjoyed epic battles during the 1980 season.The season ended controversially, with protests and counter-protests filed by Kawasaki and Suzuki. Cooley had to wait two months before he was awarded the title.

The early 1980s marked fierce competition between Kawasaki and Honda, with Kawasaki cast as David versus the Honda Goliath. Kawasaki came out on top three years in a row on the strengths of Lawson, a young Wayne Rainey, and tuner Rob Muzzy. A few years later, Rainey would become one-half of perhaps the best- known rivalry in the history of the series. In 1987, following some of the most intense battles fans ever witnessed, the Californian beat archrival Kevin Schwantz for the title. Normally congenial competitions between the manufacturers were thrown out the window, with protests and charges of cheating flying back and forth between Honda and Suzuki. Rainey and Schwantz continued their war in Grand Prix racing.

Maybe the most contentious rivalry came in the mid-2000s between Yoshimura Suzuki teammates Mladin and Ben Spies. In 2006, Spies ended the Australian’s near-decade-long domination. That set up a two-year battle during which Mladin tried unsuccessfully to win back the title from his younger teammate. At many post-race press conferences,the tension in the air was thick. Spies went on to win the 2009 World Superbike title, following in the footsteps of fellow Americans Merkel, Polen, Scott Russell, John Kocinski, and Colin Edwards. Spies has often credited his trial by fire with Mladin for preparing him for the world stage.

Josh Hayes/Monster Energy Graves Yamaha YZF-R1 (4) and Cameron Beaubier/Monster Energy Graves Yamaha YZF-R1 (2)

AMA Superbike Eras
For most of its history, AMA Superbike was sanctioned and managed by the American Motorcyclist Association in Pickerington, Ohio. In 2007, AMA Pro Racing was sold to the Daytona Motorsports Group.That period proved to be a difficult one for the championship, in great part due to a dramatic worldwide economic downturn. While the series saw decreased factory participation and fan interest, on-track action was solid, with Josh Hayes emerging as the dominant rider of the era. In 2015, Hayes will attempt to win his fifth AMA Superbike title.

This season starts a new era for the championship, which is now run by MotoAmerica and once again sanctioned by the AMA in Ohio. MotoAmerica is headed by people with deep roots in the sport, chiefly two-time AMA Superbike and three-time 500cc Grand Prix World Champion Wayne Rainey. It is widely hoped that, under the guidance of MotoAmerica, the series will emerge stronger and continue to build on its 39-year legacy of producing some of the greatest motorcycle racing champions in the world.

This story is excerpted from the 2015 MotoAmerica AMA/FIM North American Road Racing Championship season guide. Produced by the Bonnier Motorcycle Group, the 56-page publication is available for purchase at all nine MotoAmerica events.

Doug Chandler

Doug Chandler/Muzzy Kawasaki ZX-7R

Superbike. We use the term almost synonymously for any high-performance sportbike and that style of road racing can be found around the world, but the origin of the name can be traced to 1976. Appropriately enough, the AMA Superbike Championship was founded during the American Bicentennial.

Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen were playing on the radio while Reg Pridmore was racing a Butler & Smith BMW R90S against guys such as Steve McLaughlin (BMW), Mike Baldwin (Moto Guzzi), Keith Code (Kawasaki), and Cook Neilson (Ducati) en route to winning that year’s inaugural AMA Superbike title.

At the time, however, no one knew a support class called Superbike Production would catch the attention of road-racing fans and within a couple of years surpass the popularity of all other classes in America. It would also produce some of the elite riders in all of motorcycle racing.

By the mid-1980s, AMA Superbike and its stars were what fans came to see at the races. Little more than a decade after its founding, the class had spread so fast around the globe that in 1988 the FIM gave it world championship status. Fittingly, American racing hero Fred Merkel won the inaugural 1988 title.

Reg Pridmore

Reg Pridmore/Butler & Smith BMW R90S

In The Beginning
Superbike sprang up organically from the increasingly popular production racing movement at club events in the early to mid-1970s. Motorcycles like the Honda CB750, Kawasaki Z1, Norton Commando, Triumph Bonneville, BMW R90S, and Ducati 750SS, as well as the two-stroke Yamahas, Kawasakis, and Suzukis, were handling better but some had so much power that you couldn’t tap their full potential on the street. So more and more coming-of-age baby boomers took to the track on their street bikes.

Critical mass was reached by 1973. That July, race promoters Gavin Trippe and Bruce Cox invited production racers to Laguna Seca Raceway. Yvon Duhamel won Heavyweight Production over Steve McLaughlin, both on Kawasaki Z1s. Mike Clarke won Lightweight Production on a Yamaha RD350. The race proved very popular with fans so Laguna held a second event alongside the ’74 AMA national. That year, the production race was featured on the cover of Cycle with the headline: “Superbike National.” A class was born.

By 1975, Daytona International Speedway and Ontario Motor Speedway added Superbike Production to their schedules, and the AMA could no longer ignore the growing popularity of the class. (It should be noted that extensive coverage of AMA Superbike races in Cycle magazine and the on-track exploits of racer/editor Cook Neilson and tuner/editor Phil Schilling were hugely instrumental in fostering a massive fan base for the new class.)

Wes Cooley

Wes Cooley/Yoshimura Suzuki GS1000S

Europe vs. Japan
The earliest big-bore, multi-cylinder Japanese production bikes were known for brute power, not handling. That’s where the less powerful but stable Europeans— BMW R90S, Ducati 750SS, and Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans—held an advantage. The contrast on-track, a duel between power and handling, was something to see. In 1976, European machines won every race and all the races for the first half of ’77. But that August, on the high banks of Pocono Raceway, Reg Pridmore rode a Pierre des Roches-tuned Racecrafters Kawasaki KZ1000 to victory and the trend began to change in favor of the Japanese multis.

When Suzuki launched its great-handling GS series with rider Wes Cooley, high horsepower was finally mated to stable chassis and the modern Superbike was born. Gradually, European brands became less competitive. Rich Schlachter’s victory at Loudon in 1979 on a George Vincensi-built Ducati marked the end of an era. A machine from the Continent would not win another AMA Superbike race until 1992,when Doug Polen put a Fast by Ferracci Ducati atop the podium at Laguna Seca.

Fred Merkel

Fred Merkel/Honda VF750F

Big H Enters The Fray
For its first four years, AMA Superbike was a support class for Formula 1. The tide began to turn and the stakes rose considerably in 1980 when Honda entered Superbike with wunderkind racer Freddie Spencer. Even though Spencer ultimately never won the title, the presence of a rider of his stature and participation by Honda with its accompanying media blitz set the stage for Superbikes supplanting Formula1 and, in relatively short order, becoming the premier class. In 1983, the AMA recognized these 1,000cc beasts were outpacing tire technology and cut engine size for multis to 750cc (twins were still allowed 1,000cc). This displacement defined Superbikes until 2003 when 1-liter bikes returned.

During the earliest years of the class, BMW, Suzuki, and Kawasaki primarily shared the spotlight. When Honda hit its stride in the mid-1980s, Fred Merkel, Wayne Rainey, and Bubba Shobert won five consecutive titles. In 1986, Merkel became the first rider to hit the 20-win mark. That record stood for 12 years before Canadian Miguel Duhamel—like Merkel, racing a Honda—became the all-time AMA Superbike wins leader.

Doug Chandler Miguel Duhamel

Doug Chandler/Muzzy Kawasaki ZX-7R (1) and Miguel Duhamel/Smokin’ Joe’s Honda RC45 (17)

Popularity Peaks
In the early 1990s, only select AMA Superbike races were televised. With the explosion of cable TV and birth of channels like ESPN, TNN, and Speedvision, races were broadcast more frequently, and by the middle of that decade, the series was on TV full time. That, combined with explosive motorcycle sales, meant manufacturers had plenty of money to spend on racing. During a 10-year period, AMA Superbike peaked in popularity. Factory participation, fan turnouts, and rider salaries reached all-time highs.

This was also a period of unprecedented parity. Several manufacturers enjoyed periods of success, with Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki winning championships. Key milestones during this era included Doug Chandler tying Reg Pridmore in 1997 for the most AMA Superbike titles (three), record-winning streaks by all-time-wins-leader Miguel Duhamel, the start of the Mat Mladin era of domination, and, in 2002, future MotoGP champ Nicky Hayden became the youngest-ever AMA Superbike champion.

Ben Spies Mat Mladin

Ben Spies/Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000 (1) and Mat Mladin/Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000 (66)

Series Of Rivalries
AMA Superbike has long been marked with red-hot rivalries between riders and manufacturers.The earliest big-time rivals were Wes Cooley, Freddie Spencer, and Eddie Lawson, who enjoyed epic battles during the 1980 season.The season ended controversially, with protests and counter-protests filed by Kawasaki and Suzuki. Cooley had to wait two months before he was awarded the title.

The early 1980s marked fierce competition between Kawasaki and Honda, with Kawasaki cast as David versus the Honda Goliath. Kawasaki came out on top three years in a row on the strengths of Lawson, a young Wayne Rainey, and tuner Rob Muzzy. A few years later, Rainey would become one-half of perhaps the best- known rivalry in the history of the series. In 1987, following some of the most intense battles fans ever witnessed, the Californian beat archrival Kevin Schwantz for the title. Normally congenial competitions between the manufacturers were thrown out the window, with protests and charges of cheating flying back and forth between Honda and Suzuki. Rainey and Schwantz continued their war in Grand Prix racing.

Maybe the most contentious rivalry came in the mid-2000s between Yoshimura Suzuki teammates Mladin and Ben Spies. In 2006, Spies ended the Australian’s near-decade-long domination. That set up a two-year battle during which Mladin tried unsuccessfully to win back the title from his younger teammate. At many post-race press conferences,the tension in the air was thick. Spies went on to win the 2009 World Superbike title, following in the footsteps of fellow Americans Merkel, Polen, Scott Russell, John Kocinski, and Colin Edwards. Spies has often credited his trial by fire with Mladin for preparing him for the world stage.

Josh Hayes/Monster Energy Graves Yamaha YZF-R1 (4) and Cameron Beaubier/Monster Energy Graves Yamaha YZF-R1 (2)

AMA Superbike Eras
For most of its history, AMA Superbike was sanctioned and managed by the American Motorcyclist Association in Pickerington, Ohio. In 2007, AMA Pro Racing was sold to the Daytona Motorsports Group.That period proved to be a difficult one for the championship, in great part due to a dramatic worldwide economic downturn. While the series saw decreased factory participation and fan interest, on-track action was solid, with Josh Hayes emerging as the dominant rider of the era. In 2015, Hayes will attempt to win his fifth AMA Superbike title.

This season starts a new era for the championship, which is now run by MotoAmerica and once again sanctioned by the AMA in Ohio. MotoAmerica is headed by people with deep roots in the sport, chiefly two-time AMA Superbike and three-time 500cc Grand Prix World Champion Wayne Rainey. It is widely hoped that, under the guidance of MotoAmerica, the series will emerge stronger and continue to build on its 39-year legacy of producing some of the greatest motorcycle racing champions in the world.

This story is excerpted from the 2015 MotoAmerica AMA/FIM North American Road Racing Championship season guide. Produced by the Bonnier Motorcycle Group, the 56-page publication is available for purchase at all nine MotoAmerica events.