Posted Feb 23, 2015
This material is not exactly an excerpt from my book “Racing the Gods” (https://www.octanepress.com/book/racing-gods). It’s a condensation of some of the material in the book, plus a little extra that’s not in the book. There is more about each of these Superbike Pioneers in the book than appears here.
The American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Superbike class came out of the Production classes that the AMA experimented with in 1974-75. The rules were pretty box-stock, with three classes: Lightweight up to 400cc, middleweight 401cc-750cc, and Heavyweight ,751cc and larger. The lightweight class was dominated by Yamaha RD400s, while the middleweight class was a happy hunting ground for Cook Neilson with his Ducati 750ss, although there were other brands taking part: Suzuki GS750, Honda CB750F Super Sport, an occasional British triple or twin (Cook and Phil named their bike “Overdog” because the box-stock Ducati 750SS was a much better race bike than the box-stock Japanese or British bikes). The heavyweight class mainly featured Kawasaki Z-1s, although the BMW R90S was available in those years.
In 1976 the AMA scrapped the production classes and created a single class they called “Superbike.” It featured a 1,000cc engine size limit but the rules were very liberal beyond that. Standard stroke was required but all other engine internals could be changed. The chassis had to look like the original bike but many changes were allowed. It was a looooooong way from box-stock.
The AMA Superbike class of 1976 is the origin of today’s Superbike classes, both AMA and World Superbike, as well as national Superbike series in several other countries, such as Great Britain and Japan, for example. The rules have been tweaked here and there through the years but it all started right here in the U.S.A. in 1976.
In any discussion of Superbike pioneers Reg Pridmore has to be first. He was the first AMA Superbike champion, winning the title three years on-the-trot. He won the 1976 championship riding a Butler & Smith-sponsored BMW R90S, then defended his title in 1977 and 1978 with a Kawasaki sponsored first by Racecrafters then by Vetter Fairings, He was from England, but had immigrated to the United States years earlier. When I met him he owned a BMW motorcycle shop near Santa Barbara, California.
Reg is a proper gentleman. In spite of his good manners and gentlemanly ways, he gave no quarter on the racetrack. A rumor at the time was that he had been a military policeman in the British army during his military stint. He was tough when he needed to be and very nice when tough wasn’t needed. AMA Morotcycle Hall of Fame (AMA HoF), 2002. http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=256.
I knew Keith from club racing in 1976.. He was one of those brave, smaller guys who manhandled a big Kawasaki Z-1 motorcycle around the racetrack, usually scoring well.
Keith always struck me as a thinking racer. He seldom crashed, but would think about his riding, analyze where he thought he was going slower than he should, and figured out what it was that slowed him up. And next time he would be faster. When a few years later I saw he had written a couple of books about how to race and started the California Superbike School. I thought, of course!
Cook Neilson has class. Cook was a top Superbike contender in 1976 and 1977, racing a 1974 Ducati 750SS he and Phil Schilling had bored to 883cc and developed to a very high state of tune. They spent many hours and dollars learning how to make horsepower from that motor. This knowledge gave Cook an advantage on the track, but he and Phil gave their tuning information to any one who asked, A class act.
Cook is also a superb wordsmith. His writing and editing were two of the reasons Cycle became the motorcycle magazine with the highest readership in the world in the 1970s. His articles in the magazine about racing in the fledging Superbike class helped establish the class as a fan favorite.
AMA HoF 2006. http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=379.
Like Cook Neilson, Phil was well known in the industry as Cycle’s executive editor before his efforts with the Superbikes. He was also known in a smaller circle as one of the best sources of go-fast knowledge of single-cylinder Ducatis made prior to 1974. Schilling was a Ducatisti from way back, having raced and tuned the singles in the 1960s.
Phil, like Cook, was always willing to share his information with anyone. Phil was one of a small number of people who had the patience and skill to tear apart a Ducati bevel-drive engine, replace hunks of its insides, and put it back together correctly, Assembling that motor correctly requires watch-maker talent and patience.
AMA HoF 2011. http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=448.
Steve rode different Superbikes at different times – a BMW in 1976, Kawasakis and Suzukis for Yoshimura, and a Racecrafters Kawasaki. He was also a strong racer on Yamaha TZ250s and TZ750s in the expert ranks.
Steve was a natural born promoter. He tried to get more people interested in motorcycle racing, and he promoted road racing, Superbikes in particular, as well as himself. His self-promotion irritated some people, but I didn’t mind as long as it brought in more fans. Although he certainly earned more purse money in the 750cc class, Steve genuinely liked Superbikes. Steve was a major player in the establishment of the World Superbike race series in 1988; some would say he was the major player. If you enjoy World Superbike racing you owe thanks to McLaughlin. AMA HoF 2004. http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=320.
Wes Cooley was Yoshimura’s lead rider in those early Superbike years, initially on a Kawasaki Z1 and later with the Suzuki GS750 and GS1000. He was one of the toughest competitors in the field in 1978, when he either won (twice) or broke. He had more success in 1979. By then the Yoshimura bikes had become reliable as well as fast, and Wes finished on the podium in every Superbike race.
Wes had the amazing ability to go top speed at the drop of the green flag –- Wes’s best laps always seemed to be his early ones. Tough as nails on the track, he was a good sport whether he won or not. He was the AMA Superbike Champion in 1979 and 1980, out-scoring future world champions Freddie Spencer and Eddie Lawson. AMA HoF 2004. http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=315.
Dale Newton had been a motorcyclist in his youth, but stepped away from the sport when he started a family and his own business. With his kids mostly grown and his business on solid footing he got back into bikes, racing a Ducati 750 Sport in the AFM club races in 1976. Dale did not have the build of a road racer; He was a big guy, well over 6 feet tall and probably over 200 pounds when I met him. After the 1976 season he hung up his racing leathers and became a sponsor/tuner/mechanic. I was the lucky guy who got to race his motorcycles.
Mechanically Dale was a perfectionist. His equipment was always well prepared and beautifully turned out. He not only got the big picture but understood attention to detail was important. His bi.kes seldom failed but when they did he would figure out why and engineer a solution. I raced for him for two and a half years and dozens of races and we never had a repeat failure. Sadly he passed away from some kind of blood poisoning sometime in the ear;y 1990s.
A very good-natured fellow, John was always smiling or laughing and clearly having a good time. He could have the worst things happen to him and he would just laugh and say, “That’s racing.”
John Bettencourt looking serious. Normally he was grinning or laughing about something. Image from RiderFiles.com.
John was the other “long-haired hippie” Superbike racer. Longish hair on men was in style in those years, but John and I lead the field –- we both had hair nearly to our waist which we braided while racing.
Erik Buell and I ran into each other at the Pocono, Pennsylvania AMA National in 1978. I mean that literally. Erik and I came together in turn two during the heat race, bam! We both stayed upright but Erik had to take the escape road. He found me later in the pits, coming up with a grin. He explained that the force of us pulling apart had rotated the clutch lever perch on his handlebar and when he went to downshift his fingers grabbed air. He got it straightened out and was able to rejoin the pack and finish the heat race, but well down from where he normally would have placed.
Erik seemed quite happy about the whole thing. He was pleased just to be there having the experience, and we had a good laugh together about it. We talked again in the pits at Laguna Seca and he was the same cheerful, active guy I met at Pocono.
If Erik were a youth today he would likely be diagnosed as having a hyperactivity disorder. He was a bundle of energy. I bet he is one of those people who would go nuts if he were forced to sit still and be quiet.
AMA HoF 2002. http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=327.
I met Harry racing in AFM club races. He was quite tall for a road racer but trim and lanky with long arms and legs. He was wickedly fast on his Yamaha TZ250.
Harry was young and brash and somewhat impulsive. He rode the San Jose BMW Superbike in 1977 and 1978, scoring several top-five places and getting an outright win at the September Loudon AMA National in 1978. In 1979 he switched to Kawasaki and continued to score in the top five.
Dave Emde was from a well-known racing family. Both his father Floyd and his older brother Don were successful pro racers. Dave raced Superbikes as the third member of the Yoshimura team, initially racing a Kawasaki Z1 and later a Suzuki GS1000. At Loudon in 1978 when his pal Klinzmann won the AMA Superbike race, Emde took second. Dave never won a Superbike race, but he came mighty close, with two seconds and a third in the ‘77-‘79 seasons. Dave, like Klinzmann, was tall and lanky, and it was fun to watch him fold himself up on his tiny TZ250 race bike.
Dave Emde in his BMW leathers. This is probably from the early 1980s. Photo from Don Emde collection.
Dave was especially good on his 250, winning the 1977 AMA 250cc Expert class title after battling against such strong opponents as Gary Nixon, Randy Mamola, Skip Aksland and Mike Baldwin. AMAs HofF 2010. http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=437.
Udo Geitl and Todd Schuster
I met Udo Geitl and Todd Schuster at the Loudon race in 1979 at their shop. I watched Udo’s crew take John Long’s BMW motor completely apart, inspect everything, and reassemble it. Udo was a soft-spoken fellow, almost shy, but a seriously skilled engine man. Todd was bigger and more outgoing. He did some amazing things. The anti-dive mechanism he installed on the BMW front wheel was ingenious, using a pushrod from a Cummings diesel engine as the linkage. Udo would do the engine work, Todd would do the chassis, and eventually they found racing veteran John Long to ride their ex-Butler & Smith R90S-based Superbike. In 1978 John tied Reg Pridmore in the points chase, and a tie-breaking formula was necessary to decide the class championship. They kept the two-cylinder pushrod bike competitive with the four cylinder overhead cam bikes far longer than anyone expected.
Reno Leoni, Mike Baldwin and Kurt Liebmann
These three were on the same team from 1976 through 1978, tuner Reno Leoni and riders Mike Baldwin and Kurt Liebmann. The three of them were responsible for putting the Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans at or near the top of the finishing list. For two years. Reno was from Italy and came to the U.S.in the 1960’s to help the U.S. importer with the Ducati and Moto Guzzi lines. He had a lot of knowledge about the Guzzi motors and made the fastest Moto Guzzis in the country. The team switched to Ducati midway through the 1978 season. Reno’s Ducatis were also fast. (A bit of trivia: Reno Leoni’s first name was actually Rino, which is pronounced ree-no in Italy. After moving to the U. S. he got so tired of Americans calling him rhy-no that he changed the spelling to Reno. In Italy Reno would be pronounced ray-no.)
I never talked to Baldwin or Liebmann. This may have been an incorrect assumption, but Mike always seemed to be angry, so I avoided him. As for Kurt, I didn’t avoid him, but our paths simply never crossed. Mike Baldwin is in the AMA HoF, class of 2001. http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=122.
Ron won Superbike races for BMW and Yoshimura in those first four years. Ron and I had a good dice at the 1977 Laguna Seca National but I never chatted with him in the pits.
Ron Pierce, Pops Yoshimura, and Wes Cooley at the Suzuka 8-hour race in 1979. They qualified 6th but DNF. Cycle World photo.
Ron was a racer who had been at the front for many years, an ex-factory racer, and I was a bit in awe of him. A wily veteran, he was known for developing the “Bakersfield Line,” named after his home town. It featured an early apex and wide exit, forcing any following rider to pass on the outside, a move that seldom worked.
A legendary tuner of the Japanese in-line four cylinder motorscyc;es of the time. There’s a photo of him just above. In the first two years his bikes were wickedly fast but didn’t handle and broke often. In 1978 they began to handle decently but mechanical gremlins still caused problems. In 1979 his bikes handled and didn’t break and Yoshimura rider Wes Cooley was the AMA Superbike Champion.
John Long would have taken the 1978 Superbike title from Reg Pridmore if he hadn’t been given a one-lap penalty at the autumn Loudon race. At 6’2” he fit his name. He was tall for a road racer but he was good at it. John was surprisingly fast on the BMW in Superbikes and rode competitively on 250cc and 750cc Yamahas in the other AMA classes. He had a reputation of being a very cool and calm character for someone so busy on race weekends. For example, at Sears Point in 1978 the AMA schedule had John racing in two heat races and three finals, all on Sunday. That’s Endurance.
John Fuchs isn’t well known, but he consistently kept the Honda name in the top-ten lists in the early Superbike years, until Honda got serious and hired Freddie Spencer for the 1980 season. Fuchs’ best finish was a podium third place at Pocono in 1978, and when the second place bike was disqualified he should have been moved up to second, but the AMA gave him only the 3rd place points. I hope the AMA gave him the second place purse even if they didn’t award John the points. Fuchs was tied for sixth in the championship that year.
Freddie Spencer was kinda a late comer. He shows up in the AMA finisher list in 1978 at Daytona, an 8th place on a Suzuki. Before 1978 he was, I think, too young for an AMA license. He made a huge impact in 1979. He started with a Ducati at Daytona but had a mechanical failure, then scored a 4th place at Loudon on the Duc. Kawasaki’s rider in 1979 was Mike Baldwin, and when Mike had a season-ending injury at Loudon Freddie was offered Baldwin’s KZ1000. He took full advantage of the ride, winning at Sears Point and Laguna Seca, the final two races of the year. AMA HoF 1999. http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=275.
I was a Superbike pioneer, I guess, riding Ducati’s for Dale Newton in 1977-78, and three races with the San Jose BMW in 1979. In 1978 Dale and I carried the Ducati flag after Cook Neilson’s retirement. I won the Sears Point National race that year, and got a fourth at Loudon. My Ducati finale was a very close second and the Superbike lap record at Laguna Seca, and I was 3rd in the championship race that year.
There’s a couple of things I’m proud of that are not mentioned in the book. I was the winner of the first two Superbike races at Sears Point. The 3rd winner? Freddie Spencer. And my lap record at Laguna was exceeded in 11979 by … Freddie Spencer. Yep, it took a future World Champion to overshadow my achievements, ha!
I mentioned Johnny B’s braid above. Mine was red while his was dark brown. I don’t know about John’s braid, but I always tucked mine into my leathers but after five or six laps the wind would pull it out and it would lash my back. FASTER! I seemed to be telling me.
The Superbike Class Grows Up
This article covers the years 1976-1979. In 1980 everything changed. Honda got serious and hired Spencer to ride a Superbike based on the new CB750F Super Sport. The Geitl/Shuster team was hired to take care of the motorcycle and Steve McLaughlin became the team manager and 2nd rider. Kawasaki countered by paying Eddie Lawson to ride the Kawasaki (Baldwin still wasn’t available, I guess). Suzuki already had a top talent in Wes Cooley, and those three riders went after each other. The factories were in control now. The independent teams didn’t appeared on the top step of the podium at all in 1980. The Superbike class had grown up.
In 1984 Bill France, the owner of the Daytona racetrack, told the AMA the 1985 Daytona 200 would be a Superbike race. The AMA said, “No, Superbike is a support class. The main event has to be Formula 1.” France said, in effect, “You boys don’t understand. I’m not asking for permission.” The 1985 Daytona 200 was won by Freddie Spencer on a Honda Interceptor VF750, the first Daytona 200 win for Honda since Dick Mann in 1970.
In 1987 the Superbike class became the Premier racing class in the U.S.A., with 250cc GP and Pro-Twins (formerly BOTT) as support races. The older top class, the Class C/Formula 750 which had by then evolved into Formula 1, disappeared.
In 1988 Steve McLaughlin took the Superbike idea to Europe and started the World Superbike Series, based largely on the rules of the AMA Superbike. The first World Superbike Champion was Californian Fred Merkel on a HonDA RC30.
And the rest, as they say, is history.