Superbikes are everywhere today, it seems. It is the premier racing class in the U.S. and there is a very popular World Superbike Series that has had events on 5 continents and in over a dozen different countries including Qatar, Australia, South Africa, the United States and many European nations. Several countries have domestic Superbike Championships, including Britain, Italy, Germany, Japan, Canada and Australia, to name a few. There are eight manufacturers taking part in WSB – mainstays Ducati, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki were joined in 2009 by Aprilia and BMW and this year by EBR – with a grid of nearly 30 riders at times. It wasn’t always so. Today’s Superbike class can trace its ancestry to the AMA Superbike class of 1976. Why was this class created?
Most fans would agree that the really exciting races feature several riders on different brands fighting for the top spots right up to the end. In the early 1970s AMA road racing was like that. The top class was Class C and several different brands of motorcycles were capable of winning AMA National road races, or at least getting a top three finish. From 1970 through 1972 the AMA road race podiums looked like this:
In 1975, only three year later, things were very different. The BSA/Triumph factory was hurting financially and could not afford to go racing. Both Honda and Harley-Davidson had dropped their factory road racing teams. Kawasaki and Suzuki kept up the fight but weren’t very successful. It had become a Yamaha show. In 1975 and 1976 there were seven AMA road races – 21 possible podium positions. Yamaha racers took 18 of those 21 positions. There were three brands on the Daytona 200 podium in 1976, but positions 4-24 were Yamahas.
Kudos to Yamaha; they played by the rules and provided superior products at reasonable prices and nearly everyone bought one. The TZ750 in the premier class and the TZ250 in the 250cc support classes were very hard to beat. The racing was of high quality and could be exciting, but fans of other brands wanted to see their bikes in the mix. A new racing class was needed.
In 1974 and ‘75 the AMA experimented with “production” racing. It was patterned after the production classes of a number of U.S. racing clubs and the Chesterfield Series in Australia. There were three classes, Lightweight Production (250cc – 350cc), Middleweight Production (351cc – 750cc) and Heavyweight Production (751cc – 1,000cc). The Lightweight class was dominated by the Yamaha RD350 but there was a good mix of brands in the top two classes. For example, at Daytona 1975 the top ten Middleweight Production finishers included Ducati, Kawasaki, Honda, Laverda, Yamaha and Norton. The top ten Heavyweights included Kawasaki, BMW and Harley-Davidson. The AMA Production rules kept the bikes very close to as-sold condition, requiring the mufflers, carburetors, engine bore & stroke, cams, pistons, crankshaft, connecting rods and body work be unmodified from the factory’s configuration. Since modifications were limited the racing was pretty inexpensive as racing goes.
In 1976 the AMA dropped the three production classes in favor a single new class. The rules were much more lenient. The engine needed the stock stroke but it could be bored to any diameter as long as the total capacity was 1,000ccs or less. The stock engine castings were required and the bike needed to have the stock charging system in working order. The lights had to work — they had to be taped but with small gaps for tech inspection. Pistons, cams, valves and just about every engine internal except stroke could be changed.
The rules required that the bikes look like their stock versions but many modifications were allowed. For example, the stock muffler shell was required, but you could gut the insides and turn it into a racing megaphone. There was a noise limit but it was well above what was legal on the street. The bike had to use the stock frame but gusseting and reinforcing tubes could be added and brackets could be removed. Center and side stands had to be removed. There were some ‘silhouette’ rules; for example clip-on handlebars or fairings were disallowed for bikes that didn’t come equipped that way from the factory. The stock fuel tank and fenders were required but the fenders could be repositioned to allow for bigger tires, which had to be full-on race tires – no DOT rubber allowed. They called the class “Superbikes.”
There was a class championship as well as the individual races. Class chaempionship points were earned at each race depending on the finishing position on this schedule: 1st – 20, 2nd – 16, 3rd – 13, 4th – 11, 5th – 10, and then one point less per position down to 1 point for 14th place. There were no bonus points – no point for earning the pole position nor for leading the most laps. You had to finish in the top 14 to earn a point. The first AMA Superbike Class Champion was Reg Pridmore riding a bike based on the BMW R90S.
Since they didn’t have transponders in those days the grid positions for the final were determined by a 5-lap heat race. Typically on a race weekend the heat was on Saturday and the final on Sunday. The class was a support class since Class C or Formula 750 was still the main event.
The original ideas for the class was to provide an inexpensive form of racing that would bring more bike brands to the podiums. Did it work? With the liberal modification rules it was debatable whether it was inexpensive or not, but it certainly did bring more brands into the winner’s circle. See the related story “The 1977 Superbike Manufacture’s Championship” on this blogsite. It quickly became a spectator favorite, as in those early years the racing was typically close (often the best race of the weekend) and fans could root for their favorite brand.
I don’t have space or time to tell you the full history of the growth of the Superbike class, but I will point out some key milestones as the class moved forward.
- 1983 – The Superbike rules were changed to limit the four cylinder bikes to 750cc while twins could stay at 1000cc. It didn’t help the twins; they were still outclassed. The AMA created the Battle of the Twins (BOTT) class to give them a place to race.
- 1985 – The Daytona 200 became a Superbike race. In 1984 Bill France, the owner of the Daytona racetrack, told the AMA that 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 VF750R, the first Daytona 200 win for Honda since Dick Mann in 1970.
- 1987 – Superbikes became the premier racing class in the U.S.A. with 250 GP and Pro Twins (formerly BOTT) as support classes. Other classes were optional. The former top class, which had morphed into Formula 1, virtually disappeared in the U.S.
- 1988 – Mainly through the efforts of Steve McLaughlin, a top AMA Superbike racer in the 1970s, the World Superbike Series began, using rules largely based on the current AMA Superbike specifications. The first World Superbike champion was Californian Fred Merkel on a Honda.
And the rest, as they say, is history.