Randy Mamola is generally recognized as the best road racer of his generation NOT to win a World Championship. His AMA experience, later exploits in Europe, and subsequent humanitarian work are pretty well documented — just Google his name to find his AMA and FIM career stats. But not that many people know how he started.
In the spring of 1975 I was having a pint in the back room of a San Francisco Pub. It was the AFM’s San Francisco Chapter monthly membership meeting. All the usual stuff about schedules, budgets, minutes, etc. was done and the members were beginning to settle down for the monthly bout of bench racing, story swapping, and other forms of lying when the chapter president introduced an older guy named Jim Doyle.
“I work for Yamaha, and I’m one of the people who helped find Kenny Roberts,” Doyle said. I perked my ears up at that – Kenny Roberts was the AMA Grand National Champion at the time.
“I want you all to meet Randy Mamola,” he continued, and nudged forward a skinny little freckle-faced kid with a shock of curly red hair. The boy looked like he might weigh 100 lbs soaking wet. Frankly, Randy looked shy — like he’d rather be somewhere else. Doyle continued, “Randy has been tearing up the regional dirt tracks in the youth divisions, and now that he’s turned sixteen Yamaha is going to help him learn to road race. Randy will be riding Yamahas in select AFM races.”
My racer pals and I were impressed. We were also extremely jealous – the little shrimp had a sponsored ride, something we club racers all wanted but could only dream of. We weren’t very nice to Randy at first, calling him “Crunchy Mamola,” a play on words with the popular breakfast cereal Crunchy Granola.
But it didn’t last long, as Randy pretty quickly showed that he had the skills. He started on a home-built Yamaha 100cc GP-style racer.
Tiny Randy Mamola (80) on the grid for the AFM Lightweight Race at Sears Point in 1975. The Lightweight race included classes 50cc and 100cc GP, and 200cc and 125cc Production. The other bike in the shot is Bill Mullins (766) on a Yamaha RD125. Photo courtesy of Bill Mullins.
Pretty soon Randy moved up to the Yamaha TA125 and he won his second race at Sears Point Raceway (a notoriously difficult track to learn) in that class. And he kept on winning. We stopped calling him Crunchy. We were still jealous but he had earned our respect. Besides he turned out to be a nice guy with a great sense of humor.
Randy must have hit puberty around mid-1975 and he started growing. As he gained skills and size he moved up to Yamaha TZ250s. And won. By 1978 he had reached his full (smallish) adult size, had earned an Expert license from the AMA. Randy was racing both a TZ250 and the fearsome TZ750 and going elbow-to-elbow with the top U.S. Experts. He was especially good on the quarter-liter bike and was the AMA 250cc Class Champion in 1978.
While Randy was moving forward with Yamaha I was advancing too, with Ducatis. I earned a sponsored ride in 1977, racing Ducati-based Superbikes owned and tuned by Dale Newton.
Randy and I raced against each other once, in June 1978, just before the Loudon, New Hampshire, AMA National. Randy and Steve McLaughlin brought their TZ750 Yamahas to an AFM club race at Sears Point (now Sonoma) raceway to do some testing. Dale and I were there with his Superbike Ducati, also getting ready for the upcoming AMA National. The AFM didn’t have a Superbike class so I raced in the Open GP class with Randy and Steve. The race was short, a 6 lap sprint race. When the green flag waved McLaughlin shot off into the lead with me right behind. Randy somehow flubbed the start and got off slowly.
Steve was bit-by-bit pulling away from me in the first two laps but I still had him in sight. When is Randy going to pass me? I thought. Halfway through lap three he moved past on the short straight between the turn 6 Carousel and the turn 7 hairpin, and moved quickly forward, catching up to Steve by the end of the lap. They started dicing and swapping places.
I noticed that with the two of them dicing for the lead they slowed each other down and I actually started gaining a little on them. I thought, it would be newsworthy if I could catch up to these guys and run with them. I had raced my Ducati head to head with good TZ750 pilots at Sears Point before, a tight and bumpy track whose twisty nature somewhat negated the TZs higher top speed, but not racers of the caliber of Mamola and McLaughlin.
So I turned it up a click. It was a Bad Idea.
I started pushing harder in an effort to catch them, and coming out of the Carousel on lap 5 I grabbed a handful of throttle. The rear tire spun while I was still leaned over and BAM! I hit the tarmac. It was a simple low-side and I was OK but the Ducati cart-wheeled and was badly damaged. McLaughlin also took a tumble a lap later, giving Randy the win. Later I dropped by his pit for a chat.
“Hey Randy. What happened to you at the start?” I asked.
“The motor loaded up,” he replied. Then he said, “Boy that Ducati sure handles well!”
That made me smile. “It does indeed. Hey, good luck at Loudon.”
I apologized to Dale. I rather sheepishly explained how the crash came about. He thought for a minute then said, “It’s OK. I would have done the same thing,” and grinned.
Later, as I was packing up for the day a pal came up and told me that Mamola was stealing my lines. Huh? I know it took him two and a half laps to pass me, but what’s this?
“Randy caught up to you in about half a lap,” he said. “He was following you for a couple of laps, learning your lines.”
Well, well. That explains his handling comment. Since Randy didn’t race in the Superbike class he was welcome to my lines. Maybe it helped him?
After cutting his teeth at AFM races he moved up to win at the AMA National level, then went to Europe in 1980 to do battle in the 500cc GP class. He was really good, but he had the misfortune of competing against legends. He finished 2nd in the 500 GP class four times, in 1980, ’81, ’84 and ’87, and was 3rd in 1983 and ‘86. Randy was in the top ten every year from 1979 through 1987. He was also a crowd favorite, being one of the first to do things like throw his gloves into the stands and clown around on the podium after a race.
Today Randy is retired racer whose curly red hair is, well, a memory. However, I still remember the shy-looking, skinny little red-haired, freckle faced kid from 1975.