YU. Young Randy Mamola

Posted 1/5/2015

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.

RandyAt16Tiny 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.

SteveRandyMcLaughlin (83), Mamola (26), and me (9) in turn 3 at Sears Point. Photo by Anna Homchick.

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.”

“You too.”

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.

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11 thoughts on “YU. Young Randy Mamola

  1. You wrote, “He was really good, but he had the misfortune of competing against legends.” Randy was racing the gods, same as you did in AMA Superbike nationals. And that’s the title of your upcoming book!

  2. Good story Paul. I remember the first time I saw Randy at an AFM race. I thought who is this little kid with the factory backing and all. In short order he had won his first race of the day and proved he was the “real deal”. I sort of had a love hate feeling towards the “small” guys like Mamola. Being 6′ 1″ and about 165 in race trim, those 110 lb guys always made me look bad (hear that Frank Mazur?). You could go on and on about Randy being the “clown prince” of GP’s. Fireworks in the paddock and other crazy stunts…

  3. Great story Paul. I remember the first time I saw Randy race, at an indoor, paved short-track in Santa Rosa, CA. Kendal Mullins, who started racing AFM on my Yamaha R5C, had a long history of racing in AMA District 36 events including flat track, short track & TT racing. He took me to the site and Randy was amazing to see in his “factory leathers”, motoring away from the competition! Randy went on to be a good friend to Glen & Kathy Shopher and Vicki Samarzea as they were all high school students. Randy used to help Glen sharing track conditions, lines, etc.

    Randy was over at the Shopher’s house in Concord one time and Vicki came and asked me if Randy could borrow my street bike to take her for a ride
    (she wasn’t dating Glen yet!). I said, sure, and the two of the rode off on my metallic black and gold Yamaha XS500 eight valve twin. Vicki was a great passenger and loved to go fast…I assume Randy accommodated the request!

  4. nice story…the point missing was Mamola dove under me and hit the front fender on my Tz and crushed the aluminum fender stay into the front wheel locking it up..the bike went straight into one of the armco barriers….when we drove up in Kathy’s El Camino we had to have the tailgate down, going home the bike was so shortened it was tailgate closed…the national at Loudon was the next weekend and Gary Scott loaned me a chassis which I used to get 5th I think beating him (for which he thought me very ungracious as he was chasing the #1 plate again)….Randy was surely a great rider but in ’78 often had a bit more bike than rider…Ritter was a demon on that Ducati anywhere but at Sears a real specialist….

    • Steve McLaughlin — as usual your comments add more depth to the story. I didn’t know about how you hit the tarmac. Thanks for the additional information. Thanks too for the demon comment!

  5. I remember a time at Sears Point, I believe it was a Golden State Challenge race, at the riders meeting Randy, quietly, from the back of the crowd stated we should just go ahead and present him the trophy and not bother with the race. He was a very talented rider.

    Paul it was rumored that you were no longer among the living. Nice to see you are still around.

  6. Very cool story and thanks for sharing. Seeing Randy just before that time on Fremont Flat track was cool. He was not tall enough to reach the ground so they put blocks under his feet, which meant he would have to start at the back. Then the young man would rail by all. (yes … someone had to run out and remove the blocks after he started).

    He was always a favorite and just a cool guy. He told me once that he had it so good.
    He could go to Europe or Japan and be a Star and then come home to the USA and be an average guy.

  7. Wow what a blast from the past! I had the pleasure of meeting Randy when I was a kid racing at Sears Point. I raced a Yamaha 60 (sleeved down to a 50cc) It was in traditional Yamaha colors but we could only afford green hand me down leathers. I remember seeing him on his TA 125 just killing it. I was so Jealous because of those leathers. Every time he lapped me he would turn all the way around and look at me while hanging off. I also remember a nice man who brought me my first, first place trophy a few weeks after a race that had already been run. He said he’d been looking all over for me to give it to me. I was told I had set the 50cc lap record that day. I was only 13 or so. After I was forced to quit by my mom I think Randy raced my 50 a few times at riverside.

    There were so many nice people at that track, I remember a racer named Pat Hennen teaching me different lines, a guy named Ron Grant who a guess was really famous at one time doing the same and many others as well. I think my coolest memory was when we went to Mr. Kennemotos (sp) shop. He was helping us with our engine and I got to see Gary Nixon’s Green Kawasaki’s.

    Its funny to see Randy on that bike in this picture, It looks just like the one I rode!

  8. Randy came down to NZ to race in our Marlboro Series in the early 70s….he did well up against the top Australian and Kiwi riders….not to mention a couple of English guys….and a few European riders that made the journey to the bottom of the world. He was about 16 at the time I think…we all sat up and took notice

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