The Anglo-american match races
In more than a decade and a half of racing, the Transatlantic Trophy Series introduced no fewer than seven American World Champions to British fans. Here, from one of the series creators, and told for the first time, is the full inside story on the early background to the series and how it all came about 45 years ago…
Throughout the 1970s and more than halfway through the 80s, without doubt the world’s most significant race series outside of the World Championships was the annual Easter weekend clash between teams of visiting challengers from the USA and their home-grown British opposition. What was first billed as the Anglo-american Match Races in 1971 later morphed into the John Player Transatlantic Trophy Series after a substantial injection of cash sponsorship and highly visible marketing support from the UK tobacco giant. The series was significant, and subsequently unforgettable, in that it introduced to the British public every one of America’s seven World Champions from that era! World 500cc Grand Prix Champions Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz all made their first trips outside the USA to compete in the match race series. As did America’s first world title winner, the 1977 Formula 750 World Champion, Steve Baker and its first World Superbike Champion, Fred Merkel. The series also introduced several other American road-racing superstars to the UK, such as Grand Prix factory team riders Randy Mamola, Pat Hennen and Mike Baldwin and Canadian ace Yvon du Hamel, along with significant others including USA Grand National Champions Gary Nixon, Gene Romero and Dick Mann as well as the irrepressible David Aldana (later victorious in Japan’s most important race when he teamed with Mike Baldwin to win the Suzuka Eight Hours). Then, of course, there was the magnificent Cal Rayborn, whose untimely death in a minor race in New Zealand in 1973 robbed the world of a talent that could have, would have, and should have, seen him earn his place in the pantheon of road racing’s greats. Nowadays you won’t find his name on any list of World Champions or even US Grand National Championship title winners. But anyone who saw him race will never forget him – most of all those lucky enough to see him burst from seemingly out of nowhere on to the world stage at the 1972 Anglo-american Match Races.
Following on from that milestone year, the impact of the Match Race series on the World Championship scene of the 1970s and 80s was huge and its influence went even beyond those decades as it opened the eyes of future American world title challengers to the rewards that could be earned outside of the USA. Throughout the 50s and 60s American road racers had been content to compete in their own backyard – admittedly a big enough one that allowed riders the opportunity to earn a living as full-time professionals. But once the Match Races had opened their eyes to a racing world beyond their borders, they were no longer content just to stay at home. Some really big bucks, they learned, were there to be earned if you could continue your winning ways on the other side of the Atlantic. Although the first Anglo-american Match
Races took place over the 1971 Easter weekend, the concept had actually been more than a year in the making by then. Like so many good ideas, it germinated and grew over more than a few beers, these particular ones in the bar around the corner from the California offices of the Motor Cycle Weekly newspaper that I and business partner, Gavin Trippe, had launched at the Daytona 200 in 1969. The previous year I had been the first European journalist to cover ‘the 200’–which was then America’s most important road race. I had spent that winter in California with World Champion-in-waiting, Rod Gould, and we made our way home via the banked Florida speedbowl where Rod was due to ride a factory Triumph 500 twin in the 200-Mile main event and US importer team Kawasaki in the 100-Mile race for 250cc machines. Some club races in California had earlier proved to us that there were some capable riders out there (even though Rod won all his races) but these had in no way prepared us for our first exposure at Daytona to the hard-riding professionals from the US Grand National Championship series. These were the guys who raced hard on both dirt and pavement – sometimes on the same weekend and often using a riding technique that borrowed from both disciplines! Rod’s reaction to his first Daytona practice was a telling one, as it allowed him to watch this then-unique technique in closeup from the best seat in the house – right among them! “I can run with them and even get by in the fast sweepers,” he told me, “but these guys are just amazing in the two horseshoe turns on the infield and the tight corner up on to the banking. In all of my racing in England I have never seen anyone get later on the braking and go deeper into the tight turns. They are breaking the back end loose and getting the bike turned early so that they can fire it straight off the apex and hard out of the corner. I can learn a lot from them.” True indeed. Rod had become the first European rider to witness at close hand the ‘dirt track’ approach to road racing that was to later take Kenny Roberts and other American aces to World Championships. But what, you may ask, has this to do with the Transatlantic Trophy Series….?
SOWING THE SEED
It planted in my mind the idea that there were riders in the USA who were unknown in Britain but who could certainly make an impact if they showed up over there. It was an idea Gavin concurred with after seeing Daytona for himself a year later and many of our conversations in the MCW office often focused on how American riders like Harley-davidson’s Cal Rayborn, Triumph’s Gary Nixon and Yamaha’ ’s Art Baumann might make out if they raced on the UK short circuits. As the weekly issues of MCW continued d to hit the streets and we covered more national championship American road races s at places like Kent Raceway near Seattle in the Pacific Northwest and Sears Point near San Francisco, the idea of taking a small group of the top Americans to England as a promotion for our newspaper began to gain momentum. It was an idea that the riders greeted with enthusiasm, especially the always-positive and cheerful expatriate Englishman, Ron Grant, who led the US Suzuki team and was eager to show the British fans what their ‘prodigal son’ (he was formerly a Manx Norton rider from Croydon) could do on one of its TR500 twins. The only problem was that our newspaper was still in its growing stages and there was absolutely no spare money available for us to fund such a project. Expenses would have to be covered by the British circuit owners. Armed, therefore, with only our own enthusiasm and that of various riders, we pitched the idea to Chris Lowe of Motor Circuits Developments, the company that owned Brands Hatch, Mallory Park and Oulton Park, and to Charles Wilkinson, owner
of Cadwell Park. The basis of our proposal was that we would put together an American team of six riders to race a team of top British racers at these British tracks on consecutive weekends, assuming that the expense contributions from the event takings at four different race meetings would cover the costs of rider payments, air fares and machine air freight. Charles Wilkinson did reply to at least express an interest but the response from Chris Lowe was less than lukewarm. No response at all, in fact. However, the idea must have struck a chord as when Gavin and I turned up at the Daytona 200 in 1970, there was Chris Lowe along with Jim Swift of the British Motor Cycle Racing Club in the paddock talking to riders on what was ostensibly a ‘fact-finding mission’. Later we learned that the British press had been fed the line that the pair were there to “set up a match race series between Britain and the USA” – a rather familiar concept to us, of course. That was the year that Dick Mann won on the Honda 750cc four and Chris did learn a couple of facts for future consideration. One was that he now had first-hand knowledge of the fact that American riders were fast. The other was that the riders we had spoken to earlier were still much happier to deal as a group with us at MCW rather than individually with unknown people on the other side of the Atlantic. Eventually, nothing was decided at Daytona 1970 but we did agree with Chris to keep in touch, so the idea was not totally discarded. In fact, the next building block in the making of the Transatlantic Series was to come on September 20 that year as the result of a decision by the Italian superstar Giacomo Agostini…! The biggest short-circuit race of the UK season back then was the Race of the Year at Mallory Park, an event at one of the most popular MCD circuits and one that always attracted the absolute cream of the UK roadracing crop as well as Grand Prix stars from Europe such as Agostini. ‘Ago’ had won the race in 1969 so it was a body blow to Chris when he was informed that a date clash with an Italian event meant that the multiple World Champion would not be able to compete in the 1970 Race of the Year. Stars like World Champions, Phil Read, Kel Carruthers and Rod Gould plus British short-circuit ‘scratchers’ like John Cooper, Paul Smart and the rest of the usual suspects on the home front were already entered but were all familiar to the UK fans from regular outings in the UK. What Chris needed was a name that was well-known but different enough to generate some useful pre-event publicity. So he came to us at MCW to see who we could find from across the Atlantic and Gavin was quickly able to secure the services of Gary Nixon, a former two-time US Grand National Champion (in 1967 and1968) and winner of the Daytona 200-Mile Race in 1967. In addition, he was also able to sign the Canadian Champion and 1969 Daytona 250cc race winner, Yvon du Hamel. Our only reward at this stage was the establishing of our credibility with Chris Lowe and the permission to put our Team Motorcycle Weekly stickers on the fairings or seat units of the visitors’ bikes. But, much more importantly, it was the start of an association with Chris and MCD that was to last for almost a decade and a half. Gary and Yvon duly arrived in England and, still jet-lagged next day, headed north to Leicestershire on a rainy Thursday morning before the race weekend to get their first look at the tricky little track. Neither of the machines that they were due to ride were ready for this test session but Nixon, at least, was able to do a handful of wet ‘sighting laps’ on a Matchless G50 loaned to him by John Cooper, who had won the Race of the Year in 1965 on a Manx Norton. It was a great gesture from ‘Coop’ who was definitely one of the favourites to win the race again and had no need to help out any potential opposition. Having said that, it also gave the canny Derbyshire man a chance to get an early idea of what this unknown rival was capable of…! Came the race day and both transatlantic visitors acquitted themselves well in front of the 30,000 or more fans that crowded the grass banks around the one-mile track. On a circuit that they had never raced on and in fact had only even set eyes on three days previously, and as well as riding borrowed and equally unfamiliar machines, both finished in the top 10. Du Hamel, normally used to riding the factory machines provided to Yamaha Canada and set up perfectly for him, was a creditable 10th on an absolutely standard Yamaha TD2 350 borrowed from a UK dealer and on which he had no practice or set-up time before race day.
Transatlantic trophy teamster, Don Emde, gets a top up of fuel.
Dick Mann gets a grilling from circuit commentator Fred Clarke.
Top: Triumphmounted British team man,tony Jefferies, and, right, at Mallory Park David Aldana’s BSA shows the signs of an earlier incident.
In open practice at Mallory Park Don Emde, Rob North Rocket 3, leads Manx Norton-mounted Pete Elmore.
Below: Mallory Park commentator, Eddie Dow, gets the lowdown from Dick Mann. Left:theL programme for thet first-ever AngloAmericanA Match Race SeriesS event at Brands HatchH on Good Friday, 1971.1 Above:A Gary Nixon came over in September 1970 for the...
Left: David Aldana wryly points out the Stars & Stripes sticker on Gary Nixon’s plaster cast. The broken wrist suffered in a crash during practice kept Gary out of the Anglo-american Match Race Series in 1971.
Above: Actress, Carol Cleveland, took time off from Monty Python’s Flying Circus to provide an eye-catching advert for the Anglo-american Match Race Series.
A smiling ‘Mr Mallory’, John Cooper.