The Match Races: Part 3

USA su­per­star sur­prises

Classic Racer - - WHAT'S INSIDE -

Into and through the sec­ond half of the 1970s saw the Transat­lantic Tro­phy act as a prov­ing ground for many rid­ers com­ing up and go­ing down the ranks. Step for­ward one in par­tic­u­lar who shone – Ken­neth Leroy Roberts.

The per­for­mances of Cal Ray­born and Yvon Duhamel, when they shared top in­di­vid­ual Transat­lantic Tro­phy Se­ries hon­ours with Bri­tish rid­ers in 1972 and 1973, had al­ready shown fans in the UK that Amer­ica could pro­duce road rac­ers who could run with the best. But no one on ei­ther side of the At­lantic could have pre­dicted what was to hap­pen in the 10 years from 1974 on­wards. The decade of the su­per­stars was about to ar­rive.

Be­fore the decade even started, there promised to be a treat in store for fans of th­ese An­glo-amer­i­can match races with the news that Cal Ray­born, al­ready a hero with Amer­i­can and Bri­tish fans alike, was to cut back his USA dirt-track pro­gramme and com­bine it with car races and, most im­por­tant of all, with a road rac­ing con­tract for US Suzuki. He had re­alised that even his faith­ful and fa­mil­iar Har­ley-david­son was, by 1974, a di­nosaur in road rac­ing terms and a switch to two-stroke ma­chin­ery was needed. For fans who had wit­nessed his in­cred­i­ble Transat­lantic Se­ries per­for­mance on the Har­ley in 1972, the thought of him on a fac­tory team Suzuki triple in 1974 was a mouth-wa­ter­ing one. Sadly, it was not to be. On De­cem­ber 29, 1973 the man who many had tipped to be a fu­ture World Cham­pion was killed in a crash at Pukekohe in New Zealand. He had gone there to race a car in the Tas­man Se­ries and had only ac­cepted the of­fer to ride a Suzuki 500 twin at the last minute. Its en­gine seized as he en­tered a fast cor­ner and Cal was thrown into the track­side Armco bar­rier – such is the hap­pen­stance that tragedies are so of­ten made of. Life, how­ever, went on for the rest of us and when it came time for the flag to drop at Brands Hatch on Good Fri­day to start the 1974 Transat­lantic Se­ries, the UK fans al­ready had some idea of who might be the next Amer­i­can star of the show.

The com­ing of Kenny

Af­ter all, they had just read in the Bri­tish mo­tor­cy­cle news­pa­pers about Kenny Roberts, a brash 22-year-old Cal­i­for­nia kid, who only a month or so ear­lier had bat­tled through­out the Day­tona 200 with mul­ti­ple World Cham­pion Gi­a­como Agos­tini un­til his en­gine over­heated and he eased off to set­tle for sec­ond. At that time the Day­tona race was not only the most im­por­tant race in Amer­ica, it was also the most im­por­tant For­mula 750 race in the world. The next most im­por­tant race was the Imola 200 in Italy, where Roberts made his Euro­pean de­but and he fin­ished sec­ond to Agos­tini again. Add to that the fact that Ago was gen­er­ally held to be the best rider in the world at that point and it was ob­vi­ous to all that ‘the Cal­i­for­nia kid’ had to be some­one spe­cial. As early as the very start of the 1972 Amer­i­can Grand Na­tional Cham­pi­onship year, Kenny had proved that to the folks back home. He did so by win­ning the open­ing race of the dirt-track sea­son… which was, in­ci­den­tally, his first-ever race as an ex­pert-rated rider el­i­gi­ble for the US na­tional se­ries! He later went on to win ‘Rookie of the Year’ hon­ours as the top-scor­ing first-year Ex­pert class rider in Amer­i­can Mo­tor­cy­cle As­so­ci­a­tion (AMA) rac­ing. An ob­vi­ous tal­ent in his pre­vi­ous Ju­nior year, Kenny had been signed by Yamaha USA to try and take the AMA Grand Na­tional Cham­pi­onship ti­tle away from the es­tab­lished brands like Har­ley-david­son, BSA and Tri­umph. And with his dirt-track ca­pa­bil­i­ties need­ing no more hon­ing, he was placed un­der the tute­lage of the 1969 World 250cc Cham­pion Kel Car­ruthers to help add road rac­ing to his skills. By 1973 the Aus­tralian had quit the world se­ries and moved to Cal­i­for­nia to ride – and win – for Yamaha USA. In that year Kenny learned a lot about road rac­ing by lis­ten­ing to Kel’s ad­vice and fol­low­ing in his wheel-tracks. Along the way, Kenny earned a slew of use­ful cham­pi­onship points in road rac­ing which, when added to an im­pres­sive dirt-track tally, saw him end the sea­son as Amer­i­can Grand Na­tional Cham­pion. In only his sec­ond ex­pert sea­son he had done what Yamaha had asked of him. He had made the com­pany the first (and for­ever the only) Ja­panese man­u­fac­turer to win that now-aban­doned but still mem­o­rable multi-dis­ci­pline Cham­pi­onship that was com­prised of four dif­fer­ent types of dirt track com­pe­ti­tion, as well as road rac­ing.

That suc­cess was why, when Kenny lined up his Yamaha TZ750 at Brands Hatch in 1974 for what was his first ap­pear­ance in Eng­land, its dis­tinc­tive yel­low and black ‘speed­block’ colour scheme also in­cor­po­rated the much-cov­eted and well-de­served US ‘Na­tional Num­ber One’ plate. The win­ner of that open­ing race of the 1974 Transat­lantic Se­ries on the Ken­tish track was lo­cal lad and Suzuki fac­tory team rider Paul Smart for the UK. This was af­ter early leader Yvon Duhamel (who had been joint top scorer in the pre­vi­ous year’s se­ries with Bri­tish star Peter Wil­liams) had re­tired his three-cylin­der Kawasaki with en­gine prob­lems. Th­ese were fixed in time for Yvon to take the win in the sec­ond leg, so the vis­i­tors were off to a good start, es­pe­cially as sec­ond in both races over the Brands Hatch ‘short’ cir­cuit (just over a mile long and kid­ney-shaped) was none other than Kenny Roberts. And more was to come from the Cal­i­for­nia kid… much more! Not only did he win both races at Mal­lory Park two days later, but then he jour­neyed overnight to Oul­ton Park and won another! Barry Sheene won the sec­ond Oul­ton Park leg of the se­ries to help the Brits to a nar­row win on points. But the truly heavy – and so nearly knock­out – blows had al­ready been landed for the USA by the in­di­vid­ual top scorer in the se­ries – a raw young rider on his first visit to each of the three tracks in­volved – the 22-year-old Cal­i­for­nia kid Ken­neth Leroy Roberts. Take note of that mid­dle name which, of course, is de­rived from the French words ‘le roi’ – mean­ing ‘the king’. Back in 1974 it just hap­pened to be Kenny’s mid­dle name but by the end of the decade ev­ery­one in­volved in mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing was call­ing him ‘King Kenny’ – and rightly so. The Transat­lantic Se­ries fans in 1974 had wit­nessed the ar­rival of one of the true leg­ends of the sport.

And here come Romero and Cas­tro on the TZ750S, too

Now on to Easter 1975, when the boys were back in town and ready for the first round at Brands Hatch. But not for long. Even for an English Easter, snow is not what one would usu­ally ex­pect. That, how­ever, is what UK mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing fans got. Brands Hatch and the Ken­tish coun­try­side were blan­keted in snow af­ter a heavy storm and back to the warmth of their Lon­don ho­tel rooms went the US squad, with an ex­tra day to re­lax be­fore the short­ened se­ries kicked off in the East Mid­lands at Mal­lory Park. This time the Bri­tish press had al­ready noted that the Amer­i­can team showed much more in-depth scor­ing po­ten­tial. Mainly be­cause US team or­gan­iser Gavin Trippe had man­aged to per­suade Yamaha USA to send not only Kenny Roberts, but also Gene Romero and Don Cas­tro on the TZ750 mis­siles that even by then had al­ready made their yel­low and black paint scheme an iconic im­age in the sport. Romero was fresh from his record-set­ting vic­tory (at an 106mph+ av­er­age speed) in the Day­tona 200 and he and his two Yamaha US team-mates were joined by Steve Baker, a young rider from Belling­ham close to the Cana­dian bor­der in Amer­ica’s Pa­cific North­west – so close to the bor­der, in fact, that he was rid­ing a fac­tory-supplied bike for Yamaha Canada. This was fin­ished in sim­i­lar liv­ery to the US bikes but fea­tur­ing red paint­work to com­ple­ment the black and white ‘speed­block’ mo­tif rather than the now-fa­mil­iar yel­low of Yamaha USA. It was another colour scheme and rider com­bi­na­tion that Bri­tish fans would see a lot more of in the fu­ture. On theyamaha Canada bike, Steve had fin­ished sec­ond to Romero at Day­tona but ahead of both Johnny Ce­cotto and Gi­a­como Agos­tini, also on fac­tory Yama­has. Ob­vi­ously, he was al­ready another rider to be reck­oned with!

Join­ing the four Yamaha fac­tory run­ners in the Us­transat­lantic team line-up were US Suzuki team­sters Dave Al­dana and Pat Hen­nen, along with Yamaha pri­va­teers Steve Mclaughlin (who had led at Day­tona be­fore crash­ing on the 30th lap), Randy Cleek and Phil Mac­don­ald. It was still bit­terly cold up in Le­ices­ter­shire for what was now the new open­ing round of the 1975 se­ries at Mal­lory Park and this led to sev­eral rid­ers ex­pe­ri­enc­ing prob­lems with the still rel­a­tively-new con­cept of the tread­less ‘slick’ tyres. They had only been first seen on Bri­tish short cir­cuits a year ear­lier and that had led to a now-fa­mous in­ci­dent when Kel Car­ruthers pre­sented Kenny Roberts’ Goodyear slick-shod Yamaha for scru­ti­neer­ing, only to be told that no way would Kenny be al­lowed to start “on bald tyres!” One thing that many rid­ers had per­haps failed to to­tally un­der­stand at this early stage of the game was just how im­por­tant it was to have put a lot of heat into the slick tyres be­fore push­ing them too hard in the cor­ners. Thus, in the near-freez­ing track con­di­tions for the first race of the 1975 se­ries at Mal­lory, it was no sur­prise (in ret­ro­spect at least) to see sev­eral rid­ers go down in the early laps. First to go was early leader Stan Woods, of the UK team, who crashed at the Esses (wwhich had a fear­somely fast en­try speed in th hose pre-chi­cane days) and he in­jured his ha and. He was fol­lowed soon af­ter­wards by St teve Baker, who was un­hurt, but whose ma­chinem promptly caught fire. Gene Romero next led from Roberts, who th hen moved by his team-mate, at which point ene also slid off in the Esses… and then, to ad dd in­sult to thank­fully lit­tle in­jury, it started too snow! From that point on Roberts rode at a ca are­fully con­trolled speed to win com­fort­ably byy more than half a lap from the lead­ing UK rid der, Pat Mahoney. Dave Al­dana and Don Cas­tro were next up, fol­lowed by the Bri­tish pair­ing of Dave Crox­ford and veteran Percy Tait – which meant that it was first blood to the Amer­i­cans by 71 points to 55. In view of the weather, and with gloomy skies even threat­en­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of dark­ness be­fore the end of the meet­ing, the sec­ond Mal­lory race was cut from 20 to 15 laps. Con­di­tions were still ter­ri­ble, with a cold rain fall­ing, but at least the whole field was on the cor­rect wet weather tyres. Roberts won as he pleased by more than 30 sec­onds and was so com­fort­able at the front that he was pulling gi­ant wheel­ies (in the wet!) out of the hair­pin to en­ter­tain the crowd… or maybe to de­mor­alise them still fur­ther. They would cer­tainly have been de­mor­alised by the result – Amer­i­can rid­ers filled the first four places, with KR win­ning from Gene Romero, Dave Al­dana and Don Cas­tro, a Cal­i­for­nian dirt-tracker who had passed both Mick Grant and Barry Ditch­burn in the last two laps to rel­e­gate them to fifth and sixth. So much for US rid­ers al­legedly strug­gling in the wet. From Mal­lory, it was north west overnight to Oul­ton Park and when Easter Mon­day dawned, the weather was still aw­ful.

Fi­nally, a Bri­tish win!

As the teams lined up on the grid for what was the third race of the short­ened se­ries, Amer­ica led Great Bri­tain by 24 points… a mar­gin that looked like be­ing sub­stan­tially in­ncreased when Al­dana led the open­ing laps rom Roberts, Romero and the young US teeam new­comer, Pat Hen­nen. Roberts and Romero then took over, pulling out a most com­fort­able lead of over half a laap – so com­fort­able a lead, in fact, that at oone point Gene slid off and got go­ing again wwith­out los­ing sec­ond place! Al­dana did take the op­por­tu­nity to close the gap and then ac­tu­ally pass Romero for sec­ond – but then he took to the grass too. Even­tu­ally Roberts won with rel­a­tive ease ahead of Romero, Al­dana, Stan Woods, Dave Pot­ter, Barry Ditch­burn and Steve Baker. Bar­ring to­tal dis­as­ters and non-fin­ishes for the US team in the fi­nal leg, the result of the se­ries was all but a fore­gone con­clu­sion. As it hap­pened, how­ever, Dave Al­dana, Kenny Roberts and Gene Romero all in­ad­ver­tently did their bit to in­ject some ten­sion into the fi­nal mis­er­able round by all tak­ing it in turns to first lead the race and then crash! This led to the only Bri­tish race win in the se­ries, with Stan Woods win­ning from Pat Mahoney. Then came Hen­nen, Dave Crox­ford and Baker. It was the only round in the se­ries in which the home rid­ers outscored the vis­i­tors – 66 points to 60 be­ing the fi­nal tal­lies. Over­all, the Amer­i­cans took their first win in the se­ries by a mar­gin of 278 points to 243. This prompted Bri­tish jour­nal­ist Chris Carter to say in his Cy­cle News re­port that the sec­ond race result at Oul­ton meant that a po­ten­tial to­tal an­ni­hi­la­tion of the Bri­tish team had thank­fully been turned into only a se­vere thrash­ing.

Steve Baker steps up

For 1976 the Amer­i­can team still looked good: Kenny Roberts, Gene Romero, Steve Mclaughlin, Steve Baker, and Pat Hen­nen from the 1975 squad, along with Gary Nixon, mak­ing a wel­come re­turn to the se­ries af­ter miss­ing two years with in­juries, then his fel­low Kawasaki team rid­ers, Ron Pierce and Hur­ley Wil­vert, plus up and com­ing Cal­i­for­nian, Pat Evans – a fre­quent win­ner for Yamaha in West Coast races. And once again, it was an Amer­i­can who was the in­di­vid­ual star of the se­ries – but this year it was Baker’s turn. He started his week­end by sur­pris­ing ev­ery­one in the Brands Hatch grand­stands and win­ning both the first two races, on a cir­cuit he had never seen be­fore ex­cept in 1975 when it was cov­ered in snow! Not only that, he also sur­prised the whole of the Bri­tish op­po­si­tion on track and his own team rid­ers by carv­ing past ev­ery­one to win com­fort­ably af­ter a slow start and a 150-yard deficit at the end of the first lap. Sec­ond was Roberts, with Sheene third fol­lowed by Nixon, Ditch­burn and Hen­nen. That sec­ond leg was won by Baker from Roberts, with Sheene, on the fac­tory Suzuki square four run by the Suzuki GB squad, fol­low­ing the two Yama­has home. Fourth on another Suzuki (pri­vately en­tered) was Phil Read, the veteran who had scored his first of his six Isle of Man TT wins up to that point no less than 15 years pre­vi­ously and won the first of his seven Grand Prix world ti­tles 10 years ear­lier! Per­haps more rel­e­vant was the fact that he had won his last world ti­tles (for MV Agusta) in 1973 and 1974, and had given the faster Yamaha of Gi­a­como Agos­tini a good run for its money in 1975. Fol­low­ing Phil home at Brands 1976 was a rider at the op­po­site stage of his ca­reer. The young Amer­i­can Pat Hen­nen was back again, but this time not on a US Suzuki en­try. He was rid­ing a Suzuki GB 500 square four as he would be stay­ing in Europe for the 1976 sea­son as team-mate to Barry. From Brands Hatch the se­ries moved on to Mal­lory Park with the Yanks 15 points ahead. But valu­able points were lost in the first leg at the Le­ices­ter­shire cir­cuit when Steve Baker made a bad tyre choice by run­ning a ‘wet weather’ tyre in damp con­di­tions but one that shred­ded its tread as the track dried and dropped him to fourth be­hind Barry Sheene, Kenny Roberts and Mick Grant. Pat Hen­nen this time got the bet­ter of Read to place fifth, with another veteran, Gary Nixon be­hind them in sev­enth. In the sec­ond leg at Mal­lory, it was an Amer­i­can one-two again, Roberts this time win­ning from Baker, with Sheene third from Barry Ditch­burn, Pat Hen­nen and Phil Read. The se­ries moved on to the fi­nal round at Oul­ton Park with the Amer­i­cans trail­ing by a sin­gle point. And con­sid­er­ing the form be­ing dis­played by Baker, Roberts and Hen­nen it looked as though another US win was still very much a pos­si­bil­ity. It still looked that way af­ter the first Oul­ton leg as Baker won from US team-mate, Roberts. The UK team leader, Barry Sheene, was third ahead of Hen­nen, how­ever, while Ron Haslam and John Wil­liams led a mid­field dom­i­nated mainly by Brits. This solid UK ef­fort left the home team just ahead by a nar­row mar­gin and the se­ries result was still very much in the balance. The USA team was trail­ing by only five points and a quick as­sess­ment showed that a win for the vis­i­tors was still pos­si­ble, judg­ing by the pre­vi­ous year’s Oul­ton re­sults. That was un­til Kenny Roberts crashed while in sec­ond place. His ma­chine burned and a chunk of valu­able points went up in smoke. The win­ner of that last race was Baker – who had been ahead of Roberts since the open­ing lap, and who did all he could pos­si­bly do, in­clud­ing set­ting a new lap record in the process. In the early stages a US vic­tory had still looked a pos­si­bil­ity – even af­ter Roberts’ crash – as Pat Hen­nen and Gary Nixon had been in third and fourth places be­hind him. It was an in­spired ride through to sec­ond place by the UK’S hard-charg­ing young debu­tant, Ron Haslam, that es­sen­tially swung the balance, es­pe­cially as Mick Grant and John Wil­liams fol­lowed him past Hen­nen, while Barry Ditch­burn came up to take more crit­i­cal points from Nixon.

In the end the score­line was 415 points for Team UK to 384 for Te eam USA, mean­ing that the Bri­tish ri iders had got their re­venge for the 19 975 drub­bing and the UK fans went home happy. Nev­er­the­less, not lost on Bri­tish rid­ers or fans mu st have been the fact that the top two in­di­vid­ual points scor­ers in the se­ries had both been Amer­i­can – Baker ahead of Roberts. And al­though home­town hero Sheene had been third on points s, he hadn’t been very far ahead of the still rel­a­tively in­ex­pe­ri­ence d Amer­i­can Hen­nen – the youngst ter who would be join­ing him in the Suzu ki fac­tory team for the sea­son to come. The Transat­lantic Tro­phy pend ulum swung back to the Amer­i­can sid de in 1977 – cu­ri­ously with the ex­act same e mar­gin of vic­tory as the Bri­tish had en­joye­doyed in the pre­vi­ous year, but this time for the other team. In 1976 31 points had been Amer­ica’s deficit to the Bri­tish vic­tors. In 1977 the ta­bles were turned and Team USA had the fi­nal ad­van­tage by the same points dif­fer­ence, this time with 410 points to the 379 scored by Team GB. An on-form Kenny Roberts had won the 1977 Day­tona 200 and he to­tally dom­i­nated the pro­ceed­ings at both Brands Hatch and Mal­lory Park, win­ning all four se­ries races at those venues. This alone guar­an­teed that he would once again be top scorer in the se­ries – which was just as well, as things didn’t work out any­where near as well in the fi­nal round at Oul­ton Park. Kenny’s Yamaha en­gine seized in the first race, thus al­low­ing a sole UK se­ries win thanks to Barry Sheene. And in the sec­ond and fi­nal leg, Kenny was lead­ing from Steve Baker when he crashed and handed vic­tory to his fel­low US team star. Roberts had been top scorer in the 1977 se­ries, so one can only imag­ine how Bri­tish fans must have felt in March 1978 when they learned that not only had he won that year’s Day­tona 200, but he had lapped the en­tire field in the process! But de­spite Roberts still main­tain­ing top form for his an­nual UK visit for the Transat­lantic Tro­phy match races, the even­tual out­come of that year’s se­ries wasn’t the one that manyay Bri­tishts pesspes­simistssts hadad forecast.o ecast

1978 ( Sheene’s bril­liant Brand ds Hatch)

The first race of the 1978 se­ries at Brands Hatch was a good one for the home team when Sheene put in a great ride to win from Roberts and Hen­nen, while rack­ing up points in the crit­i­cal higher mid­field places were Barry Ditch­burn, Ron Haslam and Dave Pot­ter. In the sec­ond race the USA saw more valu­able points slip away when Kenny Roberts first dropped back with a stick­ing throt­tle and then ex­ited the pro­ceed­ings al­to­gether when his Yamaha went on to only one of its four cylin­ders. Hen­nen, by now Sheene’s part­ner in the Suzuki fac­tory GP squad, won the sec­ond heat, leav­ing Sheene in sec­ond place and an­gry at the ag­gres­sive way in which Pat had forced by to take the win. “I was rid­ing for the USA in this one, not Suzuki GB,” was Hen­nen’s later re­sponse. Mean­while, Bri­tish rid­ers again packed the im­por­tant­potat mid­field­ded po­points-scor­ing places with Skip Ak­sland the only US rider to get into the top six. He fol­lowed Barry Ditch­burn and Mick Grant to take fifth place ahead of Dave Pot­ter. Two days later, at Mal­lory Park, the weather was cold and win­try but that didn’t de­ter ei­ther Pat Hen­nen or Kenny Roberts. In that fin­ish­ing or­der they took a rel­a­tively easy one-two in the first leg and re­peated that result in the sec­ond. Be­hind them in race one were Barry Sheene, Dave Pot­ter, Mick Grant and Roger Mar­shall fill­ing the re­main­ing leader­board places. In race two how­ever, the Amer­i­cans had a greater share of the spoils. Hen­nen and Roberts were up front, as al­ready men­tioned, with Dave Pot­ter and Barry Ditch­burn in third and fourth af­ter Sheene had re­tired early with me­chan­i­cal prob­lems. In fifth, sixth and sev­enth came Gene Romero, Dave Al­dana and Team USA new­comer Mike Bald­win. Rid­ing his own Yamaha TZ750, Bald­win had been rac­ing for fourth spot in the early stages… a fine ef­fort for a se­ries ‘rookie’ and lay­ing down a marker as be­ing another Amer­i­can name to look out for in the fu­ture. The win­ning per­for­mances of Hen­nen and Roberts, cou­pled with bet­ter scores by the Amer­i­can mid­field­ers at Mal­lory meant that for yet another year the se­ries went to the fi­nal round at Oul­ton Park with the team hon­ours up for grabs. Things looked to be go­ing the Amer­i­cans’ way when Barry Sheene slid off at Esso Bend on the third lap and nei­ther Dave Pot­ter, Barry Ditch­burn nor Roger Mar­shall were able to of­fer a chal­lenge to the win­ning pair of Kenny Roberts and Pat Hen­nen. In sixth through eighth came Skip Ak­sland, Dave Al­dana and Mike Bald­win; so once again the fi­nal race of the se­ries was wide open for ei­ther team to take the over­all hon­ours.

Then, even be­for re the start of the show­down, the Amer­i­can team’s chances were se­verely com­pro­mised. Gene Romero had been rac­ing with Dave Pot­ter for third place in race one when the en­gine of his Yamaha cried enough and it was too badly dam­aged to con­test the last race. Next to drop out was Ak­sland, whose Yamaha had ter­mi­nal prob­lems on the warm-up lap, and Team USA re­serve Bruce Ham­mer had al­ready blown the en­gine of his TZ750. In the race Hen­nen won yet again but this time only af­ter Kenny Roberts had led for 11 laps be­fore drop­ping back with ig­ni­tion prob­lems. At that point Kenny had enough of an ad­van­tage over Barry Sheene to hold on to sec­ond place, while be­hind Barry came Al­dana, Pot­ter and Roger Mar­shall. The result of all this was that Team GB took the tro­phy back from the Amer­i­cans with a score of 435 points to 379. But as far as the stars of the show were con­cerned, the sta­tus was still quo. For ev­ery year since 1972 an Amer­i­can team rider had been at the top of the in­di­vid­ual points stand­ings. Hon­ours had been shared with Bri­tish rid­ers in 1972 and 1973 but since 1974 the likes of Kenny Roberts (1974/75/77), Steve Baker (1976) and Pat Hen­nen (1978) had not given the home rid­ers even the ghost of a chance. This time Hen­nen, by now well fa­mil­iar with UK tracks thanks to his 1977 rides with Suzuki GB, had handed out quite a com­pre­hen­sive beat­ing to Kenny Roberts by win­ning four of the six races in the se­ries and scor­ing 92 points (out of a pos­si­ble 96!) to the 79 racked up by KR. Pat Hen­nen is a name that may not now be a fa­mil­iar one when think­ing of past Amer­i­can stars in the Transat­lantic se­ries or on the World Cham­pi­onship Grand Prix scene, es­pe­cially to younger read­ers of this mag­a­zine. In fact, he was a gen­uine su­per­star in the mak­ing and could well have ended up as Amer­ica’s first World Cham­pion had his ca­reer not been ended by a life-threat­en­ing 170mph crash in the 1978 Isle of Man Se­nior TT. If asked the ques­tion at a club quiz as to who was the first Amer­i­can to win a Grand Prix, most fans would an­swer “Kenny Roberts in 1978”. In fact, Pat Hen­nen beat him to it by two sea­sons when he took the Fin­nish round at Ima­tra in 1976, his de­but year on the GP scene. Pat’s win was so un­ex­pected that the Fin­nish race or­gan­is­ers didn’t even have a copy of the Amer­i­can na­tional an­them to play as he stepped onto the top step of the podium! As team-mate to Barry Sheene in the fac­tory Suzuki squad from 1976 un­til that dev­as­tat­ing TT crash in mid-1978, he would go on to take three Grand Prix vic­to­ries and 12 podi­ums from just 26 starts. Th­ese statis­tics meant that he was good enough to fin­ish third in the world be­hind Barry Sheene and Tepi Lan­sivouri in his 1976 de­but year and third again be­hind Sheene and Steve Baker in 1977. Mid­way through the 1978 sea­son, in the year that Kenny Roberts won his first world ti­tle, Pat was sec­ond in the stand­ings, just two points be­hind with more than half of the races still to come, sev­eral of them on tracks that were his favourites, and – as his Transat­lantic Tro­phy suc­cess had shown – he was at the peak of his form. Who knows where things may have gone from there… But then came that fate­ful TT crash, when he was rac­ing for the lead of the Se­nior race and had just be­come the first rider in Isle of Man his­tory to lap the Moun­tain course in un­der 20 min­utes, set­ting a new lap record of 113.83mph in the process. Thank­fully, Pat sur­vived his life-threat­en­ing head in­juries but he did suf­fer brain dam­age. From this he made a long and slow re­cov­ery to a nor­mal life but he still suf­fers from the ef­fects to some de­gree. This is the rea­son why he is sadly not one of the Transat­lantic se­ries stars who make pe­ri­odic and pop­u­lar re­turns to the UK. The fact that Pat was still in the early stages of his long re­cov­ery from his TT in­juries sadly meant that the Amer­i­can team for the 1979 round of the se­ries would be with­out its lead­ing star of 1978.

The teenagers: Randy Mamola and Mike Bald­win

Then, early in the year, came more dis­turb­ing news from the USA. Kenny Roberts, by now the reign­ing World Cham­pion and a reg­u­lar high points-scorer in Transat­lantic ac­tion, had been in­jured in a test ses­sion crash in Ja­pan and would be strug­gling to get fit for the next GP sea­son, let alone the Easter se­ries in Eng­land. This left Dave Al­dana to cap­tain a team with only three other names fa­mil­iar to se­ries fans. Th­ese were Steve Baker, Gene Romero and Mike Bald­win, who been crowned as the first win­ner of the in­au­gu­ral United States Road Rac­ing Cham­pi­onship in 1978. They would be joined by that year’s Day­tona win­ner, Dale Sin­gle­ton, plus Wes Coo­ley, John Long, Rich Sch­lac­ter and a pre­co­cious teenager by the name of Randy Mamola. Of th­ese, Baker’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties were un­known as he was hav­ing his first race since se­verely break­ing his left arm and leg in the Cana­dian F750 Cham­pi­onship round at Mosport in the pre­vi­ous Oc­to­ber – and the arm was still very weak… Al­dana was a pop­u­lar choice as team cap­tain as he had been at ev­ery one of the match race se­ries since its in­cep­tion eight years pre­vi­ously. And he stressed to the new boys on his team just how im­por­tant their con­tri­bu­tions would be, even if they were not rac­ing with the lead­ers. He pointed out that when Amer­ica lost, it was usu­ally be­cause the Brits packed the mid­field po­si­tions where valu­able points were earned. There­fore, it was just as im­por­tant to race hard for the places from sev­enth to 12th as it was for the lead – es­pe­cially as there was only a sin­gle point dif­fer­ence be­tween each of the places… from 16 for a win down to one point for last.. Al­dana stressed the team as­pect from the start and to a man his team re­sponded. De­spite race wins for the Brits by Barry Sheene and John New­bold, the Yanks picked up many of the mid­field plac­ings at all of the races. It was very much a re­ver­sal of the usual sit­u­a­tion. Sheene won both races at Brands but Mike Bald­win took a sec­ond and third, with cap­tain Al­dana tak­ing the points for a fourth and a sec­ond. Day­tona win­ner Dale Sin­gle­ton also showed well with sev­enth and sixth plac­ings and young rookie Randy Mamola fol­lowed him home for eighth in the first leg. Thanks to their com­bined ef­forts, the US team left Brands for Mal­lory Park with a nar­row lead of 142 to 138. The lead­ing points-scorer for the USA over the first two rounds was Mike Bald­win, as he added to his Brands Hatch tally by chas­ing Sheene home in the first leg and plac­ing third be­hind Barry and New­bold in the sec­ond. Gene Romero fol­lowed Ron Haslam and John New­bold into fifth place in the first Mal­lory race, with Mamola, Al­dana and Dale Sin­gle­ton fill­ing the valu­able points places from fifth to sev­enth. Mean­while, Baker was strug­gling to get back up to pace with his still-weak left arm but did get a fourth in race two, be­hind New­bold, Sheene and Bald­win, but ahead of Pot­ter and Mamola. Amer­i­can team hopes did take a blow in this race, how­ever, when Dale Sin­gle­ton crashed on the sev­enth lap and was out of the rest of the se­ries with a sep­a­rated shoul­der and con­cus­sion. But al­though Team GB’S Barry Sheene and John New­bold won each of the legs at the Le­ices­ter track, con­sis­tent rid­ing by the Amer­i­cans meant that they had in­creased their lead to 20 points and stayed ahead by 285 points to 265 as the trav­el­ling Transat­lantic cir­cus moved on to Oul­ton Park. By now the Yanks were in no mood to be beaten and all but swept the board at Oul­ton. They were aided to a de­gree by the fact that Barry Sheene was out of the first leg with ma­chine prob­lems even be­fore the start and lasted only six laps in the sec­ond, al­though by then the over­all result was es­sen­tially a fore­gone con­clu­sion. Gene Romero had put a new en­gine in his TZ750 overnight and he stormed to vic­tory in both Oul­ton races, Mike Bald­win took two sec­ond places and teenage prodigy Randy Mamola was twice third. Rich Sch­lac­ter was fourth in race one and Dave Al­dana fourth in race two. There wasn’t a Bri­tish rider within sniff­ing dis­tance of the podium places in ei­ther race and the US thrashed Team UK by the big­gest mar­gin in the his­tory of the se­ries to that date – 448 points to 352. And once again an Amer­i­can rider topped the in­di­vid­ual scorechart, Mike Bald­win scor­ing 88 points out of a pos­si­ble 96 with Randy Mamola sec­ond in his se­ries de­but year with 67. Then came Dave Al­dana and the first Brit, Barry Sheene, with 63 each, fol­lowed by Gene Romero with 57 and Rich Sch­lac­ter with 52. The rest of the Bri­tish team were con­spic­u­ous by their ab­sence from th­ese leader­board po­si­tions. More­over, it should be noted that the Amer­i­cans had been with­out two of their es­tab­lished top scor­ers, Kenny Roberts and Pat Hen­nen and with a third, Steve Baker, strug­gling to over­come the in­juries that would even­tu­ally lead to his re­tire­ment. But Mike Bald­win and Randy Mamola – a teenager, no less – had stepped up to the plate, picked up the ba­ton and run away from Bri­tain’s best with it. The Amer­i­can star-mak­ing ma­chine was still tick­ing over nicely – and there was more to come!

There’s a spe­cial Clas­sic Racer prize up for grabs for the first cor­rect let­ter or email we re­ceive that cor­rectly iden­ti­fies ev­ery rider on this grid. It’s not as easy as you might think with a first glance... Mal­colm is the fi­nal judge on who ar­rives first, just so you know.

Be­low: Dick Leit­ell points out where the rev limit line is to a taped-up Don Cas­tro be­fore the rac­ing gets un­der­way at a cold Brands Hatch.

Above:the King in early form. Ken­neth Roberts fly­ing. Left: Don Emde works on the bike be­tween races. Bot­tom left: Ed­die Dow pulls Kenny onto the mi­cro­phone pre-race. Note the tie and rolled sleeves – it was a dif­fer­ent era. Right: Steve Baker (5) tucks in tight while Mick Grant (9) lays the Kawasaki reet over at Mal­lory!

Above: Barry Sheene picks the line at Oul­ton Park in 1976.

Top: Dave Al­dana (16) takes a long look at Roger Mar­shall (1) as he getsge out­drafted by the Brit, while B arry Ditch­burn (12) chases hard. All th hree are on Yama­has and it’s 1978 at t Oul­ton. AboveA right: 1976 at Mal­lory and Pat H en­nen fights the Suzuki’s front end. AboveA left: 1976 at Oul­ton and Bri­tish te eam cap­tain Phil Read comes into vi iew at Lodge Cor­ner on the Yamaha. Le eft:the USA team lines up for the ob bli­ga­tory squad photo.there’s some ha air go­ing on there!

Above: Randy Cleek (29) leads Steve Par­rish (12) with Pat Evans (51) and Mick Grant (4) chas­ing at Oul­ton in 1976. Be­low left: Mal­lory 1978 and Mike Bald­win rounds the Hair­pin in front of a ca­pac­ity crowd.

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