Match Races: Part 4
In to the 1980s and the last events of the GB v USA series. Future and current GP stars from both sides of the pond, upcoming young guns looking to establish themselves and incredible races from start to finish were a fine epitaph for the TT races.
As the world moved into a new decade in 1980, the Transatlantic Trophy (or the Anglo-american Match Races as the series was also known) was about to celebrate its own first decade in existence when the Easter weekend came around.
During the previous nine years it had become it obvious that, as proved by a wins-to-date tally of six for the UK against three for the USA, it was always going to be difficult for the visiting American team to match the local knowledge and points scoring potential of the British. However, the Americans had, at least, proved that the USA and Canada could produce superstar riders that, whether they had ever seen the tracks before or not, could simply turn up and top the individual points table! Cal Rayborn and Yvon Duhamel had done so in 1972 and 1973. Then came Kenny Roberts in 1974, 1975 and again in 1977, Steve Baker in 1976, Pat Hennen in 1978 and Mike Baldwin in 1979. Just where did these superstars keep coming from wondered the British press and public – and were there any more to come? That question was answered at the very first race of the 1980 series at Brands Hatch. The early-season Daytona 200 was always a good indicator of US form and 18-year-old newcomer Freddie Spencer had more than a minute’s lead in the 1980 race before the engine of his Yamaha let go at the 150-mile mark. He was on the match race US squad and everyone was wondering how he would cope with the shorter, tighter British tracks. The previous year’s Daytona winner, Dale Singleton, had finished second to Patrick Pons at Daytona 1980 and would be back on the match race team, as would Kenny Roberts (who had missed the 1979 series through injury) and Randy Mamola, who had been the second-highest points-scorer on his 1979 match race debut. Prominent in the home team were Barry Sheene (having switched from Suzuki to Yamaha), then Mick Grant, Dave Potter, Ron Haslam and Graham Crosby – allowed in because he was a British Commonwealth rider competing in the UK. The Brands Hatch races were on the challenging Grand Prix circuit that was more than two-and-a-half miles long, up and down through the Kentish woodlands. But Freddie Spencer had amazed everyone with his pace when he first set eyes on it in Thursday practice and he confirmed his speed by dominating both races on Good Friday! The first of these saw Freddie three seconds ahead of Graham Crosby, with Kenny Roberts a comfortable third after an initial tussle with Barry. They had increased this slim margin to a much more comfortable 32 seconds after the sensational Spencer won again, this time from Kenny Roberts and Randy Mamola, all well ahead of the first Brit, Ron Haslam. Kenny Roberts won both races as the circus moved on to Mallory Park, taking the first one from Freddie Spencer and Ron Haslam. Randy Mamola was fourth after a big dice with Graham Crosby, his Suzuki GB team-mate (although his opposition in the match race series, of course). Roberts led Race Two with Randy Mamola close behind and even taking the lead at one point after the race got back into its stride following a lengthy session under waved caution flags for a big crash by Graham Crosby at the Devil’s Elbow. Croz hit the Armco feet first and was lucky in the circumstances to escape with a bad gash to his lower leg.
Kenny soon got back in command from Mamola, with Spencer third and only three seconds covering the leading trio at the flag. Fourth, but not in touch, was Ron Haslam for the UK. This saw everyone off to Oulton Park with the Yanks holding a colossal 55pt lead… but still 50,000 fans turned up! By now the match races were annually drawing total crowds of well over 100,000 to the three circuits and gossip had it that in every recent season they had funded all the other racing at the Motor Circuits Developments tracks! Race One at Oulton Park was notable for a big scrap between Kenny Roberts and Freddie Spencer. Freddie got by on a fast left-hander during the final laps, but KR re-passed and won by a bike length. A rejuvenated Barry Sheene had been holding third, but the crankshaft of his Yamaha broke and Randy Mamola took over the spot. Fourth, and best Brit, was Keith Huewen. Freddie Spencer desperately wanted to win Race Two and thus tie with Kenny Roberts as top individual scorer. In pursuit of this he set a new lap record but then slid off, leaving Kenny Roberts and Randy Mamola to fight it out. The result went in favour of Randy, with Roberts second. Next up was Ron Haslam, giving the British fans something to cheer about, as he was less than a second behind Kenny. Team USA won by 443 points to 369 and for the first time in the 10-year history of the series, riders from one country (the USA, of course) had won every round. Kenny Roberts again topped the individual points with 92 (from a possible 96) from Spencer on 76 and Randy Mamola. The fans’ questions about whether there were more American superstars to come had been emphatically answered and the home team advantage had been narrowed to 6-4 in terms of overall series wins. Even before the 1981 series started, however, it looked as though Team USA would be at a disadvantage. Kenny Roberts was unavailable because he was testing his Grand Prix bike in Australia, while Dave Aldana and Mike Baldwin were competing in the Le Mans 24 Hours race in France for the Honda Endurance World Championship team. But at least American Honda released Freddie Spencer, by now the leader of its US Superbike effort, and even allowed him to ride a different make of machine! A deal had been brokered by Bel-ray Oil for him to ride a Suzuki square four built by well-known Austrian tuner Harald Bartol and destined for a Belgian rider after the match race series. Unfortunately, Freddie spent most of the series sorting out the teething troubles for the owner-to-be… a far cry from the previous year when his Erv Kanemoto-tuned Yamaha was the class of the field. So where was Erv when Freddie needed him in 1981? Working on the factory Yamaha team for Barry Sheene… In the opening round at Brands Hatch the US team fared quite well, even though Freddie Spencer failed to finish either race. Randy Mamola won them both with Rich Schlacter second each time on his privateer TZ
750. Third in the first heat was Dale Singleton (fresh from his second Daytona 200 win). In the second heat, Dave Potter followed Schlacter home for third, so when the series moved on to a bitterly cold Mallory Park two days later, the Americans trailed the home team by just five points. At Mallory, a freak incident stopped Randy Mamola from scoring in the first race when he broke off his front brake lever after brushing against John Newbold’s bike at the start. The first he knew about it was when he went to grab for the non-existent lever at the first corner! Naturally, the result was a DNF for Randy, allowing Ron Haslam to win from John Newbold and Rich Schlacter. Fourth, with his Suzuki finally running reasonably well, was Freddie Spencer from Dave Potter and Barry Sheene. In the second leg, Randy Mamola proved that on a bike with a front brake he was unstoppable – so to speak! He won his third race of the series from Freddie Spencer, who tucked in behind, not really threatening Randy’s lead, but now at least with the Bartol Suzuki going properly. Barry Sheene was a distant third, ahead of John Newbold and Rich Schlacter. Rich had been the USA’S national road racing champion in both 1979 and 1980. And as the teams left for Oulton Park in 1981, he was leading the individual points-scorers with 55 points compared to the 48 racked up by Randy Mamola and John Newbold. Unfortunately, neither Rich nor Randy made it further than the second lap of the first race at Oulton. Unfamiliar with the course, a fast-starting US teamster John Long braked earlier than expected for the downhill left-hander at Cascades and this caused pandemonium behind him. Dale Singleton and Schlacter had to take avoiding action and this took out Mamola. Dale did stay aboard to finish a good third, despite suffering a sprained wrist, but Rich and Randy each crashed hard, putting them both out of the final race – Rich with an injured hand and Randy with cracked and badly bruised ribs. Add to that another DNF for Freddie Spencer on the temperamental Suzuki and the series was already over before the last race had started. That race saw a popular win by Dave Potter, his first in the series after having been a consistent UK points-scorer since he first rode in the series in 1973. Sadly, Dave was to lose his life at this same Oulton Park circuit only four months later. Freddie Spencer’s Suzuki once again ran for a whole race distance and he was close behind Dave and ahead of fellow teamster, Dale Singleton, now riding with his sprained wrist strapped up and still scoring top-end points. Not that these high-scoring positions by Freddie and Dale could do much about the actual result, however. Not while Randy Mamola and Rich Schlacter were sitting wounded in the pits and the British were picking up the main points available from fourth place downwards. Team GB 466 – Team USA 345 was the final score, with John Newbold scoring 72 points to become the first clear individual top scorer for the UK since the first running of the match race series 11 years earlier. Second in the standings was Dave Potter with 68, then Dale Singleton as the first American with a creditable 65. The 1982 series also looked like being a struggle for Team USA when it was announced that neither Roberts nor Mamola would be available, as they would be away testing their GP bikes. On the other hand, there was good news for the Americans when it was announced that at least the Honda factory would again allow Freddie Spencer to ride – not on the monster FWS 1125cc V4 four-stroke with which he had finished second to Graham Crosby at Daytona, but on the compact NS500 two-stroke triple on which he had placed third in his Grand Prix debut in Argentina. And American Honda was equally as generous as the Japanese factory in allowing both of its team riders, Mike Baldwin and Roberto Pietri, to compete. Roberto would, in fact, ride his own new Suzuki RG500, on which he hoped to compete in selected Grands Prix, when his American commitments allowed. In turn, Mike would ride the Moriwaki-framed Honda F1 in-line four-stroke four-cylinder that Roberto had ridden to third place at Daytona. Like Spencer, Mike felt that the FWS, on which he had
placed fourth at Daytona, would be just too big and clumsy for the tight UK tracks. Dale Singleton would be back and he had scored yet another top placing at Daytona – fifth this time – to add to his tally of two wins and a second place in the previous three years. Leading the British team was Barry Sheene, right back on form after a second place ahead of Freddie Spencer in the Argentine Grand Prix. He was now equipped with a full factory OW60 square four and enjoying big-money sponsorship from the John Player cigarette company. Suzuki’s rising GP star, Keith Huewen, was mounted on the square four with which Randy Mamola had won three races in the previous year’s series, while his Suzuki GB team-mates, Roger Marshall and John Newbold, were on the company’s big 1000cc four-strokes. Unfortunately, a huge crash was to eliminate Freddie Spencer and the GP Honda triple from the rest of the series in the very first race at Brands Hatch. Freddie was chasing Barry Sheene hard for the lead at the time and baled off the Honda just before it motored straight into the earth bank at the Druids hairpin with the throttles stuck wide open and engine howling at maximum rpm! The NS500 was totally destroyed and there was no spare bike on hand. Freddie, luckily not seriously injured, flew back home to Louisiana the next day. Spencer’s crash let Roger Marshall into second spot, which he held onto after a fiercely-challenging Mike Baldwin had over-revved his Honda F1 engine and bent its valves. Roberto Pietri battled hard with Keith Huewen for third, eventually giving best to the Brit by just half a bike’s length at the finish. Barry Sheene was the star of the show and came so close to being the first rider to win all six races in the series weekend. He won five of them (two at Brands Hatch, two at Oulton Park and one at Mallory). Only a slow-speed, last-lap tumble at Mallory’s hairpin let Roger Marshall through to win and to deprive Barry of the $40,000 bonus on offer for a ‘clean sweep’… Dave Aldana was the top-scorer for the USA with 56pts but that was only good enough for fifth overall. It pretty much summed up a weekend in which the British devastated Team USA by 491 points to 318. For 1983 there were some big changes in respect of the series. Financial cut-backs by the Motor Circuits Development group had been forced on it by its owners, the giant Eagle Star Insurance company and this had led to the sale of Mallory Park. To overcome the loss of this massively popular Transatlantic series venue, MCD switched the series from its traditional Easter date to the later May Bank Holiday weekend so that the Snetterton track it owned in Norfolk could be brought in to replace Mallory. The series would now begin, rather than finish, at Oulton Park before moving on to Snetterton on the Sunday and Brands Hatch on the Bank Holiday Monday. The old four-day Easter weekend schedule had been punishing and this new one was, at a day less, a cut too far – especially as the weather was unexpectedly bad for just about the whole weekend. One would have thought that the later date would have, at least, delivered better weather, but it was pretty much rain, rain… and more rain. The later date also meant that the GP season had already started and Honda would not release Freddie Spencer (presumably with his 1982 crash in mind). On the other hand, the fans did have the bonus of seeing Kenny Roberts back… this time with his new team partner, Eddie Lawson. Not only that, theyamaha men would be riding the fearsome 680cc OW69 square fours on which they had scored a onetwo (Kenny from Eddie) in the Daytona 200. Joining them would be the Suzuki pairing of Randy Mamola on the factory team GP bike and Dave Aldana on a privately-owned version. Completing the US team line-up were Wes Cooley, riding for Kawasaki for the first time on a 1000cc four-stroke four and Mike Baldwin on the RS500 privateer Honda triple, with which he had won the non-championship Malaysian Grand Prix a week earlier. Lining up for the UK were Ron Haslam and Roger Marshall for Honda Britain, Barry Sheene and Keith Huewen on the Suzuki GB bikes, plus privateers Mark Salle (Suzuki) and Graham Wood on his faithful Yamaha TZ500, now in its third year in the series. In theory the US had the stronger squad but, as so often happens, things didn’t work out that way in practice. Right from the opening lap of the first race the US team was dealt a major blow – a blow inflicted by one of its own members, the notoriously hard-charging Mike Baldwin. On the first lap at Oulton Park Ron Haslam led Mamola and Baldwin until Mike crashed at the very fast Knickerbrook corner. He was caught out, he said, when the leading pair slowed more than he thought and he had to go wide. He crashed hard and mangled his right foot, breaking three toes, as well as other small bones. “I may have tried to go too hard and win the race on the first lap,” he later admitted. Right behind Baldwin, Kenny Roberts got an up-close view – too close, in fact and he remembered that, “Mike almost hit the back of Randy, which would have punted him into Haslam. It was mayhem and we were lucky that we only lost one team member instead of three… because for sure if all of them in front had gone down, I would have been mixed up in it as well!” Mike bandaged up his foot and tried to race at Snetterton, but in the end it was impossible and after going to hospital with the badly swollen foot, he was out. Logically,
his absence from five races could have cost US the series, as that year there were six-man teams and budgeting cuts had precluded the US from bringing a reserve. So, losing a rider of Baldwin’s calibre in the very first race was a major blow indeed. Mamola did get ahead to win for the USA in front of Ron Haslam and Kenny Roberts finished third ahead of Roger Marshall. That finishing order was repeated in the second race. In awful conditions on the following day at Snetterton, some hard riding by Ron Haslam saw him win the first race from Kenny Roberts, who just edged ahead of Roger Marshall to win their drag race to the line for second. This time Roger was using the Honda 1125cc F1 four-stroke rather than the RS500 two-stroke triple that he had raced at Oulton, feeling that the big four’s smoother power delivery would help in the wet. Which it obviously did. Next up came Sheene, having his best ride of the series, but still 22 seconds behind the leading trio, and then came a cautious Lawson a further 12 seconds behind. Essentially, the result was the same in the second race except for Randy Mamola taking fourth and Lawson this time getting the better of Sheene for fifth. After wrestling his 680cc square four in the East Anglian rain, Eddie commented, “These bikes were meant for Daytona and weren’t the right ones for these tracks. Especially not in these conditions. I think I would have liked this track in the dry but I’ve only ever ridden three wet races so decided to be smart and ride within my limits today”. The teams left for Brands Hatch with the US trailing by 28 points and the last two races were essentially the same mixture as before. The same leading riders mixed it up in the wet, though only in a grey drizzle rather than the previous day’s downpours. In the end Ron Haslam was the man of the weekend with four wins from six races and 70 points. Then came Randy Mamola with 60, Roberts on 57, Roger Marshall close behind with 55, then Eddie Lawson with 43 and Barry Sheene with 40. The total points saw the UK scoring 245 to 199 for the USA, giving the home side nine wins to four for the USA in the 13-year history of the series. The weather conditions throughout the May Day Bank Holiday weekend were miserable for all concerned – and not least for the race organisers. The crowds were way down at all three circuits – 10,000 at Oulton Park, 15,000 at Snetterton and 20,000 at Brands Hatch – a total of 45,000 for a series that had often drawn crowds of well over 100,000 during the past decade. Chris Lowe, who had been responsible for running the match race series since its inception, had moved on and his role was filled by MCD managing director John Webb. In 1978, Webb had staged a similar Transatlantic series for Indycars and it had apparently cost MCD a great deal of money. This, and the drastically reduced attendance figures for the motorcycle series in 1983, may well have given Webb a jaded view of the general ‘two nations’ match racing concept and its future potential for either car or bike racing. But it was still a bombshell to both the press and motorcycle racing fans on both sides of the Atlantic when he announced early in 1984 that the motorcycle match race series, which had been so successful for a dozen years previously, was a dead duck as far as he was concerned. This led directly to an opportunity for me, as Gavin Trippe and I had divided our business interests a couple of years earlier. He remained in the USA concentrating on race promotions, while I had moved back to Europe to continue with the publishing and PR company that we had also established there. A long-term contract with Yamaha
Europe included promoting the RD350 Pro-am series that had immediately proved very successful and which had led to a good working relationship between myself and Robert Fearnall, the track manager at Donington Park. As soon as Robert read the statement by John Webb in the UK motorcycle press, he called me to ask whether, in the light of my involvement in the series during its earliest days, we could get a new deal to switch the series to Donington Park. One phone call to the American Motorcycle Association (which licensed American riders for participation in overseas races) and a couple of faxes later, I had a deal with Donington and a three-year AMA contract giving me the exclusive right to provide the US riders for the series. Now the job in hand was to put together the best possible team in the short time we had left. Robert Fearnall and I determined that my first priority was to tempt newly-retired Kenny Roberts back for one last race in Europe and a call to his manager, Gary Howard, confirmed that King Kenny was ready to make one last state visit to the UK… but at a very substantial price. Speaking with Robert, I intimated that I was sure that the deal would be negotiable to some degree… but his response was immediate and unequivocal: “If you can get his name on a contract,” said Robert, “give him what he wants.” Which is what we did immediately. Right away the cornerstone of the new-look Transatlantic Challenge was in place and the rest of the building blocks followed in very short order thanks to Robert’s attitude and the pretty much open chequebook of Donington Park’s owner Tom Wheatcroft. Well before Easter we had contracts with Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer, Randy Mamola, Mike Baldwin, Richard Schlacter, Wes Cooley and Dave Aldana. All were fit and on top form, as evidenced by the results of the Daytona races at the start of the season. Kenny had won his third (and last) 200, Freddie Spencer had been second in that race and won the Superbike race. Eddie Lawson was fourth in the 200 (behind Britain’s Ron Haslam in third), and Rich Schlacter was sixth. Also on the US Transatlantic team was a young Californian by the name of Wayne Rainey, who had won the 250cc race at Daytona ahead of GP regulars Martin Wimmer and Graeme Mcgregor. Like Kenny and Eddie, Wayne had cut his teeth and been a winner on California dirt tracks and had then switched successfully to the hard stuff, winning the 1983 US Superbike Championship for Kawasaki. For 1984 he would be riding for the new Kenny Roberts Yamaha team in 250cc Grands Prix, so for the Donington Transatlantic races we had been able to arrange that Yamaha USA would provide him with the TZ500 four that had been used in occasional road races by its dirt-track rider, Jim Filice. Unfortunately, Wayne’s first trip outside the USA was short and none-too-sweet. In pre-race practice a couple of days before the event he crashed the TZ500 and was heading home early with an injured foot and shoulder. Despite Wayne’s departure this was still without doubt the best US team ever assembled and the same went for the UK squad. Joining Barry Sheene were Graham Crosby and Wayne Gardner (allowed in as Commonwealth but Uk-based riders) plus Ron Haslam, Roger Marshall, Keith Huewen and Rob Mcelnea. Thus, the stage was set for the ‘new look’ Transatlantic Challenge and the huge financial gamble taken by the Donington Park management paid off to the tune of some 85,000 spectators over the weekend. That record crowd saw some great action, with the best riders in the world battling throughout the three races on each of the two days. Considering the strength of the best-ever US team in the history of the series, it was not surprising to see American riders scrapping mainly with each other for the top spots, especially as Kenny Roberts and Lawson were on the Team Marlboro Yamaha vee-fours and Freddie Spencer was on the new NSR500 V4 Honda that he had debuted earlier in the year with a second place to Kenny at Daytona. Also on top form was Randy Mamola, no longer with the Suzuki team and now riding a factory-loaned Honda NS500 triple. Ron Haslam was on a similar machine and it was he and Mamola who slugged it out for top spot in the first race. Ron led for the first nine laps and continued to put the pressure on with some determined hard-braking manoeuvres at the chicane after Randy had gone past. But it was Mamola who took the win and US riders Spencer, Lawson and Roberts next up. Haslam again got the hole-shot from the start of Race Two but again, by the ninth lap, both Mamola and Spencer were in his slipstream and they went by two laps later. Freddie was having a particularly good ride after bogging down the engine of the Honda V4 at the start and charging up through the field from last place. But Randy hung on to take his second win from two races with Haslam third behind Spencer and Lawson and Roberts again fourth and fifth. In Race Three, Haslam was again the leading Brit but he was high-sided off his Honda triple when exiting the chicane in fifth place ahead of Mike Baldwin. Up ahead, Freddie Spencer was in hot pursuit of the leading group that consisted of Eddie Lawson, ahead of Randy Mamola and Kenny Roberts. After breaking the lap record he finally swept by that trio to take the win. Aussie Wayne Gardner, in fifth, was the top non-american. On the Easter Monday, in perfect weather, the fourth race followed a similar pattern with Spencer winning from Mamola, Lawson, Roberts, Haslam and Gardner. The fifth race later that day turned out to be one of the most significant in the history of the series, as Freddie Spencer went over the high side of his sliding Honda and crashed hard, aggravating an earlier foot
injury sustained when he had crashed in the opening GP of the year in South Africa and breaking the other foot as well. This led directly to the factories precluding their Grand Prix riders from riding such non-championship events in the future. Despite a hard charge and a last-lap effort at the chicane by Eddie Lawson, Randy Mamola took the win. Third and close behind them was Kenny Roberts, from Ron Haslam, Wayne Gardner and Rob Mcelnea. The sixth and final event was a cracking end to the proceedings, as inspired rides by Wayne Gardner and Ron Haslam challenged the Yamahas of Roberts and Lawson throughout the race after Randy Mamola had retired early. Gardner’s was a truly tough and tenacious effort, several times taking the lead through Donington’s uphill curves before being overpowered on the following long straight by the Team Marlboro duo. When the chequered flag was waved, it was waved most appropriately for Kenny Roberts – a universally popular win, as it allowed the crowd to pay a proper tribute to King Kenny on his final ride in Britain… a country where he had so wonderfully entertained the fans for a full 10 years. In the places behind Kenny were Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner, Ron Haslam, Mike Baldwin and Rob Mcelnea to make the final scoreline Team USA 259 – Team UK & Commonwealth 136. To be brutally honest, even halfway through the first day it had been obvious that this wasn’t going to be a match race series in any meaningful sense. Instead, the fans were to be treated to some dazzling riding by world superstars, most of them American. And the leading individual points scores for those superstars were shared out as follows: Randy Mamola 67, Eddie Lawson 62, Kenny Roberts 53, Freddie Spencer 52, Ron Haslam 44, and Wayne Gardner 32. It is fair to say that, in terms of competing stars, the Transatlantic Trophy reached its peak that year at Donington in 1984. After all, you simply couldn’t get any better than lining up all the top riders from both sides of the Atlantic! Otherwise, the only way was down – and that was the case as far as 1985 was concerned. First off, the Honda factory refused to allow Freddie Spencer to compete. His crash the previous year had caused him to miss the following Spanish GP and Honda didn’t want to take that chance again. Next, Yamaha declined to send Eddie Lawson and, of course, the perennial crowd favourite Kenny Roberts, now retired from racing, had run a Marlboro-sponsored 250GP team in 1984 and was busy putting together a team in the 500cc Grands Prix with support from the Lucky Strike cigarette company. That left Randy Mamola and Mike Baldwin as the star riders to lead a team of US privateers against Ron Haslam and Wayne Gardner, on similar Rothmans Hondas to Randy, as front runners for the UK squad. With all the races televised once again, the livery of the Rothmans tobacco company somewhat controversially dominated the TV screens as the Honda GB bikes of Roger Marshall and Roger Burnett were also sponsored by the same cigarette brand. Unsurprisingly, it was the blue and white bikes that did most of the winning, with Wayne Gardner taking three victories to the two wins of Randy Mamola and, at last, a win for Mike Baldwin. As far back as 1979 he had been top individual scorer and a frontrunner on very appearance since… but it took until the last race and one of his last appearances in the series for him to stand on the top step of the podium! In fact, the reduced quality of entry compared to the 1984 field had done very little, if anything, to reduce the quality of the racing and there were some superb battles involving the five Rothmans Honda riders, Mike Baldwin on his own Honda RS500 and the Skoal Bandit (another tobacco company) sponsored Suzuki of Britain’s Rob Mcelnea. The UK team took a comfortable win overall but the individual top-scorer was an American once again. Randy Mamola finished in the top three of each of the six races – two wins, two seconds and two thirds. He led Wayne Gardner, Mike Baldwin, Ron Haslam, Rob Mcelnea and Roger Marshall. Although the racing was great in 1985, the series had underlined a growing problem. It was notable that there were far fewer US riders with genuine two-stroke GP machinery now that the main emphasis in American racing had switched to the Superbike class. This was for ‘silhouette’ bikes that looked like production machines but which, in fact, were true racers with more powerful engines and upgraded suspension and brakes. There was plenty of this type of machine available in the UK, as I had created the similar UK Superstock class in 1985, so for what was to be the 16th and last year of the Transatlantic series, we took the big decision to make it a four-strokes only ‘Superbike’ race. Once again, we were faced with the fact that the top American riders were tied exclusively to their Grand Prix contracts. Eddie Lawson for Marlboro Yamaha, Freddie Spencer and Randy Mamola for Honda and Mike Baldwin, now signed to the new Lucky Strike Yamaha team run by Kenny Roberts. Therefore, it was a team of riders almost unknown outside the USA that faced the British ‘usual suspects’ for the final Transatlantic series, although it was at least headed by the two guys who had chased Eddie Lawson into Victory Lane in that year’s Daytona 200 – namely Kevin Schwantz and Fred Merkel. In 1984 – the year that ‘money talked’ – it
THE SIGHT OF MERKEL SLIDING THE 130-HORSEPOWER SUPERBIKE ACROSS WET GRASS WAS SOMETHING THAT THE BRITISH FANS WON’T FORGET IN A HURRY!
had been easy to sign the best riders in the world and 1985 had also been relatively simple. But finding a team for 1986 was a bit of a nightmare. For example, we couldn’t even persuade American Honda or US Yoshimura Suzuki to send bikes over for their Daytona stars. Winning the US Superbike series was just too important to them and because of this situation both Schwantz and Merkel would be on year-old borrowed machinery for the match races. For Schwantz, Steve Griffiths provided the Suzuki GSXR750 that Tony Rutter had ridden in the previous year’s Isle of Man TT, while for Merkel, we managed to borrow the Honda V4 Interceptor on which Jeff Haney had placed third in the 1985 Daytona 200. Its owner was Mac Archer, a Californian doctor who was, by then, using it to enjoy himself on the roads around his home! Neither the facts that the bikes were borrowed or second-hand fazed either Schwantz or Merkel in the slightest. Making the right tyre choice was virtually impossible on a miserable weekend that saw rain, sleet and snow throughout – sometimes even in the same race! And this led to some lurid action… especially courtesy of Kevin and Fred. In one race, the crowd and the massive TV audience were treated to the sight of them both hitting trouble while battling for the lead at 100mph-plus. First Fred got into a slide and headed off onto the infield grass. Almost immediately behind him Kevin also got sideways, to the extent that he slipped off the bike and was only hanging on by his hands and one foot hooked over the seat! Incredibly, he somehow got back into the saddle and carried on, still in the lead! Meanwhile, Merkel was still dirt-tracking and as Cycle News reporter Peter Clifford, wrote, “the sight of Merkel sliding the 130-horsepower superbike across wet grass was something that the British fans won’t forget in a hurry!” Said Merkel: “I just stayed on the gas and headed back for the track…” He re-joined the race in sixth place but by the last lap he and Schwantz were back in their customary one-two positions. That was until Fred overdid things and spun the Honda out while trying to catch Kevin in the final chicane. They were the absolute stars of the show, Kevin winning four of the eight races and Fred two. The others were won by Rob Mcelnea and Roger Burnett for the UK to help give the home team a clear win by 314 points to 214. Top individual scorer, Kevin Schwantz, went on in later years to win the 1988 Daytona 200 before joining the Lucky Strike Suzuki factory Grand Prix team and winning the World 500cc Championship in 1994. Runner-up, Fred Merkel, who had previously been US Superbike Champion in 1984 and 1985, went on to win the national title again in 1986 and then the World Superbike Championship in 1988 and 1989. With these two World Champions-in-waiting well clear at the top of the 1986 Transatlantic rider standings, this was an apt conclusion to the series. Over 16 years, the Americans had, on 11 occasions, provided the individual star of the show, compared to three for the UK and two years in which the honours were shared. The team results, however, were almost the opposite: 11 wins for Britain against five for the USA. This last race in the series might have seen a big 100-point beating for the US team, none of whom had ever even seen Donington before their first damp and gloomy day of practice. but they remained resolutely upbeat despite the foul weather conditions and by the end of the proceedings they had at least delivered the final pair in the long list of American superstars who had made their UK debuts in ‘the Transatlantic’.
Words: Bruce Cox Photographs: Mortons Archive and Bruce Cox Collection
Above: Kenny Roberts and the Ow76yamaha in perfect harmony (if a wide line) on a slippery Donington Park in 1984.
Above left: John Ashmead at Brands Hatch, the year is 1987 and the Honda VFR Interceptor makes a handsome racebike. Above: Familiar style? This is Freddie Spencer at Brands 1980 on the Yamaha 750. Below: 1989 at Brands Hatch and Michel Mercier (36) on a Suzuki GSX-R750 leads Honda’s pairing of Dan Chivington (53) and Ron Haslam (9).
Above left: In 1987 Trevor Nation looked an imposing figure on the back of the bulky Loctite Yamaha. Above: (12) Ron Haslam on the Yamaha 750 leans on the outside of (10) Dave Aldana who is manfully muscling the Yoshimura Suzuki around Druids. It’s 1980. Below: Dan Chivington, Honda (53) takes the out-wide-in-tight line at Druids whilst Keith Huewen (16) Yamaha and John Ashmead (37) Honda try to get in the way.
Above: Michel Mercier barely needed to tuck in behind the tall GSX-R750 fairing to get out of the windblast. It made cornering a non-compact but effective affair. Below: Upright body, sticking his neck out but finding a fast way around Brands Hatch in 1987, this is James Whitham on the Suzuki GSX-R750.
Top: Gary Goodfellow is almost obscured by the Suzuki’s GSX-R big fairing at Brands Hatch. Above middle: Brands Hatch 1980 and Barry Sheene leads Kenny Roberts at Druids, both men on Yamahas. Above: Dave Potter doesn’t waste an ounce of body position lining up for Surtees at Brands.
Top: Without a bike to ride George Beale came to the rescue and provided Wes Cooley with a TZ750. Above: Keith Huewen. Right: It’s 1980 and Skip Aksland leads John Newbold in a close-up formation of Yamaha 750s on song.
April 1984 and a cold Donington witnesses Eddie Lawson (4) pitching into Coppice ahead of Randy Mamola (3).Yamaha OW76 leads Honda NS500.
Main image: Not to be outdone by the likes of Mamola (3), Wes Cooley adopted a more progressive style into the tricky Coppice double-apex corner at Donington in 1984. Right: Brands Hatch, 1981. Haslam looks to make a bigger name for himself on home turf on the Honda.