? He was blond, brash and won the first-ever World Su­per­bike championship

Motorcycle News (UK) - - New Bikes -

Fred Merkel was the first ever World Su­per­bike champ, tak­ing the inau­gu­ral ti­tle for Rumi Honda in 1988 and back­ing it up with a sec­ond in 1989. Fly­inõ Fred was the ar­che­typal Amer­i­can racer Ð with blond surfer hair, a deep sun­tan, and shiny white teeth, he was as much loved by the ladies as he was feared by his ri­vals. So what be­came of the orig­i­nal WSB star?

What was his rac­ing back­ground be­fore the World Su­per­bike Championship kicked off? Born in Stock­ton, Cal­i­for­nia in 1962, Merkel won the Suzuka 8-Hour with fel­low Amer­i­can Mike Bald­win in 1984 and was al­ready a three-time AMA Su­per­bike cham­pion (1984-86) by the time the first WSB championship was staged in 1988.

When did us Brits first be­come aware of him? Merkel won the hearts of Bri­tish race fans dur­ing the 1986 Transat­lantic Tro­phy Match Races at Don­ing­ton Park when he fought tooth and nail with Kevin Sch­wantz Ð even though they were sup­posed to be in the same team! His flam­boy­ant char­ac­ter and me­di­asavvy at­ti­tude, as well as his all-ac­tion rid­ing style, made him an in­stant hit.

Why did he get dropped by Honda in the States after win­ning three AMA ti­tles? That has never been fully ex­plained. There were ru­mours of too much par­ty­ing and ho­tel-wreck­ing but it might also have just been down to Honda opt­ing to put their re­sources be­hind new won­der child, Wayne Rainey (who, iron­i­cally, later be­came known as a Yamaha man). Merkel has dis­liked Rainey ever since.

Is that why he moved to World Su­per­bikes? Yes. Un­able to se­cure a com­pet­i­tive ride in the States, Merkel de­cided to head for Europe where he signed for the Ital­ian-based Rumi Honda squad and ul­ti­mately had the last laugh, carv­ing out a whole new ca­reer on the world stage. As in­tel­li­gent as he was flam­boy­ant, Merkel learned to speak flu­ent Ital­ian to help him fit into the Rumi team.

What bike was he most as­so­ci­ated with in World Su­per­bikes? Hon­daõs RC30. The ground­break­ing ma­chine was re­leased just in time for the de­but season of WSB and Merkel took two race wins and three podi­ums in its open­ing year to win the ti­tle from the late Fabrizio Pirovano and Da­vide Tar­dozzi (who is now race team man­ager for Du­cati in Mo­togp). In 1989 he took three wins and seven podi­ums to win the championship from Stephane Mertens and Ray­mond Roche, and all this at a time when the RC30 was not par­tic­u­larly re­li­able.

What made him so cool? As well as hav­ing the whole surfer look down pat with his curls, tan, and Hol­ly­wood smile, Merkel was also fond of wear­ing a ban­danna long be­fore David Beck­ham made it cool. He flew a skull and cross­bones flag from his mo­torhome in the pad­dock (an idea that Max Bi­aggi later stole) and had the logo ÒIF you want blood, youõve got itó splashed across the back of his hel­met. Add to the mix a rep­u­ta­tion for par­ty­ing and en­joy­ing great suc­cess with the

ladies and you had a racer that could give Barry Sheene a run for his money in the charisma stakes.

So what hap­pened after he won the ti­tle again in 1989? He took an­other three wins for Honda again in 1990 but in­juries ham­pered his season and by 1991 the RC30 was no longer com­pet­i­tive. Merkel moved to Yamaha in 1992 but in­jury once more ruled him out of con­tention. He split from Yamaha mid­way through 1993 and ended his last season in WSB on a pri­va­teer Du­cati, tak­ing a fi­nal rostrum in Aus­tria be­fore re­turn­ing to race in Amer­ica where he en­joyed some suc­cess in the Su­pers­port 750 class.

When and why did he re­tire? On Septem­ber 23, 1995, Merkel crashed heav­ily at the Fire­bird Race­way in Ari­zona. He broke seven ribs, bruised his heart, and suf­fered last­ing nerve dam­age to his left arm. Un­able to race again, he an­nounced his re­tire­ment one month later. It took him three years to re­gain any­thing near nor­mal move­ment in his arm.

What’s he up to now? After re­tir­ing, Merkel moved to Taupo, New Zealand with his English wife Carla, and bought a farm with a trout lake to in­dulge his pas­sion for fishing, He started a con­struc­tion sup­plies busi­ness and has raised two sons, Travis and Jhett. Merkel was in­ducted into the AMA Mo­tor­cy­cle Hall of Fame in 2001 and is still fondly re­mem­bered as the first real char­ac­ter in WSB.

The very first Num­ber 1 plate in WSB be­longed to Flyin’ Fred and the Honda RC30

With Lucchinelli and Dun­lop at the first ever WSB meet­ing at Don­ing­ton in 1988

An­other flam­boy­ant wheelie from the man him­self. Merkel had star qual­ity

A show­man? Merkel? Never. He was a Sheene ri­val in the glam­our stakes

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