ROAD­RAC­ING VAGABONDS

THE GOLDEN AGE OF CHAS­ING FAC­TORY CON­TIN­GENCY MONEY BY LARRY LAWRENCE

Motorcyclist - - Thunder And Lightning -

When Doug Polen took a 1986 Suzuki GSX-R750 for a quick spin at a Den­ton, Texas, deal­er­ship, he came back in­spired.

Polen, a for­mer AMA Su­per­bike pri­va­teer, was still do­ing a lit­tle club rac­ing. But he’d mostly given up the dream of be­ing a full-time pro.

“The dealer sug­gested I could take a GSX-R750 and make a lit­tle money rac­ing at the lo­cal Texas events,” Polen re­mem­bers. “I went to the first race at Lit­tle Tal­ladega just to see how it would go. When I won there, I came home, looked at the sched­ule, and re­al­ized if I could get a GSX-R1100 and a Honda 500 In­ter­cep­tor, I could travel to races just about ev­ery week­end, and if I did well I could make some de­cent money. If I won all three races it was a $2,700 week­end.”

Polen geared up to cap­i­tal­ize on man­u­fac­turer and af­ter­mar­ket con­tin­gency pro­grams, which of­fered rich fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives to rid­ers for rac­ing—and, es­pe­cially, win­ning—on cer­tain hot new bikes at club events. Th­ese pro­grams have long been a part of mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing, but the me­te­oric rise of pro­duc­tion sport­bikes dur­ing the 1980s kicked off an un­prece­dented con­tin­gency war. For a few shin­ing years, Ja­panese bike man­u­fac­tur­ers fun­neled enor­mous

sums into th­ese guerilla marketing cam­paigns.

It led to an ex­tra­or­di­nary era in road­rac­ing. Gen­er­ous pro­grams from Suzuki, Yamaha, and Honda spawned a gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can road­rac­ers. Guys who would later make it big—polen, Scott Rus­sell, and Danny Walker—roamed the coun­try, jock­ey­ing for podi­ums, hon­ing their skills to a razor’s edge, push­ing one an­other nearly ev­ery week­end of the sea­son.

The money races were a mas­sive draw. It wasn’t un­com­mon to see grids of 60 bikes lined up to chase fac­tory dol­lars—im­pres­sive for any mo­tor­sport event, much less one at the club level. Even those who weren’t rid­ing con­tin­gency-el­i­gi­ble bikes could cash in, mak­ing side deals in the pits. Maybe they would sud­denly have a me­chan­i­cal and pull off on the fi­nal lap, and a con­tin­gency racer would pass for the win. Maybe every­one would go home a lit­tle richer.

Rac­ing for cash didn’t just ben­e­fit the rid­ers. Sport­bike pro­duc­tion hit an all-time high, bol­stered in part by hun­dreds of aspir­ing club rac­ers. New bike sales and re­place­ment parts—es­pe­cially fac­tory body­work—was said to be so sub­stan­tial that it eas­ily cov­ered the con­tin­gency pay­outs and then some.

Flash­back to 1985: The US econ­omy is fi­nally out of a re­ces­sion and the baby­boomer gen­er­a­tion has reached fi­nan­cial ma­tu­rity. In­spired by the suc­cess of Amer­i­cans in Grand Prix road­rac­ing, com­pet­i­tive mo­tor­cy­cling is gain­ing trac­tion state­side. Un­der th­ese for­tu­itous cir­cum­stances, a wave of twenty- and thir­tysome­things find a new way to spend week­ends: club rac­ing.

Yamaha, which had just re­leased the FJ1100, FZ750, and FJ600 in rapid suc­ces­sion, took note. To es­tab­lish the cred­i­bil­ity of those new bikes, the com­pany be­gan of­fer­ing rid­ers $500 for pro­duc­tion class wins on any of the three mod­els. The money paid down to fifth place. (There was also a smaller pro­gram for the RZ350 that paid $200 for a win.) In an in­dus­try first, Yamaha paid con­tin­gency money broadly to lo­cal club or­ga­ni­za­tions across the coun­try.

Scores of rid­ers took ad­van­tage, swoop­ing up new FJ and FZ sport­bikes to try their luck at nearby cir­cuits. One rider from New Jer­sey took it a lit­tle fur­ther. Bart Peter­son, a mo­tor­cy­cle me­chanic by trade, made chas­ing Yamaha con­tin­gency money into some­thing of a sec­ond oc­cu­pa­tion. He crammed an FJ600 and an Fz750—plus lawn chairs, gas tanks, and tool­boxes—into the back of a rusty Dat­sun pickup and set out all across the East Coast then into the Mid­west. When his over­loaded truck rolled into the pad­dock on race week­end, the lo­cal spe­cial­ist groaned. They would most likely be rac­ing for sec­ond place in the money races.

Peter­son’s op­er­a­tion would never be de­scribed as sano. He was trav­el­ing hard and cheap, with lit­tle time to worry about bike main­te­nance, much less the ap­pear­ance of his ma­chines. If it rained on the way to the race, his Yama­has ar­rived coated with a dull film of road grime; un­less it rained overnight, they raced that way. At some point in the sea­son, his FJ blew a shock. The com­pe­ti­tion got used to watch­ing his back wheel pogo-stick­ing around through turns.

Peter­son capped off his 1985 sea­son at the West­ern East­ern Road­rac­ers As­so­ci­a­tion Grand Na­tional Fi­nal at Road At­lanta. Af­ter dic­ing with aces Ed Key and Greg Tysor, Peter­son won the barn burner on a gritty, last-lap over­take. He ran so fast into the fi­nal turn that his Yamaha kissed the out­side edge of the gator teeth. “That was one of the cra­zi­est moves I ever saw in rac­ing,” Tysor said later. “Only Bart would try some­thing like that. He just had that at­ti­tude like, ‘Let’s try this and see what hap­pens.’”

Ac­cord­ing to Peter­son: “The truth is I would have gone into the grass to win that race.”

Peter­son was the orig­i­nal club-rac­ing vagabond, a rov­ing two-wheel prize­fighter. He beat the top club rac­ers of the day, like Key and Ron Ew­erth. De­spite tak­ing money on a reg­u­lar ba­sis from the lo­cal track spe­cial­ists, Peter­son was al­most uni­ver­sally liked. He was friendly, modest, and fun to be around. Plus, you couldn’t help but laugh when you saw his rig and the con­di­tion of his bikes. It was hi­lar­i­ous that those things even ran, much less con­tended for podi­ums. But his makeshift op­er­a­tion un­der­lined a point: Peter­son wasn’t win­ning be­cause his bikes were the best pre­pared. He was win­ning be­cause he rode like a ban­shee and un­der­stood how to play the con­tin­gency game. He earned more than $40,000 in Yamaha money in ’85.

As the year came to a close, Yamaha’s pro­gram ap­peared a huge suc­cess. The FJ600 had es­tab­lished a foothold in the mar­ket, and the five-valve FZ750 caused a stir, kick­ing off a three-quar­ter-liter bat­tle. The FJ1100 proved its su­per­bike met­tle. The road­rac­ing con­tin­gency for those mod­els did not go un­no­ticed. Other man­u­fac­tur­ers jumped in the game. Honda al­ready had a rider in­cen­tives pro­gram for the 500 In­ter­cep­tor with the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Mo­tor­cy­clists, the coun­try’s old­est road­rac­ing club. For 1986, the brand boosted the money and ex­panded the con­tin­gency setup na­tion­ally. Any­body fin­ish­ing top five on an In­ter­cep­tor 500 was el­i­gi­ble for pay­outs. Win­ners took home a fat $700.

Suzuki took it even fur­ther. The com­pany was in­tro­duc­ing the GSX-R line in Amer­ica, marketing it as “a race­bike for the street.” So, in 1986, to pro­mote the launch, Suzuki ex­ec­u­tive Hank Ota dreamed up a wild, na­tion­wide con­tin­gency pro­gram. It paid a whop­ping $1,500 to win on a GSX-R1100 and $1,000 to win on a 750cc Gixxer. And the cash went down 10 places. Rac­ers could po­ten­tially pay for their new mo­tor­cy­cles in as lit­tle as

"THE DEALER SUG­GESTED I COULD TAKE A GSX-R750 AND MAKE A LIT­TLE MONEY RAC­ING AT THE LO­CAL TEXAS EVENTS. I THINK IN THE END THAT SEA­SON I MADE AROUND $93,000."

five race week­ends. All told, Suzuki put $285,000 up for grabs.

Which is how Polen ended up at the dealer in Den­ton, Texas.

“I took a GSX-R750 down the road and flicked it back and forth a few times,” he re­mem­bers. “I came back to the deal­er­ship and told the guys, ‘Yeah, I think we can do the busi­ness on this thing.’”

He wasn’t the only one. Thomas Stevens, at that time a rapidly ris­ing club racer, re­calls see­ing the money of­fered by Suzuki and sit­ting down to do some math.

“I said to my mom, ‘Look! I’m go­ing to win $27,000 this year be­cause I’m go­ing to go win all th­ese races!’ Two races in, I had a crash and broke my bike in half, so it was a lit­tle harder than what I had it chalked up to be.”

The first Suzuki-pay­ing race on the 1986 cal­en­dar was in early Fe­bru­ary, in the pines of Alabama. It was also WERA’S sea­son-open­ing race, held at an ex­cit­ing new cir­cuit, the 1.3-mile Tal­ladega Gran Prix Race­way road course. The com­bi­na­tion turned what would nor­mally be an anony­mous club-rac­ing week­end into a spec­ta­cle. Suzuki’s Ota even flew in, ready to hand out a first-place check.

But there were prob­lems. Polen's GSX-R750, an apex-eat­ing weapon on pa­per, was show­room-new and never raced, with no setup time. Mean­while, a posse of race-tough­ened rid­ers on proven Yamaha Fz750s—in­clud­ing Peter­son—showed, ready to roll. Af­ter qual­i­fy­ing, the front of the grid was filled with FZS and just a smat­ter­ing of GSX-RS. Polen was there but start­ing from the back of the grid af­ter crash­ing in his qual­i­fy­ing heat. With only an eight-lap sprint race on the tiny track, filled with a mas­sive grid, Polen had lit­tle hope of win­ning back the coin he’d dropped on that new GSX-R.

Sun­day’s WERA B Pro­duc­tion 750cc race saw every­one lin­ing the fences. A hand­ful of rid­ers swapped the lead. Then, WERA South­east­ern Re­gion fast-man Ew­erth took con­trol on his FZ750. But Polen me­thod­i­cally made his way through the field. With just two laps re­main­ing, he be­gan to chal­lenge. On the last lap, he squeezed past Ew­erth’s Yamaha and took home the win, giv­ing Suzuki a vic­tory in the GSX-R750’S club-rac­ing de­but. Ota proudly pre­sented Polen with the first Suzuki con­tin­gency check. It would not be his last.

That sum­mer, Polen trav­eled all across the coun­try chas­ing Suzuki and Yamaha money, up­set­ting the lo­cals nearly ev­ery week­end.

Danny Walker vividly re­mem­bers his first en­counter with Polen. Walker was nearly un­beat­able in Mo­tor­cy­cle Road­rac­ing As­so­ci­a­tion com­pe­ti­tion at that point.

“I rode nearly ev­ery sin­gle day at Sec­ond Creek Race­way,” Walker says. “No­body was go­ing to take my Honda con­tin­gency money there. That was mine. First race of the sea­son I was way out front, stylin’, on my way to win­ning, when all of a sud­den this goof­ball guy [Polen] passes me tak­ing a com­pletely weird line. I’m like, “What’s he do­ing? That’s not the line around here!’ as he’s pulling away from me! I would have bet every­thing I had that was the most il­le­gal 500 In­ter­cep­tor in the coun­try. Come to find out the thing was a piece of shit. It was car­boned up, worn out. It was just the way he rode that thing.”

The wild, con­tin­gency-fu­eled 1986 sea­son came to a head in Novem­ber

"I SAID TO MY MOM, 'LOOK, I'M GO­ING TO WIN $27,000 THIS YEAR BE­CAUSE I'M GO­ING TO WIN ALL OF TH­ESE RACES!' TWO RACES IN I HAD A CRASH AND BROKE MY BIKE IN HALF, SO IT WAS A LIT­TLE HARDER THAN WHAT I HAD IT CHALKED UP TO BE."

at the WERA Grand Na­tional Fi­nal. Suzuki paid to bring the top money-earn­ers from each North Amer­i­can club or­ga­ni­za­tion to Road At­lanta. There, Ota and his team or­ga­nized a head-to-head, win­ner-take-all show­down: the Suzuki GSX-R Cup.

More than 60 rid­ers made the trip. It marked the first meet­ing of club rac­ers from all re­gions. The 1986 WERA Grand Na­tional Fi­nal hosted not only the 750cc and 1100cc Suzuki Cup races but also the Honda In­ter­cep­tor Fi­nal. Cam­eras were placed all around Road At­lanta, and a he­li­copter flew over­head, track­ing the ac­tion, and the races were tele­vised on Prime Sports. Out­side of AMA Pro events at Day­tona and La­guna Seca, this was mo­tor­cy­cling ’s most an­tic­i­pated race week­end.

As ex­pected, Polen eas­ily won the GSX-R750 Cup Fi­nal. In the Honda In­ter­cep­tor Fi­nal, he faced a chal­lenge from Scott Zam­pach, a novice rider from Wis­con­sin, who man­aged to qual­ify for the in­vi­ta­tion-only sea­son fi­nale. Zam­pach led the early wet laps, stun­ning the crowd. As the track be­gan to dry, Polen man­aged to pass and went on to vic­tory.

The week­end’s big­gest race, the GSX-R1100 Cup fi­nal, also proved to be its most ex­cit­ing race. Vet­eran AMA

Pro rider Dan Chiv­ing­ton showed up with a plan. He geared his bike tall, an­tic­i­pat­ing a draft­ing bat­tle down Road At­lanta’s long back straight. It worked to per­fec­tion. He made a crafty last-lap pass on Ew­erth to take home the vic­tory. Polen might have been thwarted from a clean sweep, but he couldn’t com­plain.

“I think in the end that sea­son I made around $93,000,” he says.

While con­tin­gency rac­ing con­tin­ues to­day, the 1986 WERA Fi­nals marked the unof­fi­cial end of the big-money era. In some ways, the scheme fell vic­tim to its own suc­cess. AMA Pro Rac­ing saw the strength of pro­duc­tion club rac­ing and be­gan its own Su­pers­port cham­pi­onship in 1987. It wasn’t long be­fore the fo­cus and money went into the pro se­ries in­stead of club events. Some rid­ers— namely Billy Eise­nacher and Tray Batey—kept hus­tling into the 1990s. But ul­ti­mately the pay­outs didn’t keep pace with the costs of mo­tor­cy­cles, tires, and other rac­ing es­sen­tials.

“It was the hey­day of club rac­ing,” says WERA Pres­i­dent Eve­lyne Clarke. “I’m not sure we could ever quite get back to that level, but the man­u­fac­tur­ers should pay more at­ten­tion to his­tory and re­mem­ber what those money races did for the sport. I’d like to be­lieve we could have an­other revival of road­rac­ing if the OEMS fol­lowed the ex­am­ple set by their pre­de­ces­sors.”

Still, ac­cord­ing to the Clarke, the con­tin­gency-chas­ing years were so heady that they “cre­ated a great gen­er­a­tion of road­rac­ers.”

“Guys trav­eled around and raced each other nearly ev­ery week­end,” says Stevens, who won the 1991 AMA Su­per­bike Cham­pi­onship af­ter grad­u­at­ing from club con­tin­gency rac­ing. “It nat­u­rally raised the level of road­rac­ing in this coun­try to a point I don’t think

"IT MADE ALL THE DIF­FER­ENCE," RUS­SELL SAYS. "BA­SI­CALLY, IT WAS THE DE­CID­ING FAC­TOR ON WHETHER YOU COULD CON­TINUE TO RACE OR NOT. IT FUNDED MY RAC­ING, AND WITHOUT IT, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN TOUGH.

we’ve seen be­fore or since.”

Walker, the rider who owned Honda con­tin­gency money at Sec­ond Creek Race­way, echoes that sen­ti­ment: “To­day you might be the best guy at your lo­cal track, but you don’t get the chance to travel and test your­self against rac­ers of other re­gions. That’s what was so great about the con­tin­gency days. It brought ev­ery­body to­gether, and we all ben­e­fited from that com­pe­ti­tion.”

Walker went on to found the renowned Amer­i­can Su­per­camp flat­track school.

For Scott Rus­sell, money races were es­sen­tial to his ca­reer arc, putting him on a path to win the 1993 FIM Su­per­bike World Cham­pi­onship, as well as the Day­tona 200 five times.

“It made all the dif­fer­ence,” Rus­sell says. “Ba­si­cally, it was the de­cid­ing fac­tor on whether you could con­tinue to race or not. We made a lot of money in just a few years of do­ing it and it paved the way to get a fac­tory ride, re­ally.”

Polen par­layed the ex­pe­ri­ence into a rac­ing ca­reer that landed him in the AMA Hall of Fame, re­tir­ing with two World Su­per­bike ti­tles as well as an FIM Endurance World Cham­pi­onship.

And Peter­son, the orig­i­nal con­tin­gency vagabond? He never clicked with the GSX-R and quit af­ter the ’86 sea­son. He went back to wrench­ing, con­vert­ing en­ergy for­merly spent trav­el­ing and rac­ing for prize money into 80-hour work­weeks, scrimp­ing and sav­ing all the while. Per­haps to the as­ton­ish­ment of those bested by Peter­son on his bro­ken and dirty ma­chines, in June of 1988 he be­came the proud owner of

been sell­ing gleam­ing new sport­bikes to would-be rac­ers ever since.

Scott Zam­pach was a novice in 1986, but he did well enough in re­gional club races to qual­ify for the 1986 Honda 500 In­ter­cep­tor Fi­nal at Road At­lanta. Here he leads the race early in the wet go­ing into Road At­lanta’s turn five, ahead of two of the top In­ter­cep­tor money win­ners in the coun­try, Kurt Hall and Greg Tysor.

Suzuki and Yamaha weren’t the only play­ers in fac­tory con­tin­gency rac­ing. Honda sin­gle­hand­edly made the 600cc sport­bike class hugely im­por­tant in club rac­ing, as well as AMA Pro Su­pers­port events, af­ter it in­tro­duced its 600 Hur­ri­cane in 1987 and backed it with se­ri­ous con­tin­gency awards. Here Zam­pach wheel­ies his Hur­ri­cane at Michi­gan's Grat­tan Race­way.

AMA Pro road­rac­ing vet­eran Dan Chiv­ing­ton (cen­ter) kept Doug Polen (left) from be­ing per­fect in the first Suzuki GSX-R Cup Fi­nal at Road At­lanta in 1986, af­ter he drafted both Ron Ew­erth (right) and Polen com­ing into the fi­nal turn to win the GSX-R1100 fi­nal.

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