Tag Archives: Kenny Roberts

Freddie Spencer: FEEL My Story

I have been an enthusiast of Grand Prix motorcycle racing since the early 1970’s and always relished reading the latest news, race reports and interviews in the specialist press. To a degree, it allows a certain amount of insight into the character of our racing heroes but like anyone who is thrust into the media spotlight, the public image does not fully reveal the person.

For example, triple World Champion, Freddie Spencer, was presented by many in the media as a devout Christian who hailed from the Bible belt town of Shreveport Louisiana USA. It was alleged his faith helped him to his first 500cc World Championship in 1983 defeating “King” Kenny Roberts by just two points. The truth though is somewhat different.

Freddie Spencer’s autobiography (with Rick Broadbent) is an openly disarming account of his life. From the early days racing with his Dad, Frederick Snr, to the highs and the lows of his racing career and the many injuries he sustained but hid from the press. Freddie reveals that he was not a churchgoer or deeply religious, but he has faith and his journey has been in many ways a spiritual one.

Spencer is also the only rider to have won both the 250cc (Moto2) and 500cc (MotoGP) World Championship in the same season, a feat that is unlikely to be emulated. FEEL: My Story, is the book that fills in the blanks surrounding Freddie’s career and reveals a fascinating insight into his search for meaning.

Highly recommended.

Available from the Book Depository.

Review © Geoff Dawes 2017.

 

 

 

 

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Who The Hell Is Steve Baker?

When American Kenny Roberts invaded the European Grands Prix in 1978, the two times AMA Grand National Champion left an indelible mark on the World Championship.  Not only did Roberts become the first American to win a 500cc world title  (the first of three), he also brought to Europe an American dirt track style of racing that would change the face of the sport forever.   Not only that, Roberts was also instrumental in improving paddock conditions, safety and appearance money after ruffling the FIM and establishment’s feathers by proposing a breakaway “World Series” to compete with the Grands Prix.

The quiet achiever Steve Baker.

The quiet achiever Steve Baker.

It’s therefore somewhat understandable that when the question of who was the first American to win a 500cc Grand Prix, it’s assumed it was Kenny.

In fact, it was a fellow Californian, Pat Hennen. Hennen started racing in the 500cc World Championship in 1976 for Suzuki GB and won his and America’s first 500cc Grand Prix in Finland that year. He also finished a creditable third in the Championship.  Hennen performed the same feat the following year, this time winning British Grand Prix and placing third again in the Championship. In 1978 Hennen won in Spain but suffered a severe race crash at the Isle of Man TT, which ended his career.

So who was the first American to win an FIM road racing World Championship? Ditto, again it’s assumed to be Roberts.

It was, however, a diminutive, unassuming, and quietly spoken character by the name of Steve Baker. Born on the 5th of September 1952 in Bellingham, Washington State, Baker, like so many of the American World Champions that followed, started out a dirt tracker.   At age 11 he would spend hours riding the many dirt trails around his hometown and at 16 began to race on short track and the TT dirt tracks of the Pacific Northwest. By the early 1970’s Steve had become one of the top-ranked novices, and junior TT riders in America.  Baker was by now racing in events up and down the west coast of the United States and Canada.

Baker at work on Yamaha Canada TZ750.

Baker at work on Yamaha Canada TZ750.

Steve then turned his hand to road racing, mainly in Canada, competing in as many as five classes during a typical weekend. It wasn’t long before Baker had a hat trick of Canadian road racing titles to his name in the 500cc expert class, taking the number one plate in 1974, 1975 and 1976.  1976 was a good year for Baker who also took out the 250cc and unlimited expert class as well.

Baker had begun racing professionally in 1973 with sponsorship from Yamaha Canada’s Trevor Deeley, with Bob Work as his tuner. Baker’s debut in his first AMA national was at the 1973 Daytona 200 in which he finished 28th.  It was not until September that year that Baker showed his true potential with a creditable 2nd place to former 250cc World Champion Kel Carruthers at Talladega in Alabama.  Unfortunately, it was on the same circuit the following year that Baker crashed and broke his leg, leaving him sidelined for the rest of the year.

Bakers comeback ride was at Daytona in 1975 and it netted him a commendable 2nd place to Gene Romero. But it was in 1976 that Baker’s star really shone.  Now one of only five riders to receive a “works” OW31 TZ750 Yamaha, it proved to be an awe-inspiring combination.  Baker qualified 2nd to Kenny Roberts at the season opening Daytona 200, but during the race suffered mechanical problems after holding down third place.  Disappointment turned to success at the next two FIM Formula 750 Prize events in Venezuela and at Imola in Italy with Baker winning both of the 200-mile races.

Baker on the grid alongside future factory teammate Johnny Ceccotto.

Baker on the grid at Imola alongside future factory teammate Johnny Cecotto.

On the home front, he recorded his first AMA national victory at the Loudon Classic in June and backed it up with a win in the 250cc race.  Baker repeated this at Laguna Seca again winning both the national and 250cc race.  1976 was also Baker’s debut in the Trans-Atlantic Match Races, a series that pitted a team of America’s best riders against seasoned English racers on circuits in the UK. Baker won four of the six races finishing second and fourth in the other two and was top points scorer of the series.  This was against riders of the calibre of Kenny Roberts, Barry Sheene and former world champion Phil Read.  Baker followed this up later that year with a win in the prestigious Race of the Year at Mallory Park beating the likes of 500cc World Champion Barry Sheene and multiple World Champion Giacomo Agostini amongst others.

For 1977 the FIM Formula 750 Prize had been granted full World Championship status with the season starting Daytona 200 as the opening round.  Baker by now had been drafted into the official Yamaha factory squad to contest not only the new 750cc World Championship but the 500cc World Championship as well alongside Johnny Ceccotto while Giacomo Agostini was provided with “works” machinery through the Italian Yamaha importer.

Baker leads Roberts both on the OW31.

Baker leads Roberts both on the OW31.

Finally, everything seemed to come together for Baker at Daytona, qualifying on pole position and winning the race.  Baker also clinched the double by winning the International Lightweight 250cc race. The F750 World Championship consisted of eleven rounds most of which (unlike the Grands Prix) consisted of two heats. Six of the circuits Baker had raced on before and with the mighty OW31 at his disposal he was able to win five of the rounds, coming second in three and third in two. Baker never finished off the podium in the 10 rounds he contested. His nearest rival Frenchman Christian Sarron was 76 points behind.  America, at last, had its first FIM road racing World Champion.

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Diminutive Baker manhandles the OW31 through the infield.

But it was the 500cc World Championship that Yamaha was most eager to capture.  The Japanese company had first entered the blue riband 500cc class in 1973 with 1972 250cc World Champion Jarno Saarinen.  Unfortunately, Saarinen was killed in the 250cc race at Monza while leading the point’s table in the 500cc class. Yamaha withdrew for the rest of the season but returned in 1974 with the great Giacomo Agostini.  Agostini went on to win the title for Yamaha in 1975 giving them and Japan their first 500cc World Championship. But in 1976 rival Japanese manufacturer Suzuki with the talented Barry Sheene had taken the title away. Yamaha was required to save face.

In 1977 the 500cc GP’s were also contested over eleven rounds, but many of the circuits were new to Baker. Steve was reported to have said in a recent interview that he was “overwhelmed by Europe” when contesting the championship.  Not only were their new circuits to learn there was also the question of racing in the rain, something that did not occur in the United States.  On top of that, there was the culture shock of living outside of the states. Then, of course, there were the street circuits, which were part of the Grand Prix calendar.  Spa in Belguim, Imatra in Finland, Brno in Czechoslovakia and Opitijia in Yugoslavia all could prove deadly and finding the right place to make up time or take calculated risks could only come from experience. Let’s not forget that 1977 saw the British Grand Prix on the mainland for the first time (at Silverstone) after the top riders of the day vetoed that most deadly of all road courses, the Isle of Man TT.  Even the closed circuits at that time could not be considered “safe” by today’s standards and fatalities regularly took place.

It was with this backdrop that Baker contested the championship, taking on seasoned campaigners like World Champion Sheene and a flotilla of “works” or factory supported RG500 Suzuki’s, not to mention his own teammate Ceccotto and Agostini on the other factory Yamaha YZR500 0W35’s.

At the end of a tough season, Baker finished in a creditable second place to World Champion Barry Sheene.  He had scored second place three times, third place three times, fourth once and fifth once.  The second round of the 500cc Championship had been boycotted in Austria at the Salzburgring after an accident in the 350cc race that saw one rider killed and several others badly injured, including Baker’s teammate Johnny Ceccoto, who broke his arm. In the other two races that made up the series in Finland and Czechoslovakia Baker suffered mechanical problems which blunted his final points tally,  80 to Sheene’s 107.

Always fast.

Always fast.

With such a performance in his rookie year, a factory contract for 1978 might have been expected.  The only thing that Baker hadn’t achieved was winning a 500cc Grand Prix.  Unfortunately Yamaha top brass witnessed a domestic bust up between Baker and his fiancé Bonnie with his sister and Bob Work at the Dutch TT in Assen.  This seemed to seal Steve’s fate and a contract was not forthcoming.

The Gallina team signed Baker for the following season on a private Suzuki RG500, but against the factory machinery he could only achieve seventh in the championship, his best result a third place podium in Venezuela.  Baker also competed in the F750 World Championship for the Gallina team on a production Yamaha TZ750E although he was “allowed” to ride Yamaha Canada’s factory OW31 in North America.  Daytona was no longer part of the F750 World Championship in 1978, although it was still the most important road race in America. Baker suffered a DNF through mechanical failure while in second place chasing Kenny Roberts. The season turned out to be one of mechanical failures and risky strategy for Baker, desperate to try and compete with the “works” machines. To cap off a disastrous season, at the last round at Mosport in Canada, Baker was involved in another riders fatal practice crash. Baker escaped with a badly broken arm and leg.

Steve finished sixth in the Championship with his best results being two-second places at Imola and Laguna Seca and a third place at Paul Ricard. The following season, in 1979, Baker was set to race in the MCN/Superbike championship in the UK riding a Yamaha TZ750F for Sid Griffiths.  At the second round of the series, at Brands Hatch, Baker crashed entering Paddock Hill bend and sustained similar injuries to his Mosport crash of the previous year.

Bakers privateer Gallina TZ750D.

Bakers privateer Gallina TZ750E.

Steve Baker left the sport without having the chance to fully fulfil his enormous potential and returned home to open a Yamaha dealership in his hometown of Bellingham, which he runs to this day. Often overlooked as America’s first World Champion, Baker holds no grudges, and there is no bitterness, only a modest gratitude to have been able to enjoy the experience.

In recent years Baker has ridden for the Yamaha Classic Racing Team at numerous classic events around Europe, jogging peoples memories while attracting new fans, and reminding us all of the very special the talent that is, Steve Baker.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2014. Images courtesy http://www.global.yamaha-motor.com, http://www.aircooledrdclub.com, http://www.classicmotorcycles.net and http://www.ge-board.de

The Rise Of Marc Marquez.

Two 20 year old MotoGp winners. Marquez the youngest ever by 133 days.

The temptation to compare great Grand Prix motorcycle racers from different eras is almost impossible to resist for many MotoGP commentators.  Admittedly, it does help generate increased interest from the media, the fans, and the general public, but grabs of history both past and present that align nicely do not necessarily make for a fair comparison or do justice to those involved.

Marc Marquez has already claimed the mantle of the youngest winner of a MotoGP at age 20 by 133 days from “fast” Freddie Spencer. In 1983 Spencer went on to win his first  World Championship aged 21 years in the 500cc class (MotoGP) becoming the youngest person to win the title.  Marquez appears to be on course to wrest that achievement away from Spencer as well, currently leading the MotoGP World Championship with six rounds to go as this is written. However in 1985 at the age of 24 Spencer won both the 250cc (Moto2) and 500cc (MotoGP) World Championships, something that no other rider has done, and is a feat that is unlikely to ever be repeated. It should also be noted that Marquez started racing in the 125cc World Championship in 2008 when he was 15 and has won both the 125cc (Moto3) World Championship and the Moto2 World Championship, although he was not the youngest champion of either of those two classes.

Freddie Spencer the youngest MotoGp World Champion at 21.

Freddie Spencer the youngest MotoGP World Champion at 21.

The same commentators are also espousing that rookie Marquez may win the MotoGP title in his first year. The last person to achieve this was Kenny Roberts 35 years ago in 1978. But here there is a rather large difference in circumstance between Roberts achievement and that of Marquez should he attain the title.

Roberts World Championship effort was backed by Yamaha America,  who only supplied his team with equipment. This consisted of three different GP racers for the three different classes Roberts was contesting. Formula 750, 500cc GP and 250cc GP – one machine for each class with no spare bikes. His crew chief was expatriate Australian, Kel Carruthers, a former 250cc World Champion and a mentor to Roberts, accompanied by mechanics Nobby Clark, Trevor Tilbury and a Yamaha technician. Roberts had helped develop Goodyear’s racing tyres in the States and it was the American company that put up the money that was needed to go racing in Europe. Goodyear naturally supplied the tyres.

The situation was not an ideal one as Roberts explains, “When we got to our first race it became crystal clear that, for sure, I wasn’t a Yamaha factory rider. Venezuelan rider Johnny Cecotto was. It wasn’t hard to tell; all we had to do was look at his equipment and then look at ours. We did have a Yamaha engineer by the name of Mikawa, and at some races, we also had a Goodyear technician. But it was us against the factory, really.”

'78 World Champion Kenny Roberts at the '79 French G.P. at Le Mans,

’78 World Champion Kenny Roberts at the ’79 French G.P. at Le Mans,

“So ’78 was a piece of work. I was riding 250 and 500 Grand Prix and Formula 750 as well. We had just one bike per class; no backup bikes. At practically every race it was my first look at the track. Usually, all I had was 30 minutes to figure it out. And not just the track, everything–the right lines, bike setup and tire selection, if there was any. There I was, aiming to beat reigning World Champion Barry Sheene, who’d usually seen the track a dozen times before. And we were on Goodyear tires. We were on our own there, too, because nearly everyone else was on Michelins. I swear, some things never change! To say the Goodyear guys had their hands full is to understate the problems we faced. Usually, the Goodyear guys would show up at a track they’d never seen before, which meant they didn’t have the right tires. That’s a nightmare you really don’t want to deal with. But deal with it we did.”

Roberts wen ton to win a hat-trick of 500cc World Championships.

Roberts went on to win a hat-trick of 500cc World Championships.

Nonetheless, Goodyear eventually weighed in with more development tyres and Yamaha finally supplied Roberts with a second bike for the 500cc GP class. Roberts dropped the 250cc title challenge after winning two races and at one stage leading the championship, finally finishing fourth in the standings.  Roberts continued on with the Formula 750cc World Championship finishing second in the title five points behind Johnny Cecotto. But Roberts won the 500cc GP (MotoGP) World Championship by 10 points from Barry Sheene against a flotilla of factory Suzuki’s and the works Yamaha of  Johnny Cecotto. It was an outstanding achievement.

Marc Marquez in action. A future multi MotoGp WorldChampion ?

Marc Marquez in action. A future multi MotoGP World Champion ?

By comparison, Marc Marquez has raced in the world championships for five years now. In MotoGP, there is only one track that was new to him, Laguna Seca (The Circuit of the Americas was new to everyone in MotoGP this year). As a World Championship prodigy in the smaller classes, he has been groomed by both Repsol and Honda to fit seamlessly into the retired Casey Stoner’s seat at the team. With a dearth of experience from the team around him and mountain of electronic data to relate to and the use of control tyres, the only thing that can stop Marquez from claiming the title may be fate. He has proven he is fearless and usually comes out on top when pressured by his peers. Indeed if there is a similarity between Marc Marquez and Kenny Roberts championship campaign it is the fact that they are both real racers in every sense of the word. And there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Marquez will continue to break records.

Words Geoff Dawes (c) 2013. Images courtesy http://www.motogp.com

Read more: http://www.motorcyclistonline.com/features/122_0503_kenny_roberts/#ixzz2dn69hATZ