The Start of AMA Superbike's
Words: Brian O’Shea
From 1973 to 1975, the AMA called the fledgling Superbike class “Production Superbike.” In 1976, the class morphed into the moniker we know today – Superbike. And it became a true Championship series, albeit a support class to the well-known F1 category, which hosted bikes such as TZ750s, TZ500s and Honda’s trick, 3-cylinder RS500.
In Superbike’s the early days, European machinery faired well, especially the Butler & Smith BMWs, which featured the vast experience and skills of Udo Gietil and the great fabricator Todd Schuster. The pair began working together in the late 1960s for New Jersey BMW Importer B&S. Englishman-turned-Californian Reg Pridmore won the first AMA Superbike Championship in 1976 on a Butler & Smith Beemer.
In 1977, Pridmore jumped ship from BMW onto a Racecrafters-sponsored Kawasaki KZ900 built by Pierre DesRoches and machinist Jewel Hendricks. Together they won the 1977 AMA Superbike Championship. People still ask about DesRoches, who was well-liked by all. He joined the Army and was killed in a Blackhawk helicopter crash during a night practice mission.
1978 was another very good year for Kawasaki. Craig Vetter stepped up as the new sponsor, and with his funding and a partial sponsorship from Kawasaki, DesRoches and Hendricks built a new bike that Pridmore once again used to snare the Superbike title.
I ended up purchasing that Kawasaki from Vetter in the summer of 1993 along with the Yoshimura GS1000 Wes Cooley rode to the Championship in 1980. Both had been outside under an awning for God knows how long.
In 1979, the Yoshimura GS1000 was very strong, the Kawasakis having serious trouble keeping up mechanically and speed-wise. Legendary tuner Pops Yoshimura was getting direct support from Suzuki Japan, not so much in funding but in special parts, and was making the most of them. Steve McLaughlin, Ron Pierce and Wes Cooley were clearly the guys to beat.
In 1979, Pops sold a full-on Yosh GS1000 Superbike to wealthy Roberto Pietri for the princely sum of $10,000 (about 40 Grand today). At the time, Honda was rumored to be readying a full-blown factory Superbike team for the 1980 season, the first such effort since Dick Mann won at Daytona in 1970 on the first-generation CB750. Honda wanted badly to be in the Superbike game. Superbike racing was selling plenty of big-bore streetbikes for Suzuki and Kawasaki, and because Honda wanted to remain the leader, money wasn’t going to stand in the way.
In late 1979, McLaughlin was hired to run Honda’s new Superbike team. McLaughlin hired Mike Velasco, both of whom knew Pietri, and in an effort to get a bird’s eye view of what the competition was doing, Honda got hold of Pietri’s Yoshimura GS and spend quite a bit of time figuring out exactly what made it tick.
Story has it that Pietri’s GS ran the quarter-mile in just over 130 mph, and was a monster on the dyno. The bike ended up in Japan at Honda’s RSC performance center.
Pops Yoshimura, of course, heard all about the backdoor deal, and vowed to never deal with Pietri again – no bikes, no spares, no help. Which is how Pietri ended up at Honda.
Back in Japan, four CB900F-based machines were being built by RSC, the engines receiving many RS1000 kit upgrades, including engine parts and RS1000-spec F1 Comstar rims.
In the U.S., with time running out before Daytona, team personnel were hired, with Schuster and Gietel being moved from New Jersey to California.
When the CB Superbikes arrived from Japan, the newly formed team went to work. Morris magnesium wheels were fitted. Thick-tubed Gold Wing forks were modified and fitted. Engines were torn down in search of more ponies; the bikes that came from Japan were reliable, but simply not fast enough to win races.
While engine work continued, Geitel and Schuster worked on chassis issues. They favored a 50/50 weight distribution, which worked so well on the BMWs they were so familiar with. To do this, frames were cut and steering angles reconfigured, with steering heads being brought in by one inch.
To be Continued...