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Honda Superbike Racing History
The arrival of Honda's newest Superbike racing creation for the 2000 season, the RC51™, created a cosmic convergence of sorts. First, 2000 marked the 30th anniversary of Honda's first AMA victory in America's most illustrious motorcycle race, when Dick Mann won Daytona on a 90-horsepower works-built CB750. Second, 2000 marked the 20th anniversary of the birth of American Honda's official Superbike team--and more to the point, 20 years since an 18-year-old phenomenon named Freddie Spencer came to race Daytona for the first time. Mounted on Honda's first Superbike, a 1023cc 130-horsepower 160-mph monster based on the twin-cam CB750F, Spencer narrowly missed winning his inaugural Superbike race at this most prestigious of venues, but he would go on to win five Daytona Superbike races on Hondas.
Springing from such an esteemed heritage, the new-for-2000 RC51 wasted no time in extending Honda's winning ways in the Superbike arena, earning a World Superbike Championship in its inaugural year in the able hands of Texan Colin Edwards. There's nothing like beating the world's best, at tracks all around the world, to establish the credentials of a first-year effort. Meanwhile, young Nicky Hayden barely missed making it a worldwide double, falling just six points shy of the AMA Superbike Championship in 2000.
In the 22 years of racing separating the brutish violence of Spencer's first Superbike and the technological elegance of the RC51, Hondas have won a total of 93 AMA Superbike races and seven AMA Superbike titles, taking five straight between 1984 and 1988. At Honda, racing defines the breed and always has. Decades of winning on race tracks the world over have infused Honda sport bikes with technology pioneered on the track. The spirit of Honda racing has been defined most clearly over the years by a progression of brilliant race bikes and riders.
PROLOGUE TO A DYNASTY: DICK MANN WINS DAYTONA
When American motorcycle racing legend Dick Mann's phone rang a few weeks before the Daytona 200 in 1970, he could hardly have imagined the gravity of the events to follow. It was Honda's racing manager Bob Hansen, offering Mann a ride on one of four race-kitted CB750s for Daytona, signaling nothing less momentous than Honda's return to road racing.
Joined by Irishmen Ralph Bryans and Tommy Robb, and UK Honda dealer Bill Smith, Mann led the new team, qualifying fourth fastest at 152.671 mph. Grabbing the lead from the green flag, Mann led the first 13 laps, then played a strategy game throughout the race to save an ailing engine. Mann would win the 1970 Daytona 200 by 10 seconds at the checkered flag, earning Honda its first win in AMA competition. There would be more. Of the 28 Superbike races at Daytona since 1980, Hondas have won an astounding 14.
THE INLINE YEARS: 1980-1982
Superbike racing is a uniquely American invention. Thus it makes perfect sense that, in 1980, Honda's first Superbike was the quintessential handmade American hot-rod. Sometimes fragile, invariably surly but always fast, beasts such as Freddie Spencer's CB750F-based 1023cc Honda began life as street machines with no illusions of being race-worthy.
Spencer's bike was transformed from a 65-horsepower CB750F to a 130-horsepower Superbike in the imaginations and workshops of Team Honda masterminds here in the U.S.A. Two decades ago, current Team Honda Crew Chief Ray Plumb and company created everything from intake and exhaust valves to crankshafts in the process of doubling the standard CB750F's power output. Frames were gusseted. Steering geometry was optimized for 150-plus-mph speeds at fast tracks such as Daytona and Talladega. Hand-machined triple-clamps held stout, heavily modified Gold Wing® forks. Swingarms took on the look of suspension bridges. Clearly, going fast on a 1980 Superbike took more bravado than finesse.
"Those big inline bikes revved to 10,500 rpm," Freddie Spencer remembers. "They were a real handful to ride." Despite the fact he had never seen the bike before Daytona in 1980, the young Spencer's genius was already evident as he kept the big Honda in contention throughout that year's 100-mile Superbike race, eventually finishing a close second to New Zealander Graeme Crosby.
Spencer would win three races in 1980, bring the Honda home first at Elkhart Lake, Loudon and Laguna Seca. In 1981, Spencer would win the year-end Daytona National, along with Talladega and Pocono. A steepening learning curve, the most impressive team in the paddock and steady improvements to the motorcycle put Freddie second in the 1981 Superbike points chase--10 points adrift of another kid named Eddie Lawson. Freddie's teammate Mike Spencer ended the season fourth after two second-place finishes.
PASSING THE TORCH: THE CB900F
The new CB900F replaced the venerable CB750F as the basis for Honda's 1982 Superbike program, powering an increasingly dominant Freddie Spencer to a season-opening Daytona Superbike win before he marched off to Europe for the Grand Prix wars. Team Honda created a new short-stroke engine with a CB750 crankshaft for use on long, fast tracks where the bike could use its full 145-horsepower, 12,000-rpm potential. Honda had never been more serious about Superbike racing, and it showed. Mike Baldwin romped to three race wins and came in second in the points standings, followed by teammate Steve Wise in fifth.
ENTER THE INTERCEPTOR: 1983-1985
In 1983, a new AMA rule book and a new Honda motorcycle changed the face of Superbike racing forever. The 1025cc behemoths were replace by smaller 750cc machines required to bear a much closer mechanical resemblance to their showroom siblings. Honda's response was the VF750F Interceptor--the first modern sport bike designed from the ground up to go road racing.
"When I got on the Interceptor, it was incredible," Spencer says. "Right off the bat I think I went a couple of seconds faster--on a 750--than I had on the 1023. Then we won Daytona again." After taking the win at Daytona in his cameo AMA Superbike appearance, Spencer returned to Europe to become the youngest 500cc Grand Prix World Champion in history.
Meanwhile, Team Honda's other 125-plus-horsepower Interceptors carried on, winning seven more Nationals in 1983: four with Mike Baldwin (Talladega, Riverside, Elkhart Lake and Loudon), two with Fred Merkel (Portland and Daytona) and one for Steve Wise (Lexington). Halfway through the 14-race season, Mike Baldwin led the championship, but a crash on his three-cylinder Honda RS500 F-1 bike at Pocono broke his left wrist and right hand. By season's end, Baldwin and the Interceptor were second in the 1983 Superbike championship, followed closely by Merkel in third and Sam McDonald in fourth. Not bad for a brand-new bike.
Spencer made his annual March pilgrimage from the Grand Prix wars to win Daytona again in 1984, this time by over half a lap from the pole position of an all-Interceptor front row, lapping everyone up to fifth place. Of the top-10 finishers at Daytona that year, eight were Interceptors. The Interceptor won the 1984 AMA Superbike Championship under Fred Merkel, who set the AMA record for most Superbike wins in a season. The Interceptor set its own record as well, winning all but one of the 1984's 13 Superbike Nationals. No other Superbike had won as many races in a single season.
Freddie Spencer spent his 1985 spring break winning a fifth Daytona Superbike race (he spent the rest of the year pulling off the greatest Grand Prix coup in history by winning the 250cc and 500cc Grand Prix World Championships), while Team Honda's Fred Merkel took home the 1985 Superbike Championship over Interceptor-mounted John Bettencourt in the runner-up spot, winning six of the season's 12 Nationals. Adding one win each from John Ashmead and John Bettencourt gave the Interceptor 75 percent of the season's victories.
ALLOY INNOVATION: THE VFR750F
What to do for an encore in 1986? If you're Honda, you start with a radically new aluminum-frame Interceptor in the VFR™750F. The team consisted of 1985 Superbike champ Fred Merkel with 1983 champ Wayne Rainey. The combination proved all but unbeatable. Rainey won five straight Superbike Nationals, setting an AMA record that would stand until Miguel Duhamel won six in a row aboard a Honda in 1995. Merkel won two races in '86, but his consistency where it counted won him a third straight AMA Superbike title. In his first full season with Honda's Superbike team, three-time AMA Grand National dirt track champion Bubba Shobert finished in fourth.
THE WAYNE AND BUBBA SHOW
By 1987, Superbike racing had already displaced Formula One as Daytona's 200-mile Big Show. Honda's Wayne Rainey won Daytona that year, along with the next two races of the season. He rode strategically enough in the next six to take his first Superbike title--the Interceptor's fourth straight. Shobert's five podium finishes and his first Superbike win at Laguna Seca landed him a solid third in the 1987 Superbike points fray.
Wayne Rainey graduated to the 500cc Grand Prix series in 1988, giving Shobert and his VFR750F center stage in U.S. Superbike competition, which is exactly where you'd find him on any given Sunday. Battling hard with another Texan by the name of Kevin Schwantz, Bubba hammered out wins at Gainesville, Laguna Seca and Lexington to take one of the hardest-fought Superbike crowns in history by four points. Shobert's crown marked the fifth title for Honda, setting a record for the most consecutive Superbike championships for any manufacturer.
RC30: WORLD CLASS
Meanwhile, back in Europe, 1988 marked the inaugural season of the World Superbike Championship, and the introduction of a new, purpose-built Honda production racer: the RC30. Adding American Superbike hero Fred Merkel to the mix netted the first of two WSC titles for Honda and the RC30.
Though American Honda officially sat out the 1989 Superbike season, privateer John Ashmead won Daytona that year, earning the VFR750R its final Superbike victory before being retired in favor of the RC30.
Based on Honda's RVF®750 V-4 endurance racing weapon, the ultra-sophisticated RC30 had already won two World Superbike crowns by the time it arrived in America in 1990. Through the factory-supported Commonwealth team, the RC30 won the Willow Springs Superbike National in the hands of Randy Renfrow, and ended the season second in the 1990 Superbike Championship.
With a little extra development time and a guy named Miguel Duhamel twisting the throttle, the RC30 won the Daytona 200 in 1991. Freddie Spencer returned to AMA Superbike action that year on a private RC30, and felt comfortable enough on the bike to win that year's National in Miami and another the following year in Texas. "It really fit my style," Spencer says of the RC30, "It had really great feel at the front end, and you could really steer the thing with the throttle."
The final years of the 20th century were dominated by perhaps the most potent combination modern Superbike racing had yet seen: Miguel Duhamel and the Honda RC45. As the winningest Superbike rider in AMA history, Duhamel has 23 career wins to his credit--19 of those on the RC45. After making its debut with the Smokin' Joe's Honda team in 1994, the 180-horsepower, 190-mph RC45 won eight of 10 AMA Superbike rounds in 1995 under Duhamel and rookie sensation Mike Hale. Duhamel won the championship, making him the first Canadian to take an AMA Superbike crown, while Hale trailed him in second spot. What's more, Duhamel's six consecutive victories established the longest Superbike winning streak in AMA history.
Though a more astounding encore to 1995 would have been improbable at best, Duhamel started the 1996 season in classic form by winning the Daytona 200. Three more wins and six podium finishes in 10 races brought Duhamel just five points shy of back-to-back Superbike titles. Four consecutive Superbike wins in 1997 earned Duhamel and the RC45 another runner-up spot in the AMA Superbike championship.
The following season started strong for Honda and the RC45, but Duhamel's championship hopes evaporated in the rain at Loudon when he fell in practice and broke his left femur and knee badly enough that he nearly lost the leg. Duhamel's season was over, but teammate Ben Bostrom's, however, was just beginning. The 24-year-old Bostrom would accumulate points with a cool consistency belying his age and experience, a trait that ran in the family. Ben's younger brother Eric would fill Duhamel's seat on the team, and ride the 180-horsepower V-4 in the last four Nationals of the year. Despite absolutely no Superbike experience, Eric would win two of those races. Brother Ben would win the war, taking the 1998 Superbike Championship.
As the 1999 season began, Duhamel's injuries still haunted him to the point he could scarcely walk, let alone hammer around Daytona's high banks at 190 mph for 200 miles. But that's exactly what he did. Starting out with a stunning win in the cutthroat 600 SuperSport class, Duhamel won the Daytona 200 for the third time to put his 22nd Superbike victory in the record books. Just to make the victory even more heroic, Duhamel's race-winning average speed of 113.469 mph beat a 15-year-old record of 113.143 set by Kenny Roberts in 1984, making it the fastest Daytona 200 ever.
THE RC51 BEGINS A NEW ERA OF HONDA SUPERBIKES: 2000-PRESENT
Winning Superbike races has always been an exercise in creating the right tool for the job. In 2000, the new tool was the RC51, a 999cc fuel-injected V-twin. Though AMA rules mandate a 355-pound weight minimum for 750cc four-cylinder machines as well as 1000cc twins, the twin puts its power to the pavement more efficiently. Beyond that, a 999cc twin is narrower than a 749cc V-4 such as the RC45, thus presenting a more aerodynamic shape, which means more speed with less peak power, and a more rider-friendly powerband.
These attributes quickly proved their worth in the fiery crucible of racing. Right off the bat in the 2000 AMA season, the RC51 practically set up permanent residence on the podium, including one race win by Miguel Duhamel and four by Nicky Hayden. As development of the new bike continued into 2001, it all came together at the end of the season as Nicky Hayden put a stranglehold on the class, winning the last four races in a row.
Waxing enthusiastic about the bike, Miguel Duhamel explained, "The RC51 seems to give the rider a more relaxed sensation on the bike. It's very stable, with predictable power delivery. When the power comes on it's not as violent as the RC45, so I have more control exiting corners and I can carry more corner speed."
For the young and exuberant Nicky Hayden, adapting to the new RC51 posed a different challenge. "This bike pumps out so much power it's forced me to learn about throttle control," he enthused. "One of my biggest problems is spinning the tire too much. A lot of times it helps you set up for a corner, but sometimes I do it too much and I'm not going forward. For me to get to the next level, I have to learn to smooth out and get the power to the ground a little more."
The lessons learned with the new machine have all come together for 2002, as the second-generation RC51 makes its entry into the racing fray. Equipped with engine upgrades and a new frame and swingarm, plus the experience and database earned over two seasons campaigning the big V-twin, the American Honda Superbike racing effort looks to be in the catbird seat for the upcoming season.