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American Dynasty

The Days of the American Dynasty: When US Riders Ruled GP

American Dynasty If you follow MotoGP racing, you’ve certainly noticed that these days, Spaniards dominate the podiums of MotoGP. Three of the four of the top riders, affectionately referred to as “the aliens” for their virtually superhuman riding ability, hail from Spain – Marquez, Lorenzo, and Pedrosa – with Valentino Rossi from nearby Italy being the only excepetion. At this year’s race in Jerez, Spain, Spanish dominance over the MotoGP grid was apparent – fully 10 out of the 23 racers on the grid in the premier class were Spanish.The dominance Spain seems to have over the top spots can be frustrating to fans from other nations, but particularly for Americans – not only has there not been a single American MotoGP champ since Nicky Hayden’s title in 2006, but since his departure from MotoGP in 2016, there remains not even one American on the grid at all.But despite total Euro-dominance today, there was a time where Americans held a virtual dominion over Grand Prix championships in an almost unbroken streak from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Americans stormed onto the scene with a unique riding style honed on the dirt flat tracks of Southern California and elsewhere for the first time in 1976, with a skillset so dominant, it took nearly a decade-and-a-half for the rest of the world to catch up!The first American to win a GP championship at all since the establishment of the series in 1949 was Pat Hennen, a forgotten name today because he only won the title once in 1976, losing the title again to Europeans the following two years. Hennen was actually the first of the great American racers, but his career was cut short due to a horrific crash suffered at the TT race (which GP racers traditionally avoid) that left him permanently paralyzed.

The American most of history remembers as marking the beginning of what would become an “American Dynasty” was Kenny Roberts. A champion in flat track racing in the Southern California circuit, Roberts won multiple championships, but Harley-Davidson became so dominant in the sport that both Roberts and Yamaha, which he rode for, were forced to reassess their positions. In a bold and unusual move, Yamaha decided to move Roberts, still under contract with the brand, across the Atlantic to compete in Grand Prix racing where they were more competitive. Roberts resisted, knowing he would be outclassed by the Europeans not only in road racing, which he had limited experience with, but on their home tracks, which he had never even seen. Roberts went reluctantly.

Ironically, it would precisely be Roberts’ experience in flat track that would be an advantage in road racing, instead of a shortcoming – unlike the Europeans, Roberts was perfectly at home on a motorcycle with a sliding rear tire, allowing him to aggressively power around corners in a way that Europe had never seen on paved tracks. The 500cc machines of the day had massive power, but tire technology still lagged behind, and Roberts’ rubber-shredding riding style allowed him to blow past competitors still trained to finesse the two-stroke monsters around corners to prevent high-sides. Roberts not only arrived as a powerful force in racing, but his riding style began a revolution in motorcycle racing – from then on, traction was not something to be held at all costs, but rather, a factor to be manipulated just as much as throttle or brake. Roberts remarkably dominated the premier class for three years, from 1979 to 1981.

Accompanying Roberts was another American, with a similar racing background – by that time, Americans had figured out that there was something to flat track racing that gave American racers an edge over the rest of the world, and a racing prodigy from northern California named Randy Mamola would soon become the next dominant American in GP. Mamola was known as much for his fierce riding style as for his enthusiastic engagement with fans, and he was a fan favorite throughout the 1980s. Though he never won a world championship, he was runner up for an incredible 4 seasons, and became one of the greatest American riders ever in his 13 year career.

Randy Mamola was brilliant, but it was another fast-rising racing star who would really show the world that Kenny Roberts wasn’t just a prodigy, but rather, the Americans had something the rest of the world didn’t at the time. Freddie Spencer, another dirt track racer from Shreveport, Louisiana, burst onto the scene in 1982 and took his first championship in 1983, after an exciting season-long battle with “King Kenny” Roberts – a remarkable moment in GP history, particularly for American fans. Even more remarkable, Spencer not only won the championship in only his second season, he did so at the young age of only 21 years old – a feat so incredible, it set a record that would stand for 30 years (until Marc Marquez finally unseated him, winning the title in 2013 at the age of only 20.)

The following year, yet another would-be great American racer, Eddie Lawson, unseated Spencer as the champion (who himself unseated another American, Roberts, the year before.) By this time, Americans had won most of the top spots for nearly a decade – now, GP was not so much about whether Americans could take on the rest of the world in GP, but rather, which American would prove to be the best. Lawson, also a veteran of the southern California flat track racing circuit, became known as “Steady Eddie” due to his calculated, consistent riding style and almost supernatural ability to avoid crashes. Lawson won in 1984, gave the title back to Spencer in 1985 (who pulled off another incredible feat that year, winning both the 250cc and 500cc classes), then won again in 1986, 1988, and 1989. Click Here…

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