Icon: Fred Merkel Superbike Champion

America's first World Superbike Champion

By Brian Catterson, Photography by Larry Lawrence

Honda has made some questionable moves in racing over the years. Letting multi-time MotoGP World Champion Valentino Rossi go to Yamaha. Replacing newly crowned AMA Superbike Champion Ben Bostrom with his brother Eric. But one of the most curious ever was cutting loose three-time AMA Superbike champ Fred Merkel.

Born in Stockton, California in 1962, Merkel followed the same path as fellow Golden State greats Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey. He started off as a dirt-tracker, then advanced to pavement and was immediately competitive, finishing third and second in the AMA 250cc GP title chase in '81 and '82.

In '83, Merkel signed with Honda to race the new V45 Interceptor in the AMA Superbike class and finished third overall. The following three years he won the championship, the latter on the then-new VFR750F. For many years, Merkel held the records for the most wins in a single season (10 in '84) and in his career (20), both since eclipsed by Mat Mladin (11/75).

At the end of the '86 season, amid reports of suspected drug use, Honda "thanked" Merkel for his three-straight titles by letting him go. Upset but undaunted, Merkel moved to Italy, where he signed with Oscar Rumi to compete in the European Superbike Champ-ionship, ironically on Hondas.

The following year the World Superbike series was born, and Merkel rode Honda's latest V4 Superbike, the RC30, for the Rumi team. With the same surname as the legendary Flying Merkel motorcycles, it was perhaps inevitable that he would acquire the nickname "Flying Fred." And with his California surfer looks, Robert Plant mane of blonde curls and unquestionable riding talent, he quickly became the center of attention. More so after he became the inaugural series champion, and repeated in '89.

In '90 Merkel lost the championship to Frenchman Raymond Roche on a Ducati, kickstarting the Italian company's stranglehold on the series. After a few more lackluster seasons overseas, Merkel returned to the states in '94 to ride Kawasakis for Rob Muzzy. The following year he jumped ship to Yoshimura Suzuki, winning no fewer than seven AMA 750cc Supersport nationals before a scary crash at Arizona's Firebird Raceway put an end to his career.

I was in that race, and vividly remember dodging the fallen Fred, his bike and various pieces thereof, then waiting and worrying as a helicopter sped him to the hospital. At first we feared the worse, but it turned out he was air-evac'ed because he'd suffered a suspected nerve injury, and couldn't feel his arm.

Merkel recovered but never raced professio-nally again. Instead he and his family moved to New Zealand, where today he runs a construction business and leads trout-fishing tours. Not a bad retirement plan for one of the hardest-working riders in American roadracing history.

By Brian Catterson
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