40 Years of Superbike Racing

This July 8-10, you just gotta go to Mid-Ohio

O'Shea Superbike collection
Brian "Mr. Superbike" O'Shea stands with his collection during a shoot for Motorcyclist's 2006 feature story of the same name. Left to right, front row: Reg Pridmore '78 title-winning KZ, Honda RCB endurance racer, ex-Roberto Pietri CB-F. Back row: Wes Cooley Yosh/Suzuki GS1000 title winner from '80, Fred Merkel VF750 from '83, Bubba Shobert '88 title winner, and ex-Freddie Spencer RC30.©Motorcyclist

I’ve got a big smile on my face right now. Why? Because over the last couple of weeks I was able to help assemble what I’m sure will go down as one of the coolest retro/vintage motorcycle events in years: the “40 Years of Superbikes!” celebration at this year’s AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days event at Mid Ohio, July 8-10.

It’s one thing to celebrate four decades of what many feel is the most popular motorcycle racing class in the world. But it’s quite another to a) gather a large handful of pedigreed racing Superbike machines in one place—some of which won actual championships—and b) combine them with a Grand Marshall who won two consecutive championships starting in 1979.

That man, of course, is the legendary Wes Cooley.

Wess Cooley GS1000
O’Shea’s Cooley GS1000 has been to Mid Ohio before, back in about 2011, and it created quite a stir. This year it’ll be center stage, along with the guy who rode it to the 1980 AMA Superbike title – Wes Cooley. You don’t wanna miss this.©Motorcyclist

But Cooley will do more than just come to Mid-Ohio to hang with fans and fellow racers, sign autographs, and do some epic storytelling about those crazy early years during Q&A sessions throughout the weekend. He’ll also do some laps aboard one of the very bikes he won a championship on: the 1980 Yoshimura-Suzuki GS1000 owned by vintage superbike collector, and a guy I like to call Mr. Superbike, Brian O’Shea.

Now that’s what I call a Superbike Anniversary celebration.

Superbike racing, as most of you know, is an American thing. From the Open Production club racing of the late 1960s and early 1970s (think British twins and triples, and then Honda 750 Fours), to the early Superbike support races at Laguna Seca and Daytona in ’74 and ’75 (which featured a lot of fast-but-flexy-flyer Kawasaki Z1s), Superbikes became an officially sanctioned AMA class in our bicentennial year. Superbike was conceived and pushed along aggressively by a gentleman named Steve McLaughlin, a So Cal racer and AMA rider’s rep who saw how interesting and fan-friendly big streetbike racing was, and who seemed to know instinctively how big a deal this sort of thing could become in the US and Europe down the road. Pretty prescient guy, I’d say.

Wes Cooley
Wester Steven Cooley grew up racing in Southern California, joined Yoshimura on Kawasakis in ’76, and moved to Suzuki in ’78, where he exploited the GS’s better handling. He won titles in ’79 and ’80, but a terrible crash at Sears Point in ’85 slowed him down. He’s worked as a registered nurse for two decades.©Motorcyclist

From there, Superbike racing grew like crazy, the bikes morphing from mildly modded Z1s in the early days to full factory R90Ss, GS1000s, KZ1000s and CB900Fs running out in front of privateers on the same machines. By the early 1980s, Superbike was the most popular class in the US, with guys like Cooley, Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, David Aldana, Mike Baldwin, Steve Wise, Fred Merkel, and others vying for wins and championships for themselves and the factories, which used those wins to sell increasingly capable machinery. In '85, Superbike supplanted Formula One as the top class in AMA racing (and became grist for the Daytona 200), and when McLaughlin launched World Superbike in 1988 at the UK's Donington Park, the worldwide die was cast. Very soon, Superbike would be on basically equal footing with the GP circus.

Wes Cooley on his GS1000S in 1981
Wes Cooley aboard the beautiful blue and white GS1000S Suzuki during the 1981 season. He won Bell Superbike 100 race at Daytona, but the intense Lawson-Spencer duels that year relegated him to third in the championship.©Motorcyclist

Earlier this year, while trading email with my old buddy Brian O'Shea, the idea of doing something bold and historical during this anniversary year began to take some shape. Luckily, O'Shea is more than a collector of pedigreed Superbikes; he not only finds, buys and trades real superbikes and real superbike parts, he also gets them running, and even rides them, as he did when be brought seven of his best to Barber Motorsports Park a decade ago for our Mr. Superbike feature story in the July, 2006 issue of Motorcyclist.

Those seven included the 1978 title-winning Reg Pridmore KZ, the ’80 title-winning Cooley GS, and five very special Hondas: an ’81-spec Honda CB-F ridden by Roberto Pietri, an ex-Merkel VF750F, a works RCB endurance racer, an ex-Spencer RC30 and perhaps the most special Honda he owns, Bubba Shobert’s ’88 title-winning VFR, complete with the yellow Camel Pro number one on the fairing. He and I had an absolute blast riding some of them that weekend.

Eddie Lawson at Road Atlanta in 1980
Road Atlanta, circa 1980, and already, things were hot and heavy in Superbike. Lawson (21) leads Spencer (8), who in turn leads Ron Pierce (97), David Aldana (109), Roberto Pietri (hidden), unknown (205) and Cooley, in white leathers.©Motorcyclist

Anyway, O’Shea and I figured that featuring some of his collection at an event this season, along with a Superbike legend or three, would be an appropriate way to honor the bikes, tracks, riders and tuners of America’s premier road racing class. Fortunately, James Holter, the AMA’s Director of Communications, was receptive to the idea as a hook for the AMA’s annual Vintage Motorcycle Days event, so the three of us got to work on the specifics.

I had mentioned Cooley’s name to Holter as a legend that O’Shea and I would very much like to include, and not just because O’Shea had one of Wes’s championship bikes in his stable. Besides being a two-time AMA Superbike champion, Cooley has stayed out of the motorcycling spotlight for more than two decades, and having him there would be over-the-top thrilling for everyone involved. So when Holter suggested Cooley as the 2016 VMD Grand Marshall, I called Wes immediately with the offer, and was thrilled to find he was not only able to come, but plenty excited about the opportunity.

Team Honda 1981
Team Honda’s Superbike effort in ’81 included, left to right, Freddie Spencer, Mike Spencer (no relation) and Roberto Pietri. Freddie was already dabbling in GP-spec machinery, notably the NR750 and FWS, at this point.©Motorcyclist

“It’s been a long time since I was part of that crazy Superbike scene,” Cooley told me last week, “and I’m sure it’ll be really exciting to dip back into it and experience some of it all over again. And being able to ride that Yoshimura Suzuki again? Yeah…good stuff.”

O’Shea has decided to bring four of his bikes to Mid-Ohio for VMD. "Aside from the Cooley GS1000,” he says, “I'm planning to bring Freddie Spencer's 1985 Honda VF750F Daytona 200 winner, Reg Pridmore's 1978 championship-winning KZ1000 and the VFR750F that Bubba Shobert won the 1988 title on. With the Cooley GS, we'll have an amazing range of classic, pedigreed, championship-winning Superbikes on display this summer.”

As a bonus, Ohio’s own Ken Edgar, who’s a big-time Suzuki Katana collector, is planning to bring his 1982 Yoshimura/Suzuki Katana Superbike to Mid-Ohio, the very one Cooley rode during that season. Edgar says the bike is not a runner, but seeing it alongside O’Shea’s lovely red GS1000 will be a treat. As will watching Wes do some demonstration laps on that ’80-spec GS.

Eddie Lawson at Riverside in 1982
By ’82, Superbike had become a colorful, big-time draw with colorful, big-time names. Here, Eddie Lawson (21) leads Roberto Pietri (88), Mike Baldwin (43), Wes Cooley (34), Wayne Rainey (60) and Thad Wolff (37).©Motorcyclist

The plan, as I write these words three months ahead of the event, is to display the bikes in a large tent in the infield, along with some period photography and memorabilia. We’ll do the Q&A chalk-talk sessions and autograph signings there, and basically use the tent as our base for the weekend. We might even have some period video going for everyone’s retro viewing pleasure. We’re working on having a couple more Superbike legends in attendance, too.

In addition to all this, VMD will also feature motocross, road racing, cross-country and trials events, North America's largest motorcycle swap meet, the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Bike Show, the Wall of Death, a classic field meet, demo rides of current production bikes, daily Laps for History, and interesting seminars. There will also be some new attractions, including live music in the infield; Builder's Row, featuring some of the country's best custom bike builders; two raffle bikes on display; a beer garden featuring the region's best craft beers; the AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days Adventure Bike Challenge; a pit bike TT race in the infield; and displays by some of the AMA's most active classic clubs. Remember, AMA members who buy tickets directly from the AMA before June 6 receive an exclusive price discount. AMA members can call 800/262-5646 to purchase a weekend pass for $45, or a one-day pass for $25 for Friday or Saturday or $20 for Sunday, a $5 savings off the regular advance rate. And there is no service charge for AMA members when purchasing through the AMA.

Kawasaki S1 superbike
Get up close and personal with one of these early-era Superbikes and it’s easy to feel their visceral aesthetic power. I caught up with this Kawasaki S1, ridden by John Ashmead, at the 2013 Riding Into History concours – another event worth attending each year.©Motorcyclist

If you’ve not been to Vintage Motorcycle Days event, you owe it to yourself to check it out. It’s my favorite event of the year, and with this year’s Superbike Anniversary theme, and having Wes Cooley as the Grand Marshall, you’re bound to have the same sort of big-ass grin on your face I’m wearing right now. I’ll be there all weekend with my son Alex, so please come say hello!

Mitch Boehm, 53, began riding at age 9, and racing at age 11. His moto career includes staff stints at Motorcyclist (18 years), Cycle World and American Honda, plus he recently helped Malcolm Smith write his autobiography. All of which qualifies him to jabber away endlessly about Old Stuff.