American Roadracing In The Golden Age Of Factory Contingency Money

Racing vagabonds like future world champion Doug Polen capitalized on manufacturer and aftermarket contingency programs.

When Doug Polen took a 1986 Suzuki GSX-R750 for a quick spin at a Denton, Texas, dealership, he came back inspired.

Polen, a former AMA Superbike privateer, was still doing a little club racing. But he'd mostly given up the dream of being a full-time pro.

“The dealer suggested I could take a GSX-R750 and make a little money racing at the local Texas events,” Polen remembers. “I went to the first race at Little Talladega just to see how it would go. When I won there, I came home, looked at the schedule, and realized if I could get a GSX-R1100 and a Honda 500 Interceptor, I could travel to races just about every weekend, and if I did well I could make some decent money. If I won all three races it was a $2,700 weekend.”

Honda Ad
A chart depicting just what extra dough you could bring in if you raced a Honda.Motorcylist

Polen geared up to capitalize on manufacturer and aftermarket contingency programs, which offered rich financial incentives to riders for racing—and, especially, winning—on certain hot new bikes at club events. These programs have long been a part of motorcycle racing, but the meteoric rise of production sportbikes during the 1980s kicked off an unprecedented contingency war. For a few shining years, Japanese bike manufacturers funneled enormous sums into these guerilla marketing campaigns.

It led to an extraordinary era in roadracing. Generous programs from Suzuki, Yamaha, and Honda spawned a generation of American roadracers. Guys who would later make it big—Polen, Scott Russell, and Danny Walker—roamed the country, jockeying for podiums, honing their skills to a razor's edge, pushing one another nearly every weekend of the season.

The money races were a massive draw. It wasn’t uncommon to see grids of 60 bikes lined up to chase factory dollars—impressive for any motorsport event, much less one at the club level. Even those who weren’t riding contingency-eligible bikes could cash in, making side deals in the pits. Maybe they would suddenly have a mechanical and pull off on the final lap, and a contingency racer would pass for the win. Maybe everyone would go home a little richer.

Racing for cash didn’t just benefit the riders. Sportbike production hit an all-time high, bolstered in part by hundreds of aspiring club racers. New bike sales and replacement parts—especially factory bodywork—was said to be so substantial that it easily covered the contingency payouts and then some.

Roadracing Vagabonds
Suzuki and Yamaha weren’t the only players in factory contingency racing. Honda single-handedly made the 600cc sportbike class hugely important in club racing, as well as AMA Pro Supersport events, after it introduced its 600 Hurricane in 1987 and backed it with serious contingency awards. Here Zampach wheelies his Hurricane at Michigan's Grattan Raceway.Motorcyclist

Flashback to 1985: The US economy is finally out of a recession and the baby-boomer generation has reached financial maturity. Inspired by the success of Americans in Grand Prix roadracing, competitive motorcycling is gaining traction stateside. Under these fortuitous circumstances, a wave of twenty- and thirtysomethings find a new way to spend weekends: club racing. Yamaha, which had just released the FJ1100, FZ750, and FJ600 in rapid succession, took note. To establish the credibility of those new bikes, the company began offering riders $500 for production class wins on any of the three models. The money paid down to fifth place. (There was also a smaller program for the RZ350 that paid $200 for a win.) In an industry first, Yamaha paid contingency money broadly to local club organizations across the country. Scores of riders took advantage, swooping up new FJ and FZ sportbikes to try their luck at nearby circuits. One rider from New Jersey took it a little further. Bart Peterson, a motorcycle mechanic by trade, made chasing Yamaha contingency money into something of a second occupation. He crammed an FJ600 and an FZ750—plus lawn chairs, gas tanks, and toolboxes—into the back of a rusty Datsun pickup and set out all across the East Coast then into the Midwest. When his overloaded truck rolled into the paddock on race weekend, the local specialist groaned. They would most likely be racing for second place in the money races.

"The dealer suggested I could take a GSX-R750 and make a little money racing at the local Texas Events. I think in the end that season I made around $93,000."

Peterson’s operation would never be described as sano. He was traveling hard and cheap, with little time to worry about bike maintenance, much less the appearance of his machines. If it rained on the way to the race, his Yamahas arrived coated with a dull film of road grime; unless it rained overnight, they raced that way. At some point in the season, his FJ blew a shock. The competition got used to watching his back wheel pogo-sticking around through turns.

Peterson capped off his 1985 season at the Western Eastern Roadracers Association Grand National Final at Road Atlanta. After dicing with aces Ed Key and Greg Tysor, Peterson won the barn burner on a gritty, last-lap overtake. He ran so fast into the final turn that his Yamaha kissed the outside edge of the gator teeth. “That was one of the craziest moves I ever saw in racing,” Tysor said later. “Only Bart would try something like that. He just had that attitude like, ‘Let’s try this and see what happens.’”

According to Peterson: “The truth is I would have gone into the grass to win that race.”

Roadracing Vagabonds
Doug Polen (left) talking with Scott Gray (center) and Mike Harth (right).Motorcyclist

Peterson was the original club-racing vagabond, a roving two-wheel prizefighter. He beat the top club racers of the day, like Key and Ron Ewerth. Despite taking money on a regular basis from the local track specialists, Peterson was almost universally liked. He was friendly, modest, and fun to be around. Plus, you couldn’t help but laugh when you saw his rig and the condition of his bikes. It was hilarious that those things even ran, much less contended for podiums. But his makeshift operation underlined a point: Peterson wasn’t winning because his bikes were the best prepared. He was winning because he rode like a banshee and understood how to play the contingency game. He earned more than $40,000 in Yamaha money in ’85.

Roadracing Vagabonds
AMA Pro roadracing veteran Dan Chivington (center) kept Doug Polen (left) from being perfect in the first Suzuki GSX-R Cup Final at Road Atlanta in 1986, after he drafted both Ron Ewerth (right) and Polen coming into the final turn to win the GSX-R1100 final.Motorcyclist

As the year came to a close, Yamaha’s program appeared a huge success. The FJ600 had established a foothold in the market, and the five-valve FZ750 caused a stir, kicking off a three-quarter-liter battle. The FJ1100 proved its superbike mettle. The roadracing contingency for those models did not go unnoticed. Other manufacturers jumped in the game. Honda already had a rider incentives program for the 500 Interceptor with the American Federation of Motorcyclists, the country’s oldest roadracing club. For 1986, the brand boosted the money and expanded the contingency setup nationally. Anybody finishing top five on an Interceptor 500 was eligible for payouts. Winners took home a fat $700. Suzuki took it even further. The company was introducing the GSX-R line in America, marketing it as “a racebike for the street.” So, in 1986, to promote the launch, Suzuki executive Hank Ota dreamed up a wild, nationwide contingency program. It paid a whopping $1,500 to win on a GSX-R1100 and $1,000 to win on a 750cc Gixxer. And the cash went down 10 places. Racers could potentially pay for their new motorcycles in as little as five race weekends. All told, Suzuki put $285,000 up for grabs. Which is how Polen ended up at the dealer in Denton, Texas.

Suzuki Ad
Suzuki was also in on the contingency game as you can see in this ad.Motorcyclist

“I took a GSX-R750 down the road and flicked it back and forth a few times,” he remembers. “I came back to the dealership and told the guys, ‘Yeah, I think we can do the business on this thing.’”

He wasn’t the only one. Thomas Stevens, at that time a rapidly rising club racer, recalls seeing the money offered by Suzuki and sitting down to do some math.

“I said to my mom, ‘Look! I’m going to win $27,000 this year because I’m going to go win all these races!’ Two races in, I had a crash and broke my bike in half, so it was a little harder than what I had it chalked up to be.”

The first Suzuki-paying race on the 1986 calendar was in early February, in the pines of Alabama. It was also WERA’s season-opening race, held at an exciting new circuit, the 1.3-mile Talladega Gran Prix Raceway road course. The combination turned what would normally be an anonymous club-racing weekend into a spectacle. Suzuki’s Ota even flew in, ready to hand out a first-place check.

Roadracing Vagabonds
As if getting a podium win wasn't champagne-shower worthy already, that extra contingency money coming in was another reason to celebrate.Motorcyclist

But there were problems. Polen's GSX-R750, an apex-eating weapon on paper, was showroom-new and never raced, with no setup time. Meanwhile, a posse of race-toughened riders on proven Yamaha FZ750s—including Peterson—showed, ready to roll. After qualifying, the front of the grid was filled with FZs and just a smattering of GSX-Rs. Polen was there but starting from the back of the grid after crashing in his qualifying heat. With only an eight-lap sprint race on the tiny track, filled with a massive grid, Polen had little hope of winning back the coin he’d dropped on that new GSX-R.

Sunday’s WERA B Production 750cc race saw everyone lining the fences. A handful of riders swapped the lead. Then, WERA Southeastern Region fast-man Ewerth took control on his FZ750. But Polen methodically made his way through the field. With just two laps remaining, he began to challenge. On the last lap, he squeezed past Ewerth’s Yamaha and took home the win, giving Suzuki a victory in the GSX-R750’s club-racing debut. Ota proudly presented Polen with the first Suzuki contingency check. It would not be his last.

That summer, Polen traveled all across the country chasing Suzuki and Yamaha money, upsetting the locals nearly every weekend.

Danny Walker vividly remembers his first encounter with Polen. Walker was nearly unbeatable in Motorcycle Roadracing Association competition at that point.

“I rode nearly every single day at Second Creek Raceway,” Walker says. “Nobody was going to take my Honda contingency money there. That was mine. First race of the season I was way out front, stylin’, on my way to winning, when all of a sudden this goofball guy [Polen] passes me taking a completely weird line. I’m like, “What’s he doing? That’s not the line around here!’ as he’s pulling away from me! I would have bet everything I had that was the most illegal 500 Interceptor in the country. Come to find out the thing was a piece of shit. It was carboned up, worn out. It was just the way he rode that thing.”

The wild, contingency-fueled 1986 season came to a head in November at the WERA Grand National Final. Suzuki paid to bring the top money-earners from each North American club organization to Road Atlanta. There, Ota and his team organized a head-to-head, winner-take-all showdown: the Suzuki GSX-R Cup.

More than 60 riders made the trip. It marked the first meeting of club racers from all regions. The 1986 WERA Grand National Final hosted not only the 750cc and 1100cc Suzuki Cup races but also the Honda Interceptor Final. Cameras were placed all around Road Atlanta, and a helicopter flew overhead, tracking the action, and the races were televised on Prime Sports. Outside of AMA Pro events at Daytona and Laguna Seca, this was motorcycling’s most anticipated race weekend.

As expected, Polen easily won the GSX-R750 Cup Final. In the Honda Interceptor Final, he faced a challenge from Scott Zampach, a novice rider from Wisconsin, who managed to qualify for the invitation-only season finale. Zampach led the early wet laps, stunning the crowd. As the track began to dry, Polen managed to pass and went on to victory.

The weekend’s biggest race, the GSX-R1100 Cup final, also proved to be its most exciting race. Veteran AMA Pro rider Dan Chivington showed up with a plan. He geared his bike tall, anticipating a drafting battle down Road Atlanta’s long back straight. It worked to perfection. He made a crafty last-lap pass on Ewerth to take home the victory. Polen might have been thwarted from a clean sweep, but he couldn’t complain.

“I think in the end that season I made around $93,000,” he says.

1988 Suzuki GSX-R Cup Final
Like Doug Polen before him, Scott Russell honed his skills club racing before going on to become AMA and World Superbike champion. Here Russell celebrates his 1988 Suzuki GSX-R Cup Final victory over Cal Rayborn III and David Sadowski at Road Atlanta.Motorcyclist

While contingency racing continues today, the 1986 WERA Finals marked the unofficial end of the big-money era. In some ways, the scheme fell victim to its own success. AMA Pro Racing saw the strength of production club racing and began its own Supersport championship in 1987. It wasn’t long before the focus and money went into the pro series instead of club events. Some riders—namely Billy Eisenacher and Tray Batey—kept hustling into the 1990s. But ultimately the payouts didn’t keep pace with the costs of motorcycles, tires, and other racing essentials. “It was the heyday of club racing,” says WERA President Evelyne Clarke. “I’m not sure we could ever quite get back to that level, but the manufacturers should pay more attention to history and remember what those money races did for the sport. I’d like to believe we could have another revival of roadracing if the OEMs followed the example set by their predecessors.” Still, according to the Clarke, the contingency-chasing years were so heady that they “created a great generation of roadracers.”

Suzuki Ad
Cheers!Motorcyclist

"It made all the difference," Russell says. "Basically, it was the deciding factor on whether you could continue to race or not. It funded my racing, and without it, it would have been tough."

“Guys traveled around and raced each other nearly every weekend,” says Stevens, who won the 1991 AMA Superbike Championship after graduating from club contingency racing. “It naturally raised the level of roadracing in this country to a point I don’t think we’ve seen before or since.”

Walker, the rider who owned Honda contingency money at Second Creek Raceway, echoes that sentiment: “Today you might be the best guy at your local track, but you don’t get the chance to travel and test yourself against racers of other regions. That’s what was so great about the contingency days. It brought everybody together, and we all benefited from that competition.”

Roadracing Vagabonds
Roadracing vagabond Scott Gray.Motorcyclist

Walker went on to found the renowned American Supercamp flat-track school.

For Scott Russell, money races were essential to his career arc, putting him on a path to win the 1993 FIM Superbike World Championship, as well as the Daytona 200 five times.

“It made all the difference,” Russell says. “Basically, it was the deciding factor on whether you could continue to race or not. We made a lot of money in just a few years of doing it and it paved the way to get a factory ride, really.”

Polen parlayed the experience into a racing career that landed him in the AMA Hall of Fame, retiring with two World Superbike titles as well as an FIM Endurance World Championship.

Roadracing Vagabonds
Chances of getting a piece of the contingency pie can be gone in an instant.Motorcyclist

And Peterson, the original contingency vagabond? He never clicked with the GSX-R and quit after the ’86 season. He went back to wrenching, converting energy formerly spent traveling and racing for prize money into 80-hour workweeks, scrimping and saving all the while. Perhaps to the astonishment of those bested by Peterson on his broken and dirty machines, in June of 1988 he became the proud owner of Action Yahama in New Jersey and has been selling gleaming new sportbikes to would-be-racers ever since.