Motorcycle road racing is a sport in which Europeans used to laugh out loud at Americans. Lately they have had to stifle their snickers somewhat, and last Sunday it was all they could do to work up a sheepish smile after 24-year-old Steve Baker outclassed 79 of the best riders in the world to win the Daytona 200. Not only is Baker from Bellingham, Wash., it was his first official 750-cc. world championship race.
Until Baker bloomed last season, Kenny Roberts had been considered the top U.S. road racer. Now it looks as though he and Baker are equal. Roberts was on a factory Yamaha that was a twin to Baker's, save that it was painted a brilliant yellow, and he was the only rider who could stay anywhere near Baker. Under overcast skies that would eventually burst open to cut the race to half its scheduled distance, the two Americans had led the snarling field of 80 bikes across the starting line, and in the first 17 laps they traded the lead four times. But even then the result seemed to be foregone, as Baker's red and white bike obviously had a horsepower advantage over Roberts'. Roberts eventually slowed his pace and dropped back but was able to remain comfortably in second.
The gap between the two eventually grew to 28 seconds and seemed to be yet another manifestation of Roberts' continuing jinx at Daytona, one that has kept him from winning for the six years he has been riding in the Expert Class. In the prerace practice session, Roberts' No. 1 engine had developed an oil problem, so his crew installed a spare, which was, said Roberts, "Just not quite as fast as I needed. I had to ride too hard to try and stay with Stevie, so I decided to let him go and see what happened." What happened was that Baker won $19,000 of the $102,800 purse.
Trailing the two Americans was Takazumi Katayama of Japan, an occasional rock-and-roll singer, who provided the record crowd of 70,000 perhaps the most exciting moments of the brief day of racing. Starting from the 26th spot on the grid, Katayama never stopped charging, to give Yamaha a sweep of the top three spots. Fourth was Gregg Hansford of Australia on a Kawasaki, and Gene Romero of San Luis Obispo, Calif. was fifth on yet another Yamaha.
Even beforehand it would have been more accurate to call the race the Daytona Double 100. On Saturday night an international jury of the Fédération Internationale Motocycliste had decided to divide the first world championship event of the year for 750-cc. motorcycles into two 100-mile heats. The purpose of the unusual format was to incorporate a mandatory tire change. For six years now, tire problems have plagued crews in the 200. But, as yet, no one has gone to a quick-change rear wheel during pit stops because the manufacturers have always developed a tire to go the distance—or so they have thought before each race. But they have come perilously close to failing: last year wholesale tire disintegration eliminated the hardest chargers and enabled Johnny Cecotto of Venezuela to win on a threadbare tire.
For this year's race Goodyear developed a fat rear slick, but it had only been tested on last season's bikes. The company refused to guarantee that its new tire would last 200 miles on the latest Yamahas.
"Nobody really knows the point where a tire's not going to make it around the banking," said Roberts, who vividly recalls every horrifying detail of the 170-mph blowout that cost him the 1976 race. "When the rubber gets hot enough and thin enough, it's like riding with grease balls on the tire. There are a lot of the fast riders who are really spooked."
Few argued over the decision to run the race in heats. "The organizers had to do something, or someone might have been killed," said one rider, whose sentiment was fairly representative. However, the decision changed the race drastically and affected strategies, especially Roberts'. "If I have to really race to stay with the front bunch, I won't do it," he had said early in the week. "This year I'd rather finish the race than lead it for 199 miles, then blow a tire." With no need to conserve rubber, that holdback strategy changed to one Roberts is more comfortable and familiar with: flat out.
Flat out for Roberts meant a top speed of almost 190 mph. While that speed is impressive on a purely technical level, some say it is too fast for motorcycle racing. Bill Boyce, the American Motorcycle Association's director of competition and president of the FIM jury, is one. Boyce would like to see rule changes to slow the bikes down. So would Roberts, but not everyone. "If you go faster, you just have to slow down sooner," says Baker. And Victor Palomo, the current Formula 750 world champion, has a rather dashing, continental view of the speeds. The 28-year-old Spanish law school graduate and former water-skiing champion says, "Since I was 16 I live by my own. I pay for my own life." Which he is matter-of-fact about risking. "I think that what makes the difference between riders is how fast they will go. If I am following a rider and he can go faster than me because he is better or braver, it's my problem if I kill myself trying to keep up." Palomo broke down by trying to keep up with the fast bikes at Daytona.
In practice sessions, by far the fastest were the factory Yamahas of Roberts, Baker and Cecotto. In addition to having more horsepower than the private Yamahas, the factory machines had some slick new streamlining. The backs of the seats were dartlike, causing some of the other racers to speculate that the design was intended to close the hole in the air behind the bike and complicate drafting. That theory was shrugged off with a gold-toothed grin by the Japanese crew chief for Baker and Cecotto. But then, he shrugs off a lot with a smile because he speaks little English.
One who studied the Yamaha streamlining closely was the race's Grand Marshal, Bill Mitchell, vice-president in charge of styling at General Motors and a motorcycle freak. Mitchell's eye, sensitive to esthetics as it is, lit up at the factory seats and fairings. "For once they have discovered how to make good aerodynamics look good," he said.
Cecotto was the first of the three factory Yamaha riders to qualify, but he was soon blown off by Baker, who set a lap record of 111.772 mph for the 3.87-mile course that combines almost three quarters of the banked oval used for stock-car racing with a series of five flat turns in the infield. Roberts, the pole sitter the past two years, raised his eyebrows when Baker's time—more than four seconds quicker than Cecotto's—was announced. Then he went out and missed beating Baker by .115 second. Cecotto ended up fourth on the grid, following Australian champion Warren Willing, who apparently had a tuning trick or two bestowed on him by the Yamaha factory. Willing, nearly everyone noticed, shared a garage with Roberts.
Qualifying so much slower than Baker and Roberts was an embarrassment to Cecotto, but then the entire 1976 season, his second in Europe, had been an embarrassment. After he won at Daytona last year, it was all downhill; he fell 13 times in subsequent races. This year at Daytona he lasted three lackluster laps, an oil leak putting him out.
Already pit murmurs have it that Cecotto was too good too soon, that he is a 21-year-old burnout. Said Rod Gould, a former world champion and now a Yamaha public relations man, "I think Cecotto was going fast and didn't really know why. Now he doesn't know why he's going slower and crashing. Last year he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way with his excuses for poor showings."
Said Cecotto, explaining why he qualified so much slower than Baker, "Is because Stevie knows very well the track now." Cecotto has ridden about 500 miles on the Daytona road course himself, a circuit any good rider can learn in a couple of dozen laps.
Baker is one of the first two Americans to sign a full-season factory contract (the other, Pat Hennen, was absent from Daytona because the Suzuki team had not finished developing its 750-cc. racer). Although Cecotto has two seasons of international experience, he and Baker rank as equal teammates. It may not be that way for long if things keep going the way they have for each of them; Baker also won the 250-cc. race on Saturday, also by 28 seconds.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Stevie put it all over Johnny this year," said Gould. "I think he's got a good chance to win a world championship in any class in which he will be riding."
That includes 250 cc. and 500 cc., as well as 750 cc. And if the Europeans laugh when Baker goes by, chances are good they will have to laugh with him, not at him.