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 F�d�ration 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.