Monday, March 5, 2012

Mister, we could use a bike like the TZ750 again...

Next spring, the AMA Superbike Championship will return to Road Atlanta. The track, which was laid out in 1969, hearkens back to an earlier era in course design. The AMA's safety committee has smoothed some of Road Atlanta's rough edges. The original course included the infamous ‘Gravity Cavity’; it was the closest thing in the U.S. to Bray Hill. And a few seconds later, riders came to the daunting, downhill Turn 11. Fans are still talking about the pass Miguel Duhamel put on Anthony Gobert there in 1998. It has been reprofiled to create a smidge more runoff. But make no mistake, Road Atlanta is not some slow, technical, safe, 21st-century Alan Wilson circuit; it's still big, fast, and dangerous. 
The Championship has only been absent from Road Atlanta for a year, but other things that are big, fast, and dangerous will be returning to Road Atlanta after a longer hiatus. During the lunch breaks on all three days of the ‘National’ weekend, Yamaha TZ750s will lap the track, along with the legendary ‘Yamamonster’ that Jamie James rode in the glory days of the old ‘no rules’ Formula USA road racing series, and some superbikes that are twenty-plus years old, even though it seems as if they were racing yesterday.

"It's hard to believe that the bike that I qualified on for Daytona is considered vintage, man do I feel old," said David Sadowski. He’ll be lapping on the Yamaha OWO1 that he rode to a popular victory in the 1990 Daytona 200.

The display will be repeated at at least two more AMA national championship events later in the season, as part of a new relationship that’s been struck between one of the U.S. Superbike series’ key promoters, M1 PowerSports, and an organization called Historic Moto Grand Prix, which the brainchild of a 60-something ex-road racer named Bill Brown. 
A few years into its production run, Yamaha had sorted the worst of the TZ750's handling issues.
If Historic Moto Grand Prix seems skewed towards the Yamaha marque, that’s because Brown was a AMA privateer during the stretch of about 10 years when the TZ750 utterly dominated the AMA’s Class C (aka F-1) premier class. It was introduced in 1974, and won every Daytona 200 until 1982. Finally, in order to ensure that other brands had a chance to win, Bill France (owner of the Daytona track) arbitrarily made the 200 a race for Superbikes, which had until then been a support class.
More recently, the AMA (like World Superbike and MotoGP) has tweaked the rules of its premier class to increase competitiveness and decrease costs. A few years ago, the 200 was even reconfigured as a race for 600s. There were howls in the paddock, but any realist has to admit that AMA racing - in both the Superbike and 600cc classes - is tighter and more exciting than it’s been in years. So why are there so many people, like Bill Brown, who feel that the new bikes have failed to capture the imagination of the fans?
“People want to see the biggest, baddest thing out there,” Bill told me. He knows just how bad the TZ could be; he spent a week in intensive care after his bike seized on the way into the chicane on the Daytona back straight. “They had to reattach my left hand,” Bill continued. “It was almost torn off. A few weeks later, I cut off the cast and put a big farm glove on because my hand was still swollen, and went racing.” 
The rest of the paddock, everyone from tuners to tire suppliers, were just as afraid the TZ would prove that their knowledge and parts were no match for a 750cc four-cylinder two-stroke. Looking back on that period, Kevin Cameron recently  wrote, “Wobbling, weaving and shredding their tires,.. these 750s were proof that skinny, hard-rubber tires, door-closer shocks with three inches of travel and broom-handle frames were finished.”

In its own way, though, the TZ750 was a great level
er. Yamaha had to make 200 bikes available to meet the AMA’s homologation rules. The first ones were sold for less than $4,000, and even towards the end of the bike’s production run when most of its handling problems had been solved, it sold for less than $10,000. All told, over 600 were made and many more were assembled from spare parts, so the bikes were widely available to privateers.
“Yamaha used to come to Daytona and fill two garages with spare parts,” Bill recalled. “They sold spares to the racers at dealer cost. European riders found the prices were way lower here than they were paying over there. Of course, some favoured riders got special parts; I didn’t even realize it back then, but some guys got special cylinders and stuff. But if you could keep the stock bike running until the end of the race, and you rode decently, you were in the hunt.”
“You could buy a TZ750 and go racing a long time with a spares kit,” he told me. “Superbikes were supposed to be cheaper, but they quadrupled the cost of going racing. Now, there’s a new generation of fans coming up that don’t even know what a TZ750 is, and more importantly, they’ve never heard one.”
My favorite racing t-shirt is the one that says, The older I get, the faster I was.

Old guys have always said that the bikes, racers, and racing was better in the old days, maybe it was. Anyway, a new generation of fans will get to see the bikes that may be old but are still big, fast, and dangerous. But, what will really make present-day racers wistful isn't the sound (or scary handling) of the big strokers -- it's the thought that at the beginning of its production run a new TZ750 which was a podium threat in the AMA's premiere class sold for under $20 grand in today's money. The price rose to about $25,000 (again, corrected for inflation) at the end of its production run. 

That's the shocking part, when you think about it. It now costs at least $20k to field a really competitive club-level 600 Supersport bike. If you wanted to run in the upper third of the current, fairly depleted, AMA Superbike field, you'd spend at least that much on suspension alone.

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