From the Blog

What is a superbike?

Eddie Lawson and Freddie Spencer.

In spite of protests to the contrary, superbike racing started here in Australia and spread worldwide from there. Firstly, a little background.

The term “superbike” or “super bike” is a generic term that has been used to describe a bike that is bigger, brawnier, faster and meaner than you average bike. It started being used in the late 1960’s and was particularly, but not exclusively, applied to the large capacity motorcycles coming out of the Japanese factories of the day. The last of the British bikes, especially those from Triumph and Norton also had this moniker attached and, once the Z1 Kawasaki arrived in late 1972, it started to be used almost exclusively for the meatier and more higher performing Japanese bikes.

It didn’t take long after their arrival that enthusiasts started to race these beasts; hardly surprising, really. Now I am going to depart from my normal format here and refer you to what I regard as being the definitive article on the subject that very clearly charts the history of superbike racing and which clearly shows that superbike racing, AND racing that uses that term in its name, began here in Australia. I am indebted to AMCN for this excellent article.

The foundation of superbike racing.

Of course the concept spread as rapidly as a California wildfire and the American adopted the concept with relish. Thus, in the second part of the 1970’s began the golden era of superbike racing, when Spencer, Rainey, Lawson and Cooley became household names, not just within the racing fraternity, but in the wider community as well. These stars and many lesser stars, blazed a trail across the USA, blitzing the tracks wherever they went and elevating themselves to the rank of superstars, superstars who rode superbikes.

In Australia, while we had begun the concept, the superbikes were somewhat hamstrung by the traditional class structures of road racing and the ranks of the Unlimited Improved Production class were filled with what were, effectively superbikes. The pinnacle of road racing in Australia was still the ARRC (Australian Road Racing Championship) fought out in traditional Grand Prix classes by predominantly two stroke racing bikes of varying capacities.

As well as the competition from the Grand Prix domination of the championships, Production Racing was still huge in Australia and remained so well into the 80’s. Blue riband events like the Castrol Six Hour, the Calder Two Hour, the Adelaide Three Hour and others, competed for by manufacturer based teams as well as privateers, kept the trackside as well as huge TV audiences riveted and the concept of “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was never better in evidence than it was during that period.

It wasn’t until the very late 70’s that superbikes became an established class all of their own. Under the umbrella of organisations like NGK and Western Underwriters, a separate superbike championship began to rival the established two stroke dominated arrangement. And, when Wayne Gardner, riding Peter Molloy’s Honda 900 superbike, won the Unlimited ARRC race at Melbourne’s Sandown Park circuit, the superbike had arrived.

The rest, as they say, is history. Over the next decade or so the four stroke engine gradually took over all classes of racing and racing became an all-four stroke affair. But something else happened at the same time. Customers, as from the beginning, could buy a superbike, just like the one that their favourite rider was riding out there on the track. Japanese and European manufacturers vied with each other to produce the most powerful, lightest, smallest and most diabolical street bike that could then become the basis of a race bike with real championship-winning credentials. And the process of down-sizing from the behemoths of the 70’s led to the arrival of tiny superbikes, “hyper” bikes, even, designed with one thought in mind, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”

BUT, despite performance parameters that would have amazed the Lawsons, Spencers and Raineys of the day, the bikes became far less interesting and engaging. Why? Well, I believe the answer is ridiculously simple. If your technical regulations lay down very strict conditions of what you can and can’t do, the inevitable outcome will be that everyone builds the same bike.

Look at the bikes in the gallery below. Even if one disregards the colour which, in the day, was a very important part of establishing and maintaining brand loyalty, the fact is that you can tell what type of bike they are. There is no fairing inside which the mechanical bits and bobs are hiding, nor is the rider hidden from view by fibreglass and carbon fibre appendages. Everything is out in the open and the rider is exposed. The mechanical synergy between the rider and the machine is clearly visible.

World Superbikes, the series that is the spiritual successor of those early monster bikes, is struggling to maintain both spectator and manufacturer interest. Costs have been escalating out of control as the manufacturers take advantage of every loophole to make the fastest race bike. The latest proposal, and I have no doubt it will be happen, is for WSBK’s to adopt Superstock 1000, lightly warmed over street bikes, as the top class of the championship, all in the name of cutting costs and getting people more involved.

It won’t make any difference, let me tell you now. Why? Because, from the spectator’s point of view the bikes will still look and sound the same. Yes, they will be a little slower, but the crowd will soon adapt themselves to that. Yes, they will be a little cheaper and some may find that an incentive to join, but the gap will not be significant enough to make a significant difference to participation rates. The end result will leave us exactly where we are now with a field of look-alike, sound-alike, perform-alike bikes, with riders who all speak fluent PR and ever-dwindling interest being the problem that will still bedevil the promoters.

What is the answer? Back to the future is the answer. Because a REAL superbike isn’t a MotoGp-cloned road bike. A REAL superbike is a NAKED bike, just like (with modern refinements) Eddie and Freddie and Wayne used to ride.

Call me an old fuddy-duddy if you wish, I really don’t care. I’m right and I know it.

Bring back REAL superbike racing.