AMA Pro SuperBike Championship Series
Story by Chris Martin
Photo by Tom Riles
DAYTONA BEACH, FL, FEB. 3, 2014
[Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of 10 columns by Chris Martin looking at his choices for the 10 greatest SuperBike Champions. To read about his criteria in choosing those top 10 – and about those greats who didn’t make the list – please see his precursor article, “Ranking the Top 10 SuperBike Champions: The Prologue”…and then don’t forget to check out his picks for numbers five through 10…]
“Flyin’ Fred” Merkel stands as one of the most important figures in the history of Superbike racing, both in the United States and globally.
The charming and gregarious Californian was a natural ambassador for the sport at a time it desperately needed one. Merkel was the face of AMA Pro SuperBike during its transition from the undercard to premier-class status and later helped draw fans to the fledging Superbike World Championship in its earliest seasons.
After demonstrating serious speed on a 250, Merkel was signed up by American Honda to contest the SuperBike class in 1983, and he promptly logged two victories as a rookie.
The following three seasons, Merkel would own AMA Pro SuperBike, securing the 1984, ’85 and ’86 titles.
During that span, he racked up some startling statistics. In the pre-doubleheader era, Fred scored 20 SuperBike wins in all, including 10 in 1983 alone. Merkel was the all-time class wins leader for more than a decade, and he still ranks in the top five. His single-season wins mark stood for more than 20 years.
However, Merkel found himself without a ride at the conclusion of his third straight title triumph, the victim of a bitter intrasquad feud at American Honda. While Merkel won the championship in 1986, his teammate and rival Wayne Rainey earned four more wins and was retained, while the champ was pushed out.
In 1987, Merkel packed up and headed overseas, winning a number of races in England and Italy for the British Honda importer team, while also testing a Honda V4 for Oscar Rumi at Misano.
Suitably impressed, Rumi signed Merkel to contest the inaugural Superbike World Championship in 1988. There, the three-time AMA SuperBike king became World Superbike’s first champion. In 1989, he successfully defended his title to become World Superbike’s first two-time champ, while adding an Italian CIV Superbike title on the side.
Merkel picked up three early-season World Superbike race victories in 1990 in his quest to match his three straight AMA crowns, but he suffered a serious injury at the prestigious Suzuka 8 Hours (which he’d previously won earlier in his career, teamed with Mike Baldwin). Fred broke two vertebrae in the crash, effectively ruling him out of the World Superbike title race he was leading at the time.
After a few difficult seasons on the mend and attempting to regain career traction, Merkel returned to the States. He flashed his old form on occasion, despite being saddled with largely uncompetitive machinery. Despite not adding to his career AMA SuperBike wins tally, Merkel did still manage to find his way to the top of the AMA Pro podium again, notching up eight 750 SuperSport race wins (one with Muzzy Kawasaki in ’94 and seven with Yoshimura Suzuki in ’95).
Merkel’s chance to shine on the all-new and vastly more competitive 1996 GSX-R750 that he helped develop ended when he suffered another serious injury, this time ending his racing career.
Now living quietly on his ranch in New Zealand, Fred Merkel will forever be remembered as the original icon of World Superbike and one of AMA Pro SuperBike’s all-time greats.
Next time: Just three spots remain…
About the Author
Chris Martin has covered motorcycle sport as a reporter, columnist and editor for a variety of magazines and websites for the better part of two decades, with a particular emphasis on AMA Pro Road Racing. Additionally, he covers national-security issues and is currently working on his first foray into science fiction. You can follow him on twitter. (https://twitter.com/ChrisMartinSBK.)