Review: 'Superbike' Honors The Early Days Of Modern Motorcycle Racing – Forbes

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The coffee-table style format and heavy paper stock make this book on motorcycle racing history a … [+] quality keeper.
It was about 11 degrees Fahrenheit outside when my copy of Superbike: An Illustrated Early History arrived in the mail. Not exactly riding weather, and an ice storm backed by howling winds was inbound as well. Hours later, as the rain coated the city and region in a slick, silvery gloss, the power blinked off as laden tree limbs crashed down through power lines in and around the Portland area. Our high-tech gas furnace was about as useful as a top hat in a hurricane without any electricity. My small family huddled around our largely decorative wood-burning fireplace to keep warm as the temperature inside our home slipped below 60 degrees, then 50, then 40. But at least my book light still worked, and I took advantage of nature’s forced time-out to soak in Superbikes’ 192 heavy stock paper pages of photos and words that bring to life the early history of modern-day motorcycle road racing.
Motorcycle racing has many eras, from the deadly boardtracks of the roaring 1920s to the Harley vs. Indian rivalry of the 1940s to the rise of Asian sophistication in the 1960s and early 1970s to MotoGP and MotoAmerica Superbike racing today. Midway through the disco decade, a new type of racing involving motorcycles based largely on the models the buying public could acquire at a local dealership began to attract fans in large numbers. It became known as superbike racing, since the new crop of machines were, by the standards of the day, very powerful and technically sophisticated. And super fast. This is the era that gave us the Ninjas, CBRs, Interceptors, Gixxers and FZRs that carry on today.
The major players were the Japanese marques, although BMW, Ducati and some other European makes were also in the mix. It was at this time that I became interested/obsessed with motorcycles, which were at the very top of my parents’ Don’t Even Bother Asking For That list. I devoured magazines like Cycle World, Motorcyclist, Cycle News and other publications that held the stories and photos of daring racers like Wayne Rainey, “Flyin’ Fred” Merkel, Reg Pridmore, Keith Code, Wes Cooley, Eddie Lawson, “King Kenny” Roberts, “Fast Freddie” Spencer, Kevin Schwantz, Bubba Shobert, Erik Buell and so many others.
Racer Erik Buell at speed on a Ducati Desmo. He would go on to create innovative road bikes under … [+] his own name.
In the race day paddocks, genius tuners and wrench men like Hideo Yoshimura, Rob Muzzy, Mike Velasco, Todd Schuster – and Kevin Cameron, who narrates the book – were making the already fast production bikes into ever-faster racers. All are now racing legends but back then they were daring young men tuning and piloting these new, hugely powerful machines to victory – or disaster.
Every now and then, motorcycle road racing would make a cameo appearance on television in the U.S. and I made sure not to miss a minute of the coverage. This was long before streaming, and even before cable TV was common. Typically, if you wanted to see a race back then, you had to go to the track. There were none close by where I lived. I had to experience it through the pictures captured by photographers like veteran lensman John Owens.
Superbike: An Illustrated Early History, $75, features many of the iconic black-and-white photos I saw in those magazines, captured by Owens. Many of the photos in the book are from his unpublished archives. Owens penned the introduction to Superbikes but the book’s main weight of words comes from emeritus motoscribe Kevin Cameron. Both men, friends for 40-plus years, were at the tracks when those races took place decades ago. Cameron’s understanding of racing, the bikes in play and the mechanical parts that made them so fast is at a granular level. Fortunately, his prose isn’t technical; entertaining anecdotes and explanatory insights accompany the historic race highlights.
Fast Freddie Spencer decompressing after a not-so-fast race result.
Owen’s photos show the wandering eye any good shooter must have. Yes, there are many exciting photos of motorcycle racing, but many more of the racers themselves, their crews, their vivid focus behind the bars of the race bikes. There are also plenty of shots of details others might miss, like the artful safety wiring of a front brake, a long face after an exhausting defeat, a team paddock in pre-race frenzy, and the pop art of a bowl full of spark plugs. All lovingly rendered in sensuous color-free tones of Zone imagery, and accompanied by Cameron’s relatable explanations.
Superbike: An Illustrated Early History is the perfect mix: Amazing, timeless photography from a master photojournalist abetted by articulate, informative and entertaining explanations and anecdotes from a moto journalism icon. Every time I open the book, I see something new I missed before in the beautiful images, and learn something new about the racers I admired from afar and not-so-secretly wanted to be. It is a gift of plenty for a rider, writer and photographer such as myself, but this is a book that anyone with an interest in motorcycles, photography, or racing of any kind will find highly enjoyable.
Highly recommended.
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