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Not forgotten – Randy Cleek and Pat Evans | COLUMNS | GASSIT GARAGE

These gifted US riders were just 21 when tragedy struck

It was one of the blackest weeks in the history of American road racing. Two of its brightest young stars were lost to the world in the wake of the 1977 Imola 200, Europe’s premier F750 event.

Randy Cleek’s parents owned a motorcycle dealership in Shawnee, Oklahoma, while Pat Evans was raised alongside nine brothers and sisters in San Diego, California.

Evans’ dad Dave owned a construction company, and his win-at-all-costs attitude ultimately drove a wedge between he and his talented son. Pat excelled at dirt-track racing, and his tigerish dad was eager to thrust his son into road racing. He fudged Pat’s licence application by adding a few years to his age.

Dave bought Pat a fleet of top-notch racebikes, and teenager Evans threw himself into the SoCal amateur race scene by competing in half a dozen races a day, sometimes back to back. Pat finished second in his first road race, and then won 47 straight.

Like Evans, Cleek quickly rose through the dirt-track ranks with the support of his father. When he became an AMA Junior (B-grader) in 1973, Cleek had his first encounter with road racing and immediately excelled on tarmac. He finished top 10 twice in the AMA Junior nationals, and in 1974 finished second in Road Atlanta and won Ontario. Riding as an Expert in the AMA Grand National dirt-track events, he was ranked the number one short-track rider in 1974.

Determined to develop as an elite road racer, Cleek contested the New Zealand Marlboro Series in 1974-75 aboard a Yamaha TZ750A and finished a tremendous second behind highly rated countryman Pat Hennen on the tricky Kiwi tracks. Cleek was the first foreigner to win a race in the series, with victory in Race 2 of the opening round at Gracefield.

While Cleek’s parents were very supportive through Randy’s career, Dave Evans’ pushy ways caused an estrangement with Pat in 1972 when he was just 17. Pat had been receiving support from Yamaha USA, but when Kenny Roberts burst onto the scene it threw its resources behind the future champion. It wouldn’t be the only blip in Evans’ rise through the ranks.

Pat’s father would no longer sign the AMA paperwork, so he had to qualify for his AMA Expert licence by winning the AMA Junior at the end of the year race at Ontario, which he did. When he became an Expert (A-grader), not only had his stocks risen, so had his height – to 186cm.

Teenager Pat Evans during his rise through the Novice road race ranks

Cleek’s silky ride to the top continued as a reserve rider in the 1975 Trans-Atlantic series replacing Steve Baker, who had damaged his works Yamaha 750. Cleek helped America win for the first time over Team GB. Still a privateer and banking on consistency, he won the inaugural AMA Road-Race Championship in 1976 from factory riders Roberts and Baker, despite not winning a race; he scored a second at Loudon and a third at Laguna Seca.

It was at the 1976 Daytona 200 that Aussie Jeff Sayle met Randy Cleek through their common sponsor Bel-Ray and its US boss Kurt Kiefer.

“I rode Randy’s old TZ750 in my 750 debut at Daytona,” remembers Sayle. “Randy was a great bloke and rider, he had a lot of potential.”

The paucity of top road-racing events in the US forced Evans to look further afield in 1976. He hooked up to the endurance racing scene in Europe and, after running the fastest lap on a TZ750 at the Bol d’Or, he scored a ride on a works Honda RCB1000 for the Thruxton endurance race in Britain.

In early 1977, the fates of Cleek and Evans intersected at the medieval town of Imola. Cleek had finished eighth at Daytona and Charlotte on his new TZ750D sponsored by Bel-Ray. He and Evans turned down offers to contest the inaugural street races at Long Beach to instead enter the Imola 200 on 3 April.

Evans rode brilliantly in the first leg, dicing with Gregg Hansford’s factory Kawasaki KR750 before getting the better of the Aussie to sit third in the world’s richest F750 race.

Randy Cleek at the 1975 Daytona 200

Then on lap 14 in his best-ever showing, Evans crashed at Tamburello at 270km/h, his bike striking him in the high-speed fall. He was rushed to hospital in Bologna where he lapsed into a coma but died later in the week from his injuries.

Cleek didn’t figure in the major placings at Imola and was returning to his hotel in a car with Kiefer and translator Giuseppi Geraci when they were involved in a horrific collision that claimed the lives of all three men.

At the time, America was on the cusp of its world championship dominance, commencing with Hennen and Roberts. It’s a tragedy Randy Cleek and Pat Evans were not part of that early New World revolution. For the Evans family the loss was made sadder by Pat never reconciling with his father.

Both are fondly remembered for their down-to-earth natures and exceptional talents. Cleek’s Yamaha TZ750 is on display at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Alabama.

The horrific car crash in which Randy Cleek and two others died

By Darryl Flack

Main image: John Ulrich