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Plenty of people reckon Kenny Roberts was the first American to win a road-racing world title. They’re wrong, it was this guy

Forty-two years ago, a pint-sized, bespectacled youngster from the furthest north-west corner of the United States became the first American to win a road-racing world championship. Steve Baker didn’t know it at the time but he opened the floodgates: the diminutive 25-year-old was followed immediately by Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz, who won 13 500cc world championships over the next 16 seasons.

Baker, from the town of Bellingham, just a few miles south of the Canadian border, was also the first dirt-tracker to make it big in road racing. Like his compatriots he learned his skills on dirt ovals, before applying them to road racing, using his throttle control to square the circle of springy frames, nascent slick-tyre technology and two-stroke engines with precipitous powerbands.

However, because Baker achieved glory in the F750 series, rather than the 500 world championship, his name rarely enjoys the limelight, like Roberts, Schwantz and the others. And yet there’s no doubt he fully deserves to be in the US pantheon.

Baker’s 1977 season, which followed occasional earlier forays across the Atlantic on 750s, 500s and 250s, was the stuff of legend: a heroically gruelling campaign that had him competing in both the F750 and 500 world championships. Not only did he win the F750 crown, he finished second to Barry Sheene in the 500 series. Not bad for a rookie.

During those five months Baker contested 21 500 GPs and F750 events, scoring 16 podium finishes. His frantic schedule included a madcap run of nine consecutive weekends at Anderstorp, Imatra, Brno, Silverstone, Zolder, Assen, Laguna Seca and Mosport, Canada. And this in the 1970s, when racers hadn’t even dreamed of flying to races by private jet, while chauffeurs drove their motorhomes.

Presumably, Baker had a fast car to race across the continent? Not exactly.

“I was going to buy a fancy BMW but I decided to be more reasonable,” says Baker, possibly the humblest, most quietly spoken world champion you will ever meet. “I bought a little Volkswagen camper van, so I travelled around in that with my girlfriend Bonnie, while Bob [Work, Baker’s mechanic and manager] travelled with the team and with my sister [who was going out with Bob].”

It’s a wonder that Baker made it to some races, especially the trek from the Czech Republic, through the Iron Curtain and across the English Channel, all in three days, driving a camper van that might do 120km/h, downhill and with the wind behind it.

“Looking back I don’t know how we did it but it was just what we did. We had a base in Amsterdam, a little bed-and-breakfast place – really homey – near the Yamaha workshop. It was a whirlwind season. Lots of stuff happened and I got some results.”

Baker coped well with the punishment but it all got too much for Work, who had three days off all season: one for his birthday, one due to a broken foot and another when he was rushed into hospital with a stomach ulcer, the result of the herculean workload.

Baker’s two campaigns to win two world titles during his European apprenticeship were both impressive. He was just about unbeatable in F750. Aboard a factory OW31 he took five wins, two seconds and one third-place from the first eight rounds to wrap up the title with three rounds remaining. His efforts on a factory OW35 inline-four 500 were also admirable: two seconds and three thirds from the first eight races, up against Sheene, Giacomo Agostini, Johnny Cecotto and Pat Hennen.

“The 750 was just so much easier to ride,” he explains. “The 500 was so finicky, the powerband was so narrow. I rode a Suzuki RG500 in 1978 and that was so much easier to ride because of the powerband.”

The difference between the OW31 and the OW35 was reed valves. The 750 used reeds but the 500 didn’t, because the previous season the OW29 had been out-performed by the rotary-valve RG, so Yamaha ditched the reeds and returned to basic piston-port induction, in the hope of gaining more peak power. They did, but at the expense of user-friendliness.

Baker scored his first 500cc pole position at May’s French GP at Circuit Paul Ricard. He qualified seven tenths clear of Sheene and was confident he could win his first GP, because once the OW35 was on the pipe, it was super-quick down Ricard’s 1.7km Mistral straight.

“I could pass the Suzukis down the straightaway like they were sitting still, so I think I could’ve won that one easily.”

But he didn’t. Bob Work refuelled the OW before the start but a Yamaha technician refused to believe him, so he checked the fuel level on the grid and broke the fuel cap.

“They taped the gas lid shut,” says Baker. “It lasted till I put the brakes on hard the first time and then it flipped open…” Soaked in petrol, he bravely kept going to finish third.

Relations between Baker and Yamaha team management were now deteriorating. Despite his brilliant results in F750 and his brave efforts on the tricky 500, Yamaha were impatient with their new signing.

“I certainly wanted to win but the Japanese team manager made me try too hard, so I fell off the 500 a lot, rather than them working on the machine and letting me learn the racetracks. Maybe the big thing was that when I went to Japan to sign my contract I was the number-two rider and Cecotto was the number-one, because he had a lot more experience in Europe.

“If Cecotto hadn’t got hurt, the pressure would’ve been off me a bit, so I could’ve worked on the things I really needed to pay attention to, versus them expecting me to win.”

Cecotto badly broke an arm at the second 500 round at Austria’s picturesque but lethal Salzburgring. He was involved in a multiple pile up in the 350 race, which left many riders injured and Hans Stadlemann dead. As a result, Baker, Sheene and others refused to start the 500 race.

But if Baker thought the Salzburgring was dangerous, he had yet to see the two road circuits that still featured on the GP calendar: Spa’s epic nine-mile rush through the Ardennes forest and the eight-mile blast through the suburbs of Czech city Brno.

“I didn’t think much of Brno. I was amazed because there was still oil on the road from normal vehicles driving around, and I didn’t want to end up in hospital there. Spa was good but certainly dangerous and it was very difficult to go quick there without being over your head. The track was so fast it took me all of practice and halfway through the race to figure my way around.”

As it turned out, Spa was the beginning of the end of the Baker/Yamaha relationship. Before the event he received a telegram from the factory telling him that if he didn’t win – first time out at this hugely complex and dangerous street circuit – then Yamaha would withdraw from the championship. Even now, Baker seems somewhat stunned by that communication.

“I’d never really experienced that kind of pressure from a team manager,” he says.

“The year before, when it was just me and Bob doing a few European races, we always did the best we could. In 1977 I was definitely competitive, but…”

Baker rode as hard as he knew at Spa, coming through from 12th to finish second in the fastest GP in history, won by Sheene at an average speed of 135.067mph (217.369km/h). Baker might have challenged Sheene at Spa and elsewhere, but for his sluggish getaways. At five foot six inches he wasn’t the tallest man on the grid – not a problem in F750, which used clutch-starts, but a huge headache in GPs, which used push-starts.

“I was horrible at push starts, maybe because the taller guys had better leverage to push the machine. If I’d been able to get better starts it would’ve made a difference, because if you start with a deficit it’s hard to make that up.”

Quite reasonably, Baker was happy enough with second at Spa, but his Yamaha bosses weren’t impressed.

“It kind of made me think, they’ve never been out there. They know what racing is but they don’t know what racing is… If they think I’m not trying hard enough, you know, to hell with them.”

Yamaha’s attitude was difficult to fathom. After all, Baker gave them the F750 title, took second place in the 500 championship and won the biggest race of them all at Daytona, where he defeated Roberts, his childhood idol and soon to be the world’s number one.

“Coming from a dirt-track background I had watched Kenny Roberts, Gary Nixon and Cal Rayborn; all of them, they were my idols. They were the fast guys and for me to compete against them was something, the kind of thing a little guy from Bellingham would never imagine doing. Kenny and I weren’t enemies or anything but we were competitors. It was good to get to the point where I could actually compete against him and have the confidence to think I could beat him. I did that a few times, but not always.

“If you were going to beat Kenny you’d better be on your game. Kenny’s strong point was fast corners because of his experience on mile dirt tracks, whereas I enjoyed the tighter, twistier racetracks.”

Although Yamaha didn’t renew Baker’s contract at the end of 1977, he had done well for himself, earning around US$150,000, most of it on the 750.

“I’d usually make $7000 or $8000 at F750 races, $30,000 if I won, but the money at grands prix was non-existent really, like $500 per round!”

In 1978 Baker joined Roberto Gallina’s factory-backed Suzuki squad, alongside Virginio Ferrari. He scored a podium at the Venezuelan season-opener, but his career was effectively ended by a crash at Mosport.

“A windstorm had blown sand across the racetrack. I corrected a couple of times when the back end slid around, then the third time it threw me over the handlebars. On the outside was a cement wall.”

Baker badly broke a leg in the accident and although he did race into 1979, he was never the same again.

“That’s the one that scared me – I’d never had that before and you can’t ride with the fear.”

Words Mat Oxley

Photography Francois Beau