Roadracing will hit a major milestone in Canada this year, 40 years since the first national superbike championship.
Legendary Canadian racer George Morin took that first title, starting a career filled with success at the national level. But before he won that first race in Edmonton, he says a lot of people didn’t take the idea of superbike racing seriously — GP-style bikes ruled the tracks of the day, not production-based machines.
Those early races were exciting times; back then, easterners tended to only race in eastern Canada, westerners only raced in western Canada, and there was some curiosity about the calibre of local competition at each round, as opponents matching up had never faced each other before.
Colin Fraser, president of Professional Motorsports Productions and the big boss behind the current Canadian Superbike series, was at that race and he says there were a fair number of top Canadians in attendance. “Not everyone who could win was there, but there was a pretty good turnout of people who were considered to be the fast guys of the time.” He remembers local rider Steve Dick as the big surprise of that weekend, when he took a Honda dealer’s demo six-cylinder CBX around the track. At first, people thought it was crazy, but, as Fraser says, “It turned out at that track, with Steve Dick riding, it was a competitive choice.”
That was the theme of the era. Morin, Dick, Lang Hindle, Rueben McMurter and the other racers were all trying something new. Although the series was production-based, the rules were pretty loose at the start. Riders were constantly looking for more speed.
“I got protests in Edmonton for a frame modification. Basically, all you had to do was have the same frame — you could twist it in a figure 8, if you wanted to,” says Morin. The same went for engines: as long as you didn’t supercharge it, or run it over the capacity limit, you could do what you wanted.
“We changed the wheels, we changed brakes, they were sort of loosey-goosey at first, because in the beginning, they didn’t know which direction it was going to go.”
That all changed as the decade went on. Superbike racing was here to stay, and GP bikes were fast becoming history. Racers got serious and put together teams, instead of just showing up at the track last-minute with no mechanics. The manufacturers themselves realized this was going to be more than just a passing fad, and they started putting their support behind some of those teams.
Growing up fast
The early years of Canadian superbike racing were a mish-mash of different bikes mixed together on a variety of tracks. It started with one-off races in the ’70s, and the CMA-governed national title in 1980 was only a two-race series. From there, you’d see some years with a two-race or three-race series deciding the title. Other years, there was no championship at all. But Fraser says things got considerably more serious when RACE took over as the administrators of the national superbike championship in the mid-’80s.
Fraser thinks the biggest benefit that the national championship brought to Canadian racers was a set of standardized rules made for roadracing, instead of the early AMA-derived rulebook that had come from the flat-track era.
Now, Canadians had one set of rules to play by, if they wanted to be on the national level, and that also allowed them to more easily move out of the country to race elsewhere. Soon, racers from the Great White North were a major factor in the AMA’s superbike series as well.
There’s one racing insider who saw both sides of this era: Pat Gonsalves had started his announcing career in the early days of Canadian roadracing, and watched the stars of the ’80s first prove themselves in Canada. When the 1990s arrived, they also started seeing success in the US. While several Canadians did well racing in the US, one guy in particular made a massive impact.
“As we got into the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, Miguel Duhamel started to surface,” says Gonsalves. “Miguel didn’t run too long in the Canadian series, maybe a couple of years, then went on to AMA and won his first Daytona in 1991. When Miguel went down there, then I had the honour of announcing all five of his Daytona wins.”
Other Canadians might not have been quite as successful in the US, but much of that came down to timing and luck. Duhamel had proved that Canadian roadracing was for real.
In many ways, these were the glory days of Canadian superbike racing. Morin, who was in team management at this point, figures 1985-2000 were the best years of the series. Looking at past race results, it’s easy to see why. There were plenty of fast guys on-track, and just as importantly, there was plenty of money, thanks to cigarette and beer advertising.
Tobacco and alcohol advertisers began to be drummed out through regulations and spectator concerns by the late 1980s, and it hurt some teams very badly. In particular, British tobacco manufacturer Rothmans was a huge sponsor; its departure left big holes in budgets.
Still, the series did help sell a lot of sportbikes, and Fraser says that helped officials bring in new sources of sponsorship money from the manufacturers themselves, which helped keep the transition from being as obvious. But he says no other sponsor has ever been as aggressive as the tobacco companies were.
The road ahead
To a certain extent, that history with the lost tobacco sponsorships explains a lot about where the national championship, now managed by Canadian Superbike (aka CSBK), is now. Once the manufacturers also started to pull away from the series after the 2008 financial crisis, the money wasn’t worth it for some of the country’s top racers. The series went through some very lean times before the resurgence of the past couple of years.
Back in the early 1980s, Gonsalves says one of the major challenges that organizers faced was the cost of organizing a cross-Canada event, with the expense of a true coast-to-coast national. You could say that’s still true today, as CSBK’s races are all in Ontario and Quebec, with one double-header weekend in Nova Scotia. Although fans and some riders would welcome the addition of western races, the cost of getting there is a challenge.
But to a certain extent, the national championship has already achieved the goal that organizers were looking for back in the early days.
“We thought we had a culture of racing that was strong, for how small our country is in terms of people, and we wanted to show it off,” says Fraser. And between the CMA, RACE and CSBK eras, the Canadian series has done that.