Steve McLaughlin, one of the early stars of the AMA Superbike Series, will go down in history as the winner of the very first AMA Superbike Championship Series race held at Daytona International Speedway on March 5, 1976. McLaughlin won this seminal event riding a Butler & Smith BMW R90S in a photo finish over BMW teammate and eventual series champ Reg Pridmore. As impressive as McLaughlin’s racing career was, he is even better known for being one of the true visionaries in the history of the sport. He was a driving force behind getting the AMA to grant national championship status to Superbike racing. McLaughlin also later became the father of the World Superbike Championship, which launched in 1988.
McLaughlin was born in Pasadena, California, on September 13, 1948. Racing was in his blood. His grandfather was an automobile racer and his father, John, also a Motorcycle Hall of Fame member, was a leading desert racer in Southern California who came to national acclaim by winning the prestigious Catalina Grand Prix. The elder McLaughlin also helped form the American Federation of Motorcyclists (AFM) roadracing organization.
Even though Steve grew up around motorcycling, racing wasn’t his first ambition.
"Like many of the children of the '60s, I went through a rebellious stage," McLaughlin admitted. "In my youthful mind, I thought I didn’t want to follow my father into racing. Then at 15, I was given the chance to ride a former factory Ducati 125cc GP racing machine and I quickly got over my defiant attitude towards racing."
McLaughlin quickly became a leading roadracer on 125cc Grand Prix bikes. He earned an AFM 125cc Championship while still a teenager. McLaughlin rapidly progressed through the novice and amateur ranks in AMA competition.
As an amateur rider, he shocked the racing establishment by qualifying on the front row of the International Lightweight (250 Grand Prix) road race at Daytona to start alongside the leading pro riders of the day. He had a podium finish in the bag until the ignition on his bike failed on the final lap. With the engine running on only one cylinder, McLaughlin managed to limp to the checkered flag, but was passed by three other riders and finished sixth. Still, McLaughlin clearly earned his expert license and gained a reputation as one of the leading up-and-coming young American roadracers.
In the early 1970s, McLaughlin went against the grain and rode Honda production-based machines against the GP-bred two-strokes. He scored a 10th-place finish in the Daytona 200 on a Honda in 1973. By 1975, McLaughlin proved he was one of the elite in roadracing when he led major portions of that year’s Daytona 200 before crashing and remounting to finish sixth. While that would prove to be McLaughlin’s highest finish in the 200, much more would be heard from by the flamboyant rider on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.
By the mid-1970s, American roadracing nationals came to be dominated by a single manufacturer – Yamaha. McLaughlin saw in production roadracing the opportunity for more manufacturers to get involved. Australian racer Warren Willing once stayed with McLaughlin during one of his visits to the United States. Willing told McLaughlin of a defunct Australian racing class called Superbike.
"It was like a light came on when he said the word Superbike," McLaughlin remembered. "Even though it came from Australia, it was uniquely American sounding. It described perfectly the new powerful motorcycles that were coming out at the time and it ultimately proved to be easily translatable in languages around the world."
McLaughlin had been a leading production bike racer since the late 1960s aboard Honda CB750s, when he was backed by his father’s dealership, so he was well versed in the details of production racing. He established a set of rules with the help of well-known tuner Jerry Branch and fellow racer Hurley Wilvert.
As rider’s representative to the AMA, McLaughlin began advancing the idea of holding what was then called Superbike Production races as a support class at AMA roadrace nationals. He picked up very important allies in the form of racing promoters and publishers Gavin Trippe and Bruce Cox. In 1973, Trippe and Cox included Superbike Production as a support race at the Laguna Seca AMA National in Monterey, California. Over the next couple of years, additional promoters requested the Superbike class and by 1976, with key backing from Jim France of Daytona International Speedway and the AMA’s Ed Youngblood, the new racing class gained national recognition by being a part of every AMA roadracing national.
"The time was ripe for Superbike racing," McLaughlin said. "The AMA was beginning to make roadracing independent from the traditional Grand National Series and Superbike could draw from a large pool of production racers coming from growing ranks of roadracing organizations such as the AFM, WERA and others. Plus, the management of the AMA realized that Superbike racing was essentially a return to Class C (production) racing that the AMA had favored since the 1930s."
In 1976, BMW approached McLaughlin, who had been racing ill-handling Kawasaki Z1s in Superbike Production for a couple of seasons, to ride a factory-backed Superbike. It was surprising that the conservative German company, known for its refined touring machines, decided to enter the new roadracing series. With a lot of engine work and chassis innovation by builder Udo Gietl, combined with superb riding from McLaughlin, Pridmore and Gary Fisher, BMW was successful from the start.
"What the BMW lacked in horsepower to Japanese multi-cylinder machines it more than made up for in handling," McLaughlin explained. "I rode both and I can tell you those early Z1s were more than just a handful. Those bikes would get into tremendous high-speed wobbles and it’s not a pleasurable experience to have handlebars shaken out of your hands at 125 mph. The BMWs presented unique challenges on their own, but were certainly more civilized."
Prior to his 1976 Daytona outing, McLaughlin was worried.
"The bike broke down every time I rode it," he told American Motorcyclist magazine when talking about practice for the '76 Daytona Superbike race. "I wasn’t very confident that it would last, so when the race started, I made sure I got a good start to look good while it was running."
Pridmore and McLaughlin raced wheel-to-wheel throughout most of the race. McLaughlin’s years at Daytona had honed his drafting skills and that’s how he ultimately edged Pridmore as the duo crossed the finish line. Announcer Roxy Rockwood actually announced that Pridmore was the winner, but a high-speed finish line camera proved that McLaughlin won the race by mere inches.
The AMA Superbike Series was off to an exciting start.
McLaughlin finished second to Pridmore in the '76 championship. He returned in 1977 and raced for Yoshimura, at first aboard Kawasakis, and later on the first of the famous Yoshimura Suzukis. With Yoshimura, McLaughlin earned another important first. At Laguna Seca Raceway in 1977 he gave Suzuki its original AMA Superbike victory.
In 1978, Suzuki debuted its GS1000. McLaughlin rode the new Suzuki to victory in Daytona despite an engine failure in qualifying that forced him to start from the back of the grid. He charged through the field, battled for a time with early leader Wes Cooley and eventually pulled away to a convincing win. The race victory helped launch the GS1000 as one of the most highly acclaimed Superbikes of its era.
The '78 Daytona Superbike victory proved to be the last for McLaughlin. He would race for Racecrafters Kawasaki in 1979, and then briefly as team manager/rider for the newly formed Honda Superbike squad in 1980, before setting aside his helmet to concentrate on running the team.
After a stint of running marketing for AMA Supercross promoter Mike Goodwin, McLaughlin was called upon by his friend Jim France, of Daytona International Speedway, to work on bringing European riders to the Daytona 200, which became a Superbike race in 1985.
The work McLaughlin did in Europe on behalf of Daytona morphed into the idea of forming a World Superbike Championship. In a remarkable inferno of energy, driven by sincere conviction, McLaughlin was able to bring together the dissimilar interests of the Japanese and European manufacturers, the archaic leadership of the FIM and race promoters in countries across the world to launch the World Superbike Championship in 1988. In its first year, the World Superbike Championship had a global television package that, among motorcycle enthusiasts, made household names of riders like Davide Tardozzi, Fabrizio Pirovano, Marco Luchinelli, not to mention the first World Superbike champion, American Fred Merkel.
World Superbike was an unmitigated success among racing enthusiasts, but behind-the-scenes financial problems with the marketing firm that purchased the rights to the championship led to McLaughlin being left out of the very series he founded. His original concept proved sound, however, and less than a decade later World Superbike rivaled and in some countries surpassed the popularity of the premier Motorcycle Grand Prix Championship.
McLaughlin landed on his feet and helped launch Germany’s successful National Superbike Series in the early 1990s. His work in Germany also included promoting a number of World Championship Motorcycle Grand Prix events. McLaughlin briefly returned to America to promote a summer Supercross race in the late 1990s.
When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2004, McLaughlin continued working in the motorsports industry in Germany. He will always be remembered for his devotion to Superbike that initiated one of the most successful forms of motorcycle racing in the history of the sport.