9 years ago
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As MotoGP prepares for its first ever visit to Indianapolis, motogp.com reflects on an impressive legacy of success for American riders in the World Championship.
When Nicky Hayden carried the American flag on a victory lap of Spain´s Valencia circuit in October 2006, after clinching his first MotoGP World Championship, it was the latest chapter in a remarkable success story for American riders at the top level of world motorcycle road racing.
Hayden, from Owensboro, Kentucky, became the seventh American rider to capture a World title in the premier class, the elite level of the sport since the World Championship first was contested in 1949. Hayden edged out five-time MotoGP World Champion Valentino Rossi by just five points in one of the most taut championship duels in history.
The United States is the third-most successful nation at the top level of World Championship road racing, with its riders claiming 15 MotoGP titles. Only Italian riders, with 18, and British riders, with 17, have won more.
But American riders have won more MotoGP World Championships in the last 30 years than riders from any other country, with all 15 titles coming since 1978. That´s more than double the total from the `runner-up´ nations on that list during the same period - Italy and Australia - with seven titles each.
Pat Hennen was the first American to win a 500cc World Championship event, capturing the 1976 Finnish Grand Prix on a Suzuki. He won two other races and finished third in the World Championship in 1976 and 1977 for Suzuki before injuries ended his promising career in 1978.
Kenny Roberts truly launched America´s rise to dominance with the first of his three 500cc titles, in 1978 - the first 500cc World title for an American.
`King Kenny´ was a dominant rider in American dirt-track oval and asphalt road racing before moving to the world stage in 1978, bringing his unconventional, knee-dragging style that eventually became the norm for all riders. He won the World title in his first season in the 500cc category, using a fearless riding style on his Yamaha to beat British legend Barry Sheene.
Roberts retained the 500cc title for Yamaha in 1979 and 1980, beating American Randy Mamola for the title in 1980 by 15 points. Roberts then finished third, fourth and second, respectively, from 1981-83 before retiring to become a team manager.
In 1982, a 20-year-old rider from Louisiana, Freddie Spencer, became the youngest 500cc Grand Prix winner by capturing the Belgian Grand Prix at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
`Fast Freddie´ staged an epic duel with Roberts for the 500cc title in 1983, as each rider won six races before Spencer prevailed on a Honda. Indeed, Americans captured the first four spots in the final standings in 1983, with Spencer followed by Roberts, Mamola and Eddie Lawson.
Spencer´s title in 1983 started an unparalleled run of dominance for American riders at the top level of the sport. Americans were World Champions for 10 of 11 seasons from 1983-93, with only Australian Wayne Gardner crashing the Stars and Stripes´ party in 1987.
Lawson won the first of his four world titles - a record for an American rider - on a Yamaha in 1984, while Mamola finished second and Spencer was fourth in the final standings.
Spencer returned to the top spot on the season podium in 1985 on his Honda, beating Lawson by eight points. Spencer also pulled off a world-title `double´ that season, winning the 250cc World Championship, becoming the first rider ever to pull off the 250-500cc `double´ in one season.
Lawson earned his second 500cc title in 1986 on a Yamaha and repeated as World Champion in 1988 and 1989 for the Japanese manufacturer. Lawson beat fellow American Wayne Rainey by 17.5 points for the title in 1989, and then Rainey´s reign began.
Rainey, fuelled by his intense rivalry with fellow American Kevin Schwantz, won three consecutive 500cc World Championships from 1990-92 on a Yamaha. It was one of the most competitive eras ever in Grand Prix motorcycle racing, as Americans Rainey, Schwantz, Mamola and Lawson, along with Australian legends and World Champions Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan, raced handlebar-to-handlebar for supremacy around the globe.
During Rainey´s reign, American John Kocinski also won the 250cc World Championship on a Yamaha, in 1990. He became the only American besides Spencer to win that title.
In 1993, Rainey was headed toward his fourth consecutive 500cc World title when he suffered paralyzing spine injuries in an accident during the Grand Prix at Misano, Italy. Schwantz earned his only World Championship that season.
Doohan brought five consecutive 500cc world titles Down Under to Australia from 1994-98 on his Honda, with Spaniard Alex Criville winning in 1999.
Kenny Roberts Jr. won the 500cc crown in 2000 on a Suzuki. The younger Roberts held off a rookie Italian 500cc rider who had just won the 250cc title a year earlier, Valentino Rossi – who himself then reeled off five consecutive titles, from 2001-05.
In 2003, Rossi´s teammate with the powerful Repsol Honda team was rookie Hayden. He had won the AMA Superbike title in 2002 after a successful American dirt-track career, following the career tire tracks of the legendary Roberts and many other elite American riders on the world stage. But it wasn´t until 2005 that Hayden earned his first MotoGP victory, on home soil, at Laguna Seca.
In 2006, however, Hayden won his first MotoGP World Championship in thrilling fashion. Nothing came easily for the Repsol Honda rider despite two victories, including a repeat at Laguna Seca. In the second-to-last race of the season, at Estoril, Spaniard Dani Pedrosa collided with teammate Hayden, eliminating both riders from the race and seemingly ending Hayden´s championship hopes.
Rossi finished second that day, giving him an eight-point lead over Hayden entering the season finale at Valencia. But with Hayden charging hard near the front, Rossi stunningly slid off course on lap five after a poor start. Hayden smoothly raced to third place to clinch the title.
Hayden led four American riders in the top nine in the final standings in 2006. Roberts Jr. was sixth riding for his father´s Team KR, Colin Edwards was seventh as Rossi´s Yamaha teammate, and John Hopkins tied for ninth on a Suzuki.
In 2007, Hopkins finished fourth to lead three American riders in the top nine of the final standings. Edwards placed eighth and Hayden ninth.
Besides capturing 15 titles, an American rider also made another piece of Grand Prix history. American Gina Bovaird is the only female rider ever to compete in the 500cc class, in 1982 at the French Grand Prix.
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