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They arrived in the late 70s, but their legacy remains on a page gilded in gold in the history books of the World Championship.
Marquez, Lorenzo and Pedrosa have often been seen filling the podium with the Spanish flag in recent years, but they’re not the first to do so. Although currently there are no American riders in the World Championship, there was a time when they won it all, taming the wild 500cc machines and making the premier class their own.
The first edition of the World Championship was held in 1949, but it would take several decades until American riders made their presence known on the international stage.
Pat Hennen was the first American to stamp his name on the world stage, taking America’s first Grand Prix World Championship win on a Suzuki at the GP of Finland back in 1976. In 1978 Kenny Roberts left behind an incredibly successful career in the dirt track world to compete in the World Championship with Yamaha.
Roberts not only won the premier class World Title with Yamaha at his first attempt in 1978, but also introduced a riding style and a way of working which would change the racing world forever. After Roberts had introduced the racing world to his dirt track style and taking the crown, he started Team Roberts and raised the professionalism in racing to a new level.
Roberts dominated the 500cc category for three consecutive seasons between 1978 and 1980, his arrival and domination accompanied by another American pioneer, a young man full of talent named Randy Mamola. He may not have ever won a title, but was the runner up in the 500cc championship in 1980, 1981, 1984 and 1987.
‘King Kenny’ would eventually retire in 1983 with three championships and make way for another young American talent. In 1982 American Freddie Spencer burst onto the scene with Honda, before in 1983 battling with ‘King Kenny’ for one of the most memorable titles to this day.
Spencer took the 500cc title in 1983 at the age of 21, another record that would stand until Marc Marquez rocked the world in 2013. The Louisiana native would do the unthinkable in 1985 as he took both the 250cc and 500cc titles in the same year. All the while yet another American, Eddie Lawson was raising eyebrows.
Injuries would get the better of Spencer eventually, Lawson seizing his chance and taking four 500cc World titles, three with Yamaha and one with Honda before ending his career in 1992. The final two years of his illustrious career saw him race with the Italian Cagiva factory, turning the bike into a winning machine.
In the 250cc class wildcard Jim Filice and John Kocinski ruled with an iron fist at the round in Laguna Seca in 1988 and 1989, Kocinski taking the 250cc title in 1990. By then two of the most beloved Americans in racing history were already established names on the world stage: Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz, the two bitter rivals bringing out the best of Yamaha and Suzuki.
Rainey would win the title from 1990 to 1992, ruling the class under his mentor Kenny Roberts. Unfortunately at the end of the 1993 season, Rainey was the victim of a crash which left him with severe spinal cord damage that forced his retirement. This left Schwantz alone to take his first title, his wild style exciting crowds but saw him fail to find the consistency to take titles before then.
Schwantz was one of the last active riders of that unique generation chasing to emulate their King, Kenny Roberts. His son, Kenny Roberts Junior, would take the 500cc title aboard a Suzuki in 2000 and close the circle on one of the most successful racing dynasties to date.
During the MotoGP™ era, Nicky Hayden has so far been the only American to take a World Title. But there have been a number of American podium finishers and even some more race winners, John Hopkins, Colin Edwards and Ben Spies all taking to the podium on multiple occasions but never quite producing a title challenge. As Spies and Edwards retired, Hayden became the lone American on the World Stage before changing to WorldSBK in 2016. For the first time since 1975, the 2016 season would see no American riders on the grid.
Between 1978 and 1993, American riders won no less than 15 World Championships (13 in the 500cc class and two in the 250cc class) with a total of 17 as of 2016. Since the first podium of Pat Hennen at the Dutch TT in 1976 until the Ben Spies’ final podium in Valencia 2011, American riders have managed a total of 172 victories, 466 podiums, 163 poles and 169 fastest laps.
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