Superbike – An Illustrated Early History Book Review

There was a time when high-performance motorcycles ridden by top professional racers who could push them to the ragged edge looked like street bikes we mere mortals could buy off the showroom floor. At a glance, you could almost mistake one for the other. On closer examination, the differences would become evident. Superbike — An Illustrated Early History is brought to us by two of the people who were there from day one and have now collaborated on a spectacular book that brings the story of the dawn of the AMA Superbike class to life through Kevin Cameron’s words and John Owens’ images.

The superbikes that ran in those magical years from 1976 to 1986 were what Cameron called the “sit-up” bikes. The advent of the AMA Superbike class in motorcycle road racing in 1976 was particularly exciting for those of us who watched it and read about it because it seemed to draw a straight line from those bikes down at the dealership to the ones out on the track. That was unlike the exotic GP racing bikes that were like street bikes in brand name only.

While the basic engine and chassis configuration of the early AMA Superbikes looked like conventional street bikes, details such as safety wiring on fasteners, oil coolers armored with steel mesh, trick exhaust systems, reinforced swingarms and frames, double-bolted billet triple clamps, brake and oil cooler lines clad in braided stainless steel, beefier handlebar clamps, fork braces, customized suspension, enhanced brake components, and myriad unique internal components, were all professionally tuned to the max, redefining the motorcycle. There were no clip-on bars or rubber-mounted anything—these were the superbikes.

Those were the days when creativity, innovation, and inventive problem-solving really mattered. Micro-management was not necessarily a bad thing when some of the racing teams consisted of only two or three people.

Superbike - An Illustrated Early History Book Review: Price

Pioneer riders and builders of superbike racing like Eddie Lawson, Mike Baldwin, Wes Cooley, Steve McLaughlin, Wayne Rainey, Freddie Spencer, Fred Merkel, Reg Pridmore, Erik Buell, Cook Nielsen, Ron Pierce, Keith Code, Phil Schilling, Fujio and Hideo “Pops” Yoshimura, Rob Muzzy, Reno Leoni, Todd Schuster, Udo Gietl, and many more are included in the story.

Even the racetracks themselves, where the mighty superbikes did combat, are recalled with some classic Cameron unflinching humor, including this description, along with one of Owens’ images: “This is Loudon, New Hampshire, where much of the paddock was paved with ankle-twisting cobbles, where once upon a time, the dreadful bathrooms were dynamited by a dissatisfied user and where, it is scurrilously rumored, Kenny Roberts shot down the Michelin promotional balloon by firing unseen through his motorhome’s roof hatch.”

Superbike - An Illustrated Early History Book Review: Erik Buell

 Superbike — An Illustrated Early History takes the reader inside the world of Superbike racing in its earliest formative days. As only someone directly involved in the events and race tuning can, Cameron brings technical expertise and an insider’s insights narrative. His writing is concise and entertaining, built on decades of experience riding, tuning, and racing motorcycles, and writing hundreds of articles and many books.

Superbike - An Illustrated Early History Book Review: Open

In Superbike — An Illustrated Early History, Cameron characterizes the appeal of the Superbike class of production motorcycle racing: “Spectators loved them, wobbling and weaving on 1960s’ tech chassis, suspension and tires. Small brake discs turned black and warped. Engines, designed for freeway reliability at 80 horsepower, blew up constantly when modified to produce 135 or even 150 horsepower. What men or gods were these, wrestling such roaring, sliding, shaking machines? Spectators shifted attention from the AMA’s traditional classes, dominated for years by designed-for-racing two-strokes, to this new ‘Superbike’ spectacle.”

Cameron has probably forgotten more about motorcycle performance technology than most of us will ever know, and we are fortunate he wrote so much of it down. We had a look at an earlier example of a Cameron and Owens collaboration in the Sportbike Performance Handbook.

Superbike - An Illustrated Early History Book Review: Cover

Owens was the man behind the camera, producing vivid, detailed images to take the reader to the track, into the pits, and up close with many of the remarkable riders and tuners during that historic time. In the 1970s, photographers roamed the pits and were able to capture the technical features of the bikes in detail on film. Many of the images in the book have never been published before, bringing the reader up close to the innovations in use on the bikes ridden by top riders.

Owens has covered professional motorcycle racing around the world, and his images, carefully curated and paired with Cameron’s insights by editor Matthew Miles, build the story with momentum, energy, and meticulous detail. Put these three motojournalism professionals together, and you have a landmark achievement in motorcycle literature.

Inspired by Owens’ “The Look of Speed” photo essay published 35 years ago in Cycle magazine, Superbike — An Illustrated Early History provides an evocative and entertaining look back at the early years of AMA Superbike racing.

Superbike — An Illustrated Early History Fast Facts

Author: Narrative by Kevin Cameron; images by John Owens; edited by Matthew Miles
Format: Hardcover; 191 10-by-11-inch pages; 90 black-and-white images
Published: 2023
Publisher: MotoRacing Books
ISBN: 978-8-218-25250-2

Superbike — An Illustrated Early History Price: $75 MSRP