An expat’s finest hour

No one expected BMW to win the very first American Superbike Championship when the series began in 1976, or the top honors to go to British-born rider Reg Pridmore.

Photo: An expat’s finest hour 1
February 27, 2014

That Reginald Charles Pridmore III had won three consecutive AMA Superbike Championships—his and the series’ first aboard a Butler & Smith-tuned BMW R90S in 1976, then two more on a Kawasaki in ’77 and ’78—inspired enough confidence for me to ride passenger on his motorcycle. Lots of people have done that, of course, a passenger ride with Reg having been a staple component of the instruction at his CLASS motorcycle schools for decades. But where most of Reg’s riding students rode behind him in the usual fashion—i.e. facing forward—I did so facing backward at not one but two California road race circuits.

Twenty-one years ago, I braved the back of Reg’s bike for a documentary I was making about CLASS. Gripping a shoulder-mounted videotape camera in my right hand and a fistful of Reg’s leathers in my left, I shot rearward as Pridmore led a group of students around Willow Springs Raceway, the idea being that they’d throttle past us on each side for a cool shot. Unfortunately, they couldn’t catch us—Pridmore was on the gas.

“Reg! Slow down! Let them go by!” I yelled over the bike’s revs and wind. Didn’t faze him. Again I yelled, and again he couldn’t hear me. Another lap, and finally he backed off for the students to gain and pass, inside, outside. Facing them coming by, I got exactly the shot I wanted.

Talking again in 2103, Reg and I laughed about that two-up ride as hard as we did back in 1992. Silly now. Serious then.

If you trust your life to someone, you gain entitlement to tell what you know of him. This I know about Reg Pridmore: He’s the real deal. A stand-up guy. A winner then, now, and always.

Marketing moves:

Win on Sunday, sell on Monday…they hoped!

Bimmer readers will know Pridmore’s name from his Superbike championship on the R90S. But who is Reg Pridmore, and how did he come to take BMW’s big twin to such a prestigious title?

Pridmore—simply “Reg” from here on—was born in London in 1939 and grew up riding British bikes. By 1959, he was practicing racing lines at Brands Hatch. Next thing he knew, he was victorious on a Triumph 500 in what he calls his “first ever decent event” at England’s famed Silverstone Circuit, in the rain.

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“I wasn’t scared of the wet,” he says, “and my bike was talking to me, so we won a bitchin’ race. I still have the silver cup from it.”

Looking for opportunities abroad, Reg came to the U.S. in June 1964 and found his way to California, where he went to work for a Honda/Triumph dealer in Santa Barbara.

“I’d schooled at Triumph in Coventry, and they could advertise that,” says Reg, adding with a laugh, “I learned a lot from old bastards! But I said to myself, ‘There’s room for expansion here,’ so I moved the old brain box out just a little by understanding that they were showing me better ways of doing good—and I actually got to be a very good mechanic.”

More than that, Reg began racing and winning in California with a factory six-speed Bultaco 125cc two-stroke and four-stroke Kawasaki 250cc Samurai production bike before buying a Norton Manx in 1967.

“That to me,” says Reg, “was one of the best things I ever did, because Norton started supporting me with their Commandos.”

Racing in the AFM, he won the 500cc class championship with his Manx in 1968 and the 1970 750cc Production title on a Commando. Then, when a Santa Barbara Suzuki dealer added BMW, Reg was asked what he thought about riding a German motorcycle.

Reg was cool to the idea at first. The new “slash 5” Beemer didn’t interest him much—until he got a call from Helmut Kern of New Jersey’s Butler & Smith, then U.S. importers and distributors of BMW motorcycles.

Kern told Reg they’d been watching him, and “to tell the truth” were having trouble selling the latest /5s. To boost customer awareness of these new 1970 models, now upgraded with a 12-volt electrical system and electric starter along with non-metallic fenders and other lightweight body parts, Kern was hoping Reg would agree to race it.

“It can be done,” he recalls telling Kern, “but not without discussing it, and seeing that you are willing to bend to things that need to be done, that would suit me, to make me win.”

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After three private test sessions with the latest BMW R75/5, Reg started riding the 750cc opposed-twin in local California races.

“A Beemer?” watchers and other riders asked? “With those cylinders sticking out the sides?”

Yes, a BMW.

“You wouldn’t believe the interest it stirred up,” says Reg about that initial trial period, “especially when you’re winning or finishing second and third amongst some of the really super-duper race bikes in its production class. From that point, things just went from good to better.”

Butler & Smith shoot for the top

With the introduction of BMW’s 898cc R90S in 1973, the chiefs at Butler & Smith felt they wanted to go deeper into racing, having already built successful BMW bikes for the F1 class, the American Motorcyclist Association’s top-flight national championship of the early 1970s. The decision coincided with changes in the AMA rulebook that would provide the ideal classification—a road racing series called “AMA Superbike.”

Race promoters had lobbied for the series, eventually winning backing from Jim France of Daytona International Speedway and Ed Youngblood of the AMA. Starting at Daytona in March 1976, a new “Superbike Production Class” would become part of every AMA road racing national, of which there would be four that year.

Reg Pridmore would be Butler & Smith’s lead rider in the series, and he’d be teamed with Steve McLaughlin, a 28-year old California rider who’d switched from Kawasaki, unhappy with the Z1’s handling. Just as he had been with the Japanese bike, McLaughlin likewise crabbed about the R90S before the Superbike series kicked off at Daytona. He didn’t think the BMWs would last the race. Reg, nine years McLaughlin’s senior, was keeping his cool.

“We used to talk about these bikes being turned into ‘superbikes,’ which they were,” he says. “They were producing speeds of 140 to 150 miles an hour, and some of them were getting pretty much what we might consider ‘on the other side’ of the superbike stuff.”

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Attrition became a legitimate fear.

As it turned out, the two principal BMW Butler & Smith team bikes did not break in that inaugural 1976 Superbike Production race on Daytona’s high banking and infield road course, thank you very much. Though B&S’s third R90S DNF’d under Gary Fisher—“Fish was a little brutal on machinery,” says Reg—Pridmore and McLaughlin went the distance, running wheel-to-wheel most of the way. Loudspeakers blared Reg the winner—but a high-speed finish line camera proved McLaughlin had crossed it first, winning by mere inches. Reg had been leading the final lap until the kid nipped him at the wire.

Those BMWs weren’t stock!

BMW’s 1-2 finish at Daytona in front of third-place Cook Neilson’s Ducati lit bright lights for the German marque and tuning savvy of Butler & Smith. Surely, however, those BMWs weren’t stock. What modifications had been made on the R90S, and what was it like to ride the new boxer race bike?

Mods first. On the basis of their experience building BMW F1 bikes in the early ‘70s, Butler & Smith engineer Udo Gietl and fabricator Todd Shuster went to work modifying the R90S originally conceived by Hans-Gunther von der Marwitz, while Rob North contributed his own frame design wizardry. The two-cylinder M04 engine was uprated with shortened connecting rods and displacement punched out to a loose-rules 1,000cc. Breathing through 38mm Dell’Orto carburetors and fired by twin spark plugs, the modified M04 served up a healthy helping of torque and almost 100 horsepower (the stock R90S had just 67), enough to be competitive with the four-cylinder two-stroke Japanese Yamaha TZ750s. In conjunction with raising compression, the boxer’s cylinder barrels were shortened slightly, allowing more lean angle in corners.

As powerful as the boxer twin engine became, it had a known weak point in its single central camshaft, supported at both ends but lacking a middle bearing. The long shaft tended to flex at high rpm, and riders had to take special care not to over-rev the engine, even though it was supposed to be reliable to 10,500 rpm. (Stock, the M04’s power peaked at just 7,000 rpm.)

“I ran mine to ten-four, ten-five, and they ran really well. But if you abused them when you downshifted you made the camshaft do things it couldn’t keep up with and it would just break the cam,” Reg says. “They were going to get you to the line, but if you kicked the shit out of them they wouldn’t.”

Handling, of course, was also key to finishing. North’s frame technology, which gave it a brace connecting the motorcycle’s steering head to swingarm pivot, much improved stability during cornering and at flat-out race speeds, but it couldn’t perfect the bike’s overall geometry.

“They were a little heavy on the front end,” says Reg, “and that was all the more reason for not getting too heavy-handed with pushing and shoving. I coaxed it with my body more so than shoving on it with the bars.”

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One trick accomplished by German-born Gietl had to do with the aerodynamics of the R90S racebike’s fairing. With no expensive wind tunnel for the Butler & Smith budget build, Gietl took fairings already wind tunnel tested and proven by Honda and Yamaha and effectively mated them in a perfect fit for the BMW.

To finish first, first you must finish!

At 1976’s second AMA race in June at Loudon, New Hampshire, 21-year old Mike Baldwin of Pasadena, California ran off with the Superbike win on a Moto Guzzi Le Mans, while Reg’s R90S trailed home in second.

“I loved the track there,” says Reg of Loudon’s technical challenges. “It had good corners.” Bottom line, he wanted points.

The third Superbike outing of the ’76 season was August 1 at Laguna Seca. This time, Reg’s BMW took victory over Keith Code’s Kawasaki after Reg got past him early in the race.

What happened to BMW’s other rider, Steve McLaughlin, at Laguna? An incident on the final lap was caught in a photograph that shows McLaughlin’s riderless BMW, wheels up, bars and tank down—in mid-air, like it was hung on wires. Pridmore and McLaughlin had just come off the steep Corkscrew and were racing for the checkered flag, only a turn away.

“I passed McLaughlin in Turn 8, what is now Turn 10,” he says, “and went around the outside of him. He got into the corner hotter than he could take it, and I got daring, too. No sooner did I pass him, Steve tossed it real bad, and the bike got completely inverted, a complete one-eighty. Somebody got a picture of that and put it in the Los Angeles Times.

“If you look at the picture, I was already through the turn, and Steve was still sliding on the track behind me. Yeah. So I’d passed him. But if you were to ask him that, he’d make like he only did it to let me get by, because other than that he had to run into me! He said he did it because he ‘didn’t want to run into Reggie.’

“The thing is,” Reg ribs, “he lives for that stuff as he gets older and older, and the stories get bigger and bigger.”

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Finally came Riverside International Raceway, a demandingly swift circuit for the fourth and last Superbike Production battle of the ‘76 season.

Cook Neilson’s Ducati led from the start until mid-distance, when the BMWs got around it. Neilson retook the lead, but the Italian bike began casting oil, and Reg rode on to victory. Neilson held on for second, while McLaughlin and BMW’s other rider, Gary Fisher, scored third and fourth, respectively.

“The bike ran good at Riverside,” says Reg, “and I kind of just played with McLaughlin. He came up to me afterward and said, ‘That was a good race, but I don’t know how you do it!’ So I said, ‘Well, you’ll just have to learn to ride a little bit stronger.’ I used to play those mind games with McLaughlin.”

With his Riverside win, the 1976 Superbike series championship belonged to 37-year-old Reg Pridmore and the Butler & Smith R90S BMW.

Decline to defend

With that victory, Butler & Smith had proven their point, and they wouldn’t defend the championship with the R90S.

“It was a big change for them in ’77 and the bike was pretty tough to deal with on the bankings at Daytona, so they withdrew for their own personal reasons—maybe feeling like they just didn’t want to spend any more money,” Reg says.

Pridmore, who had no written contract with Butler & Smith, was left to find another team for the ’77 season.

“I had two offers from Kawasaki, and I took one,” he says of signing with Racecrafters Kawasaki. That yielded another crown in ’77, and in 1978 he repeated as champion again, this time for Vetter Kawasaki. That made Pridmore not only the first Superbike champion on the BMW in ’76 but also the oldest ever with his third-in-a-row title for ’78.

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“I used to pride myself on some aspects of my racing,” says Reg, looking back on his many years of track action, “and I still do, to be a good thinking rider and a good thinking racer who won races. And that’s all it took—planning and dedication to what it was you were going to do and how you did it. I wasn’t a very good starter, so I never usually bunched into the corner with the first three or four guys. I’d take my time to see what’s cookin’ and just pull up one at a time. I’d watch McLaughlin and I’d pass him so many times on the inside, and he used to hate me for it. Then I would pass him on the outside and he’d still get pissed at me.”

For Reg, racing is history now, but his involvement with bikes goes on. He’s been teaching riding and safety for some four decades at this point, and for 20 of those years used BMWs in his CLASS teaching sessions, though presently he’s with Honda. His students ride their own bikes, however, a mix that includes sportbikes, tourers and dual-purpose—anything’s fine so long as it passes his pre-track tech inspection.

“The idea of the schools,” Reg told me years ago, “is to point to concentration and control but not to take the fun out of it. We deal with a lot of fast riders, and with a lot who just bought their bike a few months ago. We’re there to help people and to give them a better idea of what motorcycling is about.”

Reg’s 2014 CLASS calendar includes 14 sessions at Laguna Seca, Sonoma, Willow Springs, Virginia International and Oregon Raceway. When Reg isn’t on the road, or on track teaching, he’s up in the sky with his wife Gigi and dog Emma. He doesn’t have his aerobatic Citabria anymore, and the sleek little Swift that followed is in other hands now, too. Reg’s latest winged delight is a Scout bush plane, with its big wheels and fat balloon tires allowing him to fly south out of Santa Paula to natural shorelines along the Sea of Cortez in Baja California.

“It’s beautiful, peaceful,” Reg says. “We go and land on all the beaches, anywhere we want.”

Reg, who’s 74 and still thinks like 34, although with a lot more useful data up-loaded to his cranial hard drive, remembers what his parents used to tell him when he was a lad back in England, before he got onto race bikes, actually before anything significant to do with motorcycles happened in his life: “Don’t be rude to old people. You’ll get old yourself someday.”

In any event, I’ve thought for a long time that this man is ageless.

Reg and Gigi were looking through his scrapbooks recently, and there he was in his ’70s long hair and mutton chop sideburns wearing those Bates racing leathers and Elvis Presley shades.

“When Gigi saw that,” says Reg, “she started making fun of me and said, ‘I didn’t know you wanted to be The King.’ And I said, ‘Well, I was The King, not like KR [Kenny Roberts, AMA and Grand Prix legend], though.’”

Pointing at some writing on one of his scrapbook photos, he says, “Look, right there on the picture, ‘Reg The King.’”

Truth be told, Reg Pridmore is a motorcycle royal who’ll never be dethroned.

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