Updated: May 4
Fifty years on it is great to see on Facebook just how many people have good memories about the Transatlantic Trophy series (writes Bruce Cox). Particularly as I was one of the three people that first came up with the concept for what began life as the Anglo-American Match Race series and who then worked together to make it happen after almost two years of discussion, planning and negotiations. Sadly, the other two men are no longer with us -R.I.P. Gavin Trippe and Chris Lowe.
There is a general perception which has grown in the telling over the years that the series began as a publicity exercise by BSA Triumph in 1971. True to a degree but, like most things, there had been a lot of previous planning behind the scenes, It had actually begun with the germ of an idea in 1969 that eventually blossomed into a series that started in 1971 and ran for 16 years. And, it is fair to say, one which had a lot to do with changing the face of world motorcycle racing. All of America’s 500cc Grand Prix, Formula 750 and Superbike World Champions of the 20th century were introduced to Europe by the Transatlantic Trophy series – Kenny Roberts, Steve Baker, Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz and Fred Merkel. Plus, other Grand Prix winners like Randy Mamola and Mike Baldwin.
Back in 1968 I had spent the winter in California and in returning home via Florida became the first European journalist to cover the Daytona 200, where I was immediately impressed by the abilities of riders like Cal Rayborn, Gary Nixon, Art Baumann and Yvon Duhamel. I was also impressed enough with the motorcycle scene in California to start up a weekly newspaper there – a venture in which I was joined by fellow UK journalist, Gavin Trippe.
Our ‘Motor Cycle Weekly’ newspaper was launched at the Daytona 200 in 1969 and we soon became friendly with the racers in the American Motorcycle Association’s Grand National Championship. One of these was Ron Grant, an expatriate Englishman riding for the US Suzuki team, who was keen to go back and contest some British events. That planted the seed in the minds of Gavin and I to put together a Team Motor Cycle Weekly that would include Ron (who got his wish in 1972,by the way) and his Suzuki teammate, Art Baumann and for which we would negotiate a deal with UK track owners.
As luck would have it, one of these was Chris Lowe who I had worked with at a UK publishing company and who had become a director at Motor Circuits Developments, the company that owned the Brands Hatch, Mallory Park and Oulton Park tracks. And who was, in fact, the director responsible for the motorcycle racing side of things. We also contacted Charles Wilkinson, who owned the Cadwell Park circuit. He was enthusiastic about the idea but felt it was too big a commitment for one circuit to make.
On the other hand, it is fair to say, Chris Lowe was nothing more than politely lukewarm about the idea. Nonetheless, he was interested enough to take a break from the British weather and come to the 1970 Daytona 200 for a bit of Florida sunshine and to see the American racers for himself. By this time, our idea for a Team MCW had grown into a Team USA project as several other American riders liked the idea of racing in the UK.
From there it was but a short step for me and Gavin to present the USA vs UK match races concept to Chris Lowe for his MCD circuits over the obvious three-day Easter holiday weekend, which would have been free of any clashes with the USA road race calendar. He was intrigued by the idea and had been impressed with the US racers at Daytona but, as the man with his hands on the purse strings, he was not convinced that a team of Americans, mostly unheard of in the UK, would draw enough fans to cover the large financial outlay.
Then, in September of 1970 fate took a hand. The biggest single race day in the UK at that time was ‘The Race of the Year’ at Mallory Park and Chris had been relying on the presence of Italian superstar, Giacomo Agostini, to draw in the crowds. But a big problem arose in that Ago had already committed to a race in Italy on that date and Chris was without a ‘headline act’ for Mallory. As a fallback, he contacted us and asked if we could get a couple of Americans whose names would be known to the UK fans.
We were able to sign up Gary Nixon and Canadian, Yvon Duhamel – both of whom had received good press coverage in the British newspapers. Gary had won the Daytona 200 in 1967 and Yvon had won the 250cc race there in 1968 and again in 1969, beating the likes of Phil Read and Rod Gould, who were the top two UK racers at that time. In 1970, he was a close third to reigning World Champion, Kel Carruthers, and Gould, who was on his way to the world title that year. So, Yvon's name was well known in the UK for sure.
Gary Nixon leading Mike Hailwood and Dick Mann at Daytona
French Canadian, Yvon Duhamel won the Daytona 250 race in 1969 from Ron Pierce (left) and Rod Gould (right). He had also won that race in 1968 and placed third in 1970.
Our two picks for Chris had all the right credentials and he was happy enough with who we had delivered. And the two riders delivered as well. Gary was a Triumph factory rider and was provided with one of the triples. In 1970, however, it was a hefty beast more suited to the wide-open spaces of the Daytona bankings than the tight mile and a bit of Mallory Park. Added to that handicap was the fact that he hadn’t even seen the bike until practice on race day and that his sum total of knowledge of the track was gained from a few wet laps on a Matchless G50 single courtesy of race favourite (and eventual winner), John Cooper.
Taking all that into account, Gary did a great job to finish a fighting fourth. Likewise, Yvon Duhamel who was ninth in a field of 40 riders, having had just a few laps practice on an unfamiliar standard-trim Yamaha provided by London dealer, Ted Broad. So, the two riders from over the Atlantic had proved that they could mix it with Britain’s best. Chris Lowe was impressed and felt he had got good value for money. On the other hand, he was still loath to commit a big MCD budget for our idea of a six-man US team going head-to-head with six of Britain’s best.
Fast forward to Daytona 1971. Chris had returned to Daytona with the idea of signing for the Race of the Year one or two more US riders who had done well in the 200 Mile race, which was by then getting good coverage in the British press. This was due mainly to the BSA Triumph combine bringing over UK stars like Mike Hailwood and Paul Smart and the fact that American racers could go wheel to wheel with riders of that calibre was surely impressing the British fans.
One evening before the race, Gavin Trippe and Chris Lowe were in the bar of the Plaza hotel at Daytona and in conversation with Peter Thornton, worldwide chairman of the BSA Triumph group. Chris was lobbying Thornton, hoping to get some help from him to bring over Dick Mann for the Race of the Year, and perhaps any other BSA Triumph rider who had done well. Dick was a former US National Champion who had won the 1970 Daytona race for Honda and who was back with BSA for ’71. (He would win the 200-Miler again that year).
Peter Thornton seemed receptive to that suggestion and Gavin later recalled that it was at this point in the conversation he slipped in a mention of our match race concept. Chris Lowe admitted that he liked the idea but just couldn’t commit MCD money to the kind of budget needed to ship in a team of six riders, support crews and their machines.
Whereupon Peter Thornton simply said “It’s a great idea. We’ll do it!”
Gavin remembered later that he and Chris were almost speechless as Thornton continued “It’s simple. We have six team riders contracted in the USA and six in the UK. We have enough machines already on the UK and full factory support. There are your two teams…”
So, just like that the deal was done. Peter Thornton was a marketing man who could see the bigger picture and knew that what was too big a commitment in the eyes of Chris Lowe and MCD was a drop in the ocean compared to the worldwide advertising budget of BSA Triumph. And the match race series certainly delivered a great publicity return on both sides of the Atlantic.
For maximum exposure the series was scheduled for the Easter four-day holiday weekend when MCD already had three races scheduled at its three circuits. So, only a month or so after Daytona, the American BSA Triumph team riders were in the UK for a three-race series of Anglo-American clashes that really caught the imagination of the British fans. There were 15,000 of them at Brands Hatch on Good Friday 1971, 20,000 at Mallory Park two days later and 25.000 at Oulton Park on Easter Monday.
The Americans all performed well despite never having seen the circuits before and were soon scrapping for top-three places with the British short circuit racers who were on their familiar home ground. The match racing concept had worked – and worked well enough for Chris Lowe to commit an MCD budget for 1972, despite the BSA Triumph group being out of the picture and, to all intents and purposes, out of business by then.
It was in 1972 that Cal Rayborn caused such a sensation by tying with Ray Pickrell as top points scorer over the three races. And in 1973 Yvon Duhamel repeated that feat by tying with Peter Williams. By 1974, the scene had been set for another dozen years of legendary Transatlantic Trophy competition. Because after that along came ‘the young Americans’ – Kenny Roberts, Steve Baker, Freddie Spencer and all. For every year of the remainder of the series, even though the Brits usually took the team honours by packing the midfield places, an American was top individual scorer.
John Cooper leads Dick Mann, David Aldana and Jim Rice out of the Mallory Park hairpin
For the full sixteen years of the Transatlantic Trophy series our promotions company, Trippe, Cox Inc. was responsible for contracting the US riders and delivering them to England along with their machines and support crews, So watch out for the full illustrated history of the series that will be published by BRG Multimedia Ltd in October this year. Subscribe to The Motorcycle Files for updates and more features at www.themotorcyclefiles.com