Jamie James (center) in the winner’s circle at Daytona after winning his first AMA Pro event, the 1989 Daytona 750cc Supersport race over second-place David Sadowski (right) and third-place Mike Harth (right). (Henny Abrams photo)
The “Ragin Cajun” is a great racing moniker for Louisiana native Jamie James. A fun nickname no doubt, but the reality is James is about as far from “Ragin” as a man can get. One of the friendliest and most approachable racers ever to be crowned AMA Superbike Champion, James garnered a large following of fans. At autograph time, you could always tell where James was located by the massive line.
James had a dream season in 1989, winning both the AMA Superbike and AMA 750 Supersport Championships with Yoshimura Suzuki. A rare two-title season was a stunning factory debut. The only downside for James was that he’d chase that second Superbike title the rest of his career. He came agonizingly close, but was never quite able to gain back the No. 1 plate in the premier road racing class.
James got hooked on racing from a young age, growing up watching races at a track that neighbored his grandfather’s farm. As he got older James dabbled in flat track off-road and motocross racing and was an avid street warrior. To pay for his hobby, James did a variety of manual labor jobs, including deckhand on Mississippi River barges. While James enjoyed the adrenalin rush, of hardcore street riding, a few of his older, wiser riding buddies gave him some sage advice. “They said, ‘Man, you’d better start racing on the track, if you don’t you’re gonna kill yourself!”
James’ first road race was a CRRC event at Texas World. He raced a Yamaha RZ350. His years of riding paid off and James rapidly moved up the ranks. One of the riders James chased in his early club racing days was fellow CRRC racer Kevin Schwantz.
“It wasn’t long and I was beginning to tie up with Kevin and I crashed a couple times,” James laughs. “I remember his uncle told me, ‘Well if you try to keep up with him you’re going to crash more than that.’ I didn’t even think about it. I was like, ‘I’m going to show him.’”
Even though he was having success on the track and was getting help from his mom and dad (his mom even co-signed a loan to buy one of Jamie’s racebikes), it was tough financially to keep racing. John Klaus from Klaus Speedworks gave James a Kawasaki GPz750 Superbike to race a few AMA Superbike rounds in ’85. With help from a buddy Rob Bennett, James hit the road for Road America and Loudon. He amazingly scored a top-10 finish (9th) at Road America in his AMA Superbike debut. “I think that was my fifth road race ever,” James said.
Jamie James honed his skills by chasing factory contingency money at club events, even after he signed a factory Superbike contract. (Larry Lawrence photo)
The thing that saved his career was when Yamaha announce generous club racing contingencies in 1985. The money he made racing a Yamaha FZ750 that season not only kept him on the track, but garnered him attention.
“I had a phone call from Yoshimura at the end of 1986,” James said. “But before I got a chance to test with them I fell off in Texas and broke my femur and collarbone. I called them and told them I’d crashed and they decided to wait to see if I was going to be able to rebound.”
Rebound he did. James toiled away in the club ranks chasing contingency money and honing his skills against the likes of Doug Polen, Scott Russell, Mike Harth, Kurt Hall, Dan Chivington and host of other top club riders who were also chasing the money and at the same time pushing each other week after week to ever higher levels.
In 1987 James scored his first AMA Pro podium, finishing third in the AMA 600cc Supersport race at a blisteringly hot Memphis Motorsports Park.
Quick Sand and Gravel, a company owned by James’ future father-in-law, Raymond Addison (or as everyone called him, Mr. Raymond) was a big help as sponsor for James. James said Mr. Raymond’s Cajun cooking was also popular at the track. “I think sometimes that’s why I got a factory ride because everyone like Mr. Raymond’s cooking so much,” James joked.
The big break for James came in 1988 when he got the call from John Ulrich to race for Team Hammer. “I remember getting on an airplane as a young guy to fly out to California,” James said. “And I was thinking, ‘Damn, I made it!’”
The Hammer ride not only gave him countless hours on a racebike at long endurance racing events, but the deal also gave him his first opportunity to more regularly pursue AMA Pro Road Races. At Talladega in September of 1988, James finished second to David Sadowski in the AMA 750cc Supersport National, marking James’ highest pro finished to date.
All of this led to his signing with Yoshimura Suzuki for 1989. While a great accomplishment, this was just before the dawn of big contracts in AMA Superbike racing and James’ deal with the factory team was anything but lucrative.
“I was happy to be on a factory team, but I had to pay back half of my winnings,” James said of his 1989 deal with Yoshimura. “But I didn’t care. I knew I was going to have to be on a factory bike if I was going to progress. That’s the way it was.”
James said his factory teammate Scott Russell (who he’d endurance raced with a couple of years earlier) put in a good word for James to help him cinch the ride.
James definitely made the most out of his first factory ride. He kicked off the 1989 season with a victory in the Daytona AMA 750cc Supersport race. It marked his first AMA Pro win. It only got better from there. A couple of months later James won his first AMA Superbike race that season at Loudon. He was consistently on the podium nearly every weekend. Perhaps the only downside that season was a memorable and spectacular crash with teammate Russell, as the two battled for the Superbike win at Road America on the final lap.
James went on to clinch both the AMA Superbike and AMA 750cc Supersport titles with Yoshimura Suzuki in ‘89, in one of the most remarkable years ever in AMA Pro Road Racing. Not bad for a guy in his first season on a factory team.
He capped off ’89 by winning two of the season-ending Suzuki GSX-R Cup races, earning a big payday in the process.
That kind of campaign would lead you to believe Suzuki would be clamoring to re-sign him for 1990, but in next week’s installment we’ll find out why James had to go in a completely different direction after his first championship-winning season.
Next week we’ll explore James’ stint in World Superbike with Ducati and then his time with the team he ultimately is most closely associated with, Vance & Hines Yamaha.