At one time Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course hosted what was annually one of the biggest turnouts in the AMA Superbike Championship. There was another massive crowd there in 1996, in spite of rain that started on Saturday night of the three-day race weekend. Under tarps, umbrellas and raincoats, those fans came within a single lap of seeing what would have been one of the most historic races in AMA Superbike history. Had the red flag-plagued race gone just one more lap, they would have witnessed Harley-Davidson winning what would have been its one and only AMA Superbike National.
Harley-Davidson factory rider and Ohio’s own Thomas Wilson was running second on the Harley VR1000 Superbike when Jamie James crashed out of the lead, causing a second red flag and ultimately ending the race. It appeared Harley and Wilson had finally done it, but a quirk in the AMA rules meant the scoring was rolled back a lap before the red flag and the victory was then credited to Yoshimura Suzuki’s Pascal Picotte, who Wilson had passed just before James crash out.
Wilson had given Harley-Davidson its best AMA Superbike finish ever, but it must have felt like a poor consolation given the fact that when James crashed out it was Wilson actually leading the race. Beaten by a clause in a rulebook, the celebration for runner-up finish was certainly dampened.
On the other hand, there was plenty of reveling going on down pit lane in privateer Brett Metzger’s pits. The little-known club racer from Newington, Connecticut, astonished the racing fraternity when he finished third that day at Mid-Ohio on a nearly stock, self-sponsored Suzuki, in what was only his second-career AMA Superbike start. He’d finished 38th in the Daytona 200 in his debut just three months earlier and now a flabbergasted Metzger was standing on the podium alongside Picotte and Wilson. It was a day he wouldn’t soon forget.
Harley-Davidson launched its VR1000 Superbike in 1994 with factory riders Miguel Duhamel (hired away from the GP circuit with the biggest contract to date in AMA Superbike) and Fritz Kling. It was at Mid-Ohio in ’94 where a sun-drenched crowd collectively came to their feet when Duhamel stormed to the lead in that year’s Superbike race on the Harley.
In that precise moment, when Mid-Ohio sounded like a college football stadium after the home team scored the winning touchdown, a truth was revealed. American sportbike enthusiasts for years had loved to make fun of Harley-Davidson, but when the American-made Superbike actually passed a slew of Japanese and Italian-made Superbikes to lead an AMA Superbike race, national pride came bubbling up. Suddenly 30,000 screaming fans were all Harley enthusiasts!
Unfortunately for Duhamel and Harley, the Mid-Ohio celebration was short-lived. The shifter broke.
Fast forward two years to Mid-Ohio. In the time since Duhamel’s moment of glory, there had not been many bright moments for the Harley team. In the two-and-a-half seasons since its inception, riders on Harley VR1000s only managed top-10 finishes just a handful of times.
Wilson was brought on board at Harley after a couple of promising seasons in AMA Supersport aboard a Kinko’s Kawasaki. He was in the prime of his career and was eager to please and willing to take the risk of riding the often-failing VR1000 at 110 percent.
Early in the ’96 season the VR broke a couple of times, but then a ray of light when Wilson scored a solid ninth at Laguna Seca. But that ride gave no indication that Wilson would be contending for a victory a few weeks later at Mid-Ohio.
Wilson knew Mid-Ohio well and had ridden it before in wet conditions. He showed he was even going to be a factor there in the dry when he qualified seventh on the Harley, ahead of a handful of other factory riders.
In the race Picotte got off to a blazing start on the Yoshimura Suzuki and appeared to setting up a runaway win. But then he was black flagged for jumping the start and had to make a stop-and-go penalty stop on pit road. He’d opened up a big enough lead, that when he returned to the track he was still in second, behind Jamie James. Picotte enjoyed another stroke of luck when he crashed in the Keyhole trying to chase down James just as the red flag was coming out due to Mike Smith crashing in the final turn. The red flag allowed Picotte to get back to the pits and have repairs made to his bike.
The race was restarted, but more drama was coming.
Once again James got out front early. Mat Mladin crashed trying to stay with him. All of a sudden Wilson was charging hard coming up to challenge Picotte for second. Then came Metzger, Miguel Duhamel and Alessandro Gramigni in tight formation.
Metzger, perhaps hyped up by racing with the series defending champ Duhamel, had to tell himself to breathe. “I kept thinking he’s just a mortal like me and he also has the championship to worry about,” Metzger said. “I also knew in the back of my mind that he didn’t want to get beat by a privateer.”
Just about to complete the eighth lap, leader James high-sided coming out of the last turn and slammed into the Air Fence covered guardrail. The race was stopped again, ultimately for good.
Picotte was sitting in pitlane when officials told him he’d won. To his credit, the Canadian wasn’t too proud to admit Wilson was the faster rider on this day. “I was really holding him back,” Picotte said. “He was faster than me because I was really loose on the rear end.”
Today Wilson says people still occasional tell him they remember the day he almost won on the Harley. He said then, as now, there are mixed feelings.
“It was great to give Harley its best finish ever,” Wilson said. “On the other hand, it sure would have been nice if that race had gone one more lap.”