Archives: Polen’s Triumphant Return
Yoshimura Suzuki was hurting. The team had new Suzuki GSX-R750s for the 1990 season and to say that things didn’t go well in the AMA Superbike season opener at Daytona would be a major understatement. Yoshimura riders Steve Crevier and Miguel Duhamel both crashed and were injured in in heat races at Daytona. Fortunately, the squad had guest rider Jay Springsteen. He was able to salvage an eighth in the Daytona 200 on a Yoshimura Suzuki. Going into round two Suzuki needed help and fast. They called on Doug Polen, who, at the time, was racing in Japan. But Polen had a major problem, and simply being able to race by early May was going to be a challenge.
Archives: Polen’s Triumphant Return
Some background. It seemed more than a little odd in the first place that Polen ever left the AMA Superbike Championship to take an offer to race in the Japanese Road Race Championships in 1989. Polen would certainly have been a heavy favorite to win the ’89 AMA title. He’d finished a close runner-up to Honda’s Bubba Shobert in the ’88 series and equaled Shobert for the most wins in that year’s championship. But this was the 1980s. Japan’s economy was near its peak, while in America, the economy was coming back, but the motorcycle industry was still recovering from the early 1980s recession and spending on racing was only just beginning to cautiously return.
Suzuki had largely owned the All-Japan TT-F1 class (that country’s closest equivalent to AMA Superbike) most of the 1980s. But then Honda came on strong in 1988 with its RVF750 and took first and second in the series, with Shoji Miyazaki winning the title. Suzuki wanted it back and it knew Polen was fast and capable of winning the series. He was offered a reported $300,000 to make the move to race in the Japanese series in ‘89. It paid off big with Polen not only winning back the 1989 Japanese TT-F1 title for Yoshimura Suzuki, but as a bonus he won the TT-F3 class as well.
Polen was preparing to defend his Japanese titles in 1990 when disaster struck. He was going to race for Yoshimura Suzuki in the Daytona 200 that March, but while testing at Willow Springs in February, he crashed and lost for toes on his left foot. Initially the thought of Polen racing at all during the 1990 season, seemed off the table. But the gritty Texan recovered much quicker than anyone expected and amazingly made himself available to race at AMA Superbike round two at Road Atlanta.
Two weeks before Road Atlanta, Polen raced in his first race back in Japan. It didn’t go well. Not only had he come back too soon, but he’d tried a heel shift mechanism and it proved difficult to use. So, at Road Atlanta Polen went back to a conventional toe shifter. In order to make it work, Polen stuffed a piece of foam rubber into the front of his boot to give enough volume and support to be able to shift in spite of his missing toes. As the weekend wore on a problem cropped up with skin grafts on Polen’s foot being rubbed raw by the foam rubber, yet he refused to give up.
Polen qualified third behind Saturday’s heat race winners David Sadowski on the Vance & Hines Yamaha and Muzzy Kawasaki’s Doug Chandler, who beat Polen in the other qualifying heat.
On Sunday was Chandler who got a great start and led the pack into the first turn at the start of the national. On the opening lap of the 24-lap race, Polen ran sixth behind Chandler, Jamie James (Ferracci Ducati), Paul Bray (Team Mad Dog Yamaha), Sadowski and Miguel Duhamel (Yoshimura Suzuki). As the race progressed Polen gradually made his way towards the front. By the fourth lap Chandler, James and Sadowski had gapped the field. Polen finally made his way up to fourth, but had a margin of almost three seconds to make up to catch the leading trio. An additional problem for Polen was Thomas Stevens. Stevens was also surging on another V&H Yamaha and came up to pass Polen, putting him back to fifth.
Up front Sadowski took over the lead and had his head down and was trying to make a break when he went a little too deep into turn five trying to overtake flat tracker Don Estep and crashed, unfortunately taking Estep with him. Then a lap later Michael Barnes crashed the Mad Dog Yamaha in turn 12 bringing out the red flag.
It was the break Polen needed.
During the red-flag stoppage the Yoshimura squad (which interestingly was sponsored by Michelin) mounted a softer compound Dunlop (the tire company Polen was contracted to) front and did rear suspension adjustments. The new set up worked. On the restart he was right there tucked into the lead group with James and Chandler. As the race progressed the Yokohama tires James ran on his Ferracci Ducati began to fade. That allowed Chandler and Polen to get around and break away, making it a two-rider battle for the win.
It came down to the final lap. Polen made a daring pass on a group of lapped riders at the bottom of Road Atlanta’s infamous Gravity Cavity – a sharp dip in the back straightway taken at top speed.
“He showed big hair on the back straight,” Chandler said of Polen’s bold move. “They were three and four abreast and I’d worked too hard to risk throwing it away.”
It was a celebratory scene at the podium. Polen was pumped about finding out he could still win post foot injury. The Yoshimura Suzuki crew basked in the glory of a much-needed victory.
“I’m riding better than I’ve ever ridden,” Polen said after the race. “I knew the tires would go away late in the race, so I wasn’t that worried about not being at the front early in the race. These guys know I can run with anybody as far as superbikes go. I’ve won in World Superbike, so these guys know they are headed in the right direction.”
Home-state hero Scott Russell, who was a pre-race favorite, had an off race and finished sixth, complaining of getting tired at the end, frustratingly said, “I guess Doug showed us again, didn’t he?”
After Road Atlanta, Polen would head back to Japan to continue racing in the All-Japan Championships. Without Polen, Yoshimura Suzuki here in America would have a sub-par season, with one notable exception, when Miguel Duhamel unexpectedly scored his first AMA Superbike win at Heartland Park Topeka later that summer. Kawasaki’s Chandler would go on to win his first AMA Superbike Championship at the end of the season.
Polen’s one off appearance and victory at Road Atlanta in 1990, was not only a triumphant return from serious injury for Polen, it was also one of those races where something totally unexpected happened, which made AMA national road racing so interesting during that period.