Archives: When Skip Beat the Best
The 1979 Daytona International Lightweight race was loaded and then some. The 100-mile 250cc road race featured future GP legends in Freddie Spencer, Randy Mamola, Eddie Lawson, Kork Ballington and Anton Mang. There was also a slew of talented American road racers like Mike Baldwin, Nicky Richichi, John Long, John Bettencourt, Dan Chivington and Rusty Sharp. Throw in a gaggle of fast Brits and Canadians and you were looking at one of the deepest fields ever assembled in the history of the race. The starting grid even included a young Northern Irish rider by the name of Joey Dunlop.
Archives: When Skip Beat the Best
The race turned into an epic three-way battle between Mamola, Spencer and a speedy, up-and-coming rider from Manteca, California, named Skip Aksland. Even though it was a 26-lap race around Daytona International Speedway’s road course, there was a lot of strategy and intrigue – before and after the flag – that went into that race. And it wasn’t just a battle of riders. Three of the best tuners in the business, Kel Carruthers for Skip, Erv Kanemoto for Freddie and George Vukmanovich for Mamola, were in a showdown as well.
Skip scored his factory ride with Yamaha at Daytona by way of a favor from a friend.
“Kenny [Roberts] had broken his back in Japan testing his 500 for the upcoming Grand Prix season and he requested for Yamaha to let me fill in for him at Daytona,” Skip recalls. “So, I rode the factory 750 and 250 also. Unfortunately, the 750 broke on the second lap [of the Daytona 200] while I was running in second place.”
Mechanicals nearly cost Skip his shot at being in the 250 race as well. The qualifying heat races were gridded by points and “I didn’t have any 250 points, so I started mid-pack in the heat race,” Skip remembers. “On the warm-up lap the clutch exploded, the clutch plates were broke. So I came in from warm-up and I hollered at Kel to hurry and come over, that I didn’t have any clutch. He looked and saw the clutch plates were falling out and he said, ‘OK, just kind of stay behind the line and when you think they are going to throw the flag start pushing with your feet as fast as you can and jam it in gear.’ I’m like, ‘Oh great, what a way to start the week!’”
Skip did as Carruthers instructed and it worked. He kicked his factory Yamaha into gear, it bogged, but he eventually got rolling. Once underway Skip was flying on the factory special, riding MX style, shifting without a clutch and made it all the way up to second at the finish, behind Mang on a factory-backed Kawasaki.
The problem was AMA officials said Skip’s front tire went go over his grid line at the start, automatically DQ’ing him from the heat. Fortunately, his buddy Ron Pierce came to the rescue. Pierce also had a grid issue in his Superbike qualifying heat and actually measured the grid and found the spacing between rows was two-feet shorter than the AMA’s rulebook stipulated, so Ron’s and Skip’s penalties were both thrown out. That meant Skip would start from the inside of the second row instead of the back of the grid.
Any question of how Spencer might fare as a first-year expert was answered in his heat race, when he challenged Randy Mamola for the lead early on, before his Kanemoto-tuned Howard Racing Yamaha began misfiring and he dropped to fourth. Mamola was the defending AMA 250 Grand Prix Champion and was riding a very special Bimota-framed Yamaha that was fully 40 pounds lighter than most of the other Yamahas in the race. He won the pole.
Skip’s Yamaha was a very special machine built at the factory by Carruthers. It featured a lower-slung chassis and narrower fairing enabling it to slice through the wind more efficiently at top speed at Daytona. Skip had actually ridden essentially the same bike two years early to victory at Sears Point, again when Roberts got dinged up a bit and didn’t want to race in the 250 class. “I think it was the same bike Kenny raced in the 250GPs in ’78,” Skips adds.
It should be mentioned that Kawasaki was creating all the buzz coming into the race. With defending 250cc world champ Ballington leading a team of KR250s also ridden by Mike Baldwin and Mang. All three Kawasakis qualified on the front row, but Baldwin (clutch) and Ballington (overheating) were out after only a few laps on the final leaving Mang to uphold Kawasaki honors.
It was the three young Americans breaking away from the drop of the green flag. From the pole Mamola led, only to be passed by Spencer before the lap was complete. And it went on like that with an incredible 24 lead changes in 26 laps! The pace was torrid. At the finish the race record set by Gregg Hansford in 1978, was shattered by nearly two miles per hour.
Mamola was a beast on the brakes, but that hammering on the brakes cost him. His front brakes faded to nothing. Plus, his bike’s gas tank developed a leak, so he fell behind and it became a two-man battle for the win.
With a few laps to go both Skip and Freddie slowed hoping the other would lead out of the chicane on the final lap.
“Freddie wasn’t buying it, so on the white flag lap I thought, ‘Heck with it, I’m just going as hard as I can and try to gap him,’” Skip recalls with a grin in his voice. “In the kink we’d usually lift the throttle to get through there. Well on the last lap I went through there wide open, pushed the front and almost went off the racetrack. I thought, ‘Holy smokes, that was close!’”
In the chicane they hit traffic. For a brief second Freddie got stuck behind a lapper, but he still had a shot. He pulled out of Skip’s draft, but came up about a bike length short.
Skip won, but for him the drama wasn’t over.
“Right before the start of the race I was on the starting line and Kel leans in and says, ‘Oh by the way, if you get in the winner’s circle, make sure you pound on the gas tank on the cool-down lap. I don’t know if it’s too big or not to pass inspection.’
“I’m looking at him, going, “This a factory effort, are you kidding me?’ He says, ‘I think it’s OK, but just pound on it like you’re excited.’ So, on the cool-down lap I’m going down the back straightaway and I’m just whaling on the top of the gas tank with my fist, like ‘Yahoo, I won! And I’m thinking ‘Oh man, I hope I’m denting the tank.’”
Skip never got to race the special Yamaha again, but he says it was a ride he’ll never forget.
“I posted a picture on my Instagram from the Winner’s Circle that year with Freddie and Randy and I said something like, ‘Pretty good company.’ It was special, that’s for sure.”