Archives | Steve Baker: The Forerunner to Greatness
This Archives edition is reprinted from CN issue #22, June 9, 2004. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. To prevent that from happening, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
By Scott Rousseau
Steve Baker isn’t bothered that Kenny Roberts is the first name that passes through the lips of most people quizzed about the first American road racer to score a world title.
“Most people still think that I’m Canadian,” says Baker, now 51 and living in his native Bellingham, Washington. “Because I was from the Northwest, up in the left-hand corner of the country, it was a little hard to get hooked up with the right ride because a lot people looked at the Californians as the real hot shoes.”
Even so, Baker started out just like those Californians, as a dirt-tracker. Those with an understanding of dirt-track geography will not be surprised to hear that he mainly rode TTs.
“We’d ride Castle Rock, Sidewinders in Oregon, and we had a track near Seattle called Graham,” Baker says. “We used to look at the weather every Friday and then decide whether to go to Sidewinders or Graham.”
Like many skidders, Baker says that he never expected to go road racing, but he took the shot when it came to him.
“Basically, I got an opportunity to try it through Bob Work and Yamaha of Canada, and we rode Canadian Championship races and some U.S. National races,” Baker recalls. “I did okay at it. Then we got into the Transatlantic Match Races to get me over to Europe. The first time I went to the Match Races was 1975. That got us some exposure in Europe, and so then we got invited to race at places like Imola [Italy], Paul Ricard [France], places like that. Then I got a Yamaha factory ride through Yamaha of Canada, and I was able to compete for the 500 and 750 World Championships in 1977.”
The 1977 season marked the debut of the F-750 World Championship, in general terms a joint venture among the AMA and the FIM whereby the FIM recognized the AMA’s 750cc road-racing class on the world stage. The ’77 Daytona 200 was the series’ first event. Tire-wear concerns that year meant that the race would be broken down into two 100-mile heats. Baker was in the lead by over 30 seconds at the conclusion of the first heat, and then bad weather washed away the second, making him a 100-mile winner of the Daytona 200. Then came Europe.
“We lived in Amsterdam [Holland] because Yamaha had its workshop there,” Baker says. “We just used that as our base and traveled from there. Living in Europe was a lot different, but we could always find a McDonald’s here and there. As far as the tracks, they were really nice, though I seemed to have more of a challenge at the road circuits like Spa, Nürburgring and some of the places in Finland. It was really difficult for me to get up to speed without taking a lot of chances. That first year that I was there, I fell off quite a few times.”
But when he didn’t fall, he often won, taking the checkered flag first in France, Austria and Belgium. By the time the series returned to America for the Laguna Seca round in early fall, Baker had the chance to clinch the title, which he did with 3-1 finishes in the two 100-mile legs at the event. Before season’s end, he would also finish second to Barry Sheene in the marquis 500cc World Championship—not bad for a kid who never planned to go road racing in the first place.
“It seemed like when the season started at Daytona, we won there and had really good machines, and the first part of the season went really well,” Baker remembers. “Then as the season went on, we got more into the 500 and raced the 750 on the off week. That put a lot of pressure on me, but I think it also gave me the momentum to take the 750 class. It was good to do both.”
Amazingly, Baker’s factory deal with Yamaha ended after that season. Instead of vaulting to the 500cc title, he slipped backward. As Roberts won the first of his three 500cc World titles for the Yamaha factory, Baker struggled on a semi factory Suzuki in the 500cc class and a privateer Yamaha TZ750 in the F-750 class. He would be out of Europe altogether by the middle of 1979.
“I was out of the limelight,” Baker says, no animosity to be found in his tone. “Kenny, with his talent and backing, came in with the vengeance of a lion. All I could do was my best.”
And Baker at his best predated Roberts as the first American to win a world road-racing title by one year.
“The 750 class may have been different than what the Europeans were used to, but it was a good class, and I’m proud to have been a part of it because the FIM basically recognized what was an American class,” Baker says. “Yamaha and the people who were helping me at the time made it all possible. It still feels pretty good, and I can say that I have a ring that Kenny doesn’t have.”CN