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Whatever happened to Transatlantic racing?

Published: 31 May 2016

Updated: 31 May 2016

UK v US grudge matches starring Sheene, Roberts, Schwantz…

very season between 1971 and 1991 a race series pitted a team of American riders against a team of Brits over several rounds at British circuits. The Transatlantic Match Races introduced UK fans to the likes of Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey. 

Transatlantic races? Was that like golf’s Ryder Cup, only for bikes? 

It was. The Anglo-American Transatlantic Match Races (or Transatlantic Trophy as it was later known) was staged over Easter weekend on various UK circuits. It pitted a team of hand-selected American titans against a team of British aces with points acquired by individual competitors being tallied up as an overall team score. 

When was it first held?

1971, but in that first year all riders were on identical Triumph/BSA triples. Many UK fans had never seen American riders in action and were surprised at how competitive riders like Dick Mann (who featured in On Any Sunday) actually were. The British team, which featured the likes of Paul Smart and Tony Jefferies, won that first encounter by 183 points to 137 but the contest had been close enough to ensure a re-match.

When did the series really take off?

By 1974, things were getting serious and the one-make bike rule had been abandoned. An unknown young American rider by the name of Kenny Roberts came over to Europe for the first time as part of the American team and faced-off with a rising British star called Barry Sheene. The Brits won by 416 points to the Yanks’ 401.

Go on then, when did those bloody Americans first win it?

In 1975. And it’s no surprise, considering the line-up included Roberts, Dave Aldana, Gene Romero, Steve Baker and Pat Hennen. The US beat a British team that included Mick Grant, Dave Potter, Pat Mahoney, Percy Tait and Stan Woods by 278 to 243. 

Presumably the racing was at Silverstone…

The circuits varied over the years. The classic 1970s line-up was Oulton Park, Mallory Park and Brands Hatch but the series moved to Donington Park exclusively in 1984, though it later returned to Brands and Mallory where the final series was held in 1991.

Why did the series move to Donington Park?

The Transatlantic looked like it had come to an end in 1983 after allegations of financial shenanigans but Tom Wheatcroft – the owner of Donington Park – took over and staged the entire series at Donington from 1984. The top four riders in the 1983 world championship (Freddie Spencer, Roberts, Randy Mamola and Eddie Lawson) all took part and smoked the Brits in front of 85,000 spectators. 

Didn’t the Transatlantic introduce us to Schwantz and Rainey?

It certainly did. The bitter rivals were unknown when they arrived on these shores for the 1987 races. Supposedly team-mates, the two spent the entire series knocking lumps out of each other and totally ignoring team spirit.

Why did it stop?

The writing was on the wall when Spencer crashed and broke bones in both feet in 1984 and had to miss the Spanish GP. His team-mate Ron Haslam also crashed and Honda decided it was no longer worth risking top riders on a non-championship event. The other manufacturers eventually followed suit and, although the series carried on until 1991, it was never the full factory Grand Prix experience it had been before. 

When was the last event held?

The final series was in 1991 and consisted of three rounds at Mallory Park and three at Brands Hatch. The British line-up was still full of well-known names (Ron Haslam, John Reynolds, Jamie Whitham and Ray Stringer) but few UK fans had heard of American riders such as Thomas Stevens, Jamie James and Michael Barnes and even the return of a below-par Spencer couldn’t make up for this so the series lost its appeal. 

Will we ever see a return of the Transatlantic Trophy?

There’s the Transatlantic Challenge at the MCN Festival of Motorcycling and the idea of a full revival has been kicked around over the years but has never came to anything. The biggest problem remains unknown American riders. Could you even name the current AMA champion? Thought not.

Words: Stuart Barker Photos: Bauer Archive

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