Fred Merkel was the first ever World Superbike champ, taking the inaugural title for Rumi Honda in 1988 and backing it up with a second in 1989. Flyin’ Fred was the archetypal American racer – with blond surfer hair, a deep suntan, and shiny white teeth, he was as much loved by the ladies as he was feared by his rivals. So what became of the original WSB star?
What was his racing background before the World Superbike Championship kicked off?
Born in Stockton, California in 1962, Merkel won the Suzuka 8-Hour with fellow American Mike Baldwin in 1984 and was already a three-time AMA Superbike champion (1984-86) by the time the first WSB championship was staged in 1988.
When did us Brits first become aware of him?
Merkel won the hearts of British race fans during the 1986 Transatlantic Trophy Match Races at Donington Park when he fought tooth and nail with Kevin Schwantz – even though they were supposed to be in the same team! His flamboyant character and media-savvy attitude, as well as his all-action riding style, made him an instant hit.
Why did he get dropped by Honda in the States after winning three AMA titles?
That has never been fully explained. There were rumours of too much partying and hotel-wrecking but it might also have just been down to Honda opting to put their resources behind new wonder child, Wayne Rainey (who, ironically, later became known as a Yamaha man). Merkel has disliked Rainey ever since.
Is that why he moved to World Superbikes?
Yes. Unable to secure a competitive ride in the States, Merkel decided to head for Europe where he signed for the Italian-based Rumi Honda squad and ultimately had the last laugh, carving out a whole new career on the world stage. As intelligent as he was flamboyant, Merkel learned to speak fluent Italian to help him fit into the Rumi team.
What bike was he most associated with in World Superbikes?
Honda’s RC30. The groundbreaking machine was released just in time for the debut season of WSB and Merkel took two race wins and three podiums in its opening year to win the title from the late Fabrizio Pirovano and Davide Tardozzi (who is now race team manager for Ducati in MotoGP). In 1989 he took three wins and seven podiums to win the championship from Stephane Mertens and Raymond Roche, and all this at a time when the RC30 was not particularly reliable.
What made him so cool?
As well as having the whole surfer look down pat with his curls, tan, and Hollywood smile, Merkel was also fond of wearing a bandanna long before David Beckham made it cool. He flew a skull and crossbones flag from his motorhome in the paddock (an idea that Max Biaggi later stole) and had the logo “If you want blood, you’ve got it” splashed across the back of his helmet. Add to the mix a reputation for partying and enjoying great success with the ladies and you had a racer that could give Barry Sheene a run for his money in the charisma stakes.
So what happened after he won the title again in 1989?
He took another three wins for Honda again in 1990 but injuries hampered his season and by 1991 the RC30 was no longer competitive. Merkel moved to Yamaha in 1992 but injury once more ruled him out of contention. He split from Yamaha midway through 1993 and ended his last season in WSB on a privateer Ducati, taking a final rostrum in Austria before returning to race in America where he enjoyed some success in the Supersport 750 class.
When and why did he retire?
On September 23, 1995, Merkel crashed heavily at the Firebird Raceway in Arizona. He broke seven ribs, bruised his heart, and suffered lasting nerve damage to his left arm. Unable to race again, he announced his retirement one month later. It took him three years to regain anything near normal movement in his arm.
What’s he up to now?
After retiring, Merkel moved to Taupo, New Zealand with his English wife Carla, and bought a farm with a trout lake to indulge his passion for fishing, He started a construction supplies business and has raised two sons, Travis and Jhett. Merkel was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2001 and is still fondly remembered as the first real character in WSB.
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