The Yamaha Pro-Am Series was the maddest one-make championship ever held. It pitted experienced professional racers against up-and-coming amateurs on identical Yamaha RD350LCs, all provided free by Yamaha.
Fortunately, the crash damage bill was picked up by Yamaha too. Prize money was good and the winner of the championship received a whopping £15,000 in 1982.
The series ran from 1981 to 1984 and launched the careers of many star riders including Niall Mackenzie, Alan Carter, and Rob McElnea. The bikes were standard and allocated by riders picking keys out of a hat.
The racing techniques were anything but normal though – riders held the left fork leg on the straights or put a leg flat-out along the pillion seat for better aerodynamics, and grabbing on to another bike for a tow wasn’t uncommon either.
Andrew Smith: ‘We’d been looking at a number of motocross events where most of the bikes were standard, and wondered about doing a one-make Yamaha series. Then we thought: why not try that in road racing? It was then decided that if we were going to do that it should be done to launch a product and what better product was there than the Yamaha RD350LC?’
Alan Carter: ‘I wasn’t in there at the beginning of the Pro-Am series, I sort of jumped on the back of it a bit later. That kind of one-make race series has been copied a lot with things like the Harley-Davidson XR1200 Challenge and the Yamaha R6 Cup but nothing has worked quite as well.’
Niall Mackenzie: ‘We got up to stuff you couldn’t in any other class. We used to dab each other’s front brakes going along the straights, pull on the pillion grabrail of the rider in front to get a tow, and even hold our own front forks to make a more aerodynamic shape on the bike. Anything to gain 1mph on our rivals. It was brilliant fun.’
Smith: ‘The spares budget was probably the biggest part of Yamaha’s financial commitment. But we eventually renovated the bikes back into road-legal trim and sold them through dealers or sold them off as track bikes. They were sold as ex-Pro-Am bikes because that gave them added value, even though people knew that they’d been ridden hard and had probably had the occasional crash.’
Carter: ‘I think it worked so well because they were just such standard road bikes being ridden by young crazy kids. The bikes were straight out of the box with some decent tyres on and that was it – off you went. The more recent Yamaha R6 Cup bikes were stripped of all their road-going equipment and they were too much like race bikes. We weren’t allowed to touch a thing on the RD350s. All you did was turn up, pick a key out of a hat, and race. The only thing they allowed was an option for a short and long gear lever for people with bigger feet!’
Smith: ‘We wanted to find new star riders based on talent, not on money. We wanted to find the new Barry Sheene. But how would we find out that a rider’s speed wasn’t based on money? The gap between being a road rider and a racer was enormous so we said, “Right, let’s break all that down and give everybody an equal chance and let’s see who’s the best.”’
Carter: ‘All the lads who raced in the series were pals so we’d have a few pints, try to screw a few birds, and race our motorbikes. I mean, what more could you want from a weekend? It was like the pinnacle of life.’
Mackenzie: ‘Because the bikes were relatively slow there was so much time on the straights to mess around. So when you already had your arm outstretched on the fork, it made sense to stretch it a little bit further and pull the guy in front back a bit. Sometimes we even hit each others’ killswitches in practice. Pro-Am was definitely a full-contact sport.’
Smith: ‘If any racing class led directly to bike sales, it was the Yamaha Pro-Am Series. It was a costly operation, but it was a win-win situation for everybody involved.’