By the time the 1980s rolled around, suggestions that the movie “The Wild One” starring Marlon Brando had irreparably damaged the reputation of motorcyclists in the USA was universally accepted in the mainstream media but seemed a million miles away from Superbike racing. Honda’s “You meet the nicest people …” campaign had pushed a much cleaner image into AMA racing, and it was obvious that Superbike racing didn’t have much in common with biker gangs, aside from choice of transportation. It was difficult to believe that Brando’s character was really still the basis of a relevant stereotype.
Oh, but it was.
Elkhart Lake had hosted official and unofficial sports car races since the 1950s and the locals accepted, no, welcomed, the tweed jacket, driving gloves and MG crowd as some of their own.
But when Superbike racing arrived at Road America in 1980 it was clear that the premise for The Wild One–out of town racers/bikers take over a small town– wasn’t forgotten. Freddie Spencer won the first Superbike race at Road America on June 1 1980, and he has recalled several times since that the very first question he was asked by the media after the race was which motorcycle gang he ran with, Hells Angels or the Sons of Silence. Spencer initially thought the reporter was joking but it became clear he wasn’t.
Most of the surrounding area warmed up to the motorcycle crowd quickly–Siebkins remains a welcome spot–but not all of it. Small towns and hamlets surround the track. And even into the 1990s it was common for cafes to refuse to seat motorcyclists at all. More than once a group of helmet-holding customers were turned away in Plymouth or in Elkhart Lake when they asked for a table and a meal during the Superbike race weekend. Explanations that this was all some sort of widespread misunderstanding between riders and the local restaurateurs lost all steam when a local to the track pub turned away a group of motorcyclists with the explanation “we don’t serve bikers” in the late 1990s. The group of turned away patrons were actually staff of the AMA, including their director of competition, Merrill Vanderslice.
“Elkhart” has warmed up considerably from those dark early days when fears of a Wild One-style takeover of the town were on the minds of many locals.