If there was ever a rider who had every right to be bitter, it would be ’70s racer Steve Baker. Baker is America’ first world champion, having won the Formula 750 world championship in 1977, a full year before Kenny Roberts won the 500 title. The F-750 series was a fully accredited FIM world championship, the same as the more generally known 125, 250 and 500/MotoGP titles. But, perhaps because the championship wasn’t able to sustain itself, now sometimes only the aged or moto-historians quickly remember F750 and Baker. You see Baker won the world championship, won Daytona and won races all over the world, yet his name doesn’t slide easily into track lore or other bench-racing style stories. And his world championship is more a source for a decent test of trivia than widely acknowledged.
Treatment like that, forgetting or ignoring a man’s greatest accomplishment, can turn a heart to ice, especially if you’re the man who did the winning and now have to contend with people not remembering, or worse yet never hearing of your success. “And you are …?”
There are many remarkable things about Steve Baker: that he can still fit into his leathers from 1978. That he survived racing in a period where too many of his rivals left the track in the back of a hearse. That he had dinner with Barry Sheene, Eric Idle and George Harrison–twice. But, what may be the most remarkable thing about Baker is that with plenty of reason to be bitter, he isn’t. Not at all.
He expresses appreciation when told that when Dorna assembled the entire contingent of American world champions at Laguna Seca one year and gave them a nice press conference, motojournalist and raconteur Dennis Noyes stood in front of the panel and asked loudly, “Where’s Steve Baker? Why isn’t Steve Baker here?” to the room.
“That’s really nice that Dennis did that,” Baker says. “I hope I get a chance to thank him some day.”
Baker remains grounded and gives no indication that people overlooking his championship is something that he stews on every night, grinding his molars into dust in a bedroom decorated with fist-sized holes in sheetrock walls. “You know, I was never very flamboyant and didn’t really go out of my way to publicize myself or my accomplishments. Maybe I should have, because in the end, what the factories pay for is that publicity, but it just wasn’t me,” says the former world champion.
And does it bother him when he sees or hears people refer to King Kenny Roberts as the first American world champion?
“Well, he was, in the 500 class,” Baker says simply.
“You know, Kenny Roberts’ record speaks for itself,” Baker continues. “He was a great rider. For me, I think that the unfortunate thing is that I didn’t really get a chance to go back to Europe and make a good try on a 500. I see guys now that have raced in Europe, in Grand Prix, for ten years and I think to myself, well, I wish I’d had that opportunity.”
“For me, really, Europe was just so overwhelming.”
Steve Baker is sort of like a 1970s version of Zelig, the Woody Allen movie character who is seemingly at every significant event for a decade. Name a race: Daytona, Ontario, Laguna, Monza and the rest, Baker was there, always racing, usually winning. Nixon’s failed F750 championship? Baker was right in the middle of it. Daytona? Won it twice.
Take, for instance, the 1975 Indy Mile, where Kenny Roberts won the race riding a Yamaha TZ750 dirt track bike. An iconic evening that quickly beget a legend, a quote that will resonate forever “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing”. Baker was at Indy that day, and raced one of the TZ Miler bikes. What’s more, he helped build four of them and drove the van that delivered them, to Indy.
“That whole project started with Doug Schwerma, of Champion Frames,” recalls Baker. “The way I remember it, (Baker’s mechanic) Bob Work sent a set of (TZ750) cases down to Doug in Hayward, California, and with those cases Doug was able to mock up a frame and all of the material needed to install a TZ engine in a dirt track frame. I mean, this was an amazing thing and testament to Doug’s ability and capability as a mechanical wizard. Those bikes were not really prototype bikes, they were kit bikes. By the time all of the engines showed up, Doug had most everything prepared. Mounts, fuel tanks, exhaust pipes, brakes, spacers, hangers and just about everything. We worked on a wiring harness for a while but that was the only thing that wasn’t completely ready. Bob Work and I stayed up all night building bikes, and built all four of the non-Kenny bikes in one week. Bob actually stayed up for several days building bikes. They went together really well.”
“We really didn’t have time to make them pretty,” Baker continues, “I raced mine at Indy unpainted, but we did make some preliminary runs on each bike to make sure it worked and give it a general shake down. There wasn’t time to get them to a racetrack. So what we did was we took them to a little access road in Hayward where it was known that people came and did some drag racing on from time to time. There was a guy there with a pretty hot Harley that was basically a drag bike for the street and he was about the fastest thing around. Well, we showed up on those Yamaha TZ Milers and he just left. I seem to remember someone passing him on the back wheel before he loaded up,” Baker says modestly.
Baker and company loaded a van full of four TZ750 Milers and headed off for Indianapolis. They drove straight through and arrived in time to unload in the paddock. Former 250 world champ turned tuner Kel Carruthers had built Roberts’ bike and Roberts had already unloaded his well polished TZ Miler and the paddock was well in shock when Baker arrived and unloaded four more. “There was a lot of talk going on, I remember that,” Baker says.
Steve Baker built and rode a Yamaha TZ750 powered dirt track bike at Indianapolis. What was that like? 120 horsepower on clay.
Baker takes a broader view in answering. “See, the reason that those bikes worked was that even with an in-line four cylinder engine in the frame, it was still over an inch narrower than the Twin engine that was in there. Of course it was wider at the top, at the cylinders, but that was high enough that it wasn’t a problem. It felt better than the four stroke twin that was in there before.”
Was it terrifying to ride? “Well, Baker says, “By the time we arrived at Indy I think Kenny had been out on his already and he was already talking about how it was serious over-kill and maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. So that was the buzz when we unloaded. My take on the whole package was that it was somewhat unridable as we used them at Indy. Plus, I didn’t have that much dirt track experience and I just rode cautiously at Indy, and suffered transmission problems eventually. Was it a monster? It could definitely get your attention, let’s say that.”
The TZ750 powered Miler was eventually banned from dirt track competition. Was that a decision that Baker supported?
“I think a month or so after Indy, Kenny did some experimenting with a cut roadrace slick for a back tire on the TZ bike at San Jose, and that seemed to bring the bike around a little. Plus they were experimenting with moving the engine to improve traction and just general tuning. I think, as it continued to move in that direction, had it not been banned the bike could have been a decent weapon on some tracks.”
Baker made history with his world championship and also witnessed history. After all of that he remains modest and unassuming. “I am just glad that I was there. For me it was just an interesting experience to be involved in.”