With the AMA Pro Road Racing series returning to Road Atlanta this weekend, it will mark the fifteenth straight time that I’ve attended an AMA National race weekend at the track located in the rolling hills of North Georgia. Following is a look back at the first of those weekends.
1994 was not an easy year for me. My first marriage had ended and I had taken a pretty big financial hit to say the least so any cheap entertainment that I could find was a welcome sight. Atlanta radio station 96 Rock was giving away tickets to the AMA races at Road Atlanta and I managed to win a pair of them. Up until that time I had been a big NASCAR fan as my dad had followed that sport for many years and although motorcycle racing was on my radar it wasn’t my favorite form of motorsport. That September race weekend was about to change that and more.
That Friday I took a day off from work and headed to the track. Upon arriving I went to the fastest part of Road Atlanta which is its long back straightaway just about the time the superbikes were beginning their first practice session. I was instantly blown away by the sight and sound of the riders rocketing past my viewing location. I had seen race cars on paved oval tracks going faster but this was a totally different experience for me as the riders were so visible and exposed to the elements. This seemed to really intensify the sensation of speed as I watched from trackside.
I quickly tried to familiarize myself with the riders and bikes and what I soon discovered was that this was no ordinary race weekend. That weekend was the last race on the AMA schedule for the year and championships were on the line. I was enthralled with all of the classes racing but my best memories are of the superbike race. Vance & Hines Yamaha mounted Jamie James came into the weekend with a three-point lead over rookie sensation Troy Corser on a Fast by Feracci (FBF) Ducati. Scott Russell was there on his Muzzy Kawasaki during a break from the World Superbike series where he was the defending champion and Mick Doohan (who would soon win his first of five consecutive 500cc GP titles) was there to support his brother Scott (more on him later).
In qualifying it was James’ teammate, Colin Edwards Jr riding the momentum from winning the previous three races, edging Russell for the pole with FBF Ducati mounted Pascal Picotte and Dave Sadowski rounding out the front row. Title contenders James and Corser would start on row two in fifth and sixth places respectively. Sadowski had leased a FBF Ducati for this race hoping to put in a good enough showing to secure a ride on the team for ’95 and would end up playing a pivotal role in the championship battle.
At the start of the race Picotte pulled the holeshot but when the field came back around to complete lap one it was Mike Smith on the Smokin’ Joes Honda out front followed by Picotte, Sadowski, James and Russell. After a couple of laps Russell dropped the hammer and went from fifth to first during the course of a single lap and immediately the Georgia native set sail from the rest of the field on his home track. Behind him, Edwards had broken free in second in vain pursuit of the leader while Corser had moved into the top five. By lap nine of the twenty-five lap race, the battle for second had really heated up as the FBF Ducs had caught Edwards with James having caught up to the back of the battle for second. At the halfway point of the race Russell had a comfortable lead followed by Edwards, Corser, Picotte, Sadowski and James in a fierce battle for the runner-up spot.
As the second half of the race ensued things began to heat up in the fight for the championship. In an act of true teamwork, Edwards waved James by into fifth and fell in behind him as the teammates began moving towards the front of the group. By lap seventeen James had moved into third behind Corser and soon passed him to lead the group with Edward falling in behind him which put big smiles on the faces in the Vance & Hines pits. Corser went back around Edwards and began challenging James for the second position but on lap nineteen the EXUP valve seized up on James’ Yamaha and he started dropping back.
The last five laps of the race were frantic as Corser began sliding back while Picotte (thinking James had retired) went after Edwards for second only for Sadowski to pass them both with only a couple of laps left. With one lap to go and Sadowski having proved his point, he began to fall down the order leaving Edwards and Picotte to settle things for the runner-up spot. Although James had encountered problems he was still in seventh place which was good enough for the title if Corser finished fifth. On the last lap as they started down the back straight Sadowski seemingly allowed Corser by into fourth. As they took the checkered flag it was Russell taking a dominating win followed by Picotte, Edwards, Corser and Sadowski. By finishing fourth, Corser took the championship by a single point over seventh place James in what would be his only season competing in the AMA series as both he and Edwards made the jump to the World Superbike series the following year.
Unfortunately the race was somewhat marred by a bizarre on-track altercation between two riders. As I mentioned earlier, Mick Doohan’s brother Scott was there racing that weekend on a Ducati. On the first lap of the race as the bikes went through turn two, Doohan and Brad Hazen (also on a Ducati) had a coming together which sent Hazen off into the grass. Hazen managed to keep his bike upright and rejoined the race without losing much time but soon after the initial incident corner workers reported seeing the two riders punching and kicking at each other as the race progressed. This all came to a head on the last lap as they exited gravity cavity apparently taking each other out as they went under the bridge at turn eleven. All I could see from my vantage point on the back straight was an explosion of hay bales as the bikes and riders slid off the track. Both riders were badly injured with Doohan being in a coma for several days at an area hospital but fortunately both eventually recovered. The nature of the incident prompted the AMA to suspend both riders from the series for unsportsman like conduct and even had local law enforcement considering a criminal investigation into the incident.
That September race weekend in 1994 began for me a passion for motorcycles and the sport of racing them that continues to grow to this day.