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.
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. 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, 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.
Honda’s RC30. The ground-breaking 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.
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. 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.
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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issued: Tuesday, September 14, 2021
updated: Tuesday, September 14, 2021
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