In driving distance, Bellingham, Washington, is about 170 miles from Shelton, Washington, where Ridge Motorsports Park is located. As the crow flies, the distance is substantially shorter than that because, by car, to get from Bellingham to Shelton, you drive south, curl west around the southern tip of Puget Sound, and head a little bit north.
The reason I mention Bellingham, Washington, is because, as we get ready to race again in the Pacific Northwest this weekend, I can’t help but always think about the man whose birthplace was Bellingham.
He’s also a man who will almost always win you a bet if you ask a certain question while in the company of motorcycle road racers and motorcycle road racing fans: Who is the first American to win a motorcycle road racing world championship? Invariably, someone will always blurt out “Kenny Roberts!”
Wrong again, two-stroke breath. The first American to win a motorcycle road racing world championship was, in fact, Mr. Steve Baker of Bellingham, Washington.
A quiet, unassuming dirt tracker who had done most of his racing in Canada, Baker went to Daytona for the first time in 1977 and as a rookie, promptly set the pole for the 36th annual Daytona 200. That year, the Daytona 200 was a World Championship race and was the first round of the 1977 Formula 750 World Championship.
Baker won the rain-shortened 200 and caught the eye of Yamaha brass. They immediately enlisted him to compete in the entire Formula 750 Championship, as well as the 500cc Grand Prix World Championship to boot.
As a rookie riding for the factory Yamaha team, Baker won the Formula 750 World Championship aboard his #32 Yamaha YZR750 0W31, an absolute beast of a motorcycle with a four-cylinder, 750cc, two-stroke engine shoehorned into a flexi-flyer frame and rolling on tires with contact patches about the size of the head of a thumbtack.
Along with winning the 1977 Formula 750 World Championship, Baker finished second in the 1977 500cc Grand Prix World Championship to none other than Barry Sheene.
So, while Kenny Roberts is renowned as one of the first riders to prove that Americans could be competitive on the world level, in fact, it was Steve Baker who was actually the very first American to pave the way in that brave new world. As we race this weekend in Washington state, MotoAmerica salutes Washington’s own Steve Baker.
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