Although he was a top campaigner and factory Yamaha rider for some years riding for Yamaha Canada in North America, Steve Baker first shot to prominence in the UK via his exploits in the annual Match races held over the Easter weekend throughout the seventies. In 1975 the 23 year old American finished 7th and 5th in the first rounds held at Oulton Park and fell at Mallory the next day, not startling stuff, but he made an impression none the less.
The first time I can remember the diminutive American was at Mallory Park the year after his UK debut when he literally wrestled the awesome OW31 Yamaha around in a time of 48 seconds. It was a sight that remains with all that was present to this day, I am sure the wheels were never in line at any time as he made his way around the fast Leicestershire track.
He certainly made an impact on the world of motorcycle racing that season. Even with the modern day advancements in tyres and suspension that sort of pace and lap time is still quite a feat today. In the paddock that day I sought out my new hero’s autograph and could not believe what met me in the paddock, I was bigger than he and I was only 14 at the time. Off the bike Steve Baker confounded the racing norm, a quiet unassuming man with a little high pitched voice who showed a genuine interest in other people and definitely had a life outside of the racing world.
Steve Baker from the town of Bellingham, in the state of Washington, started racing in the early seventies and honed his talents riding the demanding US and Canadian national circuit. He almost immediately turned professional and spent much of his early career travelling north to ride in Canada. To be a champ in that environment meant having to ride road race, steeple chase and flat track and this form of racing spawned several generations of top stars like Gary Nixon, Wayne Rainey and, perhaps the greatest of them all, Kenny Roberts. Having his rear wheel six inches or so out of whack and the front pawing the air did not faze Baker, it was just what bikes did under power wasn’t it?
He soon attracted factory interest and was taken on board by the Canadian Yamaha effort with which he contested the 250cc and 750cc national championships riding the very best that the factory had to offer. The boss of the Canadian racing concern was Bob Work, a talented mechanic who, just like Kel Carruthers did with Roberts, always made sure Baker’s mounts were well prepared and bristled with the latest go faster goodies. The pair became close friends and Baker found the Canadian connection very lucrative openly admitting that as a racer he has never been on the breadline. At Daytona that year while the rest of the paddock had only production based twin shock machines the North American Yamaha teams featured the latest monoshock suspension, seen only in the GP’s before then, up and over exhaust pipes to gain extra ground clearance and many other trick features to set them apart from the rest.
In 1976 Yamaha produced the OW31 and in doing so gave Baker the vehicle he needed to shock the world. One of only five riders to receive this very special version of the TZ750, the others being Agostini, Roberts, Cecotto and the Japanese rider Hideo Kanaya, Baker used his flat track technique on the lightweight 750 to great effect, becoming virtually unbeatable. Once again this was a lucrative time for the talented Steve Baker and in the first month of the 1976 season he had earned over £20,000 on the OW31 alone. The new bike was not without problems however and Baker suffered many retirements due to breakdowns. At Daytona for instance Baker’s OW31’s ignition failed on lap ten causing the engine to seize whilst leading, unfortunately this was a weak point on the standard bike and the OW used the same item. The three other Yamaha runners, (Agostini did not compete at Daytona that year) with the exception of Cecotto who went on to win the prestigious 200 mile race for the second year running, fell by the wayside mainly with terrible rear tyre problems caused by the massive power on tap compared to anything else out there. Both Kanaya and Roberts pitted mid race to change shredded rear tyres, eventually finishing seventh and ninth respectively, in the pits the Yamaha team frantically tried to get Cecotto to pit so as to check his tyre, needles to say the South American carried on regardless to the finish.
In the Parc Ferme after that gruelling race Cecotto’s bike also carried a frighteningly blistered and threadbare rear slick proving that he only won by some divine intervention or other. The centre exhaust pipe on Cecotto’s OW31 had also ground out and holed causing a massive drop in power, luckily this had previously happened in practice for the event and Cecotto’s mechanic Vince French had seen fit to jet that particular cylinder considerably richer for the race just in case.
Baker went on to set the world alight that year as he competed in the FIM newly created world 750 championship, or Formula 750 as it was known. When the red and black OW31 kept going Baker was nothing short of awesome, perched on top and hanging on like some little kid having an illegal ride on his dads bike! The whole bike seemed to dwarf him and made the complete package look very unlikely indeed but it obviously worked to great effect.
Despite Yamaha’s all out efforts to clinch the prestigious F750 title with their magnesium laden four cylinder Superbike they and their five selected riders failed leaving the prize to be won by the privateer, ex water-skiing world champ, Spaniard Victor Palomo, albeit on a Nico Bakker framed TZ750 Yam.
This series really represented the halcyon days of racing as three of the four big Jap manufacturers were present, only Honda did not contest the series, and due to the lack of competitive off the shelf machinery, lots of little frame makers and accessory suppliers throughout the racing world were modifying production based bikes with great success.
The following year saw little actual mechanical change to the factory OW31 although the bodywork had been completely redesigned making it more streamlined, particularly at the rear end and another 5 BHP had been extruded out of the big stroker. Baker, once again one of the favoured riders to receive such equipment, won Daytona convincingly and went on to clinch the F750 title. The field of the F750 had changed considerably since the previous year as Yamaha had produced the TZ750D, a replica of the OW31 in every way but without a lot of the precious metals in the cycle parts, even so it weighed in at 149kgs only nine more than the OW31. Most privateer bikes were soon down to, if not below, the 140kgs mark given the ever present ingenuity of the private tuners and mechanics. Complete with a little basic tuning and blue printing the power of the 750D was soon up into the 130-140bhp mark making it a very attractive proposition for those fortunate enough to be allowed to buy one. The TZ750D was produced in very limited numbers even though demand was incredibly high. Each rider lucky enough to be allocated one had to sign to say he would not sell it before October of that season to prevent profiteering. Needless to say the queue was considerably longer than the amount of bikes available, only 67 were made in that first season and the top riders would have required at least two bikes each.
With the vast majority of the grid on the competitive production TZ this made the F750 into a sort of LC pro/am race held at world level with the very best riders on the planet! Just imagine being able to buy a World Superbike or GP bike for just over six grand, that’s how much a TZ750D would have cost back in 77!
Baker won the series emphatically effectively making him the first US World Champion, he also won the Daytona 200 that year and proved his versatility by being competitive on board a very trick TZ250 Yamaha, winning the lightweight 100 mile event. Once again the 250 showed how important Baker was in the US scheme of things as that Yamaha twin he rode at Daytona was the same as the “Roberts lowboy” 250 that Kenny appeared on at GP level the following year. History has previously had us believe this bike was built especially for Roberts and his two pronged GP assault. Likewise much has been written about Kenny Roberts and the TZ750 flat track bike but in actual fact the project started off very much with Baker in mind and in the end five were built for the top Yamaha dirt track riders in the states. Those men were Baker, Randy Cleek, Skip Askland, Rick Hocking and, of course, Roberts.
Things were looking very rosy for Baker and his mechanic Bob Work. Baker headed off to Europe to spearhead Yamaha’s 500GP effort and it would appear his only real competition would be Barry Sheene on the factory Suzuki and fellow Yamaha rider Johnny Cecotto. Yamaha produced a new inline four cylinder 500 for Baker, Agostini and Cecotto coded the OW35, this completely new machine produced a genuine 115bhp at the back wheel and weighed in at 130kgs while Sheene’s Square four Suzuki with a similar power output was some 5kgs above that figure. The Yamaha’s engine configuration went backwards slightly as it now featured straight piston porting without the reed valves seen the year before but this only served to unleash more power at the top end at the expense of bottom end grunt. With 115 horses kicking in at 9500rpm and peaking out at 11,000 the Yamaha had a razor sharp power band that would have made it difficult for the average rider to master, but Baker took to it well and the results show he experienced no such problems winding up the wick. It would be another two seasons before the OW35 gained the now ubiquitous Power valve system to make it more tractable.
The world of GP racing was a new experience for Baker, push starts and racing in the wet for instance must have been a daunting proposition, but he handled it well all season. In the first GP, held in Venezuela, Baker chased Sheene home to finish second with fellow American, and Sheene’s Suzuki team mate, Pat Hennen crossing the line in third place. Sheene must have felt the warning shot across his bows as he shared the fastest lap of the race with Steve Baker. The Cockney World Champ, and long time GP campaigner, must have been left wondering what the hell to expect when the little American got the chance to race on circuits he actually knew!
Back on the European mainland and the next round of the GP series was boycotted, following a serious accident in the 350 race, so Sheene would be suffering a few more sleepless nights in anticipation of Bakers performances. That accident in the 350 race possibly robbed Baker of the 500 title as it left Johnny Cecotto badly injured and Baker without a willing team mate whereas Sheene had a plethora of Suzuki riders to play road race chess with. Suzuki just seemed to pull out factory bikes, with all-too willing hired hands on board, as and when required just to fill the places on the leader board and eat up valuable points. Yamaha, probably due to the lack of full on factory bikes, remember their was only five of the original OW31 750’s ever built and even less 500’s, never used that facility and missed out on that precious 500 prize because of that. When Sheene was good he scored points, but when he faltered there was always another fast lad on a Suzuki about to score points preventing Baker from maximising his potential. In one GP out of 22 finishers only one, Baker’s, was the solitary Yamaha, the rest were Suzuki’s, works or otherwise! Occasionally Agostini returned to something like his old form but only served
to exacerbate the “team” problem for Baker by finishing in front of him at the French GP, effectively costing him valuable points
And so it went all year, with Baker performing tremendously and the title fight going to the wire with Sheene needing to finish well ahead of Baker in the penultimate round to seal the championship. Unfortunately for Baker the Yamaha suffered plug trouble and limped home in twelfth place while Sheene’s Suzuki overheated throughout the race although he nursed it to finish sixth and take the title for the second consecutive year.
A real turning point, albeit the wrong way, in the career of Steve Baker came at the Dutch TT during that 1977 championship season. For sometime Baker had been plagued by domestic strife and things really went tits up in a big way when a family argument erupted in front of the Yamaha bosses making a visit to Assen.
Baker’s long time fiancée, Bonnie, had never seen eye to eye with his sister who coincidently dated Bob Work. The foursome travelled the world as a close knit “family”. One race day, in the pit lane, right in front of the Yamaha hierarchy, they let one fly causing a bust up between Work and his long time friend and rider. The girls were subsequently banned from the paddock and even the team’s hotel, and Bob Work flew home to escape the conflict. The whole domestic event stayed with the Japanese so much so that Baker was not offered a European ride for the following season. It might have been enough for Baker to have won the F750 prize and finish second in the 500 but the Yamaha chiefs believed he should have had more control of his team and sorted out any problems before they got out of hand.
He was allowed to ride the latest factory OW31 courtesy of the Yamaha Canada connection but only at Daytona, where he retired with mechanical difficulties, a full factory Yamaha GP ride was not made available to him. Such is the malevolent nature of the sport that has all too often seen talented riders put out to pasture and simply make up the numbers. This upset came at a time when there were plenty of other top riders arriving on the scene and most were considerably more vociferous about their abilities than Baker ever could be. Riders like Mamola and Spencer were beginning to make their mark on the Japanese and were being pencilled in for the future GP scene, in fact the writing was also on the wall for several of the more established stars like Agostini, even World Champ Sheene would soon lose his Works bikes in favour of the younger riders.
This was a great shame as the experience Baker had gained during this first GP season meant he would have been a serious contender for the premier title the second time around. Kenny Roberts took on the mantle and stormed to the first of his three world titles in his inaugural year; while Baker was left with a “semi” works ride with Roberto Gallina and his Nava Olio Fiat Suzuki team.
The Gallina team machines were very well prepared but lacked the performance parts that the top official Suzuki riders possessed, the best result being third at the first GP of the season in Venezuela and fourth at the Italian GP later in the year. Baker ended that season a creditable 7th overall in the 500 World Championship even though he failed to finish in four out of the eleven rounds and was the highest scoring non works rider in the final tally.
The Gallina team proved their worth in later years going on to win the 500 title in 1981 and 82 with Marco Lucchinelli and Franco Uncini respectively. Steve Baker also rode a production spec TZ750 E for Gallina in the 1978 F750 championship though he was competitive on this he never really looked like that little guy we all remembered at Mallory back in 76. Something was missing somehow in his body language, perhaps he had but a fraction of the power to control with a standard bike compared to the OW31.
In the final F750 event of that year, held at Mosport in Canada, Baker was involved in a practise pile up that resulted in the death of privateer rider, Avram Guideski. Baker badly broke his arm and leg in the crash and these injuries took quite some time to heal sufficient to race again.
Race he did however and the 1979 match races once again saw Baker take to the line this time on a purely privateer bike. While he rode very well as part of the American team, finishing all six races in the points and riding to a stunning fourth place at Mallory, behind on form John Newbold, Sheene and American Mike Baldwin, he was badly let down by machine preparation and this was not a true indication of his abilities.
It would appear that Steve Baker had fully committed to competing on the UK national scene for the 79 season riding a TZ750 F in the MCN/Superbike championship and a Peckett and McNab Kawasaki in the TT/F1 series for the UK based sponsor and team owner Sid Griffiths. Riding in the UK back in the late seventies was by no means a down step in career as it was not uncommon to have the very best riders in the world making appearances on the domestic circuits. Graeme Crosby and future World Champ Wayne Gardner both cut their international teeth, among many others, dicing with the best the UK had to offer. Can you imagine Valentino Rossi turning up at Cadwell Park with his NSR500 Honda! Well that sort of thing was not out of the ordinary back then, top riders were paid a lot less in those days and subsequently rode a lot more than they do now so spectators were often treated to such spectacles.
The final chapter in the Steve Baker story came at Brands Hatch in that season of 1979, having rode to a convincing third place in the Brut/ MCN Superbike race, behind Ron Haslam and the late Dave Potter and an impressive fifth aboard the P&M Kwak, he crashed heavily, in the King of Brands race, entering the notorious Paddock Hill bend on the Sid Griffiths TZ750. Baker repeated the injuries he sustained in Canada the previous year, badly breaking his arm and leg and subsequently, in a fit of depression, bowed out of competitive riding.
He returned home to Bellingham and opened a Yamaha dealership where he kept in touch with racing by supporting local riders. In more recent times he has returned to Europe to take part in classic parades and events, clearly showing he still has that unmistakable style and speed.
The Steve Baker Gallery
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