1976 BMW R90S
Steve McLaughlin's racer
You never forget a first time, but this one was particularly memorable.
That’s because the first time this bike crossed a finish line, it took first place in the first AMA Superbike race.
How did BMW, a company known for its refined touring machines, win that first race in 1976, then go on to take the championship that season? With a lot of engine work and innovation by tuner Udo Gietl, combined with the riding skill of teammates Steve McLaughlin and Reg Pridmore.
When the new Superbike road-racing series was announced, Butler & Smith, BMW’s U.S. importers, saw an opportunity to make an impact on the racetrack. So Gietl, chosen to be the team’s mechanic, set to work converting the company’s distinctive R90S sport-touring machine into a racebike.
Gietl shortened the flat-twin’s cylinders to allow greater lean angles in the corners. Titanium connecting rods and pushrods were fitted, allowing a 9,200 rpm redline. The stock rear suspension was replaced by a custom-built Koni monoshock adapted from a Formula 1 race car.
The BMW team arrived at Daytona, not for the 200-mile race, but for a 50-mile race earlier during Bike Week. The team had three riders—McLaughlin, Pridmore and Gary Fisher—and three bikes, including the one pictured here, previosly on display at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum at AMA Headquarters in Pickerington, Ohio.
“The bike broke down every time I rode it,” McLaughlin remembers of practice. “I wasn’t very confident that it would last, so when the race started, I made sure I got a good start to look good while it was running.”
He wasn’t the only one. All three BMWs got away early. “My bike wasn’t as fast, but I could stay with them in the draft,” he recalls. “Fisher was over-riding his, and it blew up within five or six laps.”
Pridmore and McLaughlin stayed tight throughout the race. But McLaughlin had been practicing his drafting techniques—always key at Daytona—and that’s how he got Pridmore by inches at the line.
The bike’s current owner is Bruce Armstrong, a former district sales manager for Butler & Smith. He discovered the bike in the back of a BMW dealership in Bakersfield, California.
“I was a BMW freak,” he says. “And I knew if someone didn’t save that bike, it would be raced. I had to make sure one of the three from Daytona survived.”
Armstrong’s wife and two daughters bought it for him as a Christmas present in 1980, and he immediately went to work, restoring it to its former glory.