Mike Baldwin was record-setting five-time AMA Road Racing Champion and the all-time wins leader in AMA Formula 1/Formula 750 history. His records in the class will never be broken since AMA Formula 1 was discontinued after the 1986 season. In all, Baldwin won 27 AMA national races – 17 in AMA F1/750 and 10 in AMA Superbike – and he is considered one of the top road racers America has ever produced.
Baldwin had great international road racing success as well. He was the first rider to win the prestigious Suzuka 8 Hour Endurance race three times. Baldwin also contested the 500cc Grand Prix World Championships (now MotoGP) and scored a career-high ranking of fourth in the world championship in 1986.
Baldwin was born in Pasadena, California, in 1955. When he was 7, his family moved to Tacoma, Washington, before settling in Darien, Connecticut when Mike was 9. His first motorcycle was a lawn-mower-engine-powered minibike he got at 14. A year later, he stepped up to a Honda 50. He and friends carved trails through the woods and he spent hours after school and in the summer riding, later getting a Suzuki trail bike and eventually a Honda 175cc street bike when he turned 16.
In 1972, Baldwin bought a Kawasaki H2 and he and a friend rode to Bridgehampton, on Long Island, New York, to watch a club motorcycle race. There they saw top AMA competitor Gary Fisher and club expert Bob Pepper fight it out in a race. Both Baldwin and his buddy decided to put number plates on their bikes and give road racing a try. Baldwin had a decent debut, finishing fifth, and he was sucked into the club racing scene. His parents were unaware of his early racing exploits, thinking only that their high school-age son was out riding on the street.
While on Christmas break in his senior year of high school, Baldwin attended a Kawasaki service school and became service manager of a new dealership near his home after graduating. A wealthy customer of the dealership had a highly modified Kawasaki Z1 and told Baldwin he’d like for him to take the bike to the track to see what it could do. While at the track, the customer was attracted to the little white Yamahas with the red stripe and bought a TZ 125 and 250 from one of the racers. Baldwin first raced the TZs up in Canada a couple of weeks later. Baldwin won the 250 race, beating factory Yamaha Canada rider Steve Baker in the process. He then began winning a slew of club races on the TZs.
In the mid-1970s, Baldwin also began competing on Ducati and Laverda production Superbikes in endurance races. He would often race eight or nine classes in a club racing weekend. For a time, Baldwin even raced area dirt track races and ice races in the winter to better his riding skills.
In 1975, Baldwin became an AMA novice racer with a talented class of newcomers from the club ranks that included riders such as Rich Schlachter, Dave Roper, Dave Emde and Harry Klinzmann.
By 1976, Baldwin became one of the leading AMA Lightweight class (250 Grand Prix) competitors, but his big breakthrough that year came when he unexpectedly took a runaway victory in the AMA Superbike race at Loudon, New Hampshire, on a Reno Leoni-built Moto Guzzi LeMans. In the late 1970s, Baldwin raced in all three classes of AMA road racing, Formula 750 (later called Formula 1), 250 Grand Prix and Superbike. He won another AMA Superbike race in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1977.
In 1978, Baldwin won the Sears Point and Pocono Nationals en route to winning the AMA Formula 1 road racing championship riding his own Yamaha TZ750. He also impressed everyone by finishing a close third to world GP riders Kenny Roberts and Steve Baker at Laguna Seca. It marked his first AMA national championship. That title, along with Baldwin’s exploits in the Canadian round of the World Championship Formula 750 GP and Suzuka, made him the hottest road racer in America.
The Canadian round of the Formula 750 was at Mosport that September. The World Championship was on the line and Roberts still had a shot to win it. But it was Baldwin who stole the show, beating Roberts by 40 seconds. When Roberts was asked by the press, his few words on Baldwin’s amazing performance spoke volumes: “Forty seconds, what can I say? Forty seconds.”
In Japan, Baldwin won the Suzuka 8 Hour with Wes Cooley.
Kawasaki was eager to scoop up the fast-rising star and signed Baldwin for 1979. At Daytona in ’79, Baldwin appeared to be a real threat to win the Daytona Triple Crown (the Daytona 200, the Daytona Lightweight and the Daytona Superbike races). He was easily the fastest in Superbike and battled for top billing in the Daytona 200 and Lightweight qualifying. Unfortunately, Baldwin high-sided in practice on Thursday and broke his collarbone. Without racing in the qualifying race, Baldwin had to start from the back of the grid in the 200. The leaders had completed nearly three-quarters of a lap by the time the third wave of riders, of which Baldwin was in the back, was given the green flag. In spite of his huge disadvantage and riding in pain with the broken shoulder, Baldwin tore through the field on the factory Kawasaki KR750 and finished a strong fourth, giving him at least a moral victory.
In addition to racing for Kawasaki in 1979, he also raced in Europe during the gap in the AMA schedule after Daytona. He was the top scorer in the Anglo-America Match races in 1979, and then he scored top-10 finishes at the West German and Imola Grands Prix on a privateer Suzuki. The trip culminated with Baldwin scoring the pole and earning a podium finish at the Spanish Grand Prix in Jarma. Baldwin was red-hot at this point and was considered a true challenger to Roberts as the top American road racer. But then injury struck.
He came back to the United States to race the Loudon National in June of 1979 for Kawasaki and suffered a devastating crash that broke his leg so badly that he would go through months of surgery and therapy. He would not return to the World GP circuit for another six years.
Baldwin returned to racing, not fully healthy, mid-way through 1980, now riding for Honda as part of an effort to try to help Freddie Spencer win the AMA Superbike Championship. He scored a pair of podium finishes and ended the season ninth in the standings.
In 1981, Baldwin rode with David Aldana for Honda in the World Endurance Championship. While the team was plagued with bad luck most of the year he did win Suzuka for a second time.
In 1982, Baldwin came back to America, now fully healthy, and began a four-year reign atop the AMA Formula 1 road racing class. He stacked up wins during this period, eventually making him the all-time wins leader of the class. Baldwin won the 1982, ’83, ’84 and ’85 AMA Formula 1 Championships. He won the 1982 championship on the revolutionary Honda FWS1000 V-Four, giving Honda the distinction of becoming the first manufacturer to win the AMA Formula 1 title with a four-stroke-powered machine.
“That bike had an amazingly broad powerband,” Baldwin recalled of the FWS. “At Loudon one year I told my mechanic (Ray Plumb) that I was going to do a full lap without shifting gears. You’ve got to remember that Loudon was a pretty tight track and had some hairpin turns. Anyway, I went an entire lap in one gear and still turned a minute, 10.”
Also in 1982, Baldwin won three out of the last four AMA Superbike races to nearly steal the championship away from Kawasaki’s Eddie Lawson. In 1983, he again finished second, this time to Kawasaki’s young gun Wayne Rainey.
In addition to scoring another championship in America in 1984, Baldwin became the first rider in the history of the Suzuka 8 Hour to win it three times. He teamed with Fred Merkel on a factory Honda to accomplish the impressive feat.
Baldwin won his final AMA Championship in 1985 on Hondas, but it was not a full factory effort. In a unique arrangement, Baldwin had purchased the race bikes from Honda. That allowed him to ship his racing machine over to Europe to contest the World Championship GPs once again on his off weekends. He scored a number of top-10 finishes in his limited return to the GP circuit and finished the year tied for 10th at the same time he was winning the American road race title.
In 1986, Baldwin experienced his best season ever in the GPs aboard Kenny Roberts’ Lucky Strike Suzuki. He scored five podium finishes and finished the season ranked fourth in the final world championship standings in spite of guidance from Roberts to ride cautiously to make sure he didn’t get hurt. Baldwin also made a triumphant return to America, winning the road race national at Laguna Seca. It proved to be the final victory of his remarkable career.
In 1987, Baldwin was injured in an accident at the Hockenheim circuit in Germany and broke his wrist and ankle, forcing him to miss most of the season. He returned for a few GP rounds in 1988 with a low-key privateer Honda team. His best finish on the under-funded team was 10th at the USGP. That year Baldwin also filled in for the Vance & Hines Suzuki team in the AMA Superbike National and rode to an impressive fourth.
The ’88 season marked the last full year of competition for Baldwin. After that season, Baldwin made a few fill-in appearances at AMA nationals, most notably finishing second in the AMA 600cc Supersport race in College Station, Texas in 1991. His final race came with the Two Brothers Honda Superbike team at Miami in November of 1991. He finished seventh in the street race there.
After retiring from racing, he started a riding school and later went to work for Spectro Oils, handling the company’s export business. Baldwin is married and has two children.