About the time Randy Mamola turned 17 he was racing a Yamaha TZ250 in New Zealand. As a visiting rider he was assigned “A” for his race number. He’s been a Class-A act ever since.
One of the all-time great Grand Prix road racers never won a world championship. Randy Mamola, winner of 13 GP races, placed second in the 500cc championship four times — 1980, 1981, 1984 and 1987 — and was among the top 10 in points for 11 of his 14 seasons (his stint with Cagiva left him out of the top 10 in 1988-1990). But Mamola never won the grand prize, the 500cc World Championship.
Practically from the get-go, Mamola seemed destined for motorcycling greatness when he was groomed as a teenager by the same man — Jim Doyle — who helped launch Kenny Roberts’ career. By 1975 Doyle had the 15-year-old Mamola signed to race Yamaha’s spunky TA125 production road racer in AFM (American Federation of Motorcyclists) club races. Soon former AMA racer Ron Grant assumed some of the on-track tutorial duties, and Mamola finished second to Dave Emde in the 1977 AMA 250cc national championship. Grant arranged for Mamola to race in New Zealand to further hone his skills, and the payoff was Mamola later capturing the 1978 AMA 250 title. It was then on to Europe, and through a series of events Mamola found himself sponsored on a Suzuki RG500, placing eighth in his short rookie season of 500cc GP competition. His racing career was taking off.
Yamaha contracted the freckled-face Mamola as a support racer when he was 14 years old.
But it never fully took off, those four runner-up placings a nagging stigma that he never was champion. Even so, Mamola became a fan favorite, and if you have never witnessed his greatness on the race track, check out the YouTube clip featuring one of the most spectacular near-crashes in racing history. Punch in “Randy Mamola’s 1985 San Marino save” to enjoy a thrilling two-minute video highlighting Mamola’s near high-side on a Honda NS500. You’ll gain a better appreciation for his skills. Mamola’s comments on the video also reveal why he was such a good interview at the track.
Indeed, Mamola gave me a colorful quote during my days as Sport Editor at Cycle Guide when he recounted the time a rabbit crossed his Honda’s path at Silverstone. Like the childhood fable, the hare came up short in this race, too. Mamola told me how someone later delivered the rabbit’s carcass to him for a souvenir. I asked if he kept one of the rabbit’s feet for good luck. “Are you kidding?” he replied. “That wasn’t a very lucky rabbit.”
Coming so close to being World Champion would be a hard pill to swallow. But the world will overlook that because at the height of his career, Randy Mamola became one of racing’s most influential philanthropists, stepping up in 1986 to support the Save the Children charity in Africa. That led to him cofounding Riders for Health (with Barry and Andrea Coleman), and later Two Wheels for Life, organizations providing first-response vehicles for impoverished places in Africa. Maybe sometimes before you become a winner, you have to first lose something — four times in Mamola’s case.
— Dain Gingerelli