It’s hard to imagine now, but 25 years ago the World Superbike series staged its first ever event at Donington Park in the UK Midlands as part of a busy April long weekend of racing. The crazy busy program included Eurolantic (formerly Match Races) Challenge events at Brands Hatch, just south of London. The series then moved on to Donington, where the Sunday Superbike races would be followed by the completion of the Eurolantic Series on the Easter Monday bank holiday.
SBK technical inspection prior to on-track activity at Donington made it clear that there was a set of rules as specified by the FIM, and the British ACU organizers were going to apply the standards, as you would expect for a World Championship round.
This was something of a problem for the North American contingent, since “our” bikes differed from the new World standard in two main areas: displacement and carburetors. Most American and Canadian racers over-bored to pick up a little engine size, usually around 20cc’s, but the FIM Rulebook required stock displacement. Carbs were required to match those provided on the homologated road machine, and again most North Americans had aftermarket racing carbs from Mikuni.
Paddock gossip at Donington suggested that some allowances could be made for the North Americans, but in the end the rules stood as printed, no exceptions – back room dealings didn’t cloud these results.
American Honda did not officially support the activities of Bubba Shobert at the event, but there was no doubt the flat track ace turned road racer had something to prove in his first real England outing. The year before, Shobert had travelled to the UK for the Easter series, but broke his wrist in a crash while practicing for the Brands Hatch opener. In his much-anticipated 1988 UK race debut, Shobert wanted to feature.
Previously, Fred Merkel, Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey had used the Match Races as a springboard to the GP scene, and Shobert planned to take the same route—hence his decision to take advantage of the Eurolantic Challenge start money offering as a boost for the first-ever World Superbike event.
While several of the national distributor teams entered the brand new and trick Honda RC30 at Donington, Shobert was on the ultra well-developed VFR, an earlier version of Honda’s potent v-four platform. Shobert’s bike was in fact ex-Rainey, probably the most aggressively developed machine at the track, and that included some very trick non-homologated unobtanium carbs—or at least that was the rumor in the paddock.
Of course, tuners will tell you that you can always have one item installed to pass through tech and then substitute the preferred part prior to taking to the track. The problem is, if you do well, you will have to attend a post-race inspection too—right after impound—with little chance to swap out parts.
At Yoshimura-Suzuki, the beautiful AMA series GSX-R750s of Doug Polen and Scott Gray featured lots of trick mods, and their bigger displacement and aftermarket carbs meant that an entry for Sunday’s pair of Superbike races was out of the question. The stars of the Daytona 200 a month earlier would be spectators for the World Superbike opener, then rejoin the action on Monday for the completion of the Match Races.
Shobert, on the other hand, wanted to race on Sunday, and did. However his VFR was delayed after the warm-up lap, and missed the start due to some kind of vapor lock or similar problem. From there, Shobert charged through the pack, setting the fastest lap of the weekend, but not figuring in the results.
To this day, some argue his delay was real, while most view Shobert’s start-line difficulties as a way to show his pace without having to undergo scrutineering.
It’s also interesting to note that the Donington opener was scored on aggregate, similar to Motocross GPs of the day, with the two race results combined to offer one overall standing. This meant that you needed to do well in both rounds, and Shobert was out of it before things really got going. For the next set of races, round two at the Hungaroring, and every World Superbike event since, the result of each race stands separately, every race scoring series points.
And what of the two Texas-based AMA stars? Polen edged Shobert for the unofficial title of top individual scorer for the Eurolantic Challenge, with four wins to Shobert’s two. No one else won a race, but the depth of the U.K. team meant they earned the team title for the home squad. The Brits finished with a total of 586 points, the injury-depleted Americans next at 570. The Euro crew, most of whom didn’t both to race on Monday following SBK One at Donington, were third at 287 points, and UK Two was the the last place team at 281.