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Superbikes: Haga is Sensational Rookie Warrior

2 July 1998

LAGUNA SECA RACEWAY, Monterey, California (2 July) -- Superbike racing has long been dominated by riders astride powerful motorcycles made by Japan's leading manufacturers: Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha. There has not, however, been a Japanese world champion. Nor has there even been a serious title contender -- until now.

Noriyuki Haga was all but unknown outside of Japan before this year's Superbike World Championship series started in March, at the Phillips Island circuit in Australia. That changed quickly. It was impossible to miss his green colored hair, which is now blond. His brash confidence and riding style were more than apparent the first day of practice. But what really caught everyone's attention was the 23-year-old winning the season's second race on Phillips Island and then winning the next two, at Donington Park in England.

A superbike rookie beating up on the established stars the way Haga did, and leading the championship, was sensational. Happy, even elated, he was not, however, surprised. "The established order doesn't mean anything," he said after dominating at Donington. "The win in Australia may have surprised some people and become a topic of conversation, but what's strange about my winning?" He is the 1997 All Japan Superbike Champion after all.

At first listen, Haga could be thought a bit cocky. "I don't want to tell you how I'm going to ride in races or what my training regimen is -- that's a secret I only talk about with my brother," he says, adding, "If anybody copied me, I'd be in trouble." When it comes to the chances of American superbikers winning either of the two Superbike World Championship races here on Sunday, July 12, during the Dunlop World Superbike Championship event, his opinion is simple: "There is a chance this can happen,"

Haga though is more a Zen master than cowboy. His comments aren't to psych-out opponents or convince himself he can win. His confidence seems founded in wisdom. "Lately I have been asked, 'What makes you so good?' That's something I don't want to answer right now. I'm in the middle of trying my best to produce good results and I don't want to say anything until those results are achieved." About the Yamaha YZF750 superbike he rides for the Yamaha factory team being too old a design to be competitive, he says sagely: "It's true that it is old, but there are good things that are old. Just because something's new, it doesn't mean it's good."

On track Haga is a warrior. He crashed out of both races while running fourth during world championship rounds 11 and 12 at Misano, Italy, on June 21. His explanation was that he was determined to win, even though he had no realistic chance of catching Honda rider Aaron Slight who won both races. The line on Haga now is that, after tasting victory so often so early, he can accept nothing less. Haga's take after dropping back to sixth in points is more philosophical: "It's a long season. Who knows when you'll fall into a slump. It's not the thing I can control. I take each race one at a time and do the best I can."

In stark contrast to Haga, his Yamaha team-mate Scott Russell is truly cocky, yet he's struggling to even finish in the Top 10, Before the season began, the 1992 and '93 AMA National Superbike Champion and '93 Superbike World Champion from Atlanta reckoned himself a title contender. In the 12 races so far, he's failed to finish better than 11th eight times. Neither repentant nor humbled, Russell is certain that, here at Laguna Seca, he can at least finish ahead of the AMA superbikers he beat to win the second AMA superbike race this year, on March 8 at Daytona International Speedway. His fellow Americans chances of winning are, he says, "Slim to none. I've beaten them once this year and I'm going to beat them again."

"Them" includes American Honda #1 Ben Bostrom; reigning national champ Doug Chandler from Salinas, who rides for Kawasaki; and Fresno's Rich Oliver, a Yamaha USA factory rider. They are the leading U.S. riders from the AMA series who will be defending their home turf against the best from the rest of the world to decide who is superbike racing's Top Gun.