Steve Baker was the first American to win a road racing world championship — the Formula 750 Series in 1977. Baker was also a leading rider in the 500cc Grand Prix Series that season, finishing second to Barry Sheene. Baker was one of the first riders to prove that Americans could be competitive on the world level. One of the highlights among his numerous accomplishments in road racing was winning the Daytona 200 in 1977.
Baker was born in Bellingham, Washington, on Sept. 5, 1952. His father was a motorcyclist and Steve began riding the dirt trails around his hometown by the time he was 11 years old. At 16, he began honing his racing skills on the short tracks and TT dirt tracks of the Pacific Northwest. He quickly became a leading racer in his area of the country. In the early 1970s, Baker began branching out and racing up and down the west coast of the United States and Canada. During this time, Baker became the top-ranked novice and, later, junior TT rider in country.
As his dirt track career was blossoming, Baker began road racing, primarily in Canada. He quickly took to racing on pavement and soon left dirt track racing to concentrate solely on road racing. During the early 1970s Baker raced as many as five classes on a typical racing weekend. He became a three-time Canadian road racing champion.
Baker first began racing professionally in the United States in 1973. Canadian Yamaha distributor Trevor Deely was his sponsor and Bob Work his tuner. His first AMA national finish was 28th in the 1973 Daytona 200. That start did not foretell of the great ride Baker would turn in later that year. Baker’s breakthrough race came in September of ’73 in Talladega, Alabama, where he finished second behind former world champion Kel Carruthers. Not bad for a rookie expert.
"That race at Talladega really was a big moment for me," recalls Baker. "I was racing against riders that I had really looked up to as I was coming up through the ranks. To be able to compete on the same level with those guys really did a lot for my confidence."
At Talladega the next year, Baker badly broke his leg and was forced to sit out the rest of the 1974 season. That made his second-place showing in the 1975 Daytona 200 even more impressive. It was his first race back after the injury.
"I remember going into the ’75 Daytona 200 my only goal was to go out there and get the feel of racing back," Baker remembers. "As the race progressed, I gained more and more confidence. By the end, I was actually riding pretty well, but as is the case so many times at Daytona, attrition among the early leaders was the main thing that enabled me to finish on the podium that year."
In the 1976 season, Baker reached the zenith of his racing career in the United States. He started off the year inauspiciously. His factory Yamaha OW31 suffered mechanical problems in the season opener at Daytona and he was unable to finish the race. Baker then earned his first AMA national victory when he won the Loudon Classic in June. He also won the 250 Grand Prix event at Loudon. In August, Baker duplicated his Loudon feat at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California, again winning the national and the 250c race.
Despite his Daytona DNF, Baker still had a solid chance to win the first-ever AMA Road Racing Championship, but a 250 GP heat race crash at the season finale in Riverside, California, prevented him from competing in the national and cost him a shot at the title. He finished the season ranked third in the series. That year, Baker was also making a name for himself overseas. He scored wins in the Anglo-American Match Race Series and the prestigious Race of the Year at England’s Mallory Park.
In 1977, Baker started the year impressively by winning the pole for the Daytona 200. He went on the win the rain-shortened 200 and the International Lightweight 250 Grand Prix event as well. From there, he competed in both the newly formed Formula 750 World Series and the 500cc World Championship Grand Prix. Riding for the factory Yamaha team in both series, Baker won the 750 title and finished runner-up in the 500 World Championship to Barry Sheene.
The end of 1977 proved to be the beginning of the end for Baker’s racing career. Yamaha did not renew his contract so he came back and struggled in the 1978 500cc World Championships on a privateer Suzuki. At the end of that season, Baker suffered a devastating accident at the Mosport circuit in Canada. That crash left him with a broken arm and shattered his left leg for the third time. Soon afterwards, Baker decided to retire from racing.
After his racing career ended, Baker stayed involved in motorcycling. He purchased a dealership in his hometown of Bellingham. When inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1999 Baker was still running his dealership. He helps sponsor a group of local racers and occasionally finds time to attend an AMA national. He still enjoys trail riding and riding personal watercraft with friends.