Randy Mamola was widely regarded as one of the most exciting and charismatic Grand Prix motorcycle racers of his generation. Mamola was a consistent challenger for the 500cc world championship title throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. He won 13 Grands Prix and finished runner-up in the championship four times. Mamola ranked in the top 10 a remarkable 11 times during his 13-season world championship career. Before embarking on his world championship quest, Mamola won the AMA 250 Grand Prix Championship in 1978.
After racing, Mamola became a founder of Riders for Health, making him perhaps the leading philanthropist ever to come out of motorcycle racing.
The early yearsMamola was born in San Jose, California in 1959. He grew up dreaming to be a musician. As a child he trained to be a drummer and was considered a prodigy on the instrument. He was in a band at 10, but gave up his musical training when he took up motorcycle racing at 12.
Mamola learned to ride on a Hodaka Steens at a small track owned by the Police Athletic League near his home. He took up racing right away. Mamola was so short at the time that his father had to cut out a part of the frame so his son could touch the ground. At first he competed in informal races in a field that was a popular riding spot next to the San Jose Airport. He then moved on to more formal sanctioned races and quickly became one of the fastest junior riders in Northern California.
His hero was fellow Northern Californian Kenny Roberts. At 14, Mamola was sponsored by Yamaha and he wore the yellow-and-black Yamaha racing leathers of his idol. He was even known by the semi-derisive name of "Baby Kenny" in the early stages of his career. Mamola raced flat track and began road racing with coaching from Ron Grant. His first international exposure came with Grant's help. Mamola traveled to race the New Zealand road racing series during the winter and won that country's 125cc championship. In America, he began winning AFM road races and suddenly Mamola had new opportunities open to him.
Turning proWhen Mamola turned 16, he began racing professionally and earned his AMA expert racing license. In 1977, he graduated from high school and began competing in the AMA 250 Grand Prix Championship. He scored three podium finishes in his rookie season and finished runner up in the championship. In 1978, he returned and scored wins at Pocono and Laguna Seca en route to earning the AMA 250 Grand Prix Championship. He also raced a few of the main AMA Formula One events that season and scored a podium result at Loudon, New Hampshire.
In 1979, Mamola rode a Bimota in the Daytona 250 Grand Prix race and battled for the lead with Skip Askland and Freddie Spencer until his bike's brake wore out. He finished third. He then went to England for the popular Anglo-American Match Races, and scored second only to fellow American Mike Baldwin, and ahead of former world champ Barry Sheene and experienced American pilots David Aldana, Gene Romero, Rich Schlachter, Steve Baker, Wes Cooley, Dale Singleton and John Long.
Taking on the worldWith Kenny Roberts exploding onto the world championship scene, Mamola was already being considered the next big thing to come out of America, and in 1979 he got an opportunity to go to the world championships racing a Bimota, and later Yamahas, in the 250cc class, and a privateer Suzuki in the 500cc class. He made an immediate splash in both classes, earning podium finishes and scoring fourth in the 250cc championships (first privateer) and eighth in the 500cc Road Racing World Championships, despite racing in only half of the 500cc GPs. Mamola was so impressive that he earned a factory ride with Herron-Texaco Suzuki in 1980.
In July of 1980, Mamola broke through to win his first 500cc World Championship Grand Prix race in Zolder, Belgium.
"I remember starting from the pole," Mamola said of his first victory at the Belgium Grand Prix. "I got off to a really clean start and took off in the lead. I remember winning by a big margin and going to the podium. All I could think about while I was up on the podium was how eager I was to get to the next race and do it all again."
Mamola won again in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, proving he was a true world championship contender. He finished second to countryman Roberts that year. It marked the first time Americans finished one-two in the 500cc World Championship.
Fan favoriteIt was also early in his career that Mamola became a favorite of the fans and his fellow riders. In those days, the GPs had dead-engine starts. The riders would push start the bikes at the drop of the green flag and the field would roar to life. During the quiet before the flag, Mamola said tension was obvious in the air.
"There would be 100,000 fans, but you could hear the drop of a pin," Mamola recalled. "The anticipation was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I would start making noises just to relieve some of the tension and to get everybody on the grid to relax a little bit."
Mamola also was one of the first GP riders to acknowledge the crowd on the cool-down lap of the race. He would throw gloves, boots and his T-shirt into the crowd.
"I would wave to the fans, give them applause back and things like that," Mamola said. "Before long, I noticed the fans were making signs with my name and wearing my team’s colors. I know how great I felt when I stood as a young fan if a rider acknowledged me. I just wanted to give something back to them."
Another thing the fans loved about Mamola was his passion for racing as hard as he could. He pushed his motorcycles to the limit and sometimes beyond. At Misano one year, his bike threw him off exiting a high-speed turn. Many riders would have let go of the out-of-control machine, but not Mamola. He hung on for dear life, made a miracle save and somehow managed to hoist himself back into the saddle and kept charging as if nothing had happened. The fans went wild. It was caught by television cameras and is generally considered one of the most spectacular saves in GP racing history.
After starting his GP career in 1979, Mamola continued to be competitive through the early 1990s. He earned a total of 57 podium finishes in three decades and was a championship contender nearly his entire career.
During the 1980s, Laguna Seca hosted an AMA national each year that featured the return of the American GP stars during their summer break from the GP schedule. Every year, the American GP riders would dominate the AMA stars, but the fans loved getting to watch the heroes they rarely got to see. Mamola won the prestigious Laguna Seca National in 1981, '83 and '85, adding to his popularity at home.
Mamola's career hit a pinnacle in 1986 and 1987, when he rode for Roberts' Lucky Strike Yamaha squad. During that period, he won four GPs, took a slew of podium finishes and finished third and second respectively in the 500cc World Championship. He then was hired by Cagiva to help launch that company's entry into GP racing. He gave Cagiva its first podium result in Belgium in 1988. He toiled for three years helping develop the Cagiva, but the company proved to be underfunded and Mamola never regained the success he’d had previously.
RetirementAfter leaving Cagiva, Mamola sat out the 1991 season. He returned in 1992 and scored the final podium finish of his career in Hungary that year. He retired from racing after that season. Mamola continued to test GP bikes for Yamaha for several more years and helped develop bikes and tires for the GP circuit. He later became an expert TV commentator for the GPs and columnist for several racing publications.
Mamola was married in 1994 and he and his wife had two children.
Riders for HealthMamola always realized how fortunate he was to make a very good living doing what he enjoyed. He felt an obligation to give back to society and began doing so from an early age. When he was just 16, he arranged a charity race in his hometown, using many of the hundreds of trophies he’d earned in his young career as prizes, and raised enough money to help build a rehabilitation room at a local children’s hospital. During his GP racing days, Mamola got involved in raising money for African relief.
In the late 1980s, after a rider protest, the purse money at the GPs was increased. Mamola, who made the bulk of his income from his factory contract, took the half of his extra purse and donated it to the Save the Children. Mamola's initial $20,000 contribution to Save the Children led to the founding of Riders for Health. Over the next few years, Mamola visited Africa and deepened his involvement in charity work. Mamola’s passion for this work led to several motorcycle manufacturers becoming involved. Riders for Health has won awards for its charity work and has raised millions for African relief.
Mamola today continues a busy schedule of working as expert commentator for MotoGP television coverage, a magazine columnist and his work with Riders for Health.
He will always be remembered as not only one of the best riders of his era, but also as one of the all-time fan favorites in the history of Motorcycle Grand Prix racing.