Fred Merkel is one of the few riders that can truly be called a legend in his own time. A three-time AMA Superbike Champion, Merkel left the states in 1987 to race on the world stage and brought home two FIM World Superbike Championships.
Born Fred Nels Merkel on September 28, 1962 in Stockton, California, Merkel started his racing career on the dirt tracks of California. With the help of his dad, Gary, he turned to racing on the pavement, where he found immediate success. In 1981, Merkel rode 250 Grand Prix bikes and was the third-ranked AMA novice rider in the country. In 1982, Merkel turned expert and finished second in the AMA 250 Grand Prix Series (which at the time was called Formula 2) on a Yamaha TZ250.
Honda recognized the talent of the young Merkel, and hired him to race AMA Superbikes in 1983. The choice was a good one for Honda. In the third round of the 1983 season, Merkel earned his first Superbike podium finish, a third, at Riverside, California. Just over three months later, on July 24, 1983, at Portland International Raceway, Merkel won the first of 20 AMA Superbike Nationals. That tally of 20 Superbike wins made Merkel the all-time winningest rider in AMA Superbike, a record which stood until eclipsed in 1998 by Miguel Duhamel.
Merkel finished third in his rookie Superbike season then returned in 1984 and won the title. "Flying Fred" just kept on winning and winning in the mid-1980s. In 1984, he won a record 10 AMA Superbike Series races in a single season. Merkel also helped move AMA Superbike racing to a new level of recognition. With his charm, wit and good looks, promoters loved to use Merkel in media tours promoting the races.
In 1987, he moved to Italy and raced in European championships. Then in 1988, the FIM initiated the World Superbike Championship, and Merkel, still riding for Honda, won the inaugural title. It was no fluke. Merkel came back in 1989 to win his second World Superbike Championship.
While Merkel was away battling the world's best, American fans could only admire from afar. He only made a few appearances in the United States during his World Superbike years – specifically at World Superbike rounds at Brainerd (Minnesota) International Raceway in the late 1980s and early '90s. American racing fans were able to keep up with Merkel's progress thanks to ESPN Television Network's coverage of the World Superbike championships.
Merkel returned to the United States in 1994 to race for Kawasaki. The next season, Suzuki hired the former champ. While Merkel never won another Superbike race, he turned in brilliant rides on bikes that were considered past their primes. It was the Merkel of old, however, in the 750 SuperSport class. He won a race for Kawasaki in 1994, and seven races in the series for Suzuki in 1995, and moved into a tie for second on the all-time AMA 750 SuperSport win list.
Merkel retired from racing at the end of the 1995 season after being injured in an accident at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler, Arizona. Merkel and his family moved to a scenic ranch they owned in New Zealand. Merkel exchanged the hectic life of a racer for perhaps the even more hectic life of a business owner. Merkel Engineering was a successful construction material manufacturing company in New Zealand.
In his spare time, Merkel enjoys giving trout fishing tours and conducting riding schools.
Merkel will be remembered as one of the elite motorcycle road racers in the history of the sport, and certainly one of the all-time greats of Superbike racing.
Inducted in 2001