Until Ulsterman Jonathan Rea became the new king of World Superbikes, an outspoken young man from Blackburn wore that crown.
Carl Fogarty is the son of George Fogarty, the man who almost certainly lost Barry Sheene victory at the end of his unforgettable duel with ‘King’ Kenny Roberts in the 1979 British GP at Silverstone. Fogarty Sr was a backmarker in that race and badly baulked Sheene on the final lap. At the finish line Sheene was just three-hundredths of a second behind his American nemesis.
During the 1990s Fogarty Jr more than made up for that disgrace. He won four World Superbike championships, always riding blood-red Ducati V-twins. His success inspired a wave of patriotic support, which transformed the annual Brands Hatch WSB round into one of Britain’s biggest sporting events, with 120,000 fans thronging the Kent circuit.
But it could all have been so different. In 1990 Fogarty was a wild young wannabe, recovering from a broken femur which had ended his hopes of a career on 250cc GP bikes. Instead he bought an over-the-counter Honda RC30 superbike, which he raced at British championship meetings and at dangerous (but well-remunerated) road events, like the Isle of Man TT and Northern Ireland’s North West 200.
He got his big break when another rider got broken, as is so often the case in motorcycle racing. Italian 500cc GP rider Pierfrancesco Chili was badly hurt when he crashed at Spa’s high-speed Blanchimont left-hander during practice for the 1990 Belgian GP. His Honda team couldn’t find a top-class replacement for the next few races, so someone suggested this fiery British youngster.
“I got the call while I was at the Suzuka 8 Hours, so when I got back I went straight to Cadwell Park to test Chili’s NSR500. This was the Wednesday before the British GP at Donington. I jumped on the bike and loved it. I was flying around Cadwell thinking, ‘I’m going to win the British GP!’”
Fogarty’s arrival at Donington was a big deal. Britain hadn’t had a grand prix title contender since Sheene. Fogarty certainly had the fire and he had talent, too. Maybe he was the man to inherit Sheene’s mantle.
In 1992 Fogarty put himself in debt to buy a Ducati superbike
Sadly, he got his chance at the wrong moment. At that time 500cc GP bikes were at their most malevolent. Their four-cylinder two-strokes produced torque so unpredictably that they were liable to overpower the rear tyre and flick the rider skywards.
The bikes had no traction control, so the most talented riders – mostly former dirt- trackers from the USA and Australia – devised their own ways to thrive and survive. This included using wheelspin to turn the bike and using the clutch as a kind of mechanical traction-control device. Of course, rookie Fogarty knew nothing of this, although his main problem with the Honda NSR500 was its front end, not the rear.
“The power didn’t worry me, I didn’t even highside the thing, though I came close a few times. It was the front end: you braked, rolled into the corner and the front tucked. I knew how fast I wanted to go, but the bike wouldn’t let me do it, it was so frustrating!
“My style was a 250 style; my strength was mid-corner speed. The NSR didn’t do that. I remember Mick Doohan [500cc world champion from 1994 to 1998] passing me a couple of races later at Brno. He came past at Turn One and I thought, ‘Where’s he going?’ He almost stopped the bike, slid the bike on the power to turn it and fired it out – totally the opposite to how I rode.”
Fogarty gave it his best shot at the British GP, but only lasted a few laps before the front tucked at McLeans and down he went.
On the NSR he scored three top-10 finishes, enough to create interest from other teams. However, Fogarty was already disillusioned with life in the grand prix paddock. “After Sweden, I told the team I needed the handlebars higher up, but they didn’t change anything. I didn’t feel wanted and I wasn’t happy.
“They asked me to do the last GP in Australia, but I said no. I wanted to do the Oulton Park British championship round and win the superbike race on my RC30.”
That was the day Fogarty decided his future. He walked away from the lucrative grand prix scene and apparently gave up his chance of becoming the next Barry Sheene to ride superbikes, basically modified road bikes.
It seemed he had made a big mistake. Then in 1992 he put himself in debt to buy one of Ducati’s latest superbikes. He was so skint that the only way he could finance a World Superbike season was by signing a factory Kawasaki contract to contest the endurance championship and a lucrative deal to ride a Yamaha at the TT.
He finally made his breakthrough at the 1992 British WSB round, where he beat reigning champion Raymond Roche to win his first WSB race.
A few months later Ducati signed him as a factory rider. Between 1994 and 1998 he dominated the championship, fermenting a ‘Foggy fever’ among British fans that even eclipsed their love of Sheene.
Fogarty was disappointed he never had a proper go at 500s, but not much. “Superbikes became so big by the end of the 1990s that it didn’t seem to matter any more.”