The following is the fifth in our 21 in ’21 features that highlight one of the 21 AMA Superbike Champions each week as we move through the 2021 MotoAmerica season – the 45th year of the premier class championship.
When you think of Bubba Shobert, chances are you think of him as a three-time AMA Grand National Champion. And why not? From 1985 to 1987 he basically owned the flat track series, winning 20 races and those three titles on his factory Honda RS750. But Shobert’s career featured so much more than that.
The list of accolades is long and not all of them took place on dirt. Case in point, Shobert is the only racer to win an AMA Grand National Championship and an AMA Superbike title with the Texan earning his lone road racing championship in 1988. Add in the fact that Shobert is a Grand Slam winner, joining Dick Mann, Kenny Roberts and Doug Chandler as the four riders who won in every form of AMA road racing/flat track (road race, mile, half mile, short track and TT). Additionally, Shobert is also the only rider other than Roberts to win an AMA Grand National Championship and also make it to the pinnacle of road racing – MotoGP.
Shobert became the sixth AMA Superbike Champion in 1988 and it came after he realized that his future might just be in road racing – and, surprisingly, not flat track.
“I won the title in ‘88,” Shobert recalls. “I was involved with my dirt track racing I was doing. (But) on weekends when there was a road race, I would do the road race instead of the dirt track. Even though a couple of them were on the same weekend, I chose to go ahead and go do the road race because I felt like my future was going to be in MotoGP.”
Shobert’s first road racing victory came at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 1984. In the pouring rain. For those who thought it was a fluke, it was just a hint of what was to come.
“With the tire technology, it has come so far nowadays that you really don’t have to have the dirt track experience to have the bike to slide around and you not fall off of it,” Shobert explains. “In ’84, when I won the Superbike race… No, it was
Formula 1 back then before the Superbike (class) was separated. The Formula 1 class was GP bikes and that was where you got points for the Grand National Championship – only in the Formula 1 class. They had a Superbike class, but that wasn’t the premier class. Formula 1 was the premier class. I qualified at Mid-Ohio for the front row and then it started raining the next day. I was like, ‘I was going to get some points and help me with the Grand National Championship, but now it’s raining. I never rode in the rain.’ The race was in the rain and the Superbike was a lot more maneuverable than the GP bikes. It was the slowest race I ever raced in, and I won.”
Fast forward to 1988 and Shobert was knee-deep in an AMA Superbike Championship battle.
Cycle News’ race coverage of the Sears Point round where Shobert claimed the title.
“My main competition was Doug Polen and Doug Chandler,” Shobert said. “I felt like our skill levels were pretty equal, it was just the bikes. Some tracks the Suzuki would work better and some tracks the Honda would work better. I got a few good racing breaks in that year. The Suzuki at (Road) Atlanta… he was almost a half second a lap faster than me. It kind of went back to the racing part of it. I just was going as fast as I could, and Doug Polen would pass me whenever he wanted to. He could have probably ran off and left me, but he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to make more of a race out of it so he was racing with me. On the last lap coming out of, I don’t know what number turn it is, it’s before the back straightaway, his bike kind of bogged. I went around him. Then we’d go to the end of the last corner. Before the last corner is a downhill and he was trying to go all he could to out-brake me and beat me down that hill. He kind of overshot it and went out in the grass. I won the race and I was thinking… ‘He didn’t crash?’ He had gotten back on and got second, but I was like, ‘he easily could have won that race by five seconds.’ That’s when I felt that the bikes were the main difference.
“Some tracks my Honda was better. At Laguna, the Honda worked way better than the Suzuki. That was just one of the races. Then the same thing at Mid-Ohio. I crashed in the morning warm-up and totaled my bike. I mean, literally totaled it. Bent the frame and everything. The rule was you can’t just ride your spare bike. The rule was AMA officials had to watch my mechanics tear the bike completely apart and change the frames. I don’t even know if we had a couple hours. It was pretty tight on time. We got that fixed, and then I ended up in the race. I remember Polen got into some backmarkers and got tied up and I got by him and I won. So, I got a few good breaks in ’88, but it all worked out.”
Shobert’s ability to road race earned him a spot where he really wanted to be – in MotoGP. And it came quickly – the very next year after he won the Superbike title. Shobert showed promise right away on a 500cc GP racer, but it was potential that was never reached as his career ended just three races into the series when he collided with Kevin Magee on the cooldown lap and suffered head injuries. Although he recovered, he never raced again.
“I won the Superbike (title) that year and then the next year I wasn’t going to dirt track or anything, so I put together a deal for the MotoGPs. I went to Australia and did some promo footage for Cabin Cigarettes as they wanted to have some footage, I guess, on what the race team was all about. So, I did that. I think I went to Australia and tested a couple of times, but then the start of the season came, and I think the first race was at Suzuka and I finished 11th. Then the next one was Phillip Island and I think I qualified in the top 10, but I fell off in the main event. Just low-sided and fell. The next race was Laguna (Seca) and that’s when I had my big accident. I had finished in the top 10 that was kind of like being on the podium. Then, on the cool-off lap, I hit (Kevin) Magee so that ended my career.”
Despite the career-ending injury, Shobert is still a motorcyclist – through and through.
“Yeah. I ride. I’ve got a streetbike,” Shobert said. “My wife and I, we go on trips and go riding. I’m having a lot of fun riding with some fast street riders. I’ve always been involved with motorcycles. It’s kind of like once you start, there ain’t no getting out.”
Shobert still lives in Lubbock, Texas. Right where it all started.
“That’s where I was born and raised,” Shobert said. “There’s not very much street riding around here that’s very good, so we have to usually trailer our bikes and go somewhere and ride. Just recently, I trailered the bikes down to Junction, Texas, which is way south in the hill country and it was some fabulous riding which I never knew was there when I was racing. When you’re racing and stuff, you don’t have time to do this kind of stuff I’m doing now. But it was really good riding. This next week we’ve got a trip planned to Colorado to go hang out up there for a week and do some riding. So, it will be fun.”
And Shobert’s steed of choice?
“I’m riding a KTM 390 Duke,” he said. “People think, ‘Why don’t you get a 790 or something?’ I don’t ride that often, and half the time when you’re riding, you’re having to park it in a parking lot and wheel around slow. It’s not all about going fast, it’s maneuverability. I guess I’m not such a big guy, so the 390 fits me perfect. My wife rides one behind me and we have no trouble.”
Shobert pays attention to the MotoAmerica Series. As President Wayne Rainey’s best friend, he better be paying attention.
“Wayne is my best friend,” Shobert says. “He tells me where he’s going, and I try to hook up with him. I’d really like to come to Laguna this year.”