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Monday, February 6, 2023

Colin Fraser: Canadian Superbike 2002

Colin Fraser

Twenty years ago, the CSBK tour – or the Parts Canada Superbike Championship, as it was then known – was getting ready for a transitional season of National competition. It was already agreed that the rules would change for 2003, so the 2002 season would be the last for the full blown, unobtainable works machinery.

The source of the issue with equipment was the ongoing dispute between Kawasaki and Honda for dominance of the Superbike category. Kawasaki won nine straight times from 1991, with Steve Crevier, Michael Taylor, Don Munroe and Jordan Szoke setting a very high standard for the “mean green.”

In 1999, Kawasaki replaced the retired Munroe with Honda’s Francis Martin, and Munroe’s “A” equipment, built by Tony Russell, was now at the disposal of fast rising start Martin. In an exciting season, Martin took the crown on his first attempt.

In 2002, Honda Canada got very, very serious with the purchase of three full blown HRC RC51 twins, and the decision to field two works teams. Just-retired top Pro Kevin Graham would control the overall plan, as well as the Ontario group based at Head Office and lead by back-from-the-USA Steve Crevier.

Meanwhile, in Quebec, former AMA Pro Feature winner and eventual St-Eustache track boss Alan Labrosse had his own equipe, headed by Szoke. You can see how this program could become problematic.

In the end, Szoke won the battles (four races), but Crevier won the war, and earned the 2000 number one plate – his fifth overall title for his third manufacturer. Meanwhile reigning number one Martin did a solid job of fending off the Hondas, only to be seriously injured testing mid-season at Mosport International.

The contractual fall out from that incident forced Martin to return early, clearly in discomfort, at the last 2002 National. From there, Martin made the shock move to join the progressing Suzuki effort, headed by Fast Company’s Scott Miller.

In 2001, Szoke headed for the U.S., Crevier earned his second straight crown for Honda, and Martin worked on developing the potent new GSX-R1000. Meanwhile Kawasaki ditched a selection of strong riders to focus on Owen Weichel, the veteran privateer who scored the 2000 Sport Bike title riding for several teams, including, at the end, Canadian Kawasaki Motors.

Weichel’s mount was an ex-Japanese Superbike Ninja formerly ridden by hero Akira Yanagawa, featuring a host of exotic items including gear driven cams. If the RC51s were rare, the ZX-7R was clearly the ‘trickest.’ Unfortunately, the green bike was frequently on its side, and legendary Crew Chief Dale Rathwell performed some heroic rebuilds to salvage the best pieces.

Honda’s line up for 2002 included Crevier, rising star Frank Trombino (poached from Yamaha) and occasional rides from teenaged sensation Chris Paris, when the Albertan wasn’t busy in the U.S.

Suzuki were settled with Martin, but when Jordan Szoke had travel issues at the U.S. border, “Jordan of the Jungle” was parachuted into the Shannonville opener to ride a U.S. spec Superstock Blackfoot GSX-R1000.

Then things got really interesting – on Sunday morning of Round One – when Crevier crashed due to a transmission issue, breaking his ankle and putting him out for most of the season. 2002 would yield a new number one.

In the opener, Trombino was in fine form on the booming twin, running away for a popular victory in his factory debut. Szoke was a distant second on his fairly stock Suzuki, clear of third finisher Weichel and fourth overall Kevin Lacombe aboard the satellite Suzuki Diablo entry.

Next up was the traditional double header at Calgary’s Race City, and Szoke was now a member of the expanded works Suzuki team, with backing from local major dealer Blackfoot. In both races, Szoke staged a manic battle with Weichel’s sole “A” Kawasaki and took control of the points standings with two successes.

In one of the most popular Podiums in the history of the series, the Sunday race saw local Tim Easton on a Walt Healey Suzuki hold off Michael Taylor’s Brooklin Cycle Racing Yamaha for third. Easton was the reigning CMRA Regional Superbike Champ.

Meanwhile Trombino had a horrible weekend, marked by technical issues and crashes. Team Boss Graham stated that “we expected things couldn’t go as well as at Shannonville, but we didn’t figure on everything going wrong at the same time!”

In the last ever race for full-blown Superbikes on the Canadian National tour at Shannonville Motorsport Park, Kevin Lacombe jumps into the lead from the start on his factory (# 34 Honda) from team-mate Frank Trombino (# 3 Honda), Francis Martin (# 16 Suz), Jordan Szoke (# 101 Suz), Steve Crevier (# 1 Hon, partially hidden), Darryn Wilbur (# 10 Yam, partially hidden) and Owen Wiechel (#8 Kaw). CREDIT Colin Fraser / CSBK

Next up was round four at Autodrome St-Eustache, where secret negotiations arranged for the movement of Pascal Picotte protégé Kevin Lacombe from Diablo Suzuki to a works Honda program. This process was largely focused on Crevier’s vacant CBR600F4i ride in Sport Bike, but also allowed Lacombe onto the potent RC Superbike.

Szoke earned his third straight win in Quebec, leading every lap ahead of team-mate Martin. Trombino was back on form to score third, just clear of his new partner, Superbike first-timer Lacombe.

Eventual Pro Superbike Feature race winner Jordan Szoke on the Coors Light Racing Fast Company Suzuki GSX-R1000 holds first from Frank Trombino’s works Honda RC51 at Autodrome St-Eustache, Quebec, just north west of Montreal. CREDIT Colin Fraser / CSBK

Mosport was a busy weekend for the Pros in 2002, with the Formula USA Feature on Saturday and the Superbike National the next day. Martin beat a stacked field to earn a well-received Formula USA victory, only to lose the win due to tire issues on the Dyno.

Sunday’s Superbike race was less dramatic, Szoke controlling the field to win with Taylor second and Weichel third. Top visiting American was Geoff May in fifth on his GSX-R1000.

At Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in July 2002, the Coors Light Racing Fast Company Suzuki of Francis Martin fights for second place in the Pro Superbike Feature with the rare factory Kawasaki ZX-7R Ninja of Owen Weichel. CREDIT Colin Fraser / CSBK

Atlantic Motorsport Park always seems to be a pivotal round for a potential Champion, and in 2002 the action happened in turn two on lap one – Szoke tangled with Trombino, and both went down. Szoke remounted and charged through the field from dead last, and effort that would be mirrored by BMW’s Ben Young in his Championship year of 2019.

Szoke eventually caught Martin and took victory in the red flag shortened race, an amazing fifth straight success. Behind runner-up Martin was third finisher Weichel, while Crevier was finally back from a three-month layoff to score fourth. Honda’s twin was well suited to the twists and turns of “Shubbie,” but Crevier’s recovering ankle was not! Interestingly, the race was the only time all three RC51s raced at the same time, with regular pilots Trombino and Lacombe (lap three) going out early.

After a frustrating performance in the final Parts Canada Superbike National of 2002 at Shannonville Motorsport Park in September, Jordan Szoke celebrates his second career National number one plate, this time for Scott Miller’s Fast Company Suzuki team. CREDIT Colin Fraser / CSBK

The full-blown Superbike era would come to an end at Shannonville on September 1, 2002, with little drama since Szoke had clinched his second career overall crown in the previous round. This was just as well, since he retired early after a difficult weekend.

In the race, Lacombe made the most of the final appearance of the RC51 in full HRC form, leading every lap for his first Feature class triumph. Weichel set the fastest lap as he worked his way up to earn second, Crevier good for third. Machines that would be eliminated by the new rules, or else much de-tuned, swept the Podium.

At the time, many insiders wondered if this rules change would be a bad thing for the National tour. Little did they know that Yamaha Canada would decide it was time to turn the top of the Podium blue and hire Pascal Picotte to lead their effort for 2003. That evolving story would overshadow all other issues for the next few seasons.

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