Although the sport is not all that popular, Americans have won MotoGP Drivers Championship across Premier Class, 350cc and 250cc classes over the years. Although Motocross is way more popular in the USA, MotoGP and Superbike World Championship do have a loyal fan base.
7 American nationals have won a total of 15 MotoGP Premier Class titles. 2 Americans have won Moto2/250cc class Championships.
We look at 6 of the best MotoGP riders from the USA:
#6 Wayne Rainey
Wayne Rainey made his MotoGP debut in 1984 in the 250cc class, riding for Team Yamaha. Mediocre returns in his maiden MotoGP season prompted him to look at greener pastures and he made the switch to Superbike and won the Superbike World Championship in 1987.
It was during this year that he duelled famously with fellow American Kevin Schwantz. Rainey would pip his rival to the title. In 1988, Rainey made a U-turn and returned to MotoGP, this time racing in the 500cc category for Team Yamaha.
Kevin Schwantz, his great rival and contemporary, followed suit and signed up for Team Suzuki. The two would continue to engage in enticing duels, this time in a different format. In his return to MotoGP, Rainey won the British Grand Prix at the iconic Donington Park Circuit. He finished 3rd, accumulating 189 points. The following year, he came up short again, finishing runner-up with 3 victories.
From 1990 to 1992, Rainey struck a purple patch as he notched up a hat-trick of World titles. In 1993, he was well poised to win a 4th title having a lead of 11 points over his nearest rival, Kevin Schwantz when a career-ending spinal injury arising from an on-race crash played spoilsport.
The injury may have deprived him of competing in MotoGP but that didn't stop the champion in him from being involved in the sport. He became the Principal Team Manager for Team Yamaha and shared his valuable expertise with the crew and younger riders. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007.
#5 Kenny Roberts Jr.
Following the footsteps of his legendary father, Kenny Roberts Jr. also made a mark in Motorsport especially MotoGP. 10 years after the retirement of his father, Kenny Roberts Sr., Roberts Jr. made his MotoGP debut in 1993.
He was a member of Team Marlboro Yamaha and raced for the team in the 250cc class until the end of the 1995 season. In 1996, he switched over to the 500cc class and had a disappointing season resulting in Yamaha deciding not to renew his contract.
In 1997, he signed up for for the eponymous Team Roberts founded by his father. A disappointing couple of seasons followed where he was restricted to being a fringe rider in MotoGP. Racing for Team Suzuki in 1999 proved to be the watershed moment in his career.
He challenged multiple world champion Mick Doohan and regularly beat him. He eventually finished runner-up to Doohan's teammate Alex Criville in the title race. The 2000 season saw Roberts Jr battle it out with a young Valentino Rossi. With 4 wins and 5 podium finishes in 16 races, Roberts Jr. won the MotoGP 500cc Championship.
From 2001 onward, Team Suzuki saw a dip in their fortunes much to Robert's dismay. This gave a leg up to their rivals Honda and Yamaha who would go on to dominate the sport. Roberts Jr. returned to Team Roberts in 2005 and would remain with the team until his retirement in 2007.
In his 14-year MotoGP career, Roberts Jr. won 8 races from 185 starts and stood on the podium 22 times.
#4 Nicky Hayden
Nicknamed 'The Kentucky Kid', Nicky Hayden is the last American to have tasted considerable success in MotoGP. As a 21-year-old youngster, Hayden won the MotoAmerica Superbike Championships and his talent caught the eye of Team Repsol Honda who offered him a contract for the 2003 season.
In his very first season, he won the Rookie of the Year Award finishing 5th in the title race. It was only in 2005 when he really began to find his footing in MotoGP. He won his first MotoGP race in 2005 at Laguna, California. This made the win all the more sweet. He would finish third in the standings.
The crowning moment of Hayden's season came in the 2006 season. A mistake from his teammate Dani Pedrosa at Estoril and the ensuing crash that followed almost robbed Hayden of a sure shot title.
But lady luck smiled in Hayden's favour as Rossi was unable to capitalize by crashing in the final round which Hayden would go on to win. Hayden with only 2 wins to Rossi's 5 race wins pipped 'The Doctor' to the title.
Hayden would wind up his MotoGP career in 2016 after racing for Ducati and Honda Aspar. A move to Superbike World Championship followed. He tragically died in 2017 after being hit by a speeding car in Italy. His legacy will live on in the hearts of MotoGP fans the world over.
#3 Freddie Spencer
Freddie Spencer, aptly nicknamed 'Fast Freddy' was one of the most dominant MotoGP riders in the 1980s. Like most Americans, a stint in AMA Superbike Championships preceded his entry into the MotoGP circuit.
In 1982, he made the switch to MotoGP and in 1983, he made history by becoming the youngest MotoGP World Champion at the age of 21, racing for Team Honda. The season was a memorable one with both Spencer and fellow American Kenny Roberts taking the title race to the final round, each having won 6 races apiece. It was the younger Spencer who pipped his more famed rival by just 2 points.
In 1985, Spencer won the Championship in both 250cc and 500cc classes. He is the last ever rider to achieve the feat of winning both the 250cc and 500cc classes in the same year as competing in both events was later outlawed. Of 72 race starts, Spencer won an impressive 27 races.
#2 Kenny Roberts
The first American to make it big in MotoGP was Kenny Roberts. His success paved the way for generations of Americans to find their calling in MotoGP. He continues to be an inspiring figure in American Motorsport history, offering valuable guidance and insights on Motorsport racing.
Roberts busted the myth that American riders are only 'dirtbike racers' and can't do much on asphalt. The years from 1978 to 1980 saw Roberts stamp his authority in the 500cc class, winning a hat-trick of titles. In 1983, he narrowly missed winning the title by just 2 points.
That year saw one of the greatest championship races with Freddy Spencer and Roberts going neck and neck in almost every single race in the calendar year. Roberts retired from MotoGP following the 1983 season.
An outspoken advocate of safety rules in Motorsport, Roberts founded his own team and guided his son to a championship in the year 2000. Till date, Roberts and his son are the only father-son duo to win a MotoGP world title.
#1 Eddie Lawson
Eddie Lawson, the most successful American MotoGP rider of all time, had the uncanny knack of avoiding crashes and this earned him the sobriquet 'Steady Eddie'. After taking the usual route that most Americans take by starting in the AMA Racing Championships, Lawson moved to MotoGP in 1983 when he was offered a contract by Team Yamaha to partner up with Kenny Roberts.
Racing side by side a 3-time champion in Kenny Roberts, Lawson rose quickly in the 500cc ranks. The following year, he won his first World Championship, becoming the second American to do so. Coincidentally, it came the very next season after Kenny Roberts announced his retirement.
3 more Championships followed in 1986 and 1988. He shocked the motorsport community by severing his ties with Yamaha and moving to Honda. He silenced his critics and became the only rider to win back-to-back World Championships with 2 different teams by winning the title in 1989.
Lawson called it quits in 1992 having won 31 races and standing on the podium 78 times in 127 starts.