While it is really just one single page of the magazine, the front cover garners the most attention (and hours of work!) every issue and is the most important page. Whether you are a subscriber or purchase your copy at a newsstand, the cover is the first glimpse you have of the magazine and sets the tone for each issue. To that end, the editor agonizes over the short blurbs promoting each article inside; staffers make repeated passes for the camera to obtain just the right image in the perfect light; and the art department puts it all together to be as eye-catching as possible. Once complete, copies are distributed up the company hierarchy for approval, and only then is the cover released to the printer. Then we all hold the collective editorial breath and wait anxiously to see what you — our harshest critics — have to say. Here, in chronological order, are our favorites from the past 20 years.
The cover of our first issue was a bit unassuming and perhaps uninspiring, with four almost identical images pieced together. Up-and-coming AMA Pro racer Jason Pridmore also made the first SR cover, being a guest tester for our first comparison test featuring the Honda CBR900RR, Kawasaki ZX-11, Suzuki GSX-R1100 and Yamaha FZR1000.
Sport Rider’s early annual UFO (Unlimited Flying Objects) contests were open to all sorts of modified hyperbikes, and always generated some outrageous performance numbers. The four-phase shootout included top-speed and road-course testing at Honda’s Proving Center of California (HPCC), quarter-mile runs at Los Angeles County Raceway and a short on-road loop for a street ranking.
Even Sport Rider could not escape the onslaught of hot, fluorescent pink in the mid-’90s, as seen here on this cover and at times in our staffers’ apparel choices. Hopefully it didn’t detract too much from the subject matter, in this case our Bike of the Year test. This annual contests comparing the top bikes from each class are always hard work, always entertaining, and always controversial.
Yes, in the early days of the magazine there was an actual 750cc class, with enough bikes to have a comparison test every year. Note how close the riders — associate editor Jason Black and editor Nick Ienatsch — are; it is not uncommon for some contact during cover shoots. Note also that Jason must be just inches off the rear bumper of the van photographer Kevin Wing is perched on top of to get this dramatic angle.
Troy Corser celebrated his World Superbike Championship on an issue packed with WSB and GP coverage, along with a 600cc shootout and new editor Kent Kunitsugu’s tour of motorcycling sights in Italy and Japan. This is one of just a handful of covers in the magazine’s past featuring a racing image, which typically have not fared well in newsstand sales.
A clandestine photo shoot on a fire road in fading light was a last-ditch effort to get at least something for our ‘98 literbike comparison test. This shot of the Kawasaki ZX-9R ended up on the cover of the issue with the highest-ever newsstand sales. As part of the comparison test, Kent recorded the first sub-10-second quarter-mile time for a production bike during performance testing.
Kento’s sparking knee sliders showed off the all-new Yamaha YZF-R6. The little R6 not only made short work of the middleweight comparison test in this issue, but also it went on to win Bike of the Year — the only time a 600 has done so in the history of the magazine. Also in this issue: Our Suzuki Hayabusa test bike went 189 mph, a feat that caused some sparks of its own.
We scooped this great shot of Thad Wolff on the Suzuki GSX-R750 from Motorcyclist’s cast-off file, while art director Brandi Centeno added the dramatic background. It was all to promote our ram-air and full-exhaust tests inside. Also in this issue was a full test of the Kawasaki ZRX1100, while new Associate Editor Andrew Trevitt was sent to the then new Jason Pridmore Star School.
’99 Racing Photo Annual
Our first Racing Photo Annual was published in 1999, with newly crowned AMA Superbike Champion Mat Mladin on the cover. This Special Interest Publication was available on newsstands only, and featured the year’s best racing photography from Grand Prix, World Superbike and AMA Pro Racing series along with profiles of each series’ champion; publication continued annually until 2009.
It’s Kent, hamming it up on Carry Andrew’s Hypercycle Suzuki GSX-R600, which went 193 mph at HPCC and posted a 10.19-second quarter-mile time at the dragstrip as part of our first (and only) 600cc UFO contest — impressive numbers even when you consider the GSX-R actually measured 726cc. The test also featured incredible middleweights from Richard Sims, Chuck Graves and Dan Kyle.
Usually subscription and newsstand copies of the magazine have near-identical covers. But when our editorial director objected to using this shot of Kento banging his head on the ground as part of our giant helmet comparison, we compromised by running it only on the subscription cover; the newsstand cover had a more politically correct action shot of the Ducati 996R.
It took a couple of tries (and a rebuilt motor…) but eventually our Suzuki Hayabusa test bike, modified with a Hahn Racecraft turbo kit, went 203 mph and made 229 horsepower. The issue was jam-packed with other features, including a full twins comparison test, a standards test, Buell Firebolt first ride, and an exclusive look at the Team Roberts’ facility in Banbury, England.
It’s not supposed to rain in the Nevada desert, but rain did cut short our BOTY test at Spring Mountain Motorsports Park in ‘03. To scrape something together for this cover we parked the bikes on the track’s skid pad, while the magic of art director Laura Milton — newly poached from Motorcyclist — added the spinning wheels and removed the sidestands.
It’s difficult enough to shoot just a couple of bikes in one frame; imagine how hard it is to get 16 in one image, as we did for our giant Supertest feature. Staffers Kunitsugu and Trevitt travelled to Almeria, Spain, to be part of the test, which included representatives from magazines around the world; three days of on-track activity included a full day devoted to group photography.
Every couple of years the SR hotline rings, and it’s Richard Sims: "Kent, you've just got to ride this bike I built…" Sims' creations have been featured in the magazine since its inception; this time, it was a supercharged Kawasaki ZRX1200 that made 200 horsepower exactly on our SuperFlow dyno and made a 9.56-second pass at the dragstrip. The cover blurb here is highly appropriate.
Little did we know it at the time, but upcoming emissions regulations would stifle literbike performance significantly in following years; manufacturers are still struggling to regain the lost horsepower and drop the added weight. That leaves the '05 GSX-R1000, winner of the literbike comparison test featured in this issue, as arguably the best literbike of all time.
After a few weeks in the shop and a boatload of discarded parts, we had ourselves a naked R1 that was incredibly fun but also incredibly dangerous from a license-losing standpoint. Yamaha insisted that we return the bike in its naked form "for evaluation," which was fine by us as it saved a lot of work. But we’re still waiting for the production version…
Tire tests have long been a staple of the magazine, and the cover images to match are always tricky. This dramatic image, similar to others used in the past, was shot stationary and brought to life with art director Laura’s Photoshop magic. What you can’t see here is the person struggling to hold the bike up in 100-degree heat, nor photographer Kevin Wing's hand spinning the wheel.
Another creation from the arguably maniacal Richard Sims, this nitrous Suzuki Hayabusa went 213 mph on its first pass — without the nitrous and in fifth gear. Unfortunately, technical difficulties and high winds prevented more top speed attempts — maybe that’s actually a good thing. For the image, photographer Kevin Wing set up an entire studio outside, on the tarmac at HPCC.
It was practically a foregone conclusion before a wheel was turned, but the S 1000 RR went more than six seconds per lap faster than the M3 at the Streets of Willow in our BMW car/bike technology crossover feature. This was nothing new; previously, we had compared a Honda CBR900RR and Acura NSX, with pretty much the same result.
Months in the design and planning stages, a new Sport Rider logo highlighted a major graphic redesign of the magazine. While the staff ensured that the editorial content inside retained its traditional high standards, the treatment incorporated larger and more photos along with the return of Hot Shot and the shuffling around of various regular columns.
Yes, it's another static image benefitting from post-shoot Photoshop work. This time, associate editor Bradley Adams was strapped to the Honda CBR1000RR, which in turn was mounted on an angled platform in photographer Kevin Wing’s studio; the dramatic shot was well worth the effort. This went on for the better part of a day, all as part of our ABS comparison test.