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Scenes From Behind the Bamboo Screen: The Zen Masters of Motorcycle Racing
Make a small gain rather than a large one. --Japanese proverb
by Nick Voge
Tuesday, January 11, 2005

In spite of the long history of gambling in Japan--well documented in both literature and folklore--Western observers of Japan who know what they are talking about will assure you that the Japanese are not really gamblers at heart. For, while they love the gambling games, the bets are always small, as is the chance of winning, or losing, big. Unlike the high-stakes, winner-take-all nature of American gambling, the Japanese are risk averse and win or lose in small sums. Calculating, patient and conservative, they gamble in much the same way as they live - cautiously.

In spite of this apparent conservatism, it is estimated that the average Japanese adult loses $400.00 per year gambling, more than twice as much as his American counterpart. In addition to Mahjong, pachinko and various other forms of illegal gambling, state-sponsored gambling includes horse racing, bicycle racing, boat racing, and motorcycle racing, or, as it's called in Japan, auto-race. The track at Nishi-Kawaguchi, on the outskirts of Tokyo, is one of a handful of paved ovals located on the periphery of Japan's major cities.

The first inkling you get that you're off the typical tourist path is on the jam-packed bus from the train station to the track. All the passengers are males between the ages of twenty-five and sixty, and none are from what one could call the more genteel strata of society. "Proletarian" is the word which best describes them.

Although most of the passengers seem to have been beaten up a bit by life, there are a few exceptions. The fellow standing a few millimeters in front of me, for example, looks like he was poured into his tailored Armani suit. He wears a crew cut, has a cauliflower ear and his hands have the thickly callused knuckles you notice in black-belt holders of karate. In this forced intimacy I can sense the menacing physical power of his body. But there is nothing to fear. This is, after all, Japan, and like the most of the other passengers he is intently reading one of the tip sheets and trying to determine the day's likely winners.

While the bus waits for the last possible body to be crammed in, a youngish fellow standing at the rear yells at the driver in gutter Japanese: "Come on! What are you waiting for? Get this show on the road!" No, Toto, we're not in Aoyama anymore.

Arriving at the track, I can't help noticing the large number of uniformed guards standing around the gates. According to Mr. Katoh, an employee of the track who has kindly offered to guide me around, these are special yakuza guards. Most are former police officers who specialized in the gangster underworld and now work for the track. These men have memorized hundreds of faces of local gangsters and turn away any that show up at the gate.

The tracks are trying to polish their grungy image, and nothing makes a worse impression than the slick, swaggering and foul-mouthed toughs called yakuza. Too, in an era of declining revenues, the city wants to promote gambling as an acceptable leisure activity for all. On weekends and holidays, salaried workers and even office ladies come to the track for a day's entertainment. The gangsters would scare these customers away. For better or for worse, the tracks are cleaning up their act. Still, as we make our way through the throngs of betters, I can't help but feel that the guards missed a few - this is a pretty rough crowd.

Our first stop is the pit area. Housed in a low, long building adjacent to the track, it includes a fully equipped machine shop, individual work areas for each rider, and some of the most interesting racing motorcycles in the world.

At first glance the machines look very much like speedway bikes. The spindly front forks are steeply raked and have minimal travel. The rear end is rigid, and there are no brakes. Spool hubs are laced to aluminum rims mounting 3.00 x 19 Dunlop triangular tires. These have virtually the same profile as those used on the sixties' era road racers. Offering a very small contact patch when the bike is vertical, they have a large contact area when leaned over.

And they do lean these babies over. So far, in fact, that no left footpeg is used. When needed, the riders rest their left feet on the crash bar which protects the engine's exposed primary drive.

These radical lean angles explain one of the distinguishing features of the gamble bikes: the oddly bent handlebars. When the bike is vertical, the left bar end is at shoulder height and the right end is at the level of the top triple clamp. However, when the machines are leaned over in a turn, both bar ends lie in an almost horizontal plane, allowing the rider to maintain a more upright posture.

In the pits I meet Mitsuru Arai, a 19-year veteran who explains to me the strange and wonderful engines powering these unique racers. "In the old days," he tells me, "we ran pre-unit Triumph and BSA twins, but now we're running Japanese-made engines." The first, and lowest performing, is a 512cc Meguro SOHC Single breathing through a 36mm round-slide Mikuni. Like all the auto-race engines it is manufactured in Japan especially for the gamble racers. Next in terms of power output, is the 618cc DOHC 4-valve single made by Kyokuto. At the top of the line is the HKS, a 661cc DOHC parallel twin breathing through 34mm round-slide Mikunis. All three engines are non-unit in design and feed their power through a single-row primary chain to a dry-clutch and two-speed gearbox.

The riders do all their own maintenance and mechanical work. Mitsuru showed me some of the unique tuning tricks developed over the years. Most of the engines feature heavy screws threaded vertically into the crank flywheels. By turning the screws in or out, a rider can alter the amount of crank inertia, or flywheel effect, to suit track conditions. In summer, when the track surface is hot and tire slip is a concern, Mitsuru turns the screws out to smooth the engine's power characteristics and increase traction. When the track is cold and the tires have plenty of bite, the screws are turned in and the power hits harder. Another technique is to tune the power characteristics using different valve springs. Mitsuru says that softer springs give a gentler power curve for slippery tracks; stiffer springs make the power come on harder and are used when there is plenty of traction. This is something I have never heard of and find difficult to believe. Sensing my skepticism, Mitsuru removes a large tray from an upper shelf in his tiny cubicle. "Look at this," he says, with a conspiratorial grin. The tray is filled with at least forty different sets of valve springs, each in its own carefully labeled compartment. "These are Porsche, these are from a Nissan diesel truck, these here are S&W springs from the US. Without the right valve springs, and crankshaft, the bikes won't run worth a damn." On his workbench are four brand-new crankshafts. "Only this one is any good," he says casually." "What's wrong with the others?" "They have no life." "Huh?" "A good crankshaft has an energy of its own. It has nothing to do with balancing, some have it and some don't. The only way to find a good crank is just buy four or five at a time and hope there's one good one in there."

"Sounds expensive."

"It is. But an engine will never run well if the crank's no good. The crankshaft is an engine's heart." "What do you do with the duds?" "They're only good for practice and heat races, then we toss 'em." Sound crazy? Imagine, if you will, that instead of racing on ten or twelve different tracks a year - and each for only a few days at a time - you raced on only one track 150 days a year, for ten or twenty years. Imagine how sensitive you would become to your engine's every response to even the tiniest modification. You wouldn't need a dyno because you would be so physically and emotionally in tune with your engine that you would be the dyno. You would develop an intimacy with that engine's every mood; it would become like an extension of your body - like a lover you know too well.

Stunned by this parallel universe of motorcycle racing into which I have casually stumbled, I feel like I've fallen through a rabbit hole into an Alice-in-Wonderland world where the Cheshire Cat wears body armor and The Mad Hatter has a steel skid shoe on his left boot. It is a cloistered world where the rider-monks must live at the track dormitory during a race week and are prohibited from having any contact with the outside world during that time. Shut away for days on end, they tune their ferocious machines with the calm fanaticism of the Buddhist warrior priests. On tiny lathes they machine custom carb needles. Others spend hours spinning crankshaft bearings in a fine abrasive paste to loosen the clearance and reduce operating friction. Then there are the Hunger Artists, riders who diet to the point of malnutrition - not in order to achieve enlightenment, but to shave a few tenths off a lap time. (Kafka would surely chuckle at this bizarre example of life imitating his art.) These are the Zen masters of motorcycle racing.

At this juncture I casually mention that I raced dirt track in my youth. Mitsuru's eyes light up and he says: "Hey, why don't you try my bike?" This does not go over well with Katoh-san and some of the other onlookers - showing a foreigner the track is one thing, taking him to the hospital is another! But before they can intervene, Mitsuru has the bike off its stand and fired up. As an experienced rider, Mitsuru rides the most powerful model of all: the HKS. Hearing him blip the throttle tells me all I need to know - these suckers put out serious horsepower.

In the warm-up area near the pits I'm able to give the machine a few quick bursts of throttle in low gear. Most impressive is instantaneous and highly sensitive throttle response. Even with the old round-slide Mikunis - fitted with special, light springs and operated by low-friction, stainless steel throttle cables - throttle response is immediate and the power rush intense. The closest comparison would be a good Yamaha XS650/750 tuned by someone like Axtell and putting out about 75 horsepower. Mitsuru confirms my estimate, saying that a fresh engine pumps out about 78 ponies.

In these days of 150HP ZX10Rs, 78 horsepower may not seem like a lot, but the gamble bikes weigh less than half of the modern supersport machines, giving them an equally impressive power-to-weight ratio.

With all the tire sliding going on on the pavement these days, I ask Mitsuru how much he slid the tires. "Both the front and rear will slide," he says, "but we try to avoid sliding too much because it heats up the tires and they lose traction." No doubt, the narrow profile tires are used precisely because of this limiting factor.

Later, over a lunch of cold buckwheat noodles garnished with paper-thin strips of dried seaweed, Katoh-san explains to me how the whole show is organized. The track is operated by the city, and the racers and officials are all city employees. During a race week the riders live in a dormitory at the track and are cut off from all outside communication for the duration of the races.

On an average day some 12,000 betters will attend the races. They will place about $350,000 in bets, 75% of which are returned as winnings. When added to the considerable sales at the concession stands, this is a major source of city revenue - revenue that is used by the local governments that sponsor the races. Tangential benefits include support for the various industries associated with the races, such as engine and frame builders, etc. And it is this quasi-philanthropic nature of Japanese gambling that partly explains how a noisy motorcycle track can peaceably coexist with its neighbors in crowded Japan.

A quick glance at the cars in the riders' parking lot hints at the kind of money these guys are making. During auto-racing's heyday, the top riders would pull in close to a million bucks a year. This kind of loot concentrates the mind wonderfully, and the riding and tuning skills developed accordingly. Top tuners would get ten grand for building a Triumph engine. One Japanese engine builder traveled to England and had Amal run off a special batch of carbs manufactured to his specifications. Mitsuru's friend had his entire engine plated in gold, while another kept his best crankshaft locked in a safe, installing it in his engine only for main events. And the riders still speak reverently about the legendary American tuner who lived in Japan for many years and became rich building engines for the top riders. (I've been trying to track him down for some time, with little success.)

Lunch over, it's time to watch some racing. Prior to each race, the riders take three warm-up laps - the first two at medium speed near the fence and the last lap at high speed on the racing line. This gives the betters a chance to listen to the engines and decide which one sounds like a winner. Like tigers suddenly released from their cages, the powerful machines leap from the pits and roar around the track in twos and threes. The riders then pull into the infield where the bikes are impounded and inspected for any defects. Among other techniques, the inspectors use small metal hammers to tap various components. In this way they can "hear" if a frame is cracked, if spokes are loose or if other defects exist. During this interval the stands empty as bets are placed.

When the money is down and the betters are back in their seats, the bikes are rolled to the starting grid. Staggered starts are used to compensate for the different engine types. Crouching over the handlebars to keep the front ends down, the riders blast off for the first turn in a wall of noise and are soon circling the track in a tight pack, sparks flying from their steel shoes. Brightly colored jerseys make it easy to distinguish the riders apart.

A rider in black begins moving up through the pack. It is only the second lap, but somehow you just know that he will punch through to the front on the final turn of the last lap. Sure enough, he does and the "race" is over.

From our plush seats in the carpeted and air-conditioned VIP lounge, this all seems like a splendid way to spend an afternoon. Pretty girls with voices as brittle as their smiles bring us sweating glasses of iced coffee, and the high rollers around us who pay $1,500 per year to enjoy this pleasant ambience seem unconcerned about how real the racing is. It is an exciting show, a nice place to socialize and as good a place as any to spend your money - a golf substitute for the Untermenschen.

Riding back to the station, the bus seems shabbier than it did this morning. I notice that the paint is peeling from around the windows and that the hand straps are grimy. The gamblers, too, have about them a deflated air - like tires that have lost some pressure. Gone is the earlier energy of anticipation. The losers commiserate over their hard luck; winners keep their good fortune to themselves. None of these care-worn men are on their way to an expensive sushi dinners in a Ginza restaurant; none are leaving soon for trips abroad. All are returning to the mundane tasks of daily life from which the racing briefly freed them. And all will be back to bet another day.

[In an effort to equalize the racing and make it more suitable for betting, the HKS, Kyokuto and other engines have been replaced by Suzuki parallel twin engines specially made for gamble racing, and no modifications of any kind are permitted. Thus, is the hard-won wisdom of the Zen Masters of Motorcycle Racing lost forever. Well, almost. Fortunately, some of the old Triumph and Meguro engines have been reborn in vintage road racing, where they are kicking some serious ass. The father of (former) MotoGP star Norik Abe is a gamble racer at Kawaguchi.]

ENDS

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