From ’04: The Best of Dennis Noyes

Rich Guy Racing, Crazy People Racing, Pure Marketing & Honda: “NASA.”

Marc Marquez
Interview with a war lord. Marco Gudetti-san

(We dug this great story out of an old folder, and the author, Dennis Noyes, has allowed us to re-publish it with his notations. –Editor)

“I wrote this in early 2004, but, having renewed contact with Youichi Oguma in Misano last year, I believe it still holds true. Oguma-san and I “talked” in the Oguma way…with long silences and broken sentences often without verbs. I recall (I kept no notes and did not record) that he said words to the effect of. “Now problem … hummmmm! … now only Honda, then Yamaha but Ducati …. hummmmm! …..we must help Ducati to know. (Long silence, and Oguma speaks with his eyes closed against the sunlight as we stand at a balcony overlooking the Misano paddock) Before Mr. Honda teaches and I learn and teach Erv-san and Jeremy-san and Erv-san and Jeremy-san teach the young Japanese engineers but now who can teach? Too much computer…hummmmm!…now problem.”

The American in Japan who told me the Japanese definitions of the big four in no more than three words (or four letters) was actor Ken Frankel (from the Hawaii Five-0 series and appearing in many movies, including, significantly, “Tora, Tora, Tora.”) Frankel so completely penetrated the mystery of Japanese culture that he acted in Kabuki theater.) He explained to me the theory of Japanese non-verbal communication and the strategy of “mokusatsu” (literally “to kill” with “silence”).

The last of the true “old school” Japanese race bosses was probably the now-retired Masou Furusawa, man who, according to Jorge Lorenzo ´s irascible crew chief Ramon Forcada “absolutely hates computers,” and the nearest Honda man to the old ways is the cunning, mischievous and forceful Shuhei Nakamoto.

In these day of paperless journalism I had almost forgotten this old text that Dean somehow found floating amid the abandoned wrecks in the Internet clouds. –DN

Unlike World Superbike where the technical data of each machine is contained in the owner’s manual and unlike World Supersport where the FIM Technical stewards disqualified six CBR600RR Hondas for running non-standard rear axels, MotoGP is true prototype racing. That means everything you can’t see from the outside or measure from photographs is top secret, made out of unobtanium and, in the case of satellite teams, perhaps even partially unknown to the team mechanics.

That means that it is really impossible to write much technically about the MotoGP machines without merely rehashing theories about the advantages and disadvantages of the straight four, V-four and V-five configurations and talking about Yamaha’s new “big bang” crank lay-out…and you and I have both heard and read enough of that…so let’s talk today about the something a little more spiritual and less technical. Let’s, for lack of a better name, talk about the “soul” of the MotoGP machines.

We’ve all heard Valentino say that the rider is more important than the machine. Only a rider like Valentino, who has never started a GP, until this season, on a bike that gave him a true disadvantage, could believe such a thing. In the real world of GP racing a rider of extraordinary ability can compensate for minor deficiencies but, nobody is good enough, given the excellence and depth of today’s MotoGP field to get silk purse results from sow’s ear bikes.

Last year there were three competitive bikes, the Honda RC211V, the Ducati Desmosedici and the Yamaha YZR M1 and the mechanical advantage was clearly with Honda, an advantage that was increased by having Rossi as lead rider. Now Rossi is on the Yamaha, a better Yamaha than last year’s, but his early season brilliance in the final IRTA tests and the opening race has faded. Now we come to some tracks where Honda’s mid-range power and top speed will put Yamaha to the test.

Ducati have been off the pace so far and in spite of some up-beat press releases as we approach Mugello, the reality is that Ducati are in so much trouble that they will be bringing last year’s bikes along with the new GP4, giving both Loris Capirossi and Troy Bayliss the task of testing both bikes back to back and choosing their poison.

So, with all the pre-season and even the first three Grands Prix focused on riders and what makes them tick, it is time to take a look at the racing factories themselves. I think what they call it now is company culture, but what we are really looking for is the soul of the handful of motorcycle manufacturers who race and why they do it.

The Japanese, in three words or less:

An old acquaintance of mine, a former TV actor and lifelong motorcycle enthusiast now retired in Japan and speaking the language fluently, once told me how Japanese motorcycling insiders characterized the racing departments of the Japanese Big Four in no more than three words. This was what he said, assuring me than none of the following descriptions is understood to be insulting or denigrating:

Yamaha: “Pure marketing.”
Suzuki: “Crazy people racing.”
Kawasaki: “Rich boys racing.”
Honda: “NASA.”

I asked him how European manufacturers were regarded and he said, “Dream racing.”

He said it so convincingly and supplied many anecdotes to support his case, that I have never been able to completely shake these frivolous labels.

I can never really be sure which came first, the label or the observation, but since then I have always seen Yamaha as a factory who understand that the purpose of racing is sales. Over the years in Grand Prix racing Yamaha has seldom had the best 500 or MotoGP machine, but they have usually had the most professional press people and the fearless riders … like Roberts, Rainey and Lawson (and now Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo–DN).

Look back in old race reports and you will find that these three complained bitterly about the machines they rode, but they won races. I remember hearing Kenny Roberts, in his own inimitable style, say to Wayne Rainey, “If you keep winning races with this thing Yamaha will never realize what a piece of s**t it is.” I also remember John Kocinski getting off the bike after a race and holding forth on just how abominable the 1991 YZR was. “Nobody could ride this thing,” John exclaimed. At that moment in another corner of the pits we heard the first bars of the Star Spangled Banner to commemorate another Rainey victory, achieved on the same bike John had just declared unridable. “And that doesn’t change a thing,” he added referring to Wayne’s win.

The current Yamaha effort seems, from the outside, to be built more around Rossi than the machine, but the reality of the situation is that the new YZR M1 was NOT the result of Rossi’s input. The new bike, build from the ideas of many riders (Checa, Barros, Melandri, Jacque) and at least one ex-rider (Randy Mamola) was already in the pipeline before Rossi signed. In fact it was Rossi’s understanding of what the new bike would be like that gave him the confidence to leave mother Honda. (DN: The main influence that Rossi and his crew had when they entered Yamaha was to encourage the adoption of engineer Masao Furusawa’s crossplane firing order.)

Whether Yamaha have gotten it right this time or not will be seen over the next few races, but by signing Rossi, Yamaha has generated more favorable publicity than in all the losing seasons since Rainey’s crash at Misano in 1993. This may very well turn out to be another losing season, but, at least so far, it has been a marketing success.

I remember that my friend’s justification for the “crazy” tag given to Suzuki was based upon the wild nature of their street machines more than on the people who built them. although the new ilk of 1000cc 165-170 horse power street bikes makes the GSX-R 1000 seem as close to “normal” as such a road going rocket could ever seem, it was Suzuki, first with the GSX-R 750 and later with the 1000, who set the new standard for high-performance roadbikes.

The last time a Suzuki was regarded as a superior Grand Prix machine was probably in 1977, the year of Barry Sheene’s second and final title on the RG500, although the rotary valve square four went on to take two more world championships with Marco Lucchinelli and Franco Uncini in 1981 and 1982.

Without Kevin Schwantz they would have been lost in the late eighties and early nineties, and the title won in 2000 by Kenny Roberts Junior was achieved when Honda was without Doohan and Yamaha without Rainey, and when Rossi just was a rookie. But during all these years Suzuki built outrageously fast and edgy roadbikes, outgunning Yamaha and Kawasaki and building the type of uncompromised sports bike that Honda, until the current CBR1000RR, has always shied away from. Daring might be a better word than crazy to describe the commercial philosophy of corporate Suzuki.

I once had the pleasure of hearing now retired HRC racing boss Youichi Oguma speak through a real translator and not through one of the company minders usually assigned to filter out Oguma’s more magnificent turns of phrase to try and make him sound like he represented a factory that raced for all the usual, commercial reasons.

Kawasaki Motorcycles, of course, came out of the Kawasaki Heavy Industries group and the story still told in Japan was that back in the sixties Kawasaki executives were annoyed to find that Europeans and Americans were familiar with the names of Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki, because of their fast and attractive motorcycles. The idea was that building an exciting product … more exciting than a bridge, a locomotive or an oil tanker, would promote the name. And for a family of companies as wealthy as Kawasaki, building bikes, even if not initially profitable, would not be a great hardship … thus “Rich boys racing,” my friend assured me.

Nowadays the Kawasaki motorcycle branch is an independent and successful profit center … but they do run without sponsorship and don’t seem to seek it for their vastly expensive MotoGP effort.

But the label that most rings true is the NASA tab given to Honda.

I once had the pleasure of hearing now retired HRC racing boss Youichi Oguma speak through a real translator and not through one of the company minders usually assigned to filter out Oguma’s more magnificent turns of phrase to try and make him sound like he represented a factory that raced for all the usual, commercial reasons.

But what happened that day in Holland was that the HRC translator was caught in the Dutch TT traffic on a Friday morning and the intimate little press conference went ahead without her when a well-intentioned Japanese-American was brought in to translate.

I will never forget what he said at the highest and most lyrical point of his flight:

“The other manufactures do not know why they race. They race because they understand the conviction of Honda and they follow the Honda and sometimes they even pass, but when they pass they cannot lead because they have no vision. Then Honda passes again and they are grateful again to follow because they know Honda sees the light of discovery that they cannot see.”

And then the official translator came in looking horrified as she heard the last words of all that in English. She took over and although Oguma-san seemed to speak with the same evangelic zeal, the words were not the same, ever again.

But that brief glimpse, that sound bite of Honda’s true internal monologue, convinced me that, at the most important level in the company culture, Honda really is the NASA of motorcycle racing.

And Ducati, and to a certain extent, under-funded Aprilia, are “dreamers” in the best sense of the word.

Return to News

Signed by four-time world champion Eddie Lawson!
Eddie Lawson owns this print and many others by the artist
Limited Stock. Imported from Japan and produced on acid-free, heavyweight paper stock, this is a 11.75" x 16.5" print. $80.21 with shipping. US orders only.

Shipped Via First Class Mail in a Heavy Duty Tube. All orders come with Soup decals. Yes, Eddie Lawson owns this print and many others by the artist.

Buy this print here via Paypal. Buy now!
Pay with PayPal - you don't need an account.
Need to pay another way? E-mail us