Text by Tracy Hagen, Used with Permission
Suzuka Circuit, Suzuka, Japan, July 25
(1993) Scott Russell and Aaron Slight rode an Itoham-sponsored Kawasaki ZXR-7 to win the 15th Coca-Cola Suzuki 8-Hours, giving Kawasaki its first Suzuka 8-Hours victory. “I’m really, really happy for Kawasaki, it’s their first time winning the Suzuka 8-Hours and I hope they enjoyed it as much as we did,” Exclaimed Russell. “It’s the biggest road race in the world, and I love coming here and racing in front of all the people that come out and stand in the rain and as hot as it can be and they love racing – it’s great!”
“The machine was good all day,” added Slight. “It was running really well, there wasn’t a problem with anything, everything went like clockwork.”
Eddie Lawson and Satoshi Tsujimoto finished second on an am/pm Kanemoto Racing Honda RVF750. Lawson fell while leading in the first hour, lightly damaging the RVF and giving himself a nasty headache. Lawson and Tsujimoto completed as many laps as Russell and Slight, although they had just managed to un-lap themselves before the end of the race.
It was the second time this year that Russell and Lawson had raced against each other – at Daytona, Lawson was first and Russell was second; at Suzuka, Russell was first and Lawson was second.
Third place went to Takuma Aoki and Mike Smith, teaming together on a Cup Noodle sponsored Honda RVF750, one lap behind the winners.
“I’m really pleased with third place at my first Suzuka 8-Hour race,” said Smith. “A lot of guys race here for years and never make the winner’s circle – also to race in the last 8-Hours under TT-F1 rules.”
Smith’s partner Takuma Aoki is the younger brother of Nobuatsu Aoki, who rides a Honda NSR250 in the Grands Prix for Erv Kanemoto’s team. A third (and youngest) brother, Haruchika, also road races at the national level in Japan, and the Aokis go by the nickname of the Fireball Brothers.
Pre-race favorites Mick Doohan and Daryl Beattie finished fourth, also one lap behind. An oil spill by another motorcycle caused Doohan to fall early in the race while leading, crashing in a manner similar to Lawson with similar consequences.
It was the worst Suzuka 8-Hours meet for the Australian riders in years, as two-time winner Kevin Magee crashed his Yamaha YZF750 in Thursday-morning untimed practice and suffered multiple fractures in his left hand. Magee’s hand and left forearm were set in a cast at a nearby hospital, and later Magee was to fly to the U.S. for surgery.
Magee was replaced by Katsuyoshi Takahashi, a rider with an undistinguished Suzuka-8 Hours record but who, on the talent level, was probably better matched to Magee’s teammate, Kenny Roberts, Jr., riding a four-stroke road racer for the first time since he was a club racer on a Yamaha FZR400. “I was told two weeks ago that I was riding it,” said Roberts, Jr. “I asked Yamaha who was riding with Kevin at the 8-Hours, and they said, ‘oh, you are.’. Okay, no problem. I’m sure my dad knew what was going on and they were probably in touch with him instead of me, which is no problem with me – he knows what’s best.”
Other Americans at Suzuka included Randy Renfrow on the Team Sankyu Honda RC-30, one of the most impressive of the dozens of RC-30s but rot with gremlins which caused the team to finish 31 laps behind the leaders. Canadian Superbike Champion and Suzuka 8-Hours rookie Steve Crevier teamed with Renfrow in place of Renfrow’s usual Suzuki partner, Dale Qarterley.
Harley Twin Sports rivals Scott Zampach and Mike Hale co-rode a Kawasaki Zephyr 750 that was one of a number of the let’s-do-something-really-different type entries. “Our goal was to come here and try to qualify the Kawasaki, the Zephyr 750,” explained Hale, who wasn’t even born when the Kawasaki Z-1, the forefather of the Zephyr, was introduced to the world. “We weren’t last in qualifying, so I guess we accomplished our goal as for qualifying the Zephyr.” Their race ended when Zampach lost the front end in Spoon Curve in the beginning of the race’s final hour.
Kevin Atherton rode one of the other off-the-wall entries, an Over Racing Yamaha TDM 850 Twin. “It’s a privilege to be here, it really is, you know, it compares to the Daytona 200 and also the Isle of Man, something you always dream of seeing and visiting,” remarked Atherton. “Their other rider, some English guy, broke a leg or something like that. Shogo, a free-lance photographer for a Japanese magazine, does a lot of dirt-track stuff and said call, and I did it. I’ve never done an endurance race, I’ve never rode in the rain before, I’ve only been on a road racer a handful of times. With my background it’s unbelievable to be here, there’s a lot of guys back in the States that wish could be here. I’m very fortunate.” Atherton had a light crash early in the race, and later, his Japanese co-rider, Shinichiroh Ohura, crashed harder and the lengthy repairs resulted in the team being “non-classified” at the finish.
Richard Moore and Doug Toland were reserve riders at Suzuka, Moore for the Zampach-Hale team, and Toland for Moriwaka. Rob Muzzy’s Japanese AMA rider, Takahiro Sohwa, was the reserve rider for the factory Kawasakis.
This year’s Suzuka 8-Hours will be remembered as the year the tables were turned:
By the Americans sweeping the top three spots over the luckless Aussies.
By the postage-stamp-size Kawasaki team over the almighty Honda army.
By Dunlop conquering Michelin.
By Rob Muzzy defeating Erv Kanemoto, Jerry Burgess, and Fujio Yoshimura.
By World Superbike riders beating the Grand Prix superstars.
By David beating Goliath.
The race this year also marked the end of the TT-F1 era, as rules changes requiring World Superbike-spec motorcycles are finally set to take effect next year. Honda has the most to lose, as the Honda RVF750 is the most developed of TT-F1 motorcycles, 15 to 20 kilograms lighter than the other factory bikes.
The best of the RVFs went to Lawson and Tsujimoto, their “A” (race) bike being a revised D version from last year, Serial Number 01. Their “T” (test, or back-up) bike was also a revised D version, Serial Number 03. Revision D, Serial Number 02, belonged to the HRC team of Doohan and Beattie, the defacto defending Champions (Doohan won with Wayne Gardner in 1991, while Bettie won with Gardner in 1992). The Doohan/Beattie “T” bike was revised C RVF, an externally identical motorcycle to the revised D version. Grand Prix HRC crew chief Jerry Burgess looked after the Aussies’ RVFs, oddly painted in the OKI color scheme as in the last two years but without the OKI logo. Erv Kanemoto, at Suzuka looking for a Grand Prix sponsor, tended to the Lawson-Tsujimoto bikes.
“I’ve been with Rothmans since 1985, when I started with HRC,” explained Kanemoto. “When I started my own company in 1989, the first year with Eddie, Rothmans and HRC were my sponsors then. But since then I was only able to sponsor a 250, because HRC has the 500 team. So, in turn, my agreement with Rothmans was that I could look for a 500 sponsor, provided it was not another tobacco company. So I’ve been looking for the last couple of years for a sponsor I could put with Rothmans so I could run the 500 again. Last year I was here with Wayne Gardner and Daryl Beattie, and this year I thought, well, maybe I could get farther with am/pm and we could do this, make a little more exposure, maybe I could finish a sponsor to do the 500 or return here next year. But primarily I am here to find a sponsor, hopefully make some contacts for a sponsor for the Grand Prix,” said Kanemoto.
The other top Hondas belonged to Team Blue Fox with riders Shinya Takeishi and Kenichiroh Iwahashi, the third-place finishers from 1992. Their RVF was another revision C model despite being one revision behind, it was visibly the fastest of all bikes at Suzuka and could out-horsepower anything else down Suzuka’s long back straightway.
The last of the RVFs belonged to the Smith/Aoki team, the pair running a 1992 model that was delivering another 10 minutes of track time from a single fuel load over what the factory Hondas were doing a year ago.
The fastest of the Honda riders was Doohan, earning pole position with a time of 2:12.011. Takeishi was the second fastest overall qualifier with a time of 2:15.527. Lawson’s qualifying time of 2:13.148 placed him fourth fastest overall, as his RVF was running taller gearing that was sacrificing acceleration for fuel mileage. Fifth fastest overall was Iwahashi at 2:13.291. Beattie was 10th fastest at 2:13.970, 0.5-second slower than his 1992 qualifying time and only marginally better than his 1991 time on a much slower, non-ram-air-box RVF. Smith was 13th fastest with a qualifying time of 2:14.477, Tsujimoto 14th fastest at 2:14.494, and Takuma Aoki was 20th fastest at 2:14.992.
“I suppose the main challenge will come from Lawson and Tsujimoto,” remarked Doohan, “and Takeishi and Iwahashi will be right up there with us. And maybe the top Kawasaki.”
The Kawasaki that Doohan referred to was, of course, the Itoham Kawasaki ridden by Russell and Slight, and by the end of Saturday Doohan and Beattie had quit referring to it as “the top Kawasaki” in favor of “that f***ing Kawasaki.”
The Kawasaki effort this year was the antithesis of the HRC approach. There were just two factory-backed Kawasaki teams, the Russell and Slight team and the Shoichi Tsukamoto and Keiichi Kitagawa team. Both teams, however, were being completely independently of each other – despite being garaged next to each other – and there was a wall separating the two teams; the teams appeared comfortable with the situation.
Although Tsukamoto is the lap record holder at Suzuka for TT-F1 motorcycles (2:11.856, set last September), Russell led the Kawasakis in qualifying with a time of 2:12.599, third fastest overall. Slight was seventh-fastest overall with a time of 2:13.833. Kitagawa qualified 12th fastest at 2:14.128, and Tsukamoto was 16th fastest at 2:14.713.
The disparity in qualifying times only illustrates half the story on how much better Rob Muzzy’s team was over the Japanese factory’s team. Russell improved his qualifying time 2.25 seconds from 1992 and Slight improved his 1.85 seconds. Kitagawa, the top-qualifying Kawasaki rider from last year riding a World-Superbike-spec, semi-factory ZXR750R in conditions much hotter and much stickier than this year, was going 0.20 seconds slower compared to last year. Tsukamoto was 0.80 seconds slower than he was last year, and 3.0 seconds off his lap record.
Another immensely improved effort from last year was Team Lucky Strike Suzuki. At last year’s 8-Hours, Kevin Schwantz and Doug Chandler qualified the Lucky Strike Suzuki 25th on the grid, more than 3.0 seconds off the pace, and, after 50 laps in the race, Schwantz and Chandler decided that the Suzuki was best left for dead. This year was much different – Suzuki had two factory-backed, Lucky Strike-sponsored teams, the first team headed by Suzuka 8-Hours rookie Alexandre Barros with Peter Goddard (Suzuki’s RGV500 development rider in the All Japan 500cc Championship), and the second team of Noriyasu Numata and Akira Yanagawa (Yoshimura’s guest rider in this year’s Daytona 200).
Yanagawa set the best Suzuki qualifying time and was sixth fastest overall. “We aimed for 13s and I got 2:13.824 on the second lap. The rest of the session we didn’t push and made a lot of progress on dry settings. I think we have done pretty well and will be ready for Sunday,” said Yanagawa.
Goddard was 15th fastest overall at 2:14.599. “We were concentrating on getting the settings right and were not putting a priority on getting the best time,” said Goddard. “I had an operation about two weeks ago and had an old plate taken out (of my ankle) and a new one put in. It’s doing very well and doesn’t affect my riding at all. Other than that I am in great condition.”
Barros was 19th fastest at 2:14.964. Like Kenny Roberts, Jr., Barros was racing a four-stroke for the first time as a professional rider. “Of course it is heavier than my 500, but I am enjoying riding it,” Barros said.
Numata’s best time in qualifying was 2:15.745, well off the pace of the other factory riders.
The factory Yamaha YZF750s were nothing special from last year, a major surprise since YZF has finished second the last two years at Suzuka, and won the year before that. Magee’s Thursday-morning crash shifted the workload to the Mets team of Norihiko Fujiwara and Yasutomo Nagai. Fujiwara was the fastest of the Yamaha riders at 2:13.891, eighth fastest overall. Nagai was ninth fastest at 2:13.970. Takahashi and Roberts, Jr. were well off the lead factory riders with best times of 2:15.436 and 2:15.360, respectively.
“I haven’t put a 100 percent effort in just going flat-out fast,” said Roberts, Jr. “I’m not trying to do quick times, I’m just trying to learn the machine. It hasn’t been really difficult because we’ve had a suspension guy from my dad’s team and he’s been a really good help. Since we’ve been here it’s been nothing but progress. We had to change a lot on the machine so that I could start getting the feeling from the tires. Kevin wasn’t able to get feeling from both of them. I haven’t put a 100 percent effort in just going flat-out fast. I’ve just been trying to learn what the machine is going to want to do for eight hours. Hopefully I’ve learned some of it.”
A third factory-backed YZF was ridden by Wataru Yoshikawa and Australian Shawn Giles. Yoshikawa qualified 11th fastest at 2:14.044, but Giles’ best time was 2:17.640.
Yoshimura Japan was at Suzuka again, with a first team made up of French endurance racing star Alex Vieira and Aussie Michael Dowson, and a second all-Japanese team of Masanao Aoki (no relation to the Fireball brothers) and Kenji Ohsaka. Aoki, who was second fastest last year with a time of 23:13.100 on the Yoshimura Suzuki, qualified 17th fastest this year with a time of 2:14.751. Ohsaka was 18th fastest at 2:14.830; Vieira’s best was 2:15.217, and Dowson’s best was 2:17.887 – 3.0 seconds a lap slower than his time on last year’s Yoshimura Suzuki.
The Honda-powered Moriwaka Zero VX-7s turned best times of 2:17s and 2:18s, about the same as good Honda RC-30 privateer teams.
The gridding at Suzuka is based on the fastest rider’s best times, with Doohan earning the pole. But since endurance racing demands a nearly 50/50 split in riding time the combined best times of each rider is a better gauge of team strength. The 10 best combined times were:
1. Takeishi/Iwahashi RVF750 4:25.818
2. Doohan/Beattie RVF750 4:25.998
3. Russell/Slight ZXR-7 4:26.432
4. Lawson/Tsujimoto RVF750 4:27.642
5. Fujiwara/Nagai YZF750 4:27.861
6. Tsukamoto/Kitagawa ZXR-7 4:28.841
7. Aoki/Smith RVF750 4:29.469
8. Barros/Goddard GSX-R750W 4:29.563
9. Yanagawa/Numata GSX-R750W 4:29.569
10. Aoki/Ohsaka GSX-R750W 4:29.581
The weather at the start of Sunday’s race was surprisingly good – partly cloudy, 79 degrees, with tolerable wind and humidity – as Saturday’s practice sessions and 4-hour support race were held in steady rain from a fresh typhoon moving ever closer to the island.
Lawson who had a high fever on race morning, was the first to decide to run across the track for the LeMans stat, but it was Russell’s ZXR-7 that was first to fire up and Russell cleared off with the fastest start Suzuka had seen in years. Takeishi followed, then Fujiwara, Yanagawa, and Beattie, who was allowed to start in place of Doohan.
“I set the fastest time for our team,” said Doohan, “but Daryl will have to lead off because I cannot get across the track quick enough to get to the bike, unless they let me use a scooter.”
By the end of the second lap, Takeishi closed to within 0.3-second of Russell. Fujiwara, Yanagawa and Beattie all held steady, while Takuma Aoki moved up into sixth, Lawson was in seventh, Yoshikawa eighth, Masanao Aoki ninth, and Goddard 10th. Takahashi pitted at the end of lap two, losing a lap before re-joining the race.
Lucky Strike rider Yanagawa parked out in the Spoon Curve on lap three with engine problems. “Yeah, buzzed it a bit too much, I think,” speculated team mechanic Simon Tonge. “You know, top end engine failure, like the cars do if they ever rev them up there.”
Yanagawa’s exit was the catalyst for some shuffling of the placings by the end of lap three. Russell and Takeishi were still first and second, and Kitagawa moved up to third while Fujiwara dropped one to fourth. Beattie and Lawson were fifth and sixth, respectively. Takuma Aoki was seventh, Yoshikawa eighth, Masanao Aoki ninth and Dowson 10th.
Fujiwara and Beattie passed Kitagawa on lap four, while Masanao Aoki passed Yoshikawa.
Takeishi passed Russell down the Suzuka back straight on lap five to take over the lead. Beattie continued his charge and moved into third, with Lawson slipping in behind to run in fourth. Fujiwara and Kitagawa were contesting fifth while the other major placings were holding more or less steady.
Russell held on to Takeishi, who was sliding the RVF out of every corner in a desperate attempt to shake-off Russell, who was exiting corners smoothly. Lawson moved Beattie out of third on lap six, while everybody else in the top placings held their ground.
Russell passed Takeishi going into the chicane on lap seven, but Takeishi closed up going down the front straight and the two riders rode through the esses side-by-side, banging fairings when hitting apexes. Takeishi conceded the fight through corners, pulled in behind Russell, and then on the following lap smoked Russell on the back straight for the second time. By this time, however, Lawson had moved in to make it a three-way fight, and on the beginning of lap 10 Lawson drafted past Russell to take second going into turn one. Russell held on to the two leading Hondas until the end of the back straight, where a pair of backmarkers fouled Russell’s line and let Takeishi and Lawson get away.
Lawson used the draft pass for the second lap in succession when Lawson went around Takeishi to the high delight of the 120,000 spectators (hero worshippers abound in Japan). Russell was 1.0 second ahead of Beattie, another racer that Russell could hold off for only a lap or two at best.
Beattie started Tailgating Russell during the run down the front straight on lap 13. This put Beattie in a position to draft past Russell on the back straight later in the lap. Kitagawa and Fujiwara were still contesting fifth furiously, while the rest of the top 10 read T. Aoki, Yoshikawa, Goddard, and M. Aoki.
This running order held through the next five laps, with Russell giving distance to the leading trio and losing distance to the fifth-place fighters. Fujiwara was the first to catch Russell and passed him on lap 19. Kitagawa’s opportunity came on the following lap with a pass on Russell as the pair went into turn one.
Up front, Takeishi found the courage to attack Lawson’s lead. The first passing attempt came at Degner Corner, then again at the hairpin, and then once more at Spoon Curve where a backmarker momentarily defused the situation. At the chicane, Takeishi went for it again, but this effort failed also.
On lap 20, the Yoshimura bikes pitted, the first of the factory bikes to do so in terms of distance covered. Russell’s pit stop came a lap later in terms of distance, but because Russell was lapping much faster than the Yoshimura riders, he actually pulled into the pits before them, time wise. Those who were hoping for the Kawasaki to be the spoiler at this otherwise totally Honda race had their hopes pinned that the ZXR-7 could use superior fuel mileage to neutralize the speed advantage of the RVFs, just as Yamaha riders Magee and Niall Mackenzie had done the year before.
“Well, (the fuel mileage was) better than normal, but not good enough,” said Muzzy after Russell’s stop. “Actually, it went about to plan, but we were a little short on the first fuel.”
While Russell was handing off to Slight, one of the bikes on course blew oil down through Dunlop Curve, later claiming Atherton.
“Somebody dropped oil and I caught it in the front end going into the big left-hander, Dunlop (Curve) I guess, and just kind of pushed the front end and I went down,” explained Atherton, who was unhurt and re-joined the race.
More bikes pitted on the following laps, first Kitagawa, then Goddard, and then all the remaining factory bikes pitted en masse on lap 24. But just before the fastest Hondas pitted things had reached the boiling point with Lawson and Takeishi.
Takeishi had been all over Lawson for the past four laps, and Lawson was not giving in a bit, keeping tight lines to force Takeishi to use the long way around a corner if he wanted to get past. On lap 24 Lawson used too tight of a line on one of the right-hand curves in the esses section and clipped the curb. This fluffed the Honda a bit and Lawson pulled it all back together quickly enough to be straight up and down when he rode off track. Lawson did well to keep his balance through the gravel trap but was carrying too much speed and tried to turn right to keep from running into the crash barrier. The front wheel instantly dug into the gravel, throwing Lawson head-first into the barrier and the bike on its side. Lawson hopped back on the Honda and re-entered the track in fourth position, and then pitted at the end of the lap for fuel, tires, and crash damage repairs.
“The fairing and the (fresh air) intake things, that was the biggest thing,” explained Kanemoto. “It cost us four minutes in total – that was enough to do us in.”
The major teams had completed their pit stops by lap 26, which marked the end of the first hour. Doohan was leading Slight by 2.7 seconds, and Blue Fox Honda rider Iwahashi was third, 2.0 seconds behind Slight. Another 4.0 seconds back was Tsukamoto on the other factory Kawasaki, with a long gap to fifth-place Nagai, who had taken over from Fujiwara. Smith was in sixth, Giles seventh, Ohsaka eighth, Barros ninth, and Vieira 10th, all still on the lead lap.
Way back in 29th – one lap off the leaders – was Tsujimoto. And way, way back in 51st – three laps off the leaders – was Renfrow. “It started with missing the sighting lap (a two-lap penalty). We were arguing about the suspension with the Showa guy. The first session when I got out on the racetrack, I didn’t run strong,” said Renfrow. “I was unhappy, and the bike didn’t work good, the suspension hadn’t gotten changed, and we missed the sighting lap. I didn’t run strong.”
Going into the second hour, Doohan started to solidify his lead. On lap 30, Iwahashi passed Slight, the only change in position in the top six during the second hour. Positions seven, eight and nine reversed order, as Barros moved up and Giles moved down, and 10th remained with Yoshimura Suzuki of Dowson and Vieira. Tsujimoto was one spot out of the top 10 at the end of the second hour.
All the lead riders were back out by the time the third hour started, 52 laps into the race. A much waster pit stop by the Itoham Kawasaki allowed Russell to move into second from the Blue Fox Honda, as Iwahashi came into the pits slowly and stopped crooked, out of line with the team’s quick-lift jacks, out of position.
Russell was 15 seconds back from Beattie and was trying to catch the race leader, nearly crashing on lap 54 when he opened the Kawasaki’s throttle a bit early exiting the hairpin and spun out the rear tire. Less fortunate on the same lap was Masanao Aoki, who slid off in Spoon Curve but was up and going again 30 seconds later, heading straight for the Yoshimura pits for repairs.
And 11 laps later, fourth-place Kitagawa was stung in the same corner; his problem began with running wide and off-track, and then highsiding in the gravel trap. After a very long delay, Kitagawa got the factory Kawasaki running again, and headed for the pits.
Indeed, it seemed that people were crashing everywhere and Beattie very nearly became a faller when the number 35 Yamaha OW01 of Mitsuo Saitoh and Makoto Kawakami fell in front of Beattie just as Beattie was about to overtake.
“I’ve had more than number 35 crash in front of me today,” said Beattie after the race. “It feels like I’ve had about 35 bikes crash in front of me.”
As the race approached the 70-lap point, the major teams started pitting again. First in was Dowson on lap 67, then Russell on lap 69, Goddard on lap 70, and Takuma Aoki on lap 71.
By lap 78, the pitting activity had died down and the race was entering its fourth hour. Doohan was leading Slight by 7.0 seconds, and Nagai was third, 13 seconds behind Slight. Iwahashi was fourth and Smith was fifth, the last bike still on the lead lap. Barros was sixth, Tsujimoto seventh, Giles eighth, Vieira ninth and Tsukamoto 10th.
Just out of the top 10 was the first Moriwaki Zero with Wayne Clarke aboard, another luckless Australia who was soon to fall off. “Unfortunately, Wayne fell on some oil from another bike,” explained co-rider Jason McEwen from New Zealand later. “We were in 11th place. I think there was a lot of oil out there today, lots of bike crashing and blowing up. Wayne came down on some oil at the Dunlop loop. The bike wouldn’t start, so he pushed the bike back on the short circuit. Unfortunately, when you do that there is a five-lap penalty.”
Mid-way through the fourth hour, on lap 88, Doohan fell down in the esses section. The HRC Honda had been in the lead for the last 62 laps, and in Doohan’s second ride he was trying to distance himself from Slight, increasing the lead by more than 2.0 seconds each lap. On lap 87, Doohan had just turned the new fastest lap of the race with a time of 2:14.755. Then disaster struck.
“When I was coming off the turn I saw the black mark (oil) on the track, but I could not miss it. The front went, no sliding at all, just bang and I was on the grass and down,” Doohan said.
Doohan’s crash was shown live on the five stadium-size television monitors, stunning the crowd. To cap it off, Doohan hopped on his left foot back to the bike, his troublesome right leg kept in the air. The cornerworkers beat Doohan to the Honda, and they assumed Doohan was ready when he finally hopped back next to his bike, but Doohan was caught off-guard on this as well and the Honda quickly fell on its side once again. Doohan threw his head back and his hands in the air while the cornerworkers picked the Honda up once again, this time holding on while Doohan remounted and punched the starter button. At a time when seconds seem like minutes, it looked as if the Honda would never run again, but Doohan did get the engine fired and rode slowly across the grass back on the track, and then made his way back to the pits for repairs.
“We had bits and pieces to change,” said crew chief Jerry Burgess. “We had to change the handlebar, right-side footpeg, and part of the cowling. We lost three or four minutes at least.”
This drama continued to be broadcast around the circuit on live TV, with Doohan standing next to the bike in the pits and Beattie nowhere in sight. When the repairs where finished the team had no choice but to send Doohan back out again.
Later Beattie explained that, “I quickly tried to get ready and I was getting ready but it looked like Mick was okay, and carried on with his session.”
While all this was going on, Yoshimura rider Ohsaka took his turn crashing in Spoon Curve, the very spot where his teammate Aoki had crashed earlier. This was the capper to an entirely disappointed Yoshimura team. “I don’t know what to say,” sighed Fujio Yoshimura after the race. “I’m so frustrated.”
Doohan’s mistake allowed Slight to take and hold the lead until lap 94 when he made his scheduled pit stop. Blue Fox Honda rider Iwahashi was second, Mets Yamaha rider Nagai was third, Smith was fourth (still on the lead lap) and Barros was fifth.
When Slight pulled off, a fight for the lead developed between Iwahashi and Nagai, when suddenly Iwahashi’s RVF started acting as if it had ran out of gas. Iwahashi sat up and reached down to switch to reserve (the RVF’s petcock control is on the top of the tank), and then pulled into the pits. However, the tank still held enough gas for at least five laps so the crew pulled the front fairing off and inspected over-flow lines and catch bottles. Nothing was clearly out of sorts and so the crew put it back together, re-fueled and fitted fresh tires, and sent Iwahashi back out, one lap down. Suddenly, this race was getting very interesting indeed.
On lap 95, Smith pitted, which raised everyone’s fear for the worse after just seeing the HRC and the Blue Fox Hondas pulled in crippled, but Smith’s 1992 model RVF lacked the fuel economy of the others and the stop was a routine, no problems, an in-and-out affair with Takuma Aoki taking over.
After four hours – the halfway point – Nagai had the lead over Russell with Takuma Aoki third. Tsujimoto was fourth, 4.0 seconds behind Tsujimoto; Goddard was sixth and trailing was Iwahashi by 12 seconds. Beattie was in seventh and a lap down from the third-through-sixth-place runners, followed by Kitagawa, Takahashi, and Dowson.
By the mid-way point, Renfrow and Crevier were still struggling, now in 48th place and 20 laps down.
“We’ve just had a ton of problems,” lamented Renfrow. “We had some kind of an electrical short that ruined two batteries, we got docked two laps for missing the sighting lap, just on and on and on and on. I made them stop and change the bike after the first session, I mean we’re 20 laps down, you might as well change it. We took an extra minute and made some changes on the front suspension and went out and started turning 20s, 19s, 18s. The second session turned steady 18s ‘cause I knew the bike was okay. But we’re out of it – we’re just finishing the race for these guys.”
On lap 105, Nagai pitted and this turned the lead back over to Russell, until Russell pitted 12 laps later.
Doohan was finally relieved on lap 113, still two laps down. Beattie’s times were not as low as Doohan’s and he appeared to be taking it easy to the point that he was given the blue flag on lap 117 to warn him that he was being overtaken by the Blue Fox Honda of Takeishi!
The race reached the five-hour mark on lap 130, with Fujiwara leading from Slight. Takeishi was third and having drafted Smith on the back straight seven laps earlier. Lawson was fifth, 6.0 seconds behind Smith and pitting to turn it over to Tsujimoto. Barros was on the same lap, but a minute behind Lawson and not picking up any ground. Tsukamoto was seventh, another lap down, Beattie eighth, Takahashi ninth, and Giles 10th.
On lap 131, Fujiwara pitted, giving the lead back over to Slight. Takeishi, still on a charge, had caught Slight on the track and passed in Spoon Curve to un-lap himself. Slight bravely passed Takeishi back going into the chicane and proved that he is every man the racer that Russell was. Slight continued to fend off Takeishi and, it should be noted, was doing a better job of it than Russell had when faced with the same problem earlier in the race. On lap 134 Takeishi out-horsepowered Slight down the back straight, but Slight’s late-braking effort put Takeishi behind him once again. Then, unexpectedly, Takeishi slowed, looked down at the bike in befuddlement, and decided it was time to check into pit road.
Again the gas tank was far from empty and the sudden loss of power was confusing. “They don’t really know,” said Honda spokesman Ian MacKay. “The first time it was doing it they thought it was a fuel flow problem. They pulled the whole thing off, all fuel flow lines, the cables to the carburetors ‘cause it was just mis-firing in top gear, threw it all off, put whole new stuff on, goes out, and on the next time it started doing it again. They came in and one of the front inlets had broken off so they felt, ‘oh damn, that’s what it is.’ So they ripped the airbox off again, put another one in, but they still had the same problem again. They didn’t know what it was, and they still don’t know. IT would only happen when they got down to the last 15 minutes of each session, when the engine started banging like it was starving itself for fuel. Everything’s been changed, but this thing kept being a problem. They don’t know.”
Slight pitted on lap 141, giving the lead back to Nagai. Nagai had caught the slower-riding Beattie on the following lap and passed Beattie immediately, in the process side-swiping the left side of Beattie’s Honda. This collision left the exhaust of Nagai’s Yamaha shaky, and five laps later Nagai pulled in and the team went to work on the exhaust as well as pulling off the dry clutch.
“He was keen to get by and I was struck behind a guy and couldn’t get past,” remarked Beattie later. “But anyway I think we’re in front (of him) now and it doesn’t matter.”
Farther back, another battle was taking place between Goddard and Iwahashi over fourth place, and that would last 15 laps until the mysterious power loss ailment mandated another premature stop.
“It was a tough battle,” described Goddard. “He was cutting it a little close in the corners, and we exchanged some hard looks, but that’s racing.”
The race reached the six-hour mark with Russell still in the lead with 156 laps and a one-lap lead on the field. Takuma Aoki was second, Lawson third, Goddard fourth, Iwahashi fifth (all one lap behind Russell), Kitagawa sixth, Doohan seventh, Roberts, Jr. eighth (two laps behind), Yoshikawa ninth (three laps behind) and Dowson 10th (four laps behind).
Roberts, Jr. pitted early into the sixth hour with a broken exhaust hanger that was quickly replaced with no loss of position.
Doohan rode a spectacular session in the sixth hour, lowering the fast race lap to 2:13.883, overtaking Kitagawa for sixth and later reducing his two lap deficit to one when Russell pitted on lap 165. At the same time, Iwahashi was pulling in, giving up on chasing Goddard further as the misfire problem was back yet again, and this allowe Doohan to move up to fifth.
Takeishi brought the Blue Fox Honda back out in seventh place, behind Tsukamoto, who had taken over from Kitagawa four laps earlier.
Slight was given a briefing by Russell on the oily spots that had claimed Atherton’s Japanese co-rider. Slight took the first couple laps easy, which allowed Lawson to catch Slight and un-lap himself on Spoon Curve.
“Yeah, Lawson came by and shook his head,” said Slight. “I don’t know why he was shaking his head – he was a lap down, and I was the leader.”
Slight stayed with Lawson, and seven laps later Slight passed Lawson back on the front straight to put Lawson a full lap down again. One lap later, on lap 175, Lawson pitted and Tsujimoto came back out, which allowed Smith to move into second. With just over an hour to go and a healthy one lap lead, Slight and Russell now seemed to have the race covered.
At the seven-hour mark Slight was in the lead with 182 laps, Smith was second, Tsujimoto third, Barros fourth, Tsukamoto fifth, all one lap down. Beattie was sixth and Iwahashi was seventh, both two laps down. Roberts, Jr. and Giles were another lap down in eighth and ninth, respectively. Vieira rounded out the top 10.
The “Lights On” sign was displayed to the riders 52 minutes to the end, which produced some worry when every rider turned on his bike’s headlight except one – Slight. Slight’s scheduled pit stop came a few laps after the “Lights On” sign came out, where Russell turned on the headlight and started the ride home.
Endurance racing is a team effort, but after the last pit stop the entire weight is on the rider’s shoulders and there is little the team can do but wait, watch, and hope.
Russell rode conservatively, naturally, on his last stint and this allowed Lawson to unlap himself again. Takuma Aoki wisely choose to take the sure third rather than go head-to-head with Lawson over second. Doohan, meanwhile, was on another one of his infamous “out-of-my-way!” rides through the field and in hot pursuit of Goddard.
“Mick was fantastic in the dark,” remarked Burgess later, “in fact, that’s the fastest I’ve ever seen anybody ride here in the dark. He put Goddard under a lot of pressure in the last part of the race and deserved to get fourth. Endurance racing is part luck, you either have it or you don’t – today we didn’t.”
Doohan’s pressure on Goddard was indeed heavy, and the Lucky Strike rider crashed going into the left-hand corner at the end of the back straight on lap 199. Goddard quickly picked the bike up and dashed into the pits to have fairing and gas tank replaced.
“The crash was simply my mistake,” admitted Goddard. “I was braking too early and my knee hit the ripple, throwing the bike.
“The bike was running fine – the gauge showed that the engine was running hot, but to tell the truth, we don’t know if the problem was a faulty gauge or the engine. I really feel bad after all the hard work by the team, the factory and Alex.”
“We kept pushing and when I went out for the last stint with 45 minutes to go I reckoned I needed to be 3.0 seconds faster than Goddard to get fourth place,” explained Doohan. “I was pulling 5.0 seconds on him and would have got him easily, but then I saw him in the strawbales and that was that.”
The rain finally arrived when everyone was making their final lap and fortunately the field was spread out enough after eight hours that everybody slowed down to sensible speeds and crashing was avoided. “We could have done with that rain three ours earlier than when it eventually came,” complained Beattie.
Russell took the checkered flag while standing on the footpegs, left fist in the air, and the grandstands cheering wildly. Camera flashes followed Russell around on his victory lap, the Suzuka version of “The Wave.” Several of the Coca-Cola trophy girls were stricken with emotion – eyes watering, lips trembling – while waiting for Russell to arrive at the podium.
“We wanted to just get out and run a good start,” announced Russell, “and it worked out great. Aaron and I were running the same lap times and we didn’t make any mistakes, and fortunately for us the other teams did, and it put us where we wanted to be. From that point on we just maintained and it feels really great. I can’t say enough for the pit crew ‘cause every pit stop was just spot on – it was fast and it was done right. Aaron and I were matched closely as far as lap times go.
“Fortunately for us the other teams made the mistakes that we needed them to make and here we are. I’d like to thank Rob Muzzy for letting me have the chance to ride for Kawasaki four years ago, and I’m really happy for him also, for this is one of his goals in racing as well as one of mine. Thanks again, Rob.”
“Everything went really well today,” added Slight. “We were a bit worried at the start that we were making maybe one extra pit stop over everyone else, but we just kept circulating, good pace, everyone else just made big mistakes and it cost them dearly. We were there at the finish. We were lucky that the rain held off – it didn’t rain until the very end there, the rain wasn’t a worry at all. Everything went really, really well.”
“The biggest problem was the crash,” explained Lawson, “it happened so quick I couldn’t save it. I really banged the barrier with my head, and hurt my arm. I had a headache for the rest of the race and I don’t feel too good right now. They want me to go to the hospital for a check-up, but I’m just going to lay down for a while. I’m really disappointed for the boys in the team, they did a good job for us.”
“Although Eddie said he was okay after the crash he seemed to have some physical problems,” observed Tsujimoto. “We had a little luck in finishing second. Other teams had problems which helped us. The bike was no problem at all in the race. I have to thank the team for all they did for us today. This is the first time I’ve been able to run the Suzuka 8-Hours,” said Smith, “fortunate enough to run the TT-F1 rules – this is the last year. It’s really special for me to be able to finish in the winners’ circle.
“There’s been a lot of people here trying a lot longer and harder that haven’t been as fortunate to be here. The track definitely had some oil and a lot of weird things going on,” Smith said.
“Me and Takuma both rode comparable lap times I think. We made a tire choice at the beginning of the race that was wrong, and I couldn’t match my teammate’s times. Then we did it for my second stint and the rest, and we were able to match each other’s times. I think if we would have done that at the beginning we would have finished possibly better. We did good, the track – this is great, I’ve never seen so many fans in my life and so much excitement.”
“Mike and I did our best in every session,” beamed Takuma, speaking in Japanese. “Oil and tire rubber prevented us from going for it, but I am happy with third place. I am very excited now. To tell the truth, the language barrier – I cannot speak English and Mike has no Japanese – caused us a few problems in determining the final bike settings.”
Later that evening, while celebrating in a nearby bar with Slight, Russell leaned over to this reported and said, “I suppose this means I’ll be riding for Kawasaki the rest of my life.”