From ’99: To Hell And Back

the most grueling motorcycle race in the world is the 8 Hours of Suzuka

The Lucky Strike Honda in the garage at Suzuka.
The Lucky Strike Honda in the garage at Suzuka. Tracy Hagen

(Tracy Hagen wrote this in 1999.)

Up until five years ago or so, the Suzuka Eight Hours was the biggest international event in roadracing. Today it is merely the biggest race in Japan.

The popularity of the Eight Hours peaked in 1990 when 160,000 spectators came to see 130 riders–63 of them non-Japanese – thrash it out to determine who makes the fastest, most reliable motorcycle. This year’s Eight Hours brought 70,000 fans and nine foreign riders.

The demise in international participation and interest in the Eight Hours has paralleled that of the Daytona 200, but for a different set of reasons. International participation at Daytona has declined because the AMA runs different rules from the FIM in regard to Superbike specifications and race procedures, specifically in the area of pit stop procedures. Hence there is a perception by foreign competitors that the playing field at Daytona is not level, and they stay home. Of course, the Suzuka Eight Hours has been an FIM event and run under FIM endurance rules since 1980. There are no local rules at Suzuka. So what’s the reason for the demise of the Eight Hours then? To some degree, there are two people who were responsible for making the Eight Hours the success that it was – Soichiro Honda and Pops Yoshimura. Both are no longer with us.

The very first Eight Hours in 1978 quickly developed in to a title fight between Honda-san, the Bill Gates of motorcycles, and Yoshimura-san, a sort of Japanese version of Smokey Yunick, the legendary race car tuner and proprietor of “The Best Damn Garage in Town” in downtown Daytona Beach.
Honda-san loved racing and hated losing. He commissioned Honda’s Racing Service Corporation–the predecessor of HRC–to build a race-winning bike. They needed the best endurance racers in the world, so they went to France and hired Christian Leon and Jean Claude Chemarin. Obsessed with the project, Honda-san made the 300 mile trek from his home in Tokyo to the Suzuka Circuit to check out the bike himself. Still wearing his white with blue window-pane business suit, French cuff shirt, bolo tie and black shoes, Honda-san entered the pits, climbed aboard the bike and imagined himself in the race.

Yoshimura-san loved racing and hated Honda. No army of engineers were going to build his bike, Yoshimura-san built his Suzuki Superbike himself. His garage floor was littered with hand tools and odd parts, the scene of an accident waiting to happen (the accident did eventually happen through a combination of gasoline vapors and chain smoking, but that’s another story). For a pair of riders Yoshimura reckoned that he didn’t need a couple of French cafĂ© racers that knew how to stay awake for 24 hours on a race bike, he needed fearless, aggressive Superbike riders. Enter 22-year-old wide-eyed Wes Cooley and 23-year-old iron Mike Baldwin.

Cooley and Baldwin showed Japan what Kenny Roberts was showing them over in Europe. The young Americans lapped the field four times, the largest margin of victory ever in the Eight Hours. Honda’s piece de resistance racer rapidly turned itself into a piece of excrement, and rattled to a humiliating halt after three hours. Yoshimura had won the race and his most satisfying victory of his life.

The war was on.

Honda claimed revenge and the top eight places in 1979, but Cooley and Kiwi Graeme Crosby brought the title back to Yoshimura in 1980. The event was now on the FIM’s schedule for the World Endurance championship, which drew in more riders from Europe. It also commanded the full attention of all four of the major Japanese manufacturers, being the only world championship roadrace in Japan.

But there was a problem. The FIM World Endurance championship was contested on 1000cc bikes (750cc starting in 1984), but the Japanese street bike market, back then, for all intents and purposes, was capped at 400cc and 59 horsepower. The indigenous roadracers in Japan lacked the talent to ride these beasts (and probably the patience to pace themselves for eight hours as well).

Off in other corners of the world, namely America and Australia, were, fortunately, racers that knew quite well how to ride crap bikes around crap racetracks. Superhero Kenny Roberts was picking up Grand Prix wins and world championships like low-hanging fruit, or so it seemed. He became the pied piper that was to lead these racers from the Lodi Cycle Bowl to Silverstone, via the Suzuka Eight Hours.
Thus the Eight Hours became a proving test for numerous young Yankees and Aussies that wanted to go Grand Prix racing. Anyone looking for the Japanese factories to bankroll his World Championship ambitions had to prove himself in the Eight Hours. It became a very effective test. A rider has to be in physical and mental condition to run flat out for four hours, give or take. He needs to be able to communicate with mechanics that don’t speak English–or learn how to ride around a problem. He needs to learn how to work with a teammate, not worry about beating him–the real object of the game is to beat the other teams, and the other manufacturers. He needs to learn the long Suzuka Circuit race track itself, one of the most technical tracks in the world, widely regarded as a reference circuit, and unlike anything in America.

Add in the other obvious problems: jet-lag, strange food, strange ways, homesickness, etc. When you have won the Eight Hours, you’ve proven yourself. Eddie Lawson, Mike Baldwin, Wes Cooley, Wayne Rainey, Fred Merkel, Kevin Schwantz, Doug Polen, John Kocinski, Wayne Gardner, Kevin Magee, Michael Doohan, Daryl Beattie, Doug Chandler –and on and on–have all raced the Eight Hours, multiple times.
Thus it’s easy to see why the Eight Hours grew through the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s. It became an arms race that went out of control. This reporter first went in 1991, four months after attending the Japanese Motorcycle Grand Prix of Suzuka. Back then, Eight Hours made GP racing look cheap.
The Eight Hours, sad to say, became a victim of its own success. Even though general admission was over fifty dollars, 150,000 spectators were coming in. The town of Suzuka could not handle the race traffic. The Formula 1 car race at Suzuka Circuit was drawing as many fans, perhaps more, but traffic wasn’t as bad because an F1 race is only two hours long, thus allowing more time at the end of Sunday for fans to leave. The Eight Hours race ends at 7:30pm, and Sunday night traffic from Eight Hours events in the late 1980’s was stop-and-go until midnight and beyond.

Thus the city of Suzuka passed a law limiting Eight Hours spectators to 100,000. You would have thought that with the few million dollars that the extra 50,000 people brought in each year could have been invested in building an extra road or two instead of a new roller coaster for the Suzuka amusement park, but things don’t work that way in Japan. It may be a good law; however, the race will never be as big as it was in terms of spectators, as it stands now.

The turned away race fans now have alternatives in Japan to the Eight Hours. Some fans, to be sure, probably find the motorcycle GP at Suzuka in the spring or the World Superbike round at Sugo in the autumn as acceptable alternatives to the Eight Hours.

Another law was passed a half-world away that equally changed the composition of the Eight Hours. From 1994 onwards, the FIM required World Superbike specification motorcycles in the World Endurance championship. It was a move made with an eye towards cost control, but it eliminated the 145-kilogram TT-F1 “four-stroke Grand Prix bikes” that the four manufacturers specially made for the Eight Hours each year. It also eliminated the popular yet exotic Moriwaki Zero that a dozen or more privateer teams employed in their Eight Hours effort. Like the AMA’s substitution of Superbike for Formula 1, the change to World Superbike spec machines made for closer racing in the Eight Hours, but the bikes were nothing to write home about.
But as the bikes changed over time, so have the people that made up the Eight Hours.

The annual grudge match between Honda and Yoshimura ended with the passing of Honda-san in 1991, and Yoshimura-san in 1995. After Pops Yoshimura passed away, his son Fujio scaled the Yoshimura presence back from two teams to one, and the bikes look to have been built per the Suzuki race kit. Fujio hangs a picture of Pops and his champion Suzuki motorcycle from 1978 in the pit garage, which now has shelves for the mechanics to place their tools and parts.

By the time Honda-san passed away the American and Australian had established themselves in Grand Prix racing, and began to despise racing the grueling Eight Hours. The schedule didn’t help any either: a Grand Prix in France one weekend, the Eight Hours the next, a Grand Prix in Britain after that, and, some years, a GP in Sweden the weekend after England.

The Eight Hours was and remains hard work. After winning the Eight Hours for a record fourth time in 1992, Wayne Gardner unloaded to the Japanese media his deep dislike for the Eight Hours. A Japanese journalist, who obviously must have watched the Eight Hours in the press room and didn’t have to deal with the 97 degree heat (the hottest Eight Hours on record), asked Gardner if he would like the race more if it was lengthened to twelve hours. Gardner’s angry response is unprintable.

As well as not being as much fun as it once was, the need for foreign riders to compete in the Eight Hours had decreased. A new generation of Japanese riders had grown up watching the Eight Hours and race regularly around the difficult Suzuka Circuit, and the best (e.g., Noriyuki Haga) are quite good at piloting Superbikes.

Additionally, as the Japanese Superbike riders established themselves, so did the World Superbike series. The World Superbike series as another option for a rider to develop his career, and it did not always require him to go through an Eight Hours hazing. Especially in the case of Ducati.

Yes, it’s sad for the die-hard followers of the Eight Hours that the race today doesn’t mean what it once did. But to conclude that the race is dead is dead wrong. It still draws 70,000 fans on race day, has the biggest purse in roadracing, and is the most important race of the year for the Japanese manufacturers. It makes the Daytona 200 look like a club race.

If there is one roadrace in the world worth winning, it’s the Suzuka Eight Hours.

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