Erv Kanemoto has had a rough time these past five years. After wining both the 250cc and 500cc World Championships with Freddie Spencer in 1985, he spent the next two-and-a-half years relaying Spencer’s no shows and excuses to the press and to Honda Racing Corp. (HRC) brass. He then worked with Niall Mackenzie on H.B.-sponsored Honda in 1988 with little hope of his rider winning the World Championship.
That all changed when Eddie Lawson approached him about riding Hondas in 1989. Erv formed his own company and his own Grand Prix team. Together Kanemoto and Lawson won the World Championship in 1989 and astounded the critics. I recently spoke with San Jose, California resident Erv Kanemoto about his team, Spencer, Lawson and the new technology coming of age in Grand Prix racing. Erv Kanemoto is one of the nicest men I’ve ever met, and while he couldn’t answer all my questions, he was very candid about his own feelings about what was happening.
Adams: How did you get to where you are today?
Kanemoto: I was born in Utah. I did some boat racing when I was young, like around 15 and from there I went to karts. I started working on two-stroke engines when I got into karts. Before that my father was my mechanic.
In 1966, I got involved in motorcycle racing. This place I was working at went on strike, and once it looked like the strike was going to last awhile I went to work for this guy I knew who owned a motorcycle repair shop. That was the first time I had ever been exposed to motorcycles. That shop had a drag bike and I did some work on that. They were pretty impressed and wanted me to work on other race bikes. The first road race I went to was the best one at Carlsbad, California, and I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to get into.
I had worked on some dirt track bikes but road racing to me seemed like a higher level; engine technology, anyway, was above what I had been working on. In 1968 Kawasaki hired me to go to Daytona and work with them. Walt Fulton, Jr. was my rider at that time. That was my second road race. I bought an H-1R later and Kawasaki asked me to work with Jerry Green, a junior rider at that time. We did the AMA Nationals that year and won quite a few of them. We raced against Steve Baker, so that kind of gives you an idea what time frame we’re talking about.
In 1973 Kawasaki hired me to work with (Gary) Nixon. They said they’d give me a $1000 a race and I would have to pay Nixon. Also, they gave us all the Kawasaki parts we needed and I could use their shop if I needed to make any modifications, which I did.
It was a financial disaster really.
I had a good year with Nixon and we won the Championship. Kawasaki cut back on their race budget in 1974 so we went to Suzuki until 1976 when we went back to Kawasaki. We went to Europe to contest Formula 750cc World Championship, but we encountered some really bad politics over there and we ended up second. That was really a shame as we really won it.
Adams: How has racing in Europe changed since the first year you were over there?
Kanemoto: Racing in Europe has changed. It used to be kind of laid back but still competitive where as now it’s really, really intense. There’s a lot more money, television, sponsors. Everyone seems a lot more serious than in the old days. Back then you could own your own motorcycle, it wasn’t easy but you could, and then you only had to answer to yourself. I talk to Nixon all the time and I tell him it’s too bad all this didn’t happen 15 years ago because he was really good and very dedicated.
It’s too bad he was before all this money came into the sport. It’s really grown.
Adams: What do you do in the off season?
Kanemoto: I really don’t have an off season. It’s not like I take half the year off and go fishing, which I love. I’m always preparing to go to Europe or Japan for negotiations or testing. One season kind of plays into the next. You work out a deal, go through the season and then start fighting again for the money and equipment you need. I don’t have time for hobbies.
Adams: You’re a team owner just like Kenny Roberts, right?
Kanemoto: When I was with Freddie Spencer and Niall MacKenzie I was an employee of HRC but when the deal with Eddie came I started my own company and now I’m a contractor to Honda. I run their race team for them. Honda and Rothmans have a contract, Rothmans and Honda have an agreement with my new rider Wayne Gardner and now I’ll have an agreement with all of them.
My big fear was what was going to happen to the people that worked with Wayne in 1989; I didn’t want them to think that we didn’t think they were worthy of my team. So they were hired by Honda to assist some of the other Honda teams, both 500cc and 250cc. That was really important to me, that they weren’t let go.
Adams: Do you street ride at all?
Kanemoto: I don’t own any street bikes. I don’t really own anything except a 1982 El Camino and my motorhome. I don’t have time for a streetbike anyway.
Adams: What would happen to Grand Prix racing if the tobacco companies pulled out? Would the factories take over and run the teams like they did in the early 1980s?
Kanemoto: If the tobacco companies leave, the factory will again come in and support racing. I know racing is very important to Honda and Yamaha. The cost has escalated since the factories owned the teams, but that wouldn’t hinder their support too much. That’s one reason I’ve looked for a non-tobacco sponsor for my team. Once the television thing gets going really well, we shouldn’t have any problems finding non-tobacco sponsors for road racing teams. There are companies out there wanting some participation. The only reason I would look elsewhere for sponsorship is because of the very-increasing legislative hold that is put upon tobacco sponsors, because you can’t ask for a better sponsor.
Adams: Fuel injection seems to be on everyone’s mind; what do you think of it?
Kanemoto: Fuel injection is the answer that’s for sure. We know that all the factories have fuel injection bikes that they’re working on either for racing or R&D for street bikes. Fuel injection helps two-stroke engines so much where emissions are concerned that I think somewhere down the road the two-stroke will make a big, big comeback. The advantages are enormous. As of right now we’re able to get the same results from a well-set-up carburetor-equipped bike as we can with a fuel-injected motorcycle. If we weren’t we’d see fuel injection already.
Once we get a couple of little problems worked out… Will we see a fuel injection 500cc in 1989? I would have thought we would have seen one by now. So maybe to win a World Championship you have to understand the machine and know what to expect from it; to run an entire season with fuel injection and try also to win the World Championship is going to be pretty tough, because at first you’re going to have some problems. It’s hard to be a crusader. The carburetor has been used in racing forever and it’s easy to understand so maybe that’s the reason we haven’t seen fuel injection yet.
But once one team uses it, look out because fuel injection bikes will be coming out of the woodwork. If the factories were pushing four-stroke racing like they are Formula One, then we would have seen it a long time ago. The four-stroke is so easy to inject, you don’t have the spit-back that a two-stroke has.
The factories have tons of fuel injection four-stroke tech, from cars anyway. The four-stroke development is going on, but not at the rate it is for 500s or 250s. The weight of a four-stroke versus that of a two-stroke kills it right on the drawing board.
Adams: When your team comes to a racetrack, do they have a specific routine they go for? Do you get the suspension right first and then go on to the motor or what? And how do you feel about the current rage, computers?
Kanemoto: We have a routine that my team goes through at every track. When the rider goes out we’re trying to establish something, anything good or bad that we know is good, solid information. We’re constantly working on the engine but our suspension settings don’t get changed as much as you’d think. The whole time you have to think about 100 things at once, the engine isn’t 100 percent right now but when it is how will this modification affect the handling, etc.
You have to get the right complete package. Handling is our weak point at the moment but our machines are always among the fastest.
Computers make it easier. Computers have been available to most of the Honda teams for awhile and they haven’t been used much. Why? Time and money. The time needed to set up the (computer) and then download it when you’re done is probably the time equal to two more laps in practice and in those two laps I can usually determine the same conclusions from talking to the rider about what the bikes were doing here and there.
Money is an obstacle for us because I already have seven men on my team and I don’t see a good cost/benefit ratio when you talk about adding one or more people to the payroll to implement computer monitors. Where that stuff is useful is in pre-season testing, where you don’t have the 40-minutes practice sessions to limit you. Then when you’ve got the time to go over the data with your rider it may be more useful.
A lot of the time the computer is only confirming what the rider is already telling you. If we could do it without adding the weight and not have it slow us down, then it would be a real useful tool. Honda’s Formula One car monitors have that ability now where you get the data immediately in the pits, while the machine is on the track.
Adams: Would you like to see another Grand Prix here in the States, and if so, at which racetrack?
Kanemoto: I’ve raced pretty much all over the world and the only other track that comes to mind in the U.S. for Grand Prix is Road Atlanta. I thought that track was pretty well thought out but the facilities would have to be improved upon greatly.
Adams: Nixon, Spencer, MacKenzie and now Eddie Lawson have been teamed with you. What separates the great from the merely good?
Kanemoto: I’ve worked with many great riders and what separates the good from the great is determination.
You can get yourself into the game on skill level but from there, determination and how bad you want to win is what separates them. You’ve got to want to work real hard to attain your goals. You can’t become a World Champion just on skill level. You see riders with similar skill levels but one person is wining Championships and the other is only occasionally winning Grands Prix.
Adams: How long does it take you to get parts from HRC?
Kanemoto: In 1989 we were the leading Honda squad so we got new parts pretty quick. I would request a new style cylinder for the 500cc and in about two weeks I’d have them. Wayne Gardner getting hurt at Laguna Seca helped us, although I never like to see anyone hurt. Normally it would take longer, but because they were focusing on one person we got our equipment quite quickly. In the past with Freddie and Niall it took much longer.
Adams: It is rumored that it was on your word that Jimmy Filice got his Cinderella-story rider at Laguna Seca in 1988. How about it?
Kanemoto: I suggested to Mr. Oguma of the Honda R&D that Jimmy Filice would be a good candidate to ride Shimizu’s 250cc while he was injured from a pre-season crash. The deal didn’t happen until about a week before the U.S. Grand Prix, when I had requested that Jimmy ride at Suzuka to get used to the bike, but no matter I always felt that Jimmy was an excellent 250cc rider and would do well.
Adams: Has the four-cylinder Honda NSR500 used now in Formula One been developed to its potential? Will we ever see anything more revolutionary than fuel injection?
Kanemoto: I may be wrong, but I think the modern 500cc four-cylinder that we’re racing now has been developed about as far as it was designed to go. We’re going to see smaller developments but nothing earth-shaking. Fuel injection perhaps. Turbo or another non-normally aspired-type 250s are possible but I really can’t talk about any of that. I, too, am hoping to see of those machines.
Adams: Do you follow racing here in the States? Any riders you’re following stateside?
Kanemoto: I don’t really follow any racing here in the States, but I wish I could. I’m hoping that in a year or so my team will be set up well enough that I can pay some attention to that stuff. We should be looking now for people that will replace retiring riders. Hopefully in the future. I know Doug Chandler looks real good and I try to keep my eye on him. He got on a production three-cylinder a few years back and went real well.
Adams: The story is that then-Yamaha-mounted Eddie Lawson approached Niall MacKenzie about who to talk to about riding Hondas in 1989 and that he sent Eddie to you. Were you surprised?
Kanemoto: Initially I was really surprised when Eddie approached me about riding for Honda. It was really an ego booster for me. I really didn’t think it would have been possible, at least when he first approached me.
When I realized how serious he was I though that it may work out. One week it would look like it was going to happen, the next it looked not so good and finally it worked out. Thankfully, Honda initially said they couldn’t do it because they didn’t want it to appear that they’d just thrown money in Eddie’s face, but when I gave them the option of me contracting a team out to them they okayed it.
Adams: You and Eddie are seasoned professionals. Did you work well together?
Kanemoto: I thought that Eddie and I worked really well together. I know I couldn’t ask for a better rider. Eddie gives great feedback and he works real, real hard. We ended up doing a lot of testing and that was no problem for Eddie; he never complains.
Adams: Recently you held some informal talks with the Castiglioni brothers of Cagiva. What’s up?
Kanemoto: Cagiva approached me right after the Brazilian GP. I was waiting for some other things to happen before I could look at their proposal. I was a little surprised to hear from them. I told them I was hoping to hold onto my own team, for the time being, at least. We talked a little bit.
The Cagiva team has a lot of potential. It looks like they’re spending tremendous amounts of cash and energy. They’re employing a lot of people and changing equipment all the time. They have the potential of doing well. They’re spending a lot of money and to do well at any type of professional racing you’ve got to do that. They’ve made the commitment and now they’ve only got a few details to work out. I don’t think there’s any question that in time they’re going to do well.
Adams: Did you ever think there was no chance of winning the Championship in 1989? Do you have a constant fear?
Kanemoto: Someone asked me what I thought was my greatest race, one that I’ve been involved in. Honestly, I’ve thought about things like that, but it’s hard to pick out one thing that was better than another. Deep down I always think that if everything goes right, I’m going to win. When Eddie and I started off this year, we didn’t get a great start but once we got past Laguna Seca and ran the bike in practice in Spain, it looked like we found some direction.
I always felt the Championship was possible. You’re happy and maybe somewhat surprised that you’ve won it, but in the back of my mind I thought we had a real good shot at the World Championship. My biggest fear or concern is that I’m going to make a mistake or forget something, so there’s that side. But with Freddie and Eddie riding bikes you know they’re capable and that just makes my job that much easier.
Adams: Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer: Which gave you better feedback? You worked so long with Freddie it must have been almost like reading his mind?
Kanemoto: I worked with Freddie so long that I could sense what he was feeling and by the way he rode the bike what was happening. Eddie?obviously has a lot more experience than Freddie now; he understands the bike better. He knew what he wanted we just took it from there. Freddie?you can’t say Freddie didn’t give good feedback because the strong point in Freddie is that in a test or practice session Freddie would go flat out, as fast as he could, race pace for seven or eight laps. Then it was our job to figure out what was going on out there from what Freddie would say.
Adams: You and Eddie started the season under a lot of controversy because of the team change. You must have read about it in the papers or seen one of the T-shirts. Did that bother you or Eddie?
Kanemoto: No, it never bothered us. I knew that was going to be a part of it. Something we would have to work around. The team change and his injuries at the beginning of the year were problems. The injuries were the only thing that bothered me. Especially in Australia where Magee’s bike locked up or whatever and Eddie rammed him; that was a big worry.
Like anything else, if you believe in yourself, then everything will be fine in the end. Eddie’s a real professional and I really don’t think any of it, the team change or his injuries, bothered him that much.
Adams: You and Freddie began working together. What was it like for you to see Freddie become the laughing-stock of the GP world?
Kanemoto: It was disheartening to see, for me. I knew Freddie was making a huge gamble coming back after not being on a motorcycle after being off for so long. The motorcycles now are a lot different than what Freddie rode, they’ve got so much power, the speeds are so high now that I knew it would be difficult for him.
It was difficult to see that happening because Freddie will always be a very close friend to me. What I was afraid of, was, that people would ridicule him and?no matter what anyone says, Freddie won those World Championships. I was always afraid that some of that would be taken away from him. That they wouldn’t remember those years. You can say “what if” all day long but the facts are that Freddie Spencer won three World Championships. That’s the bottom line. I know how hard he worked those years, and I don’t want people to tear down all the good things he did after this season.
Adams: A close friend of Freddie’s told me that he was calling you, asking for a second chance.
Kanemoto: We talked after this season was over and he said that it was difficult for him that he would like to have a chance again, on a Honda I would presume. And ahh.. a little bit I could understand but now with sponsors and not that many bikes available plus the money I just couldn’t do it for him.
Adams: What kind of money does it take to run a top-line Honda GP team, without paying a rider?
Kanemoto: To run a team without paying the riders, you’re looking at over U.S. $2.5 million. It’s a lot more than many people imagine. And that’s for just a one-rider team. For each of your other riders add another $2 million.
Adams: Eddie went to Kenny Roberts’ Marlboro Yamaha team for 1990, how do you feel about it?
Kanemoto: I’m of course disappointed about not being able to work with Eddie next year, but that’s racing. It was an understandable situation. We talked in Brazil about what was going to happen and Eddie mentioned that he’d been talking to Kenny and how we would handle it if we weren’t working together in 1990. The decision wasn’t because he was unhappy or anything, it’s just that Kenny gave him a much better package than I could, and he went with it.
I feel kind of bad because Eddie and I worked very well together and to throw all that away is a shame. It had nothing to do with anyone not appreciating him or not wanting him. In my case especially. I deeply respect Eddie and will always be proud to have worked with him and to be his friend.
Adams: So for 1990, you’ll be teamed with longtime Honda rider Wayne Gardner. How’s his leg?
Kanemoto: Wayne’s leg is good. I saw him last week at the factory and if you didn’t know he’d been hurt you could never tell. His leg is 100 percent again. I saw it at the end of the season and it was real puffy and was far from being healed but I was really surprised when I saw him last week. I was a bit worried about how the thing was progressing; the break was real nasty.
I talked to Dr. Costa and he said it was unlike any road racing injury he’s seen. It was more like a motocross injury where the leg is caught in a rut and then pulled apart. Wayne’s leg was real bad. It rotated when it broke and then splintered. It shattered the bone. So I’m really relieved that his leg is 100 percent again. They were talking that it was going to be a year or so before he could even walk but last week if you didn’t know any better you couldn’t tell it had been injured.
Adams: Wayne Gardner is an incredibly determined rider.
Kanemoto: That’s for sure, for sure! I really feel fortunate being able to work with the people I have. Every one of them worked so hard and were so professional. They’re the same, but too they’re all different. That’s one thing I enjoy about all of this, the people.
This year I’m really looking forward to it because it will be something more I can learn and some new people I can meet.