Moto Mortality: Where Do Old Racebikes Go To Die?

“People will come up to me once in a while and say that they have Eddie Lawson’s 1982 Kawasaki Superbike. I always tell them that’s interesting, because I cut it into pieces & saw it destroyed.” –Norm Bigelow


 

(2008) Looking for an old Suzuki factory race bike? You might try looking in the unlikeliest of places and in a manner you might never have imagined when you began your search: start digging outside the door of Suzuki’s race shop in Japan. According to racing lore, in the mid-1960s, at the end of their usefulness, it was common for Suzuki mechanics to dig a giant hole outside the race shop and push in all the outdated engines and chassis, then cover them up with earth.

Covered with dirt or melted down into a mass of unrecognizable metal, one thing is for sure: they’re gone. As motorcycle racing sets into its second century of racing, there seem to be more pre-1950 factory race bikes available now than factory machines from the last 30-odd years. Why is that? What happened to all the factory Kawasaki Superbikes, the ’70s TR750 Suzukis, or the old Roberts Yamahas? Are they stored away in a closet somewhere or were they simply, and cruelly, destroyed years ago and now only exist in the photo albums and imaginations of enthusiasts?

The majority of those great old machines would seem to be gone. Take, for instance, Kawasaki’s early 1980s Superbikes that won three U.S. Superbike titles in the hands of Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey. While the Kawasaki team fielded several riders most years and those riders each had two bikes, exactly one—and only one—motorcycle survives from that period. The AMA museum has in its clutches Rainey’s 1983 championship-winning GPz750, but the factory KZ1000 S1s from 1982—which were raced in Formula One in 1983—were chopped up and destroyed with the engines sold to Vance & Hines when Kawasaki exited Superbike racing in the US at the end of the 1983 season.

Norm Bigelow, a long-time employee of Kawasaki USA, had the unpleasant duty of destroying all of the 1982 and 1983 Kawasaki Superbikes when Kawasaki pulled out of U.S. Superbike racing at the end of the 1983 season. “People will come up to me once in a while and say that they have Eddie Lawson’s 1982 Kawasaki Superbike. I always tell them that’s interesting, because I cut it into pieces and saw it destroyed. And I have the pictures to prove it.”

And what of those magnificent, Rob Muzzy-built KZ1000-based factory Superbike engines?

“All that stuff went to Terry (Vance)” said Steve Johnson, then Lawson’s mechanic and later a Team Manager at Vance & Hines Yamaha and Muzzy Kawasaki. “I think they used some of them for a drag race program and then they were just sold off.” 1000cc Superbike parts would not be back in vogue for another fifteen years. A simple customer-spec KZ1000 S1 Superbike (the S1 being the actual production Superbike, not the 1982 green Eddie Lawson replica streetbike) can now bring $50,000.

As hard as it may be to believe, and for reasons no enthusiast of the sport can come to terms with, many factory race bikes are simply destroyed at the end of the each season. The factory teams are a secretive bunch and any technical edge or innovation they currently possess is something that they do not want released into non-company hands. Riders, mechanics, and many other team members have to sign non-disclosure agreements and, from the 1980s on, Grand Prix teams began to catalog and track all parts—be they works creations or simply modified production pieces. All of this control means that, in the end, nearly all of the bikes and most of the parts return to the factory. And, if they are not placed in the company museum, they are destroyed.

“Fortunately or unfortunately I’ve had a lot of experience in this,” says Tom Halverson who has been around the motorcycle racing scene for over thirty years. Halverson raced motocross in the mid-1970s but, by 1978, he was a factory mechanic and he worked for the biggest manufacturers in the sport including Can-Am, Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Yamaha. As a motocross mechanic in the late 1970s and 1980s, Halverson saw some seriously incredible true works motocross bikes made by Japan to race in U.S. Motocross. Halverson wrenched on these machines before moving to roadracing and, along the way, he sparked up a friendship with none other than Mr. Honda’s son, Hiro “Mugen” Honda. Halverson worked with Mugen, as well, then he moved to Yamaha’s race department in 1984. He remains there today, and is now Yamaha’s Roadracing Team Manager.

When Kawasaki brought their KR500 GP bike to Laguna in 1997, it drew a crowd. Only one US-spec KR5 remains today.
image by dean adams
Along the way, he’s smashed a few bikes.

“On the fortunate side, the most respectful way for a works bike or even a race bike to die is to be put in a museum. I’m lucky enough to have worked on a few bikes that have gone into museums, either the Yamaha museum or the Barber museum. The unfortunate side is when you have to take them down to the crusher for the junkyard death. They get lifted up by a giant magnet and put into the teeth of a crusher and then are just ripped apart and scattered. And way back when, we had the very crude method of the hammer and torch, which meant we essentially broke them down to small bits by hand. They were then burned.”

Works machines—factory-supported/leased bikes or all-out factory race bikes—especially at the Grand Prix level, feature incredible exotica, from hand-bent exhaust pipes to beautiful carbon fiber bodywork.

“We had hand-formed aluminum fuel tanks, hand-welded frames, and just beautiful hand-built parts,” Halverson remembers from another era. “Taking those bikes down to the crusher was hard; it was almost like taking one of your kids down there. You’d spent so much time with them.”

Halverson breaks his own solace, laughing at an ugly memory in his head: “That’s why they called them “works bikes”, because we worked on them all the time.”

Yoshimura Suzuki is one company with its success in America unequivocally tied to U.S. Superbike racing. Yoshimura, under that name and at times other guises, was there for the infancy of the class and is still there today. Pops Yoshimura, patriarch of the company, built Kawasaki and Suzuki 1000s in the late 1970s that were raced in Superbike all over the United States. Wes Cooley, Ron Pierce, and many others raced Superbikes in the U.S. for Yoshimura when it was merely a support class. Where are those early machines now? Gone, it seems, although some will tell you that all of the real early Yoshimura race bikes are in museums in Japan. Yoshimura has long been a family business and, like most family businesses in a fast-changing environment, artifacts are lost to the effects of time.

“I’ve been trying to keep completed units for many years,” said Don Sakakura, long-standing head of Yoshimura Suzuki’s race department. “I wish that I’d started earlier. We have six or seven bikes at the shop.”

Sakakura and his dark-socks friend work on Wes Cooley’s GS1000 Superbike at Daytona.
image by r. guy
Sakakura indicated that one of the earliest bikes that Yoshimura now has in their collection is Mat Mladin’s 1999 Suzuki GSX-R750, and that all the cool stuff that came before it—the GS1000s, the GS-based F1 bikes, Kevin Schwantz’s GSX-R750, and the rest are all gone—although some are in private hand. He says that with so much outside and family help in the early 1980s—Yoshimura was known as Dale Starr at one point—early bikes and parts are now almost non-existent. “For years, we used equipment for 2-3-4 years and, by the time we were done with it, it was probably pretty worn out. Also, some guys who worked with the team raced, we’d help them out with their own bikes. That’s where a lot of the parts went,” Sakakura explains.

“I’m trying to keep a completed unit from each year now,” he says.

Kawasaki’s Bigelow concurs, saying that the 1982 Kawasaki Superbikes that he chopped up in late 1983 were actually pretty sacked and worn out after Wes Cooley and others raced them in the AMA’s long-since-departed F1 class. “We just ran out of parts in the end, and what was left was pretty loose.”

Both Halverson and Sakakura explain that, when the factories became involved in Superbike racing—and the machines were leased by the U.S. arm from the Japanese’s official racing arm—very few machines remained in the U.S. after the current season ended.

“In the 1990s and even before that, we built our own Superbikes,” Sakakura says. “They started as production motorcycles that we’d then modify the chassis and swingarms. Now, the bikes come from Japan, and a lot of bikes are scrapped or crushed at the end of the season. They do that because of the liability and for secrecy.”

“When I started in this, we had true, one-off factory bikes,” say Halverson. “Now, the Superbikes are leased from the factory, and the bikes are returned at the end of the season and, from there, I really don’t know what happens to them. Some are moth-balled, some are destroyed, I assume.”

Yamaha sells their Supersport and Superstock machines when they’ve finished with them. “We’re lucky enough to be able to sell those bikes to privateers, and it’s nice to see them getting used after we use them,” says Halverson.

Thirty years ago, it was much more common for factory and even factory-supported riders to be given factory machines to race at so-called “international” events like the quasi-Grand Prix at Riccione, or the “Race of the Year” event in England. Mr. Honda gave both Mike Hailwood and Jim Redman several factory bikes in the 1960s. Or you could just buy them: Hailwood’s father, the infamous Stan, bought works Ducati bikes for his son to race while the lad was still working on the assembly line at Meridian (Hailwood was a laborer at Triumph before he raced). The bikes that didn’t return to the factory or weren’t sold off were sometimes just dispersed. Thanks to Dr. T’s ties to the local motorcycle community in Bologna, there were several works bikes and parts in local garages, and not just limited to Rino Carrachi’s.

And don’t even ask about the belt-drive KR250 …
image thanks: Kawasaki
American Honda has a handful of bikes, some 1980s dirt track machines, an ex-Bubba Shobert VFR750, and the Camel Honda RC30 that Ricky Graham rode at Daytona in 1993. They also have a representation of a Mike Baldwin-era CB750/900F Superbike assembled from parts that’s actually not as authentic as CB-Superbikes in private collections. With the exception of a nice supply of VF and VFR parts that are still around, nearly everything else was either returned to Japan or destroyed.

Here in the US, there are a plethora of ’70s two-stroke racers, many said to be bikes from the Kawasaki factory or factory supported team. “I never knew that Gary Nixon rode so many motorcycles,” says Bigelow, possibly inferring not all those bikes were Nixon’s.

Who has what? Former world champion Barry Sheene ended his career with several RG Suzuki models in his shop, Yvon DuHamel is reputed to have a mini-museum full of bikes somewhere in Montreal, and Kenny Roberts has his own small, private museum in development. 1969 250cc champion Kel Carruthers had a 1960s-era Honda racer that he had purchased early in his racing career, and he recently sold it to the Barber museum in Alabama. Michael Doohan has a handful of NSR500s in his possession, Freddie Spencer’s NS250 from his 1985 double-title season resides in a museum in Louisiana, Wayne Rainey has three two YZR500s, and Nicky Hayden has the RC211V that he rode to his MotoGP World Championship.

About two years ago four-time world champion Eddie Lawson received as a gift one of the YZR500s from his tenure at Yamaha. (An interesting note about the bike that Lawson received is that it appeared that Yamaha had—thanks to modern CAD/CAM technology and the foresight to save the machine instructions for twenty years—made new parts to complete his machine.) Lawson’s then-scorned KR500 Kawasaki GP bike, with square four engine and monocoque chassis, sits at Kawasaki’s U.S. headquarters.

Only one of the KR500s raced by Lawson remains intact. Kawasaki’s Bigelow tells how the sole remaining AMA-spec KR500 survived. “At the end of the 1983 season, when Kawasaki dropped out of racing, Kawasaki Japan sent an order over to destroy all the race bikes—the Superbikes, the F1 bikes, and everything else. They had a list of bikes to be destroyed with chassis and engine numbers. As I was rolling them all to the crusher, I noticed that they had forgotten to list one of Eddie’s KR500s. I quickly hid it behind a dyno room and covered it up with a tarp. It was as-raced, a really nice example of a KR500. It sat there for years and, after some time had passed, I brought it out. ‘Look what I found!’ We have it now, and it has been on tour with the Cycle World show. People are really glad to see it.”

The square-four KR500 engine block that Kawasaki donated to the AMA in the 1980s went missing in the 1990s.

Today, a rider has to be very special in order to receive a factory MotoGP bike. The days of just being a rider in the world championship and that being credentials enough for you to buy or receive a one-off factory race bike are behind us. Even being regarded as one of the very best is no longer enough to net a rider a GP bike to keep in his living room for posterity’s sake: In his autobiography, Valentino Rossi wrote bitterly about wanting the NSR500 that he’d won the final 500cc title on, but Honda refused to give it to him.

“I have a ’93 RGV500,” Schwantz says. “It’s the bike that I won my last Grand Prix on that season—at Assen. After I won the title, Suzuki took the bike back and rebuilt it, put it all back to new spec, and then sent it to me.” The bike was on display for years in Schwantz’ house in Austin, but he recently moved and put the bike in his parents’ house.

And sometimes nobody wants them. There are few objects less-admired than a five-year old race bike. In that difficult period between being a sacred hammer of the factory Gods and the neck-snapping “was that an ex-Schwantz 1986 GSX-R750?!”, there is a gestation period when seemingly no one wants an old factory race bike. It’s kind of like the paintings of most famous artists. Their work isn’t admired or valued that much when the artist is alive, but it becomes priceless after the painter has ceased to walk this earth or paint more pictures, as it were.

For the men who work on race bikes, there is occasionally an opportunity for a mechanic to own a factory bike or parts by legal means. And, putting it delicately, some parts just seem to make it out of the race shop and miss the dumpster; workplace pilfering is as alive and well in racing as it is in your office.

Due to the fast-changing nature of racing, at times some machines were pushed further back into the storage area of the shop, then finally shoved outside where they were abandoned. That’s where the TZ700 that Kenny Roberts won the Indy Mile on was discovered and, at that point and without a VIN number, ownership can be pretty much determined by who physically has the bike.

And sometimes not. In 2006, known good guy and ex-Andy Leisner, Wayne Gardner, and Kevin Schwantz mechanic Wilf Needham was found guilty of being in possession of a few of Suzuki factory GP motorcycles—some of them going back to even before he worked in racing. Needham spent time in prison for the offense.

 


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