Remember This? : Doug Polen and Aaron Slight Take Sensational 1994 Suzuka 8 Hours Showdown

Last ever motorcycle race for Eddie Lawson …


Editor’s Note: We lost our friend Tracy Hagen two years ago today. 

Before his battle with cancer, American (and Minnesotan) Tracy Hagen covered the Suzuka 8 Hours for well over a decade.  Simply put he loved the Suzuka 8 Hours. A unabashed workaholic, Hagen usually took the month of July off to visit the Suzuka 8 Hours and write his report.

This is his unedited report from the 1994 Suzuka 8 Hours race. Hagen passed away in 2015.

1986 GSX-R 750

 
(Suzuka, Japan) Coca-Cola Suzuka 8 Hours Suzuka, Japan July 31, 1994

Polen and Slight Take Sensational Suzuka 8 Hours Showdown

Margin of Victory Less Than One Second by Tracy Hagen

Doug Polen and Aaron Slight narrowly won the third round of the FIM World Endurance Championship at the Coca-Cola Suzuka 8 Hours to give Honda its first major race win for the RC45. “The RC45 has been proved to be a winner, and I hope it continues. Thank you very much Honda for a great bike,” exclaimed Slight.

“It was a very good race, all the way through, from the beginning to the end. I think it was the most exciting race, I think it was the best race that Honda has ever had, as far as being able to come from behind and win. We are very happy to be able to do that for Honda, and I’m sure that Honda is very happy to win the race again,” added Polen.

Second place was taken by Scott Russell and Terry Rymer aboard the Itoham-sponsored Kawasaki ZXR750R. The team of Russell and Rymer led the race for 90 out of the 183 completed laps, but lost the lead late in the race. A stirring challenge by Russell on Slight during the final nineteen laps was unsuccessful, with Slight winning the race by a margin of .288 seconds.

“I rode as hard as I could – that was the hardest race of my life,” said Russell. “I’m happy just to finish second. That close, I still kind of feel like I won, almost.”

“It went real good, Scott rode well,” added Rymer, “and the Kawasaki team did great pit stops, it was really impressive. This is my first Suzuka 8 Hours – full race, anyway – and I’m really pleased to finish second. It would have been great to had a win, this is the only endurance race which I haven’t won. I want to come back next year and try to win it, again.”

Third place went to the am/pm sponsored Honda RC45 of Shinichi Itoh and Shinya Takeishi, who also completed 183 laps but were one minute and forty-five seconds back from the Slight versus Russell duel.

Retiring Eddie Lawson and Yasutomo Nagai were fourth, having completed 182 laps on a Yamaha YZF750SP. “(I have) no regrets, I’m very happy with my career, happy to finish it off, all intact, and feeling good,” confided Lawson. Lawson appeared committed to retirement after the race – in Lawson’s last four motorcycle roadraces he has finished first (Daytona ’93), second (Suzuka ’93), third (Daytona ’94), and fourth (Suzuka ’94).

Thomas Stevens and Akira Yanagawa finished in eighth place, four laps down, on a trouble free but not quite fast enough Lucky Strike Suzuki GSX-R750SP.

The fifth and final American at Suzuka was the defending World Endurance champion Doug Toland who teamed with Toshiki Kunimatsu to finish 20th on a stock Honda RC45.

Toland was quick to speak out on the lack of recognition he has received for winning the World Endurance championship, the difficulty in obtaining factory or even decent race bikes, and the amateurism of his Suzuka 8 Hours team. “The preparation of the machine could have been better, they have a lot of room to improve. The first time I stopped, (in the time) they did gas, front and rear wheel change, I was out of my leathers and in my underwear and the bike was still being worked on. So that says it right there. Hopefully next year I’ll come back on a factory bike.”

The only other regular World Endurance Championship rider at Suzuka was Alex Vieira, who rode with Toshiya Kobayashi on a Honda RC45 to finish ninth.

For the Australians, this year’s Suzuka 8 Hours was the worst since 1990. The highest finishing Australian was Shawn Giles, who teamed with Niall MacKenzie on a Yoshimura prepared GSX- R750SP to finish eleventh. Trevor Jordan finished twelfth riding a Kawasaki ZXR750R with Akira Ryo.

The strong Australian team of Peter Goddard and Scott Doohan finished a disappointing 17th, after having to replace parts in the rear suspension of the second Lucky Strike Suzuki that broke while the team was running in the top ten. Doohan was an emergency, and ironic, replacement for Alexandre Barros who suffered a simple leg fracture in the British Grand Prix held the weekend before Suzuka. “Peter rang me up on Monday, and I really appreciate Lucky Strike Suzuki giving me the opportunity to race in the 8 Hours,” explained Doohan. “It’s a good opportunity for me. It came as a big surprise, actually. It took a bit getting here – visas and airline tickets and stuff, but I got here on Wednesday and it’s good to be here.”

Scott’s brother Mick was at Suzuka for promotional work for Honda, but was excused by Honda from this year’s 8 Hours in favor of keeping him focused on the 500cc World Championship.

This year’s Suzuka was the first to be run with motorcycles conforming to World Superbike specifications, rather than the TT- F1 four-stroke Grand Prix “anything goes” type machines of past years. Even though the World Superbikes are heavier than the TT- F1 bikes, and have stock carburetors, Scott Russell bettered Mick Doohan’s pole qualifying time from 1993 with a time of 2:11.691 versus 2:12.011. Russell also ran a better race fastest lap of 2:11.026, versus Doohan’s 2:13.883 from 1993.

Also new for Suzuka was the introduction of a controversial qualifying system. In place of the traditional Saturday afternoon 4 Hours support race, the Suzuka Circuit staged a special one lap challenge for the top forty teams from the regular marathon qualifying sessions. Each of the forty fastest teams were required to send out their best rider for one warm up lap, and then an attack lap, followed by a cool down lap. The times from the attack lap would determine the order for the Le Mans style start on Sunday. Teams that did not complete their attack laps were gridded by their qualifying times, and teams that were outside the top forty were required to take part in a ten lap last chance qualifying race for the final twenty-six starting positions.

The criticism leveled against the “Special Stage” centered on the fear that changing weather or track conditions could prevent a rider from setting a time that is truly reflective of his ability. As it turned out, it rained during the Saturday morning final timed practice session, but the sky cleared by later in the morning and from then on the weather held steady albeit hot, 95 oF with 64 relative humidity. And no one dropped oil during the Special Stage.

Scott Russell, the final rider in the Special Stage due to having the lowest lap time from the other timed qualifying sessions, turned in the fastest Special Stage time also. Russell completed his attack lap in 2:11.924, slightly higher than his best qualifying time of 2:11.691 from Friday morning. “I went out of the pits hard, I said, ‘I got to get my brain up to speed, ’cause I hadn’t gone fast all day, I got to bust this first (warm-up) lap,’ to try and get going. I was nervous – I never been that nervous for that long – waiting and watching. It gets you going. some people can’t handle the pressure and throw it away. I just walked up, got on the bike, and took off. They didn’t tell me anything. I don’t even know (what the fuel load was), I swear I don’t. The front tire was already scuffed, Terry scuffed in the front this morning, and the rear was brand new. (The track was) perfect – it never felt as good as that one lap. I had gone quicker, though, I’m pretty disappointed that I didn’t go a lot faster than that, but it really doesn’t matter – I’m quicker than everybody else.”

When it was suggested that Russell’s Dunlops were an advantage over Michelin due to the shorter time to reach optimum temperature, Russell replied, “(I was on) race tires. We were hoping that the Michelins (wouldn’t come in), but actually Takeishi, the guy that got second, was on Michelins too, so, really, that doesn’t hold much water, does it?”

While Russell was on his warm-up lap, the second fastest rider from timed practice, Toru Ukawa, was on his attack lap aboard one of the full factory supported Honda RC45s. Ukawa, who was nearly a half second faster to the Bridgestone bridge than Russell, lost control coming out of Spoon Curve and crashed in the gravel trap. Ukawa knelt down and repeatedly pounded both fists in the sand. Ukawa and his teammate, 250cc GP title contender Tadayuki Okada, would start the 8 Hours from 38th position on a motorcycle that would be completely re-built during the evening, but fortunately suffered no frame, swingarm, or fork damage in the fall.

The only other faller during the Special Stage was Soichi Tsukamoto on the second factory Kawasaki ZXR750R. Tsukamoto nearly crashed going through Dunlop Curve, and then later lost the front in the sweeping right that leads up to the hairpin. Tsukamoto was uninjured, but his fall would mean that him and his teammate Keichi Kitagawa would start from 39th position (the 40th position was taken by a private Japanese Yamaha team that broke down during the Special Stage).

Second fastest Takeishi completed the Special Stage attack lap in 2:12.614 to earn the second starting position, an improvement over his fifth fastest overall timed practice ranking.

Third fastest in the Special Stage was Aaron Slight, who was considered the B rider on the team but was consistently faster than A rider Polen during the timed practice. Slight, running tires that were receiving personal attention from Dunlop’s David Watkins (as was Russell), turned in a Special Stage attack lap of 2:12.831, which was more than a half second slower than his best timed practice lap of 2:12.307. “(The Special Stage) is good for television, but it sucks. Pretty silly, I think,” Slight said afterwards. “I’m surprised at how many (riders) didn’t crash. (It’s) just a lot of added work and aggravation for everybody, I think. After all that qualifying, qualifying, qualifying, and then you start from 38th and work up – so I don’t think it’s a good idea. It was not too bad when you’re watching the slower riders, (but not so) when you see the fast guys and how hard they are trying.”

During the Special Stage Slight, like Russell, used a little softer rear tire than what he would race on later, but the same front tire. When asked if the Michelin riders were at a disadvantage over having a longer warm-up time, Polen and Slight offered contrasting opinions. “That’s been a characteristic (of Michelins), always,” said Polen. “But then again,” countered Slight, “a Michelin at any other circuits, two laps is enough. (Suzuka) is a long ways around. I figured that the Dunlop would be better, but I don’t think three laps (are needed) here (to warm-up a Michelin), that’s a long ways. Eighteen kilometers on a rear tire before it warms up? That’s a bit much.”

Fourth fastest in the Special Stage was Norihiko Fujiwara on a Yamaha YZF750SP, again on Dunlops, who was power sliding the rear end through the S-Curve to post an attack lap time of 2:12.976, nearly a full second of his best timed practice lap.

Fifth fastest was the RC45 of Daijiro Kato, an eighteen year old who had his first motorcycle race in 1992. Kato was selected to join Satoshi Tsujimoto, who co-rode with Lawson to second place in last year’s 8 Hours, after Norifume Abe abruptly left earlier in July to join Wayne Rainey’s GP team. Kato’s smooth and flawless 2:13.411 attack lap vaulted the team from their tenth fastest ranking in timed practice.

Akira Yanagawa was sixth fastest at 2:13.415, only slightly slower than his 2:13.290 from timed practice – a surprisingly good result for the Suzuki GSX-R750SP that he and Thomas Stevens worked hard to set-up. “The first thing was concentrating on the settings, trying to find a mid-way point,” stated Yanagawa. “Originally we thought the similarities in our physiques, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get the settings right. But, as we found out later, the eleven kilogram difference in weight between us caused more problem that we expected. By the last timed practice qualifying session we were able to reach a pretty decent mid-point on settings between us, and we were pretty happy with it. But this morning, with the Special Stage in mind, we went back to my settings. When I woke up this morning I was a little surprised to find it raining, but I went out and did the best I could. Yeah, it was a little difficult, but I was able to do well. When I went to the afternoon Special Stage session, it was quite tense waiting and watching. Maybe watching was a lot of fun (for the spectators), but being out there and waiting to take your turn wasn’t very much fun. The two things on my mind were to get the best time and not to fall. I’m pleased with the results to a certain extent, however I didn’t surpass my previous time – but that’s better than falling.”

Seventh fastest was Takuma Aoki, the younger – and faster – brother of 250cc GP racer Nobuatsu Aoki, on the Cup Noodle Honda factory works RC45. Takuma power slid the Honda through the left hand Dunlop Curve, and leaned over so far through the right hand Degner Curve that sparks were spraying off the brake pedal in route to his attack lap time of 2:14.420, one second back from Yanagawa. Coincidentally, the Aoki brothers were seventh fastest overall in timed practice.

The Yoshimura Suzuki of Shawn Giles was eighth fastest in the Special Stage at 2:14.833, nearly matching his best lap from timed practice at 2:14.770.

Ninth fastest was the Kawasaki ZXR750R of Tomonari Kimura, teammate of Yoshinobu Takahashi, at 2:14.922.

The Moriwaki Honda RC45 of Shunji Yatsushiro took the tenth spot in the Special Stage with an attack lap time of 2:14.935. Yatsushiro’s teammate was Shuya Arai, and their Moriwaki Honda featured few of the trick bits seen on past Moriwaki Zero VX-7s. Such trick bits always made the Moriwaki bikes interesting to look at, but never really seemed to offer an advantage over the HRC kit parts.

Peter Goddard – who was one of the most public critics of the Special Stage qualifying session – was eleventh fastest at 2:14.983 riding the Michelin shod Lucky Strike Suzuki. “It was really pretty stupid – that qualifying session – because, you know, a Michelin tire is just not ready. On the third lap it’s about at its prime. Even the Dunlops, but the Dunlops seem to just come in a bit quicker. (The rear tire) would struggle to do an hour, but it’s not a qualifying tire by no means, it’s a race tire. I think you could race on a tire like that on a 500, but on a superbike being heavier, it’s just a little bit soft. I didn’t want to do anything silly – it felt to me like I did a fifteen flat, I did 14.98, so I’m happy with that.”

Eddie Lawson, who was sixth fastest in timed practice, finished thirteenth in the Special Stage after nearly crashing in Dunlop Curve. “I think the (Special Stage) probably makes for a better show, but, at the same time, it’s pretty risky that you go out and you’re under that kind of pressure to do a decent lap and maybe – you know, there were a couple guys that went down. (I’ve done this) many times in dirt track, but not in roadracing. The (rear) tire didn’t come in as quickly as I thought it would. I thought it would come in quicker. That’s why I went with a brand new tire, a normal race tire. In practice, normally, a lap and it’s good. But it caught me off that one time. It didn’t feel as big as when I watched it (on video), yeah, it looked like, ‘Jesus! That was a big one!’ But, actually, it didn’t feel quite as bad, but I knew that it cost me all kinds of time, and I just rode it out the rest of the lap. It didn’t feel like that quick of a lap, I was still being a little cautious about the tires. We figured a brand new (rear) tire would be okay. (Through Dunlop Curve) I was on the throttle. It slipped so far that – there’s a point where you can stay in the throttle and ride it out, hopefully bring it back, but it slipped out so far (that) I had to back off, and then it gripped real hard. That’s what caused that big slide. I thought if I stayed in the throttle at that point, when it’s that far out, it probably would have spun out.”

The Honda RC45 of Toland and Kunimatsu missed the cut to participate in the Special Stage, and were required to run what Toland called “The Race of Shame” ten lap Last Chance Qualifier to determine the final twenty-six starting positions. This was a rather fitting name, as, coincidentally, there were just twenty- six starters…..

The muggy Sunday morning free practice saw the Aoki brothers, the Okada/Ukawa, and the Tsujimoto/Kato Hondas setting the three fastest times, followed by the Lawson/Nagai and Fujiwara/Yoshikawa Yamahas. Ironically, all five of these teams were to meet up with disaster early into the race.

The muggy weather – 89 oF with 72 humidity – continued right up to the 11:30am LeMans style start. At the three second mark the riders ran across the track, with Takuma Aoki was first away, followed by Kato, Takeishi, and Fujiwara. Fujiwara went into third at the hairpin as the front running bikes raced in tight formation. Takeishi passed Fujiwara and then Kato going into Spoon Curve, only to run wide and be re-passed twice to drop back to fourth.

Aoki led the first lap with a time of 2:19.399 – not bad considering the Le Mans start with dead engines. Fujiwara was second, Kato third, Takeishi fourth, Nagai fifth (Lawson electing to send his Japanese teammate out first), Shuya Arai sixth, Slight seventh, Russell eighth, Noriyuki Haga (Yamaha) ninth, and Goddard tenth. Ukawa, who started 38th, was up to fourteenth and rapidly closing in on the other factory bikes.

Fujiwara passed Aoki at Degner Curve on the second lap, but was re-passed by Aoki going into Turn 1 at the beginning of lap 3. Similar passing and re-passing was going on by the other factory supported Japanese riders, while Slight and Russell stayed a safe distance away from the chaos up front.

Takeishi made another one of his big passing moves going into Spoon Curve, again, on lap 4, only this time running off course into the gravel trap and lucky not to fall over. This cost Takeishi thirty seconds in track time from the leaders, and even though Takeishi and Itoh were able to stay on the lead lap for the rest of the race, they never made up this lost time.

Nagai moved up to third by lap 6, trailing Aoki then Fujiwara. Behind Nagai were Kato, Slight, Russell, and Ukawa, now up to seventh. Arai was eighth, followed by the semi-factory supported RC45 ridden by Kenichiro Iwahashi (a third place finisher in the ’91 8 Hours, and teamed with Nobuatsu and Takuma Aokis’ younger brother, eighteen year old Haruchika). Goddard remained in tenth.

Slight passed Kato, and Ukawa passed Russell on lap 7. Ukawa then turned in a time of 2:12.469 on lap 8 to pass Slight and Kato. After eight laps the top ten running order was Aoki, Fujiwara, Nagai, Ukawa, Slight, Russell, Arai, Iwahashi, and Goddard.

The slowest of the backmarkers were caught on lap 9, and Ukawa caught Nagai as well to claim third position. With just three- quarters of a second covering the first four bikes, the race resembled a helter-skelter 125cc or 250cc Grand Prix.

“It’s crazy, man,” said a disgusted Slight about the frenzied riding by the lead Japanese riders. “This is an eight hour race!”

Ukawa made his first strike at the lead with a drafting pass down the back straight on lap 10, but was re-passed by Fujiwara before the chicane. The two riders continued to trade passes as the race charged into the accident filled lap 12.

First of the fallers on lap 12 was Nagai, who slid out on at Dunlop Curve with the Lawson swan-song Yamaha rolling over once or twice. Nagai, with the help of the corner workers, picked up the now scruffy Yamaha and fired the engine back up – literally, with orange flames shooting out the exhaust. Fortunately Nagai was near the short course cross-over point (the long circuit at Suzuka is used for the 8 Hours and other races, but two short loops are also provided via cross-over sections), where Nagai was able to take a short cut back to the pits for repairs.

Meanwhile, as the leaders charged out of the hairpin and down to the ultra-fast sweeping right turn to Spoon Curve they encountered the oil slick left by the Yamaha of backmarker Takeshi Shishido. Shishido’s engine blew on lap eleven, only a dozen or so seconds ahead of the fast and furious leaders. Shishido and his bike slid into the foam cushions and caught fire, starting a massive chain reaction crash and burn.

While the Shishido bike burned, Ukawa, Fujiwara, and Kato all fell and slid into the impact zone, as did backmarkers Akio Mitoma (RC45) and Masataka Hayashi (YZF750SP). The fuel tank of the Kato RC45 works Honda was ruptured in the fall, causing the impact zone to become engulfed in flames, intense heat, and blinding, billowing, black and gray smoke from the out of control raging fire.

The race was instantly red-flagged.

Despite the incident’s horrific appearance, the only serious injury reported by the Suzuka Circuit’s spokesperson was the broken eighth cervical vertebrae of Kato, who was air lifted out of the circuit. Kato was reported to have suffered no nerve damage, and will be released from the hospital within three weeks.

The Shishido Yamaha and Tsujimoto/Kato factory Honda were lost in the fire.

“When I came out of Degner,” explained Goddard during the red flag break, “I could see the smoke, that there was a big crash and burn over there. I went around pretty slow, and we all slowed down. I didn’t see the oil, but (course marshall) cars where everywhere.”

“They red flagged it when they had to, there was too much oil to race on like that,” said Russell later. “It was unfortunate that the other guys got taken out – that’s the way it goes. We were just lucky to miss the oil and stay up on two wheels. I hope nobody was really hurt in that. (The red flag) was a good move. (The accident) was kind of a shame because it would have been a record breaking race by far, as far as the time goes.”

“I think it was very good that they red flagged (the race),” added Polen, “because everyone is under a lot of pressure not to stop a race like this just because it is so important and live on television. It’s very important for the safety of everyone involved, and I’m really glad that the Suzuka Circuit people really bit down and said we must stop this race. I was glad to see that happen just because it was a very, very serious situation. I’m just glad that it ended without anybody getting seriously, seriously hurt.”

In the previous fifteen Suzuka 8 Hours, only once has the red flag been brought out, that being in 1982 when heavy rainfall caused the race to be halted after six hours.

Due to the rarity of red flags at Suzuka, combined with the difficulty in understanding Japanese, a degree of confusion faced the non-Japanese in attendance. At first the Suzuka Circuit had all the race bikes parked ten meters in front of their pits, later the Suzuka Circuit officials allowed the bikes to be brought up to the garages for re-fueling and new tires.

The biggest benefactor by the red flag was the Lawson/Nagai team, as the official scoring reverted back to lap 11, which expunged the Nagai crash and short-cut back to the pits. Ironically, the Nagai crash at Dunlop Curve saved him from possibly worse damage, for had Nagai continued on lap 12 he could have just as easily fallen the same oil that took out three out of the first five riders.

“I think we were real lucky to get back in it, he was trying hard,” praised Lawson. “The seat was bent down a little (in the fall), no big deal. The handlebars were a little tweaked, but it wasn’t really a problem.”

The Fujiwara Yamaha and the Ukawa Honda were brought in on the crash truck. Both teams were able to make repairs by the re- start the race, although they missed their re-start sighting laps and were each assessed two lap penalties. Reserve rider Sadanori Hikita substituted for Ukawa.

Prior to the race, the Ukawa Honda had been fitted with two “lipstick tube” CCD video cameras – one pointed out the front, the other out the rear. During the red flag the circuit replayed the video recorded from these cameras on the six jumbo screen television monitors around the circuit. The 102,000 spectators all gasped in unison as they saw, first hand, what it is like to crash at high speed.

After a one hour delay the race was resumed with a LeMans style start, with teams lined up in the order at the completion of eleven laps.

The race was officially scored on aggregate time, but the hourly results given out by Timing and Scoring were for the second leg only (although the video monitors were on the aggregate time). Since only eleven laps had officially been completed, the running order was nearly serial from fastest to slowest – except for the am/pm Honda of Itoh and Takeishi, which ran off at Spoon Curve on lap 4 but was now in a position to run with the other factory riders, having worked their way to fourteenth by lap 11. Thus even though the am/pm Honda led many laps during the second leg, their true position was thirty seconds or so behind themselves.

Further confusing was the announcement by race officials that the race was to be stopped by a red flag at 7:30pm, rather than by a checkered flag, per Article 50.0 of the FIM Sporting Code: “STOPPING OF A MEETING shall be applied in consideration of the reasons “force majeure” such as acceptance of spectators and environmental effects on the ambient areas, and the final race is completed by indicating the red flag to the leading motorcycle after 19:30 has passed. The classification shall be the order at the end of the lap preceding the stop of the race.”

Got that?

Takuma Aoki led the re-start, again, followed by the Honda RC45s of Iwahashi and Kobayashi. Nagai followed Aoki across the start finish line to complete the first lap of the re-start, or, in other words, lap 12 of the race. Slight was third, Russell fourth, Fujiwara fifth, Arai sixth, Yanagawa seventh, Iwahashi eighth, Kobayashi ninth, and Toshiharu Kawada (Yamaha) tenth.

Fujiwara and then Yoshiteru Konishi (Honda) both crashed in the fast sweeping right turn between the Bridgestone bridge and the hairpin on the following lap. Race officials, worried that another chain reaction had started, prepared to show the red flag again, but fortunately the situation was far less serious than before.

Nagai turned in a lap of 2:14.448 to pull up with one second to Aoki by the end of lap 13, with Yanagawa passing Arai to take over fifth.

Over the next couple laps Slight and Russell were also running laps in the low 14’s. On lap 16 Russell passed Slight in the Spoon Curve, but was immediately re-passed by Slight.

On lap 18 Slight set the fastest race lap time thus far of 2:13.662 in an effort to pull away from Russell and keep close, but not too close, with the leaders. “I just didn’t want to get involved with Japanese riders, it’s not worth it,” commented Slight later.

On lap 19 Russell picked up the pace as well, turning in a 2:13.662 lap tighten up the spread across the first four riders. The am/pm Honda was technically in seventh position, but on track position rider Takeishi was between Nagai and Slight, which improved the show for the spectators.

Nagai took the lead from Aoki on lap 22, when Aoki took to the pits. Reason? Forgot to top off the fuel tank during the red flag. The Honda of Hikita had to pit the lap before for the same reason. Their Honda was carrying many penalty laps, and they raced on not with pretensions of winning, but to avoid being labeled quitters.

Nagai led up to lap 28, with Slight second but occasionally making a move on Nagai at places such as the hairpin, only to be quickly re-passed. Russell was third, and Takeishi fourth (although he was the lead bike by 4.5 seconds). Nobuatsu Aoki was fifth, Iwahashi sixth, Arai seventh, Tsukamoto eighth, Goddard ninth, and Michio Izumi (Kawasaki) tenth.

The lead swapping between Nagai and Slight was occurring at all points around the circuit on laps 29 through 33, when Nagai rolled into the pits to hand-off to Lawson. A lap later Slight and Takeishi pitted to exchange bikes to Polen and Itoh, respectively, and an additional lap later Russell pitted to allow Rymer to take over.

“At the end of that session we chunked a rear tire, (I was) trying to make it to the finish, sliding around really bad,” said Slight. “After that we changed the tire (selection) – it wasn’t as quick, but at least it would last no problem.”

After completion of the pit stops the Cup Noodle Honda of Aoki found itself back in the official lead. Polen was second, Rymer third, Lawson fourth, Itoh fifth (but ahead of Aoki on the track), Kitagawa (Tsukamoto’s teammate) sixth, Haruchika Aoki seventh, Yatsushiro eighth, Vieira ninth, and Scott Doohan was tenth.

Back in the field, Scott Doohan narrowly escaped being taken out when Masanari Hirayama on a Yamaha was following a group of much faster riders down the front straight, and tried to use the faster riders’ brake markers. Hirayama failed to slow down enough to avoid colliding into the rear of the RC45 of Jun Maeda. Maeda was lucky to re-gain control of his motorcycle after having the rear wheel deflected into the air, but Hirayama fell and slid off into the gravel trap. “I just seen this guy just get hooked up and taken out in Turn 1, man, pretty big and right in front of me,” exclaimed Doohan. “This guy got hooked up on the back of another guy’s bike, and I go, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’ I didn’t know what was going on there. He (Hirayama) was skidding along the ground, and I just went on the inside of him.”

The RC45 of Okada, while several laps down in 45th place, was at least going for the fastest lap of the race award by turning in a time of 2:13.223 on lap 43. Okada made up one of his laps on lap 46 by passing all the lead bikes, only to draw a lot of head scratching when he pitted on the following lap and their team executed a take-your-time pit stop…..

Aoki pitted on lap 47, giving the lead to Polen. The Aoki crew fought to insert the front axle after the wheel change left the front wheel cocked. The front forks of the works RC45s now feature discrete front axle shafts that are inserted from the right side as on the factory Kawasakis, rather than the dedicated front axles that are captivated in the front wheel per the previous HRC RVF works racers. It will be interesting to see what Honda will do in this area for next year…..

Polen held the lead over Rymer up to the next set of scheduled pit stops. Lawson picked up third for four laps after Aoki pitted, but then lost third place when Itoh was far enough ahead of Lawson on lap 54 own third place on aggregate time.

The three lead bikes – Polen, Rymer, Itoh (although Itoh was ahead of Polen on the track) – all took to the pits on lap 61. Ironically, all three teams were also pitted practically next to each other, first being the Itoham Kawasaki pit, then the am/pm Honda pit, then the Polen/Slight pit, with the Okada pit being between the am/pm and Polen/Slight pits. Polen was the last to find his pit, being the furthest down and temporarily obstructed from view.

“The Kawasaki guys were stood out there, I mean, they had a bloody big old (pit board) out there,” griped Adrian Gorst, Aaron Slight’s chief mechanic. “And then Itoh came in, at the same time, and we were third in a row. We made a balls up on the second pit stop.”

What Gorst referred to was not so much Doug Polen over-shooting his pit, rather a potentially race ending re-fueling pit accident was narrowly avoided.

“(Aaron) had his visor open, talking to Doug,” explained Harvey Beltran, Doug Polen’s chief mechanic and fuel man for the team, “and (Aaron) was down like this, and then (fuel) just flew up in his face a bit (at top off). He was telling Doug, ‘get back on, I can’t see, I can’t see!’ but (no race officials) heard that.”

“We were talking about the bike between us and I had my visor open, and fuel went straight up in my eyes and I couldn’t see for, I don’t know, about 100 blinks,” confirmed Slight. “I said, ‘Doug, get back on, get back on,’ and it came right. For about four laps it was just a burning, burning, burning, then it came around.”

Russell rocketed out of the pits well ahead of Slight, and two laps later turned in a lap time of 2:13.544 in effort to pad the lead.

Slight was able to settle into second place by lap 70 after his vision cleared, Takeishi was third on aggregate time (but, again, first on the track), Aoki fourth, Nagai fifth, Tsukamoto sixth, Iwahashi seventh (one lap down), Yatsushiro eighth, Yanagawa ninth, and Vieira tenth.

Russell and Slight kept the pace in the low thirteen’s, and then the high twelve’s, but the interval between them remained a steady ten to twelve seconds.

The blitzkrieg pace of Russell and Slight meant that they were making ground on Takeishi, who was ahead of them on the track but third on aggregate time. Once Russell caught sight of Takeishi, Russell wicked it up to catch Takeishi at the Spoon Curve and pass him down the back straight on lap 75. Russell was credited with an amazing lap time of 2:11.026 – fastest of the race, and only fractionally higher than Abe’s Superbike track record of 2:10.962.

Takeishi drafted past Russell down the front straight at the start of lap 76, but Russell passed Takeishi going into Spoon Curve, and successfully held position all the way through the lap.

This intense dogfight brought the pair up to the trailing Okada, on the fastest factory RC45 of all. Okada helped set-up a draft pass on Russell by Takeishi down the front straight at the start of lap 79. To help Takeishi get away, Okada passed Russell going into the chicane later in the same lap, and then Okada rolled through the chicane at a nice, safe pace.

This left Russell, now spitting fire, right on Okada’s back wheel for a the run down the front straight to start lap 80. Russell won the braking contest into Turn 1 and went around Okada. Through the S-curves Russell sat up, turned around, looked back at Okada, and gave him the middle finger salute.

Okada eased off for the next three laps, but not entirely, as he continued to breath on Russell, waiting for him to make an unforced error that would allow Okada to make a legitimate pass rather than a forced one.

Okada tried to draft past Russell down the front straight at the start of lap 84, but backed off when Russell moved over on Okada and forced him onto the white line at 260 kph. Okada seemed to carry a new found respect for Russell after this, and called off the assault. Ironically, the fast pace that Okada forced Russell into may have helped him pull away from eventual race winner Slight.

In the meantime, while this drama unfolded, fourth place Nobuatsu Aoki highsided the Cup Noodle Honda at the chicane on lap 82. Fortunately it is all downhill to the pits from there, and Aoki was able to roll the now shabby bike back to the garage for repairs.

“(The rear tire) sliding suddenly – I couldn’t hold it anymore, so then I crash,” said Aoki. “(I hurt my right) shoulder. I crash in Mugello (during Italian GP), and broken shoulder. But this time, I didn’t do broken.”

Russell pitted on lap 87, and one lap later the Hondas of Slight and Takeishi also pitted. The race was now entering the second half, with Rymer, Polen, and Itoh running at the front.

Rymer held a 10.25 second advantage over Polen on lap 90, and a 26.68 second advantage on Itoh (which meant that Itoh was only about one to two seconds ahead of Rymer on the track). Lawson was fourth, Kitagawa fifth, Haruchika Aoki sixth, Arai seventh, Vieira eighth, Stevens ninth, and Doohan was tenth.

Polen knocked about four seconds out of Rymer’s lead by lap 100, while Rymer was putting in a superb ride to catch Honda’s homegrown GP rider, Shinichi Itoh. Rymer eventually passed Itoh by diving inside at the hairpin on lap 104, and Itoh never countered back.

On lap 111 Scott Doohan pitted the Lucky Strike Suzuki for a lengthy stop to replace the broken rear suspension linkage. “The footpegs were dragging on the ground like a chopper,” stated Goddard later. The repairs caused the team to go down four laps.

On lap 112 the Yoshimura Suzuki of Yukio Nukumi went wobbling slowly down the front straight, and then high-sided Nukumi at low speed in Turn 2 exit. Speculation that an error during the pit stop three laps earlier was the cause. “You know, somehow the bike not set-up for him,” said Fujio Yoshimura. “He was worried that he might have a loose wheel or something, he was looking back. I think that was what happened, and in the (S-curve) he fall down.”

Meanwhile, Polen continued to whittle away at Rymer’s lead by a half second per lap, and pulled even when scheduled pit stops started, first for Rymer on lap 112 and then Polen on lap 113. Itoh pitted on lap 115, a stop where their team spilled a large volume of fuel, and were lucky to escape the worse case scenario.

Again, the Kawasaki pit stop went quicker than the Honda, but the Polen/Slight Honda crew were improving every time. Russell held a ten second advantage over Slight on lap 120, which Russell was able to maintain at will during his session.

“I was trying very, very hard,” remarked Slight afterwards. “I tried and tried, but I wasn’t opening and I wasn’t closing. I just hoped that Doug (would be) faster than Terry.”

Between Russell and Slight were the RC45s of Takuma Aoki (now back in the race after a lengthy repair stop), Iwahashi, and Hikita (Ukawa’s replacement), and immediately behind Slight was the RC45 of Takeishi. In his previous ride Russell had to deal with two RC45s that wanted his track position, now with five RC45s within ten seconds of Russell the situation looked hopeless. However, the three RC45s of Aoki, Iwahashi, and Hikita made no ground on Russell, and, if anything, were getting in the way of Slight.

By lap 130 Russell had a 11.2 second lead over Slight, with Takeishi third, Nagai fourth, Tsukamoto fifth, Yatsushiro sixth and Haruchika Aoki seventh (one lap down, and having their own contest for position), Stevens eighth, Vieira ninth, and Giles was tenth.

Russell retired to the pits on lap 139, with Rymer quickly back on the track. Slight pitted on the next lap, and Takeishi pitted on lap 140.

Better pit work by the Polen/Slight team had Polen down just five seconds from Rymer. Now the Honda team was getting serious about taking command of the race from the Itoham Kawasaki, and Polen was encouraged by his team to put all he had into his ride. “We called Doug and told him he was doing a short stint, and he rode his ass off,” said Gorst. “He was turning twelve’s out there and smoking it, and got us back into the lead – then we stuck Aaron on for the final hour. It was a tactical decision, I think we made the right one.”

Reserve Honda rider Steve Hislop was playing the role of coach. “I said, ‘Doug, you’ve got to get yourself to Terry, go for it, fella!’ It must have wound him up. (And) I was reaming him up for missing his pit (earlier).”

Polen’s two-twelve lap times were his best of the weekend, his best of all – 2:12.295 – coming on lap 157, as he stretched out a lead he earned when he overtook Rymer on the backstraight during lap 155. Polen continued to charge on lap 158, sliding the rear wheel through Degner Curve and the chicane. “I knew that we needed to get as close as we could, and to get out front,” stated Polen. “I had a brand new tire that was scrubbed, and the compound we were using takes about half a lap to get good. It was really a bad situation on that first lap, thinking that I’m going into Turn 1 and this thing is going to be all over. It was not that bad. Then I went a few turns and it was getting better, and things went pretty good after that. Terry went by and he was able to pull away, while I was still scrubbing, working (the tire) in. And then I was able to step up the pace and catch Terry, and, in the end, open up a gap.”

On lap 159, with the sun setting on Suzuka, fourth place Lawson pitted, now one lap down, and stepped off a roadracing motorcycle for the last time. “I just kind of struggled, and – I don’t know why, but we did. Tires were great. It just felt like the bike was real good the first few laps, and then – I don’t know if the suspension went off or what happened, exactly, but it was a little unstable. I thought we had a good chance (to win), but those guys were tough today, they rode really well.”

Then, after twenty laps, Polen was called back into the pits, in a calculated move by his crew to have the faster Slight on the bike for as long as possible at the very end.

Slight’s first lap, number 161, was completed 31.575 seconds behind Rymer. Immediately Slight attacked, dropping the interval to 30.789 and then 30.487 seconds over the next two laps.

Rymer pitted on lap 164 to hand off to Russell to start the most intense final hour of racing the 8 Hours was ever witnessed.

The Itoham Kawasaki was fueled up and fitted with new tires in 13.8 seconds (FIM Endurance rules prohibit tires changes or other work on the motorcycle during re-fueling, hence the longer pit stop time), and Russell entered the track just ahead of Slight. Slight quickly passed Russell in the S-curve, as Russell’s tires were not yet up to temperature. Slight lead across the Start/Finish line 1.828 seconds ahead of Russell on lap 165, but by only 1.023 seconds on the following lap as Russell started a gun and run drive for the lead on the now darkening circuit.

Lap 167 saw Russell close up within one to two bike lengths of Slight. Russell dragged his knee in the dirt at Dunlop Curve, sprayed sparks off the brake pedal at Degner, and, quite literally, ran into the back of Slight exiting the Spoon Curve. Slight and Russell bobbled momentarily, and then charged down the back straightaway to run to the Start/Finish line with the interval now at .368 seconds.

Russell rode bit tidier on the following lap, and tried to out- brake Slight going into the chicane. The two nearly collided, but Slight prevailed to lead across the line again, this time by .522 seconds.

The interval closed up again on the following lap, down to .231 seconds, as both riders kept their lap times in the low to mid twelve’s.

Russell kept a steady pressure on Slight over the following laps, never forcing a pass, but ready to seize the opportunity if Slight made one bad move or was balked on traffic. Russell was so close to Slight in the corners that light from Russell’s headlamp was often hitting the tarmac ahead of Slight. Unfortunately for Russell, this gave away his position and prevented a surprise pass from being executed.

“I didn’t know where he was,” said Slight later, “but every time the headlight would come in the side. I knew he was there and I just kept going wider and wider, trying to make the track as wide as possible. He was behind so he could see the track – I couldn’t see (and) I was trying to cover him, so I was going wide to cover him. It’s no problem when you’re following behind in the dark, but to lead it’s pretty hard. A couple of times he’d come up the side, and I don’t think he actually could see the corners to carry out the move.”

On lap 172 the fight for first carried Slight and Russell up to the Yoshimura Suzuki of Giles on the run up to the hairpin. Giles, like all other backmarkers encountered, was passed as if he was a farm tractor on the race track.

“They were pretty hard at it, I thought Aaron and Scott would go around on the left hand side,” recalled Giles. “Aaron gave me the biggest scare of my life, he was up the right hand side going ‘ohhhhHHHHH!’ Bit hair raising. I was glad I didn’t get in their way – that was the last thing I wanted to do was get in their way or cause any of them to have an accident or anything.”

More encounters with backmarkers on the following lap allowed Slight to open up the lead on Russell to 1.054 seconds. Russell incrementally closed up on the following lap to trail by just .718 seconds.

The next lap, number 175, saw Russell use a draft pass and outbraking maneuver on Slight down the backstraight to take the lead in corner 130R, the moderate speed, 90o left hand turn between the back straight and the chicane. Russell led Slight up to the chicane, where Slight outbraked Russell to re-take the lead and complete the lap .325 seconds ahead of Russell.

“I could hear him coming and he was beside me for a long time on the straight, and on the inside line,” remembered Slight. “I got on the gas a lot better out of the 130R, and he braked very early for the chicane.”

Russell stayed close but did not pass on the following lap, which saw virtually no change in the interval between first and second.

Clumps of backmarkers worked to Slight’s advantage over the next two laps to allow Slight to gain his biggest advantage, an interval of 1.509 seconds on lap 178, in this climatic final hour.

To spice up the nail-biting drama, sparks started flying off Slight’s Honda on lap 179 as if the chain was slapping on the swingarm or exhausts. Russell meanwhile was closing up the gap again, now down to 1.022 seconds.

As Slight and Russell completed lap 179, the giant digital clock at Start/Finish showed only ten minutes remained.

Backmarkers at the hairpin and Spoon Curve allowed Russell to reel Slight in slightly on lap 180, with interval now down to .697 seconds, and eight minutes being displayed at Start/Finish.

Slight power-slid the Honda through the S-curve on lap 181 to try and accelerate away from Russell, but instead Russell closed up on Slight. Russell pulled up along side of Slight going into Degner Curve, but backed off, and another attempt at a pass while braking into the 130R corner was less successful than the effort from lap 175. Still, Russell had the interval down to .320 seconds at the end of the lap, with six minutes to go at Start/Finish.

Russell’s momentum and opportunities were interrupted by backmarkers, again, on lap 182. The interval crept up to .489 seconds, with four minutes to go.

Slight was sliding through the S-curve again on lap 183, and Russell closed up as before. At the completion of the lap the interval was .288 seconds, with one minute to go on display.

Technically, the race was over at this point due to the official announcement that a red flag was going to be used to stop the race, with scoring reverted back to the previous lap. Lap 184 was still executed at breakneck pace, with neither Slight or Russell willing to back-off. For everyone except the race officials, lap 184 was the final lap of the race, with Slight crossing the line three bike lengths ahead of Russell.

Both Slight and Russell sat up immediately on the cool down lap and shook hands. Neither rider never once hinted after the race that the other did anything below the belt.

“(I was) informed before I got on the bike that it was going to be a red flag race, going back one lap,” admitted Slight. “But it was important to win the race anyways, to finish first. (I wasn’t) going to coast around behind Scott, (I was) going to finish first, fair and square.”

“I knew that the lap before was the one that counted,” agreed Russell. “Strange way to finish a race, but, yeah, I knew it. I was going to pass him on the next lap, but I ran out of time. I came close in the 130R (corner) a couple times. It was good, it was great racing, (Aaron) rode so good. The first priority was to stay on the motorcycle – I was so tired. It was all I could do just to hold onto the thing and make all the corners without making a mistake. Aaron was running strong at the end. The only place that I passed him was on the brakes for the 130R (corner). I drifted wide and he got a better drive, and went by on the brakes going into the chicane. I really needed to get by him way before (the 130R corner) to ever make (a pass) stick. He just had legs on us at the end. Terry did his part – the whole deal was perfect. We were just three bike lengths in the wrong place.”

“I got lots of experience from this, and next year, I’m sure we can win,” promised Rymer. “I’m looking forward to next year – let’s do a 24 Hour race!”

“It was a killer race,” said Slight after winning. “We knew that Superbike is a great way to race. You have Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Suzuki – everyone was in there for the challenge, and Honda came out on top. It’s just great, and an amazing race.”

“I’m very happy to win the Suzuka 8 Hours, finally,” added Polen. “The first time I came to Suzuka was in 1987, on a VFR750 Honda. I knew we would be able to win the race because Aaron is very, very consistent and very, very, very good – and he doesn’t make mistakes. So I was very, very confident that he was able to stay in front of Scott, all the way to the end. It’s really, really good to be able to win my first (Suzuka 8 Hours), and, at the same time, the first race on the new RC45 Honda.”

 


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