Klaas Tjassen’s biography “Jarno Saarinen: the Flying Finn” slipped off the bookshelf here at Soup last week and after paging through it we were left struck by so many things about the man who may well be the fastest Finn ever. The subject of the book is Jarno Saarinen, who is the only Finn to win a world championship.
Saarinen won the 250cc world title in 1972 and finished second to all-time god Giacomo Agostini that season in the 350cc class for Yamaha. Saarinen started the 1973 season with three consecutive victories aboard a Yamaha in 250cc, with his smallest margin of victory at 13 seconds. He also won two of the first three 500cc races, with only a broken chain in Germany ending that perfect mark.
He was on top of the world, seemingly headed toward a title double in just his fourth season. And then he was gone.
Saarinen was killed in a crash May 20, 1973 during the 250cc race at Monza. Renzo Pasolini fell right in front of Saarinen, who couldn’t avoid hitting him. That triggered a multi-bike pileup.
Jarno’s then girlfriend Solii Karme–who many remember for wearing a tiny bikini as she ran his pit board in Grand Prix races–writes the forward to Tjassen’s biography. She basically tells everyone to swear off racing motorcycles.
Many racers today stay in the sport as long as their bodies and willing team managers will allow, and then they stick around the sport for years after their riding careers end in some capacity. It’s all they know.
But Saarinen was a different breed of cat, in so many ways. He finished fourth in the 1970 250cc World Championship as a rookie despite missing the last three races – to return to his engineering studies. That’s unthinkable in this day.
That perfectionist engineering brain helped Saarinen tune his bike before his days as a factory rider. And even after joining the works Yamaha team, Saarinen kept meticulous records of every aspect of his bike and the circuits, such as weather, track surface conditions, gearing and other tuning parameters. The guy was dialed into his relationship with his machine.
But racing didn’t consume Saarinen like so many today. His girlfriend at the time, Solii Karme, wrote in a foreword to the biography “Jarno Saarinen: The Flying Finn” that he often told her: “Racing is only a hobby for me. Later on I will have a regular job.”
And much like Sir Jackie Stewart in Formula One, Saarinen was keenly aware of his mortality on a motorcycle and worked to champion safety at a time when “shut up and put up” was the only mantra that mattered in racing. Saarinen was no fan of the insane risks of the Isle of Man TT, never competing there, and he criticized the track surface and the Armco barriers lining the circuit at Monza shortly before his death.
He also told Karme that he was going to quit after the 1973 season, at age 27, if he won one championship and maybe continue for one more year if he won two titles. The man knew the odds of a serious accident rose the longer he raced, and Karme recalled how he told her, “I want to live to become an old man and enjoy life after my racing career.”
So it’s understandable that Karme concluded her foreword to the autobiography with this chilling warning: “I want to say to all of the young riders who admire Jarno, choose any sport but motorcycle racing. Stay alive and enjoy your sporting life.”
Saarinen’s legacy always is worth remembering. His comet streak across the racing sky was too brief, but his riding style bred on ice and dirt racing influenced many to come, including one Kenny Roberts.