When I was a kid, my Mom used to always tell me that I was “born with banjo eyes.” When I look at my baby pictures, I don’t think I look any more like an alien than I do now but, to her, I had orbs the size of Deliverance-esque musical instruments lodged in my pouting, drooling skull. I love my Mom.
I wish I could take credit for the “banjo eyes” that several current and former Japanese motorcycle racers wear/wore on their helmets. Riders like Yasutomo Nagai (one of my all-time favorite racers), Shinya Nakano and YZR-M1 fill-in rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga have all rocked the “banjoes” on their helmets.
It all goes back to a British rider named John Cooper. Cooper was a two-time winner of the North West 200 race held in Northern Ireland. He is mostly remembered for his upset victory over the reigning 500cc world champion Giacomo Agostini at the 1971 Race of the Year at Mallory Park. As a result, a section of the Mallory Park circuit was renamed the “John Cooper Esses” in his honor.
There are two important things that John Cooper is not remembered for…but he should be. First of all, Cooper is the man who actually invented/first used the concept of dragging one’s knee when roadracing a motorcycle (in 1964 at Mallory on a Norton). Sure, the technique was perfected by King Kenny Roberts, but John Cooper will set you straight on the originator of this now-tried-and-true technique.
The second thing that John Cooper is not remembered for…but should be, is that he was also the originator of what, in deference to my mother, I call “banjo eyes on helmets.”
In fact, those eyes were such a trademark for Cooper that some old-timers and moto-historians still do remember him as John “Mooneyes” Cooper. Not only did he finish a career-high 7th in the 1967 500cc World Championship final standings, but he was one of the first riders to bring a little style to his substance. Cooper is also famous for winning a race infamous with moto-historians, the 1971 Ontario 250. Cooper beat all of the best riders in the US and Europe in that two-leg race, and won $14,000 doing so. A nice sum in 1971.
But, why does Katsuyuki Nakasuga sport “mooneyes” on his helmet like John Cooper did?
It’s probable that Nakasuga-san doesn’t even know who John Cooper is. But he does know Tadashi Suzuki.
The late Yasutomo Nagai. A promising World Superbike rider for Yamaha, his life ended way too soon. Like Nakano, Yasu was one of the first SP Tadao riders to make it big on the world scene.
Born on February 19, 1945 in Tokyo, Tadashi Suzuki was the youngest of six children. In 1962, when he was 17 years old, Suzuki participated in the Chiba speed scramble on a Yamaha YDS250. When he was 19, he became a semi-works rider for Yamaha, and he competed in the All-Japan Motocross Championship.
In 1966, Tadashi Suzuki won 21 motocross races. Of course, the mid-60s was also fire-in-the-belly time for John Cooper, and Mooneyes caught the eye of Tadashi Suzuki, who painted big eyes on his own helmet. That design became as much an icon of Tadashi Suzuki in Japan as it was for John Cooper in Europe.
While Tadashi Suzuki competed in motocross, he developed extensive experience in racebike development, which led him to creating his own business called “Tadao Special Parts.” Tadao is a nickname of Tadashi.
Over the years, “Tadao Special Parts” became shortened to “SP Tadao,” and the company became primarily known as a developer and manufacturer of aftermarket and racing exhaust systems.
Similar to countless former riders in the U.S., the UK, Australia, etc., who used their years of experience to start fabricating their own aftermarket parts and, thus, provide themselves with a livelihood after retiring from racing, Tadashi Suzuki’s business was based in racing, and his products needed to be tested in racing. So SP Tadao started sponsoring riders and, in order to honor Tadashi Suzuki and advertise the SP Tadao brand, those riders all wore helmets with the “mooneyes” graphics on them.
As former Grand Prix rider Shinya Nakano put it, “When I was 16, I was part of the SP Tadao racing team in Japan, whose distinctive symbol is the two big eyes. All the racers who were part of that team had the same helmet design with the big eyes on it. I continued to have the eyes on the helmet to say thank you to the team that taught me everything about racing and gave me the necessary help and support to enter the racing world for the first time.”
So, there you have it. From John Cooper, to Tadashi Suzuki, to Shinya Nakano and others, how’s that for an eye-opener?