2019 note: I wrote this in 1997 after watching the two Itoh brothers walk past each other without acknowledgement several times at different tracks. I tried to find out what would cause two brothers, who worked at the same company, Suzuki, in the same division (racing, sports), to ignore the existence of the other. I asked everyone from Mat Mladin to Kevin Schwantz and everyone I knew who worked at US Suzuki if they knew the reason for this feud. Most acknowledged that the pair were on non-speaking terms but for reasons no one could pinpoint; most warned me not to ask either brother, that it was probably because someone had “brought shame” to the Itoh family name, and if I asked one of the brothers why it would only make things worse, that they would be forced to acknowledge the feud.
Mitsuo Itoh died this week at 82.
While Flying Fred Merkel’s Suzuki GSX-R750 sat in the northern California sunshine with droplets of champagne still slowly running off its paint, Merkel gave credit where credit was due: “There’s one guy I have to thank personally,” he said from the top of the Sears Point 750 Supersport podium in 1995, “and that’s my boss Mr. Itoh. Without him I wouldn’t be here.” He was referring to US Suzuki race-boss Masayuki Itoh, the younger of the two Itoh brothers who together run Suzuki’s European and American racing operations. Both Masayuki and his elder brother Mitsuo have impressive resumes.
Mitsuo Itoh, the elder, has been involved with Suzuki’s racing activities almost from time Michio Suzuki’s machines first raced in 1953, when Suzuki raced against Honda, Bridgestone and Showa in enduro-style mountain races in the volcanic ash roads surrounding Mount Fuji and Mount Asama. As a rider, Mitsuo Itoh’s major accomplishment is that he was the first Japanese rider to win at the Isle of Man, taking the eleven horsepower, one hundred and thirty-two pound Suzuki RM63 to victory in the 50cc class in 1963. Mitsuo also rode in Grand Prix for Suzuki, finding podium success in the 50, 125 and 250 classes. In addition he won the Daytona USGP 50cc race in 1964. After retiring from riding in the late 1960s, the elder Itoh stayed involved in racing activities at Suzuki as an executive. He was for many years one of Pops Yoshimura’s close contacts at Suzuki Japan, worked as the manager of the eighties Suzuki World Endurance team and then was a top racing director for Suzuki here in the States. Today he is Suzuki’s Grand Prix racing director and is the firm’s top GP man, Garry Taylor’s boss, at the Lucky Strike Suzuki team.
Merkel’s then boss Masayuki Itoh, the younger brother, has long been one of the racing director’s at American Suzuki. He is a near-silent member of the AMA Superbike paddock, but his influence on AMA Superbike racing reaches far. He now is one of the heads of Suzuki’s entire US road racing program. “Mr. Itoh”, as he is known to insiders, has received many kind words from riders who have benefited from his guidance, including the late Don Jacks, the aforementioned Merkel, and Tom Kipp, who says that he wouldn’t be riding today if it were not for Itoh hiring him in 1994 after Honda let him go. Itoh also is instrumental in liaison activities with Suzuki’s development engineers in Japan; he was very influential on the designs of the GSX-R600 and GSX-R750 street bike.
The two Itohs, together, have helped turn Suzuki into one of the strongest racing forces on the planet, regardless of series.
And they have done so while at the same time having a very distant relationship for colleagues, and especially for brothers. Customs and traditions in Japan are much different than they are in the United States, quite obviously, and that pertains to racing as well. It was only within the last ten years that HRC stopped having their new Grand Prix machines blessed by Buddhist priests in religious ceremonies before the first Grand Prix of the season. Among Japanese siblings, the dynamic of mutual support and affectionate teasing does not seem to be the norm—at least not in the case of the Itoh brothers.
As competitive with each other as they are with the rest of the world, they have not spoken to one another for more than twenty years.
1993 World Champion Kevin Schwantz worked with Mitsuo Itoh for his entire Grand Prix career. Upon learning of his passing, Schwantz said, “He was the best boss ever. He was the last guy at the bar and the first one at the track. He was a real friend because he understood racers because he was one. I am honored to have worked so closely with him.”