View our column profiling Yamaha's 50 years of involvement in racing. Vol.1 It all began here. Conquering the Mount Fuji Ascent Race
It was in the year 1955 that Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. (at the time the musical instrument maker Nippon Gakki) released its first motorcycle, the YA-1, on the Japanese market. It was a time in Japan's postwar economy when the domestic motorcycle industry was crowded scores of small makers competing fiercely to sell their products. The YA-1 was launched at a price much higher than most of the competitor models and it prompted jokes from skeptics about whether the instrument maker's ponpon (motorbike) might run with a "do, re, mi" sound. Needless to say, that kind of criticism didn't help sales any.
The company's president at the time, Genichi Kawakami, had a plan to silence the critics, however. He told his motorcycle division that they should prove the outstanding performance and quality of their YA-1 by entering and winning the biggest domestic motorcycle race at the time, the Mount Fuji Ascent Race. It was a race started in 1953 mostly as an attraction for tourists, but the motorcycle makers quickly realized its potential as a platform for winning the attention of motorcycle dealers and flocked to compete in its second holding. By its third year the Mount Fuji Ascent Race had become one of the industry's biggest showcases. The order from president Kawakami was to enter the 3rd Mount Fuji Ascent Race to be run on July 10, 1955. That left just a month and a half for preparations. In that time they had to tune a YA-1 to the demanding ascent race performance requirements. It was a battle against time, and the project team at Yamaha's Hamana Factory in Shizuoka Prefecture knew that the company's future rested on their results.
It wasn't a matter of remaking the YA-1 into a race machine, however, because the Mount Fuji Ascent Race was one for production models and the regulation left little room for modifications. The development team's mission was to find even the smallest possibilities for improving performance. How could the engine performance be boosted without major modifications? One idea that came to the team was raising the quality of the fuel. They tried using high-octane aircraft fuel. Time was running short. Then one day as their running tests ran into the dim evening twilight, someone shouted, "Look. What's that red glow?"
Without a doubt it was the cylinder head of the YA-1 engine glowing red-hot because of the low BTU of the spark plugs. This was the kind of problem the development staff came up against one after another. It was a process of failure after failure and race day was drawing near. "What are we going to do?" That was what everyone was beginning to think.
Then a stroke of luck cleared the air. On the very day Yamaha Motor Company Ltd. was officially founded, July 1st, just nine days before the race, a new muffler arrived. It was the latest model for the RT125 model of the German maker DKW that the YA-1 was modeled after. The Yamaha engineers were amazed when they put on the new muffler and found that alone boosted the power output of the YA-1 by half a horsepower. The staff hustled to find out the reason. That was when they first learned about the Kadenacy effect and how the shape of the muffler affected the performance of a 2-stroke engine.
Now they had something to work from. There was just a week left before the race. To make up for the time they had lost the engineers worked night and day to design and build a new YA-1 muffler.
Knowing that skilled riders were also an important part of the winning formula in motorcycle racing-and knowing that there was no one with those qualifications in a company that until a few days earlier had been a fledgling division of a musical instrument maker-Yamaha had gone to a prominent motorcycle dealership in Tokyo for help in mid-June. The ten riders they recommended were immediately taken to Fujinomiya at the foot of Mt. Fuji to begin training for the race. Day after day the riders trained hard on the actual race course, from its starting point in front of the Asama Shrine at the base of mountain to the finish point one-fifth of the way up the 3,776 meter Mt. Fuji.
Meanwhile, the development staff from the Hamana Factory was working around the clock to give the riders every bit of support possible. In order to ensure that the riders trained every day in actual race conditions, the engineers had to be there to constantly replace worn parts and keep the machines running in peak condition. In those few precious days of preparation everyone was giving 120% and a bond of comradeship was born. Everyone had but one goal in mind. They were all determined to win this race.
Race day dawned and the racing began, with the machines running two at a time in a time-trial format. When it was over, Teruo Okada had won the 125cc class race with a time of 29 min. 07 sec. What's more, five more YA-1 riders filled out the top ten, placing 3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th, and 9th. This one race showed the whole country that the Yamaha YA-1 was the top performance motorcycle in its class in Japan.
This success would be the first in what would become a corporate tradition of race participation for Yamaha. And the ongoing success in the race arena would become an important part of the company's foundation as a motorcycle manufacturer.