View our column profiling Yamaha's 50 years of involvement in racing. Vol.2 Looking to the world stage - Yamaha's first overseas race
After building its foundation as a motorcycle maker in Japan on race successes at the Mount Fuji Ascent Race and the Asama Highlands Race, Yamaha was ready for its next corporate challenge. Across the Pacific lay the big American West Coast market centered in Los Angeles. Race success had proved a potent weapon in Japan, but could Yamaha bikes compete internationally and open the way to a new market? That would be the next challenge.
After exploring several possibilities, it was decided that a Yamaha team would enter the 8th Catalina GP in 1958. All of the major dealers Yamaha staff visited in California gave them the same answer: Catalina was the most influential race for the West Coast market.
The Catalina GP was one of the premier motorcycle race events on the American West Coast, held on Santa Catalina Island 40 km to the southwest of Los Angeles. The race was run on a notoriously rough course full of hills and sharp turns, and even dirt sections littered with large stones that threatened the riders constantly. To conquer this challenging course, Yamaha brought over five of its twin-cylinder, 2-stroke YD racers. This model that had been developed for the equally challenging 2nd Asama Highlands Race in Japan and could be called the company's first factory racer. For the Catalina race it was further modified in "scrambler" style with an up-slanting muffler, raised handlebars and raised footrests. The rider team included Yamaha's Fumio Ito and four experienced American riders.
On race day, May 3rd, 15,000 spectators gathered on Santa Catalina Island to watch a truly international contest with a field including many of the world's leading motorcycle makes. Competing against the local Harleys in this grand event were West German Zündapp, Maico and NSU models, the Austrian Puch and British Velocette and BSA machines. As newcomers to this race come all the way across the Pacific, quite a bit of attention focused on the Yamaha machine and its Japanese rider, Ito. For Ito, his first overseas race turned out to be a rude awakening. The start found him at the very back of the pack eating the dust of the machines in front of him. Blinded by the cloud of dust, Ito took a fall in the early going but was quickly back on his Yamaha and racing to make up lost ground. As a rule, the Catalina course was changed each year, using a mix of public road and dirt sections, so no one could practice on the course beforehand. As a result, nearly half of the riders in front of Ito lost sight of the course during the early going.
Now was Ito's chance to show his worth. Once again at the back of the pack in the blinding cloud of dust, he braved all and gave his Yamaha full throttle. It was a furious charge that brought him up to 8th position by the end of the first lap. Ito and his Yamaha were running at a pace that outshone the other contestants. The spectators' eyes were glued to this cannonball from the East as he passed three more riders on the next lap.
Just as he was beginning to close in on the leaders, however, Ito suddenly brought his machine back to the pit area. "The right spark plug is misfiring. Change it quickly," he shouted. At that moment, the sweat and dust-covered face of Ito showed no signs of despair or frustration. It was the face of a rider enjoying the chase and thinking only of victory.
Despite his determination, the goddess of victory would not smile on Ito that day. The tension and excitement of this first overseas race had affected the Yamaha mechanics as well. First they mistakenly replaced the left instead of the right spark plug, and to make things worse they switched the high-tension cords. When the machine wouldn't start they finally realized their mistake, but by the time the machine was running and Ito was out on the course again, he had already dropped to 13th position.
With the crowed cheering for him again, Ito opened up the throttle and fought back to 10th position on lap five. He continued to press to the front, taking 8th position on lap six and 7th by lap eight. He never let up and his pace never slackened. By the time he took the checkered, Ito had recovered to 6th place.
For the excited crowd, however, Ito's thrilling charge had been one of the highlights of the race. People who saw Ito's speed on the Yamaha predicted that he would win the race if he ran it again. Those words were no comfort for Ito himself, however. He came away saying with clear disappointment that the Yamaha team was much stronger than its 6th-place finish had shown. The future would prove the truth of those words.