The Yamaha Racing Rider Veterans Club
As he was also involved in the development of the Toyota 2000GT, Mr. Hiroki Matsushima (center), was riddled with questions about it by the other 12, like “Was this color always available from the start?”
Mr. Hiroshi Hasegawa (left) and Mr. Junichiro Uno (right) talk nostalgically as they recall the early days of Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd.
With comments like, “I remember when we were making these” and ones starting with “Back then I remember I was...,” there was no end to the conversations in front of the products on display.
From March 2009 to January 2010, the exhibition “YAMAHA Motorcycle Racing History – since 1955” (Part 1, 2 and summary) is being held at the Communication Plaza as a chronology of the achievements of Yamaha motorcycle racing. In early November 2009, the “Yamaha Racing Rider Veterans Club,” a group of men who helped shape that history in their heyday, visited the Plaza. As they viewed the exhibition and the permanent displays, they reminisced about the past and renewed friendships.
The organizer of this gathering, Mr. Akiyasu Motohashi, recalls: “Although over 50 years have passed since Yamaha started racing, there was never really a chance for Yamaha race riders of different generations and race categories to gather and meet each other in one place. I really wanted to arrange such a gathering while our predecessors from Yamaha’s earliest years in racing, and we ourselves, are still in good health and able to enjoy such a moment. Hearing that there was an exhibition covering the history of Yamaha racing at the Communication Plaza, I thought this was the perfect chance to make it happen, so I sent out word to everyone.” Mr. Motohashi was a teammate of Phil Read and Bill Ivy in the Road Racing World Championship Grand Prix in the 1960s and scored a podium finish with third place in the 125cc class of the Isle of Man TT held in 1967. After that, he was a long-time competitor in the All Japan Road Race Championship, and was a big influence on many younger riders like Hideo Kanaya and the late Ikujiro Takai.
Also cooperating as one of the organizers was Mr. Tadahiko Taira, a rider with an illustrious career in the 1980s, competing in the All Japan Road Race Championships, the World GP and the Suzuka 8 Hours. Unfortunately, some of the invited members had conflicting schedules that prevented them from attending, but including Mr. Motohashi and Mr. Taira, 13 members in all were able to gather for the event.
Let me give you a brief introduction of the 13 members. First of all, there are Mr. Keiichi Sakata and Mr. Katsuzo Okuyama, who were active during the very earliest years of Yamaha Motor’s race activities, in events like the Mt. Fuji Ascent Race and the Asama Volcano Race. Mr. Yoshikazu Sunako, together with the late Fumio Ito, was one of the first Yamaha riders to compete in the World GP. Then there are Mr. Junichiro Uno and Mr. Hiroki Matsushima, who competed in races in Japan in the same era as Mr. Motohashi. Next is Mr. Hiroshi Hasegawa, who won the 250cc class race of the 1966 Japan GP, defeating Phil Read. Mr. Norihiko Fujiwara followed in the footsteps of Mr. Taira by winning the 500cc class title of the All Japan Road Race Championship three consecutive times. Then, there’s Mr. Wataru Yoshikawa, a specialist on 4-stroke machines who won the Superbike class of the All Japan Road Race Championships twice. In the motocross arena, Mr. Tadao Suzuki brought numerous triumphs to Yamaha teams from the late 1960s to the early 1970s with his bold and dynamic riding. The successor of that dynamic riding was Mr. Hideaki Suzuki, whose sweeping achievements in the All Japan Motocross Championship brought a golden era of motocross success for Yamaha. His younger brother, Mr. Torao Suzuki, went on to surprise even his own brother with his riding genius as the next Yamaha ace rider, competing in both Japan and Europe. It was truly an all-star gathering from Yamaha’s racing history.
Norihiko Fujiwara (center) and Wataru Yoshikawa (left) appear a bit nervous before their road racing elder Hiroshi Hasegawa (right)
Despite being brothers, Hideaki Suzuki (right) and Torao Suzuki (left) had such a strong rivalry in their competitive days that they rarely spoke to each other. The star rider they both looked up to was Tadao Suzuki (center)
On the members’ tour of the Communication Plaza, the first thing to attract their attention was the Toyota 2000GT on display at the entrance. They gathered smiling around Mr. Hiroki Matsushima, who had worked on its development after his career as a rider. In the History Space on the 2nd floor of the Plaza, the display with Yamaha’s first motorcycle, the YA-1, and the group of race trophies explain the company’s early years. Standing in front of them for a while with his arms folded and a serious look on his face, Mr. Hideaki Suzuki said, “We are what we are today thanks to what our predecessors achieved.” It was inspiring.
Heading to the exhibition itself, the members gathered in groups and spoke as they sought out nostalgic machines and walked along the chronology charts. There we were able to get comments from many of them.
Mr. Junichiro Uno: “The first race I competed in as a Yamaha rider was the 5th All Japan Clubman Race in 1962. That’s why I still love the TD-1. It’s the bike I raced with for the first three or four years after my race debut, so I can’t help but love it. But the thing I remember most clearly came before that. In our practice for the 1st Clubman Race at Asama, this guy [indicating Mr. Hiroshi Hasegawa] went roaring past me, waving and giving me a nod as he went by [laughs]. Rather than it getting me mad, it just amazed me that he could be so fast.”
Mr. Tadahiko Taira: “People usually think that my most memorable race was when I won the 1990 Suzuka 8 Hours. But actually, if I were to pick just one race, it’d be the second round of the World GP250, the Italian GP, back in 1986 when I first competed for the full season. I’d injured my left leg badly in the first round and was thinking of giving up on the season and returning to Japan. I debated it down to the last minute and decided to compete. Though I qualified in 10th and finished the race in 22nd place, if I’d given up instead, I never would have gone on to win the last round of the season at Misano and I wouldn’t be who I am now. It’s so nostalgic to see my old #31 YZR250.”
Mr. Wataru Yoshikawa: “I have many memories from my career, but one that sticks out is the frustrating or should I say ‘unfortunate’ [laughs] race I had in my first and only World GP race, the Pacific GP [at Motegi in Japan] in 2002. At the time I was competing in the All Japan Superbike Championship and working as a development rider for the YZR-M1 at the same time, so I really wanted a chance to race on it. I asked if I could enter the GP and I got the OK. But the specs of the machine I used were still in the early stages of development and so the machine wasn’t competitive enough for racing yet. I ended up finishing 12th, but I was confident that had I been on one of the full race-spec machines, I could’ve gotten a podium finish [smiles].”
These are just some of the interesting comments we heard. For all of the comments we received, we could always tell the members’ affection for Yamaha and their pride at having been Yamaha riders. We were also impressed by their fond memories of the days when they worked and lived like a family with their team members on the race circuit, all bound by the shared will to win. Today, Yamaha’s race activities continue to thrive on the same kind of team bonds, and as long as those bonds stand firm, they will surely lead Yamaha teams on to many more victories.
Published November 2009