Taichi Ito, Communication Plaza Curator
From left: YCRT founder Ferry Brouwer, guest riders Dieter Braun, Steve Baker, Rodney Gould and Pentti Korhonen, and organizer Sami Backman
A large crowd surrounds the riders in the paddock with as much enthusiasm as at an actual GP
Two years ago we featured the Bikers’ Classics 2008 classic race event held in Belgium in this column, and this time we visited the Imatranajo 2010 event held in Finland on July 24th and 25th.
The venue was the city of Imatra near the Russian border. A TT race was held here for the first time in 1953, and the city hosted the Finnish GP of the motorcycle Road Racing World Championship from 1964 to 1982. At the time, the circuit was composed of portions of closed-off public roads on the outskirts of the city. The highlights of the Finnish GP were the beautifully scenic race circuit that ran through the woods and beside lakes, and the sight of racers literally jumping their machines across the freight train track crossing on the course at full speed.
The Imatranajo is an event conceived to help keep the memories of the city’s exciting race history and tradition alive for posterity. For the event, the street circuit is re-created just as it had been for the GP, and various organizations and individual race fans drawn to the event’s aims bring their prized old race machines to put on a show in mock races and demonstration runs. The event’s content is not very different from other classic race events like the Bikers’ Classics, but thanks to the added attraction of the Imatra area as a tourist destination where participants and tourists can stay in hotels at scenic spots along the course or camp at the lakeside tent sites, it has become a big event attracting motorsports fans and tourists from throughout Finland as well as neighboring Russia and countries of the Baltic Sea area. This time, total attendance is said to have doubled the size of the city’s population (approx. 30,000).
The race machines ridden by Jarno Saarinen. On the left is the modified Yamaha TD-3 that he won the 1972 GP250 championship on, and on the right is the 1967 PUCH 125cc model
Agostini won the Imatra GP again in 1975, the year he moved to Yamaha and won the GP500 World Championship
Numerous categories of racing have long been popular in Finland and the country has produced many great racers such as F1 drivers Keke Rosberg and Mika Häkkinen, and rally drivers Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Mäkinen. But in motorcycle road racing, the late Jarno Saarinen is surely the most famous. In the late 1960s, Saarinen switched from ice racing to motorcycle road racing, and in the early 1970s he became a Yamaha-supported rider who went on to become the GP250 class World Champion in 1972. In 1973, he competed in both the GP500 and GP250 classes as a Yamaha factory rider, showing amazing talent and speed in the opening rounds. Unfortunately, his career ended in tragic death in an accident at round four of that season, the Italian GP, but not before he had won the hearts of many Finnish race fans. A corner dedicated to Saarinen at the Sports Museum of Finland in the capital of Helsinki stands as a permanent reminder of his place in racing history and in the hearts of the people.
Due in part to this connection, the Yamaha Motor group cooperated as a sponsor in this holding of the Imatranajo. The local Yamaha distributor borrowed Saarinen’s machine (a modified TD-3) from the Sports Museum to display at the event venue and the Yamaha Classic Racing Team brought over 20 historic race machines to display, including a 1975 YZR500 (0W23) from the collection at the Yamaha Motor Communication Plaza in Japan along with numerous members’ privately owned historic race models.
One thing that a classic race event always needs is honored guests—the iconic riders of yesteryear. Thrilling the crowd with their appearances in the paddock area and on the course in good form were former Yamaha world champions like Rodney Gould, Dieter Braun and Steve Baker, former Honda champions Jim Redman and Luigi Taveri, and Suzuki champion Gianfranco Bonera. Of course the most popular of all the guest riders was Giacomo Agostini. In his illustrious career, Agostini has the most GP victories of all time at 122, including ten 500cc and seven 350cc class wins at Imatra that made him a special presence in the minds and hearts of Finnish race fans back then. This time he was asked to ride the machine that brought Yamaha its first World Championship, the YZR500 (0W23), and the machine most strongly associated with the Imatra race, the MV Agusta 500-3. In each case he donned special race leathers and helmets associated with the machines, much to the delight of the fans.
Classic race events like this tend to take on a different character with different attractions and things to enjoy in each country where they are held. This trip to Finland set me to wondering what the event would be like if it were held in Japan and what typically Japanese characteristics it would have.
Published September 2010