Friday, May 7, 2021
I mentioned to my friend Bill Himmelsbach that I had a good biography of Jarno Saarien and he asked if he could borrow it and offered a long list of books that he had and with which he could reciprocate. I chose 'Team Suzuki' by Ray Battersby, largely because I have long been fascinated with Suzuki's '60s GP team dynamics. This started with reading an excerpt of Mat Oxley's 'Stealing Speed' that I had read in Roadracing World. I thought that Oxley was unduly hard of Ernst Degner who defected from the East German MZ works team and went to Suzuki with tuning secrets he'd learned from Walter Kaaden, the head of MZ racing. I ran into Oxley at the IOM later and talked to him about this. Mat said from his interviews with Degner's son and widow, he got the impression that Degner was not a nice man. Later still, I got a copy of Hugh Anderson's autobiography "Being There", and Hugh writes of what a sportsman Degner was and how much he helped him to his own detriment when they were teammates on the works Suzuki GP team from 1962-1966. The book also indicated that there was friction between Anderson and his other teammate, Frank Perris. This caused me to get Oxley's 'Stealing Speed' and read it in its entirety, and was interested that Perris also said complimentary things about Degner. Then I saw some posts on a forum by Ray Battersby critizing Oxley's depiction of Degner and Kaaden. Now, having read 'Team Suzuki', the team dynamics seem more confusing, or complicated at least, as Anderson is quoted saying complimentary things about Perris. I found 'Team Suzuki' to be an excellent and well researched book. It starts with Suzuki's decision in the 1950's to go racing to enhance its reputation, first with domestic Japanese racing, then internationally, sending a team to the IOM in 1960. This was a year after Honda first went to the IOM and a year before Yamaha went there. Their initial efforts were disappointing and they carefully cultivated a relationship with Degner and helped facilate his defection. With Degner's input and with the hiring of the other experienced Western racers Anderson, Perris, Suzuki began to get results. I hadn't know about the input of Geoff Duke nor that Tom Phillis and Paddy Driver had raced for Suzuki. Then came Bertie Schneider, Jack Ahearn (who dubbed the Suzuki 250 "whispering death" because of it many sudden seizures), Hans Georg Anscheidt, and Stuart Graham (when Anderson retired from road racing to race motocross),Suzuki won six World Championships. Suzuki retired from World Championship GP road racing after the 1968 season as did Yamaha, a year after Honda withdrew. But, Suzuki had already started racing in the U.S. Wanting to raise the profile of Suzuki in the U.S. market, Haruo Koshino brought a works GP 50cc and 125cc to race in West Coast club events in 1965. It isn't mentioned in 'Team Suzuki', but Walt Fulton III got to race at least the RK 65, a 50cc, a twin cylinder, watercooled, 12 speed, but also the twin cylinder, watercooled, 9 speed 125 RT 65. This led to Walt racing a race prepared X6 250 in AMA novice class along side Experts Dick Hammer, Dick Mann and Ron Grant in the Lightweight class in 1966. Walt won the Novice race in record time at Daytona and was high point novice for the year. Mann was 2nd and Hammer 3rd at the Carlsbad national. Walt also rode the works GP 50 and 125 in Westcoast club events. Walt rode a H-D KR 750 in the AMA 'Amateur' races in '67, but a Suzuki in some Am/Ex Lightweight events and an H-D Sprint in others. The Expert team was cut back to Hammer and Grant. In '68, the T500 was added to the team stable and Cal Rayborn rode the X-6 in the Lightweight races. In '69, Art Bauman won the Sears Point national on the 500 Suzuki, the first time a two stroke and the first time a Japanese bike had won an AMA National. In '70, Jody Nicholas and New Zealander Geoff Perry were added to the team. Grant won the Kent, Wa. National on the T500. In '71 Ron Pierce was added to the team. For '72, the 500 was retired and replaced with the TR750 triple, the water cooled 'Water Buffalo'. These motors produced more power than their chassis, chains and tires could handle. Nicholas won at Road Atlanta, but was diqualified for an illegal cylinder casting. For '73, new and improved TR 750s were provided to Don Emde, Grant, Paul Smart and Geoff Perry. Smart won at Dallas, Tx., and Perry won the next race at Rd. Atlanta. That year Perry died in a plane crash on his way from New Zealand to Laguna Seca. In 1974, Gary Nixon and Cliff Carr joined Sheene and Smart on the factory team but, with the introduction of the TZ 700 Yamaha, Suzuki's only win was with Nixon at Loudon. 1975 was the last year for the TR750 triple in the AMA and their best finish was Pat Hennen's 5th at Laguna Seca. Internationally, Suzuki raced the 500 twin and 750 triple. The 500 twin reached it's zenith in 1971 when New Zealander Keith Turner finished 2nd to Ago's MV in the 500 World Championship with less success later. In '73 a watercooled, 6 speed version was made, but it's only real success was Jack Findley's winning the IOM Senior TT. In '73, Sheene won the Formula 750 Cup and in '74 Suzuki only won one race in the series (Paul Smart). Sheene won three races in '75 to finish second in the series. '76 was the last year the triples were raced internationally. The RG 500 square four 500 made it's debut in 1974 but didn't win a 500 GP until Assen '75 where Sheene won. In '76 & '77, Sheene won the 500 World Championship, but then Roberts and Yamaha won the next three years. Marco Lucchinelli won the 500 World Championship in 1981 on a Suzuki, but Suzuki won the Manufacturer's Championship 1976-1981. The book finishes with the 1981 season and the book was published in 1982. Franco Uncini won the 500 World Championship in '82 on a RG500, but Suzuki wouldn't win another World Championship until 2000 with Kenny Roberts Jr. on a very different 500. I thoughly enjoyed Team Suzuki as it gives very detailed history of the evolution of the machines while conveying the personalities of the riders and management thinking. I was struck by how many of the riders I had known. Hugh Anderson--I had several great races with Hugh at Circuit Paul Ricard in '86 and Brands Hatch in '89 Frank Perris--Paraded with Frank at Cadwell Park and the IOM TT Centenary Stuart Graham--spent time with Stuart at the IOM when Team Obsolete brought the 250 Honda Six in 2017. Stuart had raced that bike in 1966. Walt Fulton III--I'm 'teammates' with Walt on the Karl Engellenner built 350 Aermacchis in AHRMA racing Dick Mann--I spent a lot of time with Dick when he worked with Team Obsolete in the '80s and '90s Jody Nichols--met Jody many times at West Coast vintage events Mick Grant--spent time with Mick when he rode a T/O MV at Oliver's Mount, Scarborough and many times at the Isle of Man Paul Smart--I did a 5 day Moto Giro with Paul in Central California in 2004 and at the spoke with him at IOM. Don Emde--shared many vintage events with Don including when he was Grand Marshal at Mid-Ohio Vintage M/C Days Barry Sheene--I followed Barry on an MV 500-3 when he was on a RG 500 Suzuki on a parade down to the seafront at Scarborough doing smoky burnouts. Gary Nixon--I did many vintage events will Gary and chatted with at the USGP at Indiannapolis in 2010, the year before he died. Hurley Wilvert--I met Hurley in the mid '70s when I was club racing a Kawasaki Bighorn and saw him several time at the IOM and stayed at his house in 2018. Dave Aldana--shared many vintage events with Dave and drove with him to a race in Loudon, N.H. Pat Hennen--met Pat at Laguna Seca and again at the IOM Graham Crosby--shared parade laps with Graham at the IOM Steve Parrish--spent a good deal of time with Steve at the IOM in his capacity of presenter for ITV television. Phil Read--spent time with Phil at many vintage events at Circuit Paul Ricard, Snetterton, Laguna Seca and the IOM. Plus Rod Coleman, the New Zealand importer of Suzuki and sponsor of Geoff Perry among others. I spent time with Rod on his boat on Lake Taupo, N.Z. Roberto Gallina, team manager for Suzuki Italy who won the 500 World Championship in '81 with Luccinelli and '82 with Uncini. I spent time with Roberto at his house and shop in La Spezia, Italy in '86, in Brooklyn, N.Y. several times and at the IOM in 2018. I'm incredibly fortunate to have known these great racers.