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Back in the day, the All Japan 500cc Championship at Tsukuba

Fri, 24 Jun 2011

This ‘you tube’ gem sent to me recently brought back some funny memories from the scary but incredibly exciting days of 500cc two stroke racing. This particular race was the final round of the All Japan 500cc Championship at Tsukuba Circuit where I enjoyed a head to head battle with national hero Tadahiko Taira. Yamaha’s favourite son at the time, ‘tie wrap’ as we liked to call him, was taller and better looking than most Japanese riders (maybe a war baby?) and went on to win nearly everything in Japan during his career. He also won the 1986 San Marino 250cc Grand Prix and qualified on pole for the 1989 500GP at Suzuka.

I had performed well in the 500cc GPs that year and although I only finished 6th overall in the World Championship I got to 3rd in the rankings at one point before suffering three DNFs while battling for podium positions.

Anyway, Honda used to wheel me out now and again to stop Yamaha dominating the national scene, so after qualifying on pole I dealt with Taira then took off into the distance having some fun along the way. Unfortunately the gremlins that hampered Wayne Gardner and me that year returned and the crankshaft somehow bored a hole in the engine casing leaking oil onto the rear tyre. A few skids Iater, I had to park my gorgeous NSR and that was that. Later that night I was sacked by HRC (they gave me a nice watch though!) to make way for Eddie Lawson and Mick Doohan. My tears soon dried up however, as Giacomo Agostini called a few hours later and offered me a ridiculous amount of money to ride for Marlboro Yamaha the following year.

I love the video clip as it shows a national championship for full 500cc factory machines back in a day when money was no object for all the Japanese manufaturers. The teams had diverse sponsors like Nescafe and Ladies fashion houses but with mad Japanese riders high siding all over the place I'm sure the cash was soon swallowed up.

Back then the bikes only weighed 115kg (a superbike minus the engine) but delivered around 150bhp so everyone got flicked skywards on a regular basis. Top speeds were also nudging 200mph so fingers were normally covering clutches at circuits like Hockenheim, just in case the crew chief had made a mistake with the jetting.  I didn’t suffer too many injuries, however, many riders of my era including world champions Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz and Mick Doohan did, and were forced out of racing while still very much their prime. Magical times indeed and I wouldn’t swap them for the world.    

By Niall Mackenzie

See also: Played: SBK 2011, Proof: Change chain, gain power, Honda EV-neo Electric Scooter to Begin European Trial.