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Suzuka Eight Hour capers

Mon, 05 Sep 2011

Chatting to TT legend John McGuiness recently about his first Suzuka Eight Hour experience got me thinking of a few capers the boys and me managed a few years back at what is still Japan's most important race of the season.

It is a unique event that starts at 11am and finishes at 7pm making  it a pukka endurance race as the last hour is run with headlights on in the dark. It is essentially an eight hour sprint that showcases the trickest endurance machinery and manufacturer’s sales can be affected the following year depending on who wins or loses. Back then, the best riders were shipped in from all over the planet and paid silly amounts of money for a few days work. Sorry, fun. Needless to say these days are long gone and unlikely to return but it is still a major annual event.

As we would lose lots of fluids in the extreme conditions during practice and the race, every year after arriving at the track, a team physio would stick a needle in my arm which would remain there until Sunday night. This was to feed in nutrients that were sweated out while working hard on the bike. Ice baths were also compulsory after every stint to reduce core temperatures. It was mad but I loved it and was lucky enough to take part six 8 Hour races between 1987 and 1994. My best result was 2nd in 1992 on a factory Yamaha.

My first time in the heat and humidity was in 1987 while riding for HRC in 500 GPs when I was partnered with Honda Australia superbike hard man, Malcolm Campbell. After being comfortably faster than everyone practice, including Honda’s favourite son at the time, Wayne Gardner, I was told by team boss Mr Oguma to back off in final qualifying so that Wayne could claim pole position. Being the new boy, I obeyed and eventually finished up in second place on the grid next to the Woolongong wonder. Before the race, Gardner told me to take my time on the opening laps as it would be a long day and very hot so I needed to pace myself. Naive Niall stupidly agreed only to see Gardner and the front runners take off on lap one into the distance. After cursing myself (and Gardner) for being a twat I fought my way back to a strong second four hours in but then Mal crashed and that was that. Gardner won with Dominique Sarron on another factory RVF750 so Honda were still happy, however, I made a mental note never again to trust a fellow racer. I could never really dislike Gardner though as he was always good value away from the track. And that night was no exception as after the adjoining Suzuka Circuitland theme park closed, he found the master switch for the power and turned the whole lot back on. A half pissed gang of us then proceeded to have the best time enjoying all the rides for free.

The following year Gardner and myself actually rode together and just when we began to contemplate victory our bike snapped a con rod. Incidentally, the V4 Honda RVF 750 was the best bike I ever rode in twenty years of racing. It fitted me perfectly, steered like a dream and had the sweetest motor ever. I only wish I had had the foresight of Mick Doohan to ask for my NSR 500 GP bike to steer and handle like the factory four stroke. After missing 1989 I was back the year after on a factory GSXR 750 Suzuki sponsored by Lucky Strike and with Roger Burnett as my co rider. This bike was the complete opposite of the Honda and I hated it, so when Roger went down in the first hour I wasn’t too upset when the bike was destroyed in the spill. That night the watering hole was the infamous Moma’s bar where we drank Sake out of little wooden boxes and old Moma demonstrated feminine things that grown men thought were impossible.

In 1991 I rode a factory YZF 750 Yamaha for the Hayashi team who were sponsored by a ladies clothing company. Everything from bodywork to leathers was pink but bizarrely our brolly girls were heavily bearded men. In fact the whole week was weird as I thought I had agreed to ride for three grand plus expenses. Turns out there had been a zero missing from the faxed contract and I was on for 30K. Inspired by this I rode super hard in my first wet 8 Hour to third position before disaster struck when my Aussie team mate Peter Goddard jumped off mid race on an in lap. I was paid another handsome wedge in 1992 to ride the beautiful Nescafe YZF 750 with Kevin Magee when we finished second to Wayne Gardner and Daryl Beattie on a Honda. We rode hard and every pit stop was perfect (17 seconds for fuel and tyres) but the Honda team was too strong so we had to settle for the second best podium spot. This time we celebrated by hot wiring scooters and racing round the maze of spider infested paths in the local forest before cooling down in the circuit’s ‘Log Cabin’ bar. My final race was in 1994 and with yet another Aussie, Shawn Giles when we rode the 'Pops' Yoshimura Suzuki. Sean was faster than me and we were seriously out paced by the Hondas and Yamahas so we could only manage a lowly 11th place. I only hope one day I can check out one more Eight Hour race from the other side of the fence but whatever, I hope the boys are having as much fun now as we did then.

By Niall Mackenzie

See also: Can you identify this mystery Honda?, Colin Edwards Joins Forward Racing CRT Squad for 2012, Capirossi Announces Retirement at Conclusion of 2011 Season.