It was perhaps Britain's finest hour and the beginning of the end, rolled into one weekend in March 1971. BSA's Rocket III and Triumph's Trident had been introduced along with Honda's CB750 in '69, but were conceived eight years earlier and were already looking like too little, too late. The new Japanese four totally crushed the British triples in American showrooms, and racing followed suit: After taking the pole at Daytona in '70, the Britbikes went up in smoke, handing the win in the 200-miler to Dick Mann on Honda's sole surviving CB750. Next time there would be scores to settle. Both factories were all in.
Though BSA was once the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, Triumph ruled late-'60s motorcycling in America. Despite a shotgun merger provoked by growing Japanese competition and a changing market, Triumph brass also ruled the new racing department. But after decades of bad blood, beating each other was still as important as beating anybody else. Don Emde was right in the middle of it on a factory Rocket III. "BSA and Triumph never really saw themselves as one team. It was always red bikes versus blue bikes," he recalls. This was the Big Push: fresh leathers for everybody, a PR firm cranking out actual press kits and 10 triples on the grid. Americans Gene Romero, Don Castro, Tom Rockwood and Gary Nixon rode factory-blue Triumphs along with Englishman Paul Smart, David Aldana, Jim Rice, Emde and Mann on red BSAs. They even coaxed Mike Hailwood out of retirement for the occasion.
On the BSA side the original plan was to put Mann, Aldana and Rice on their '70 bikes and give Emde a fresh '71. At least until it became abundantly clear that the '71 "Low Boy" triples were a whole lot newer and faster than anyone expected. Emde's Rocket III went to Mann and, over on the Triumph side, Nixon's Trident was repainted with Romero's big #1. "It turned out the new bikes were quite a bit better," says Emde. "They were lower and more compact, with a disc brake up front, smaller fairings and more top speed. The Hailwood and Smart bikes were a generation ahead of what Dick was riding, and the High Boys the rest of us had were a generation behind that."
In the end, a certain sort of justice was served. Hailwood and Smart dropped out, each melting the triple's notoriously hot center cylinder. Mann took BSA's first Daytona win since Bobby Hill in '54, followed by Romero's blue Triumph and Emde on the #25 BSA. The red bikes may have beaten the blue ones and everybody else to win that battle, but Japan won the war: Emde won the '72 Daytona 200 on a Yamaha, and it was a dozen years before another manufacturer tasted victory.