Dick Mann's 1970 Daytona 200 Victory | Mann & Machine

American Roadracing’s Modern Era Began When Honda Won the 1970 Daytona 200

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Motorcyclist Archives

AMA roadracing was a backwater for much of the 1960s, a two-wheeled fiefdom dominated by America’s only remaining motorcycle manufacturer, Harley-Davidson. With success more or less guaranteed by archaic Class C rules that gave The Motor Company’s antiquated, side-valve KR750 motor a 50 percent displacement advantage over more modern engines from European manufacturers, racing in America was essentially an all-Harley affair. It wasn’t until the late-’60s, when the British brands began spending serious money in an effort to increase their U.S. sales, that the racing results began to change.

Triumph was the first to strike, launching an all-out assault on the 1966 Daytona 200. The British firm developed a 500cc Daytona T100R racer that was as powerful as the 750cc Harleys, but much lighter at just 315 lbs. Buddy Elmore won the 200 that year for Triumph, and Gary Nixon won it for Triumph again in ’67. Harley retaliated by forming a huge, eight-rider “Wrecking Crew” led by the gifted Cal Rayborn, who defied all odds to win the 200 in ’68 and ’69 on the outdated, flathead KRTT.

By ’69, however, not even the hyper-conservative AMA Competition Committee—which hadn’t even allowed fairings until ’64—could ignore technology’s forward march. Lightweight Japanese two-strokes had begun to make their presence known. Yamaha 350s finished second and third at Daytona in ’69, and Yvon DuHamel’s Yamaha became the first bike to qualify at over 150 mph (qualifying then consisted of a flying lap of the tri-oval). Meanwhile, multi-cylinder superbikes like BSA’s Rocket 3, Triumph’s Trident triple and Honda’s magnificent CB750 four were flying out of showroom doors. The AMA had no choice but to get with the times. For 1970, the rules were rewritten to allow 750cc displacement for all motorcycles regardless of valve location or number of cylinders.

Triumph and BSA had joined forces in the mid-’60s, and by '70 the joint venture was desperate to boost sales of its premier triples, which were outsold 4-to-1 by Honda’s CB750 in the American market. The British firm thought a Daytona win would provide the perfect marketing boost, and spared no expense assembling a race effort for the 200. Seven racebikes were prepared, powered by 81-horsepower engines mounted in Rob North-built “highboy” frames wrapped in wind-cheating bodywork developed in a Royal Air Force wind tunnel. The company increased its odds with an all-star rider roster featuring nine-time World Champion Mike Hailwood joined by David Aldana on red-and-white BSAs, plus Don Castro, Gary Nixon and Gene Romero riding blue-and-white Triumphs. A full factory crew, including an aerodynamics specialist and support engineers from Dunlop Tires and Lucas Electrics, completed the effort.

Rayborn—the defending Daytona champ—led another massive Harley effort aboard the new, OHV, iron-head XRTT. Honda, on the other hand, almost didn’t make the show. Its CB750 was the pinnacle of late-’60s performance, with a Grand Prix-inspired four-cylinder engine, disc front brake and excellent handling. Yet despite these advantages, Honda’s upper management was reluctant to race. It was only through the force of one man—Bob Hansen, American Honda’s national service manager—that Honda entered the 200 at all.

When Hansen first proposed racing at Daytona, American Honda’s board of directors shot him down: “They said, ‘What if we don’t win?’” Hansen recalls. “I said, ‘Exactly. That’s why we need a full-fledged factory effort.’ I already distributed bikes to dealers, and I knew someone was going to race at Daytona. I said a first-class effort was the only way to ensure success.”

Honda’s board wouldn’t budge. A few days later, however, Hansen received a phone call from Mr. Harada, the head of Honda R&D in Japan. Harada had just one question: What was the top speed necessary to win? “I picked a number a few mph faster than anyone had ever gone before, and he hung up,” Hansen says.

Three days later, Harada called back and said Honda was preparing to enter the 1970 Daytona 200. “I asked how he made the decision,” Hansen says. “He said, ‘You told me necessary top speed. I know horsepower needed to achieve that speed. We can make that power, so we can win the race.’” If only it were that simple!

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