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.
While Mann blasted away from everyone on the first lap, Triumph’s Gene Romero got pushed o
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eight-rider “Wrecking Crew” led by the gifted Cal Rayborn, who defied all odds to win the 200 in ’68 and ’69 on the outdated, flathead KRTT.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.
Cal Rayborn (25) was the defending Daytona 200 Champion, having won in ’68 and ’69 on an o
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.”
Dick Mann was age 36 in 1970; most thought his career was over. It was his 15th Daytona 20
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!
Gene Romero came within 2 seconds of winning the 1970 Daytona 200. He did go on to win the
Yoshio Nakamura, Honda’s famous Formula 1 team manager, was placed in charge of the Daytona effort. This decision didn’t sit well with Hansen, who was a veteran competitor. “What did he know about racing at Daytona?” Hansen asked. Apparently there was some uncertainty inside Honda, too, as Harada gave Hansen one bike as a contingency. Nakamura was responsible for three works-racer CR750s—the factory racing version of the production CB750. Hansen would field an identical fourth bike.
Once the decision was made to compete, the Honda effort proceeded at full-throttle. Nakamura hired three star international riders: 125cc World Champion Ralph Bryans, fellow Irishman Tommy Robb and U.K. Honda dealer, racer and Isle of Man TT expert Bill Smith. For his entry, Hansen selected well-known AMA Grand National Champion and three-time Daytona 200 runner-up Dick “Bugsy” Mann.
That year’s Daytona 200 was controversial from the start. Bickering began early in the week, when other teams learned that the factory Triumphs and BSAs were using non-homologated five-speed transmissions. Honda was drawn into the controversy mid-week when Bryans crashed his CR750 on the front straight, where it caught fire. Honda’s threats to protest the Britbikes’ illegal gearboxes went
After catching Mann in the early laps, Gary Nixon (9) led the race until the 110-mile mark
up in smoke when the other teams saw the CR750’s decidedly non-stock magnesium engine cases burning in the flames.
Desperate to capture pole position—and the $1000 prize that went with it—Romero and his mechanic, Pat Owens, took a calculated risk for qualifying and installed skinnier, 3.5-inch-wide street tires run at very high pressure. Their gamble paid off when Romero’s Triumph logged a remarkable 157.342-mph lap, clocking 165 mph through the back-straight speed trap and chunking the tires in the process. Hailwood’s BSA qualified second with a 152.90-mph lap and Nixon held third at 152.82 mph. Mann’s Honda qualified fourth with an average speed of 152.67 mph, ahead of all three Nakamura-tuned CR750s.
An extra tall—and illegal—tailsection helped Romero set his 157-mph lap in qualifying. Not
Honda had the speed, but Hansen was concerned about mechanical problems. Mann’s bike suffered a misfire that affected high-rpm performance. Bob Jameson, Hansen’s lead mechanic, did some investigating and discovered the hard-rubber cam-chain tensioner was disintegrating inside the motor, necessitating a full engine rebuild. Jameson alerted Nakamura’s other three crew chiefs, but they foolishly ignored his advice. Meanwhile, the BSA/Triumph mechanics had their own worries: Those new, full-coverage fairings didn’t flow enough air to keep the triples cool in the Florida heat, especially on the infield road course.
When the green flag dropped, Mann got the start of his career and opened a 50-yard lead by Turn 1. Before exiting the infield, however, Hailwood and Nixon closed the gap. Romero was right behind until traffic forced him off-track, costing a precious, 15-second delay. By lap two Hailwood and Nixon had both ridden around Mann and were running away, until Hailwood’s bike overheated on lap six. Nixon led the race until the 110-mile mark, when he likewise retired with a burnt center piston. The factory Hondas of Bryans, Robb and Smith dropped out one by one, all suffering the same top-end problems. This left Mann, who built a tremendous lead after Nixon retired, as the only Honda rider in the race. Rayborn and the rest of Harley’s Wrecking Crew were non-factors. Not a single iron-head XR—soon to be nicknamed the “waffle iron” for its tendency to overheat—finished the race. The Motor Company’s best result that year came from Walt Fulton Jr., riding an “obsolete” KR.
Here's an inside view of Mike Hailwood's BSA Rocket 3. Notice the poorly placed oil cooler
Even after a meticulous engine rebuild, Mann’s cam-chain tensioner was gone within the first 100 miles. With just 10 laps remaining, Mann’s lead over Romero had withered to just 12 seconds. Hansen did some quick calculations and figured they could safely lose 1 second per lap and still win—provided the bike stayed together. “Dick’s machine was smoking, missing, the whole thing,” Hansen remembers. “I had my doubts.” Still, Hansen kept his fingers crossed, and kept Mann informed of Romero’s progress lap by lap.
The legendary "Mike the Bike" Hailwood was lured out of retirement for a one-off appearanc
With around five laps remaining, Nakamura jumped the pit-lane wall and stormed up to Hansen, demanding he tell Mann to increase his speed. “Nakamura pointed at his watch and said, ‘Must go faster, losing a second per lap,’” Hansen recalls. “I said, ‘Get back over that fence and mind your own business. I’m running this race now!’”—words Hansen would later regret. Hansen’s strategy worked—barely. Mann limped across the finish line first, just 2 seconds ahead of Romero. His bike was running on three cylinders, and Jameson later found less than a cup of oil left in the engine.
Hansen is quick to credit others: “Bob Jameson won Daytona in 1970—it’s as simple as that. He went through that motor, and when he was done, it was fantastic.” Hansen is just as quick to praise Mann, whose calm, veteran attitude helped him keep the failing bike together right up to the final moments of the event. American Honda thanked Hansen by terminating his position, ostensibly over his insubordination toward Nakamura. Hansen immediately took a position with Kawasaki as director of technical service, managing a successful factory racing effort.
Dick Mann's Daytona win kick-started a career comeback. He signed with BSA the following s
The Daytona 200 was one of the most prestigious races in the world during the '60s and '70
For his part, Mann remains characteristically nonchalant. “That was a normal situation for Daytona,” he says. “It wasn’t a very complicated racetrack. They didn’t have the chicane in the backstretch, so the bikes were basically at maximum RPM for a very long time. Riding skill was important, but it was usually a battle of attrition. Hansen prepared the machine and I rode it as best I could, just like I was contracted to do. That was it.”
With all due respect to Mann, Honda’s 1970 Daytona 200 win was an incredible result that foreshadowed the future of American roadracing. By the end of the decade, BSA was out of business, Triumph was headed that way and Harley-Davidson had abandoned sport motorcycles to become the cruiser juggernaut it is today. MC
Go Little Honda!
Big Red’s 1967 Daytona Debut
Words: Aaron Frank
Photo: Courtesy of Team Hansen
The year 1970 was not the first time Honda raced at Daytona. Team Hansen entered a trio of underdog CR450s in the 1967 Daytona 200—and nearly won. Bob Hansen worked closely with the factory to prepare the bikes, even sending color chips to Japan so these “privateer” bikes could be painted in the team’s official orange-and-white livery. “Honda only knew one way to go racing,” Hansen says. “It was first-class, and very expensive!”
Hansen created quite a commotion at Daytona that year. The Triumph and Harley-Davidson racebikes barely revved beyond 6500 rpm, while the Honda twins made peak power at 11,000 rpm. “The first time Jimmy Odom passed the tower, it sounded like a jet buzzed the straightaway,” Hansen remembers. Everyone laughed at the “Little Hondas” until Odom lapped the tri-oval at 134 mph, besting all but one 750cc Harley KRTT and matching the well-developed 500cc Triumph T100Rs.
Come race time, all eyes were glued to Odom’s Honda on the front row, with Walt Fulton Jr.’s Harley right beside. Odom, an expert dirt-tracker, had little roadracing experience. Hansen told him to stick to Fulton’s tail and “try to learn something”—advice Odom followed as best he could. The Honda was faster, but the Harley rider’s skill ruled the infield. Odom looked like a yo-yo attached to Fulton’s tail each time the pair headed up onto the banking.
As Odom got faster, he began dragging the pipes. “Honda sent a note that read: ‘If pipe hits ground, okay to pound with hammer,’” Hansen laughs. A few laps from the finish Odom fell in the International Horseshoe, ending his run. Gary Nixon won that year for Triumph, while future Indycar racer Swede Savage was the top-finishing Honda in 11th place.