A legendary engineer and talented motivator, Soichiro Honda also had the foresight to fund
Standing on Suzuka’s pit lane watching world champions Freddie Spencer and Kenny Roberts jump aboard the same 500s they rode during the epic 1983 GP season and scream off into the distance with 40,000 fans roaring their approval, a particular image came crisply to mind. It was a black and white photo I’d seen that very morning of Soichiro Honda —in his mid-50s at the time—standing with track designer John Hugenholtz during construction of the circuit in 1961. In the shot, Mr. Honda had a particular gleam in his eye, a knowing look probably present fairly often in the man’s storied life—like when he conceived his first Dream motorcycle, perhaps, or when Honda won its first Isle of Man TT race, or maybe when Spencer captured Honda’s first 500cc title in ’83.
The man from Hamamatsu was a visionary; of that, there is no doubt. As I watched Spencer and Roberts shriek away, luxuriating in the wail that only 500cc two-stroke racebikes can make, and spied the massive Ferris wheel turning slowly in the distance, I understood a little better what Mr. Honda was after when he decided to build the Suzuka Circuit.
The thousands of fans who packed the place last July during the Suzuka Circuit’s golden anniversary got a good glimpse of Mr. Honda’s legacy, too: The legendary riders (and drivers) who lapped pedigreed machinery all weekend; the hundreds of two- and four-wheeled production and works machines on display; the many autograph and interview sessions; the motorsports memorabilia for sale; and the Ferris wheel overlooking the front straight, its quiet presence and mechanical motion acting as a quaint reminder of what Soichiro Honda was all about—mixing motorsports, excitement, and fun in the strongest possible way.
Soichiro Honda has been gone more than 21 years. But as I watched Roberts and Spencer flash by just as they did so many times during that legendary ’83 season, when one or the other won each of the 12 GPs (with Spencer winning the title by a mere 2 points at Imola, the final race of the season), I couldn’t stop thinking the man would’ve loved to have been there that day…
Suzuka went from unused foothill geography to one of the world’s premier circuits in just
Looking back, it’s almost unbelievable that the Suzuka Circuit was built 17 years after the end of World War II. (My son is nearly 17, and it feels like he was born yesterday.) Of course, Soichiro Honda was already doing Big Things. He’d run an auto-service franchise and built a piston-ring company. He formed the Honda Technical Research Center only a year after the war ended and soon caused a stir with his motorized bicycles; launched Honda Motor Company and, by the time the track was completed in ’62, had already won at the Isle of Man—a commitment he’d made to the world just seven years earlier.
Racing was transfused into Honda’s bloodstream at an early age, the competitive gene increasing in strength until it was on par with the inventiveness and engineering DNA that was such an important part of Mr. Honda’s makeup. Honda himself had raced. He followed racing, he’d pushed his company to race at the highest levels, and he knew the importance of competition development in testing and proving production machinery.
So it maybe wasn’t surprising when the company bought 700,000 square meters of land near Suzuka City in Mie Prefecture in 1959, ostensibly to build a new factory for its popular Super Cub scooter, along with a recreation facility for employees nearby, when Mr. Honda suddenly changed the plan. “Recreation facilities can be built anywhere, anytime,” Honda said. “I want a racing circuit. [Motorcycles and automobiles] won’t get better unless they are raced. If no one will build a circuit in Japan, we’ll do it ourselves.”
Auto racing existed in Japan at the time, but only on the most primitive scale, taking place on dirt roads, at horseracing tracks, or on dirt ovals. Motorcycle races were held at Mt. Fuji and Mt. Asama in ’53 and ’55, but these dirt-road events were crude and unlike anything on the Continent or in America.