50 Years of Suzuka

Celebrating Soichiro Honda’s Ultimate Amusement Park

By Mitch Boehm, Photography by Jun Goto, Honda

Suzuka would be different. Honda himself traveled the globe prior to construction visiting many of the world’s great circuits, bringing back knowledge of their layouts and facilities along with actual chunks of each track’s asphalt—one piece reportedly torn off with a shoehorn. He studied the layouts while his engineers studied the actual tarmac, the state of paving technology being rudimentary at the time in Japan. The team tapped Hugenholtz—who’d designed the Zandvoort circuit in the Netherlands—for advice. Mr. Honda reportedly sent the Dutchman this blunt telegraph message: “I’m building a racetrack. Come to Japan. S. Honda.” A first draft of the layout was finished in 1960, including three overpasses (not one as in the finished design), with the final Figure-8 layout coming in January of ’62, after five different designs were considered.

In addition to the circuit, Honda’s “Motor Sports Land” included an amusement park for family fun. But more than that, “the park would be filled with motorized vehicles so that visitors could experience the joys of driving for themselves,” according to Honda Finance Chief Takeo Fujisawa, Soichiro’s one-time right-hand man. “By letting children enjoy engines from an early age,” he continued, “our company can contribute to the development of the automobile world.” The project was grand in scale, envisioned as a “motorized utopian resort,” according to Honda literature, which would contribute to motor science education and the motorization of Japan. This was a key concept of Suzuka: furthering Japan’s motorized industries, and letting the world know Japan was moving forward, away from isolation and brutal post-war conditions.

“The completion of the Suzuka Circuit is good news to the motor sports world in Japan,” wrote Car Graphic magazine in 1962, echoing Mr. Honda’s view. “[Hopefully] Honda will open the circuit to the public so amateurs can enjoy racing as well. Races are not only for drivers nor are they just for sports cars. Production racing will expose how far behind Japanese cars are from the world standard. Only through racing will [the Japanese] be able to drastically improve vehicle performance. Without racing,” the editors wrote, “an auto-producing nation will remain second class.”

Soichiro Honda would not let that happen, not with automobiles or motorcycles.

Japan’s motoring industry rallied strongly in the 1960s, benefitting from a decade of hard work and dedication during the post-war ’50s. At the same time, the world’s baby boomers were coming of age and wanting well-built cars and motorcycles, especially in America. Japan’s share of the world auto market was just one percent in 1960, with annual production of only 165,000 vehicles. By ’64, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, it had jumped to 3.5 percent and nearly 600,000 units, and was on its way to the monumental growth seen during the ’70s, ’80s and through to today. Motorcycling in Japan followed a similar path, with a record 2.1 million units produced in ’64 and the highest motorcycle ownership in the world that year, its 6.9 million units owned surpassing the French public’s 6.75-million-unit mark.

Suzuka helped the rise of Japan’s motoring industry by fostering an environment of excitement and helping promote two- and four-wheeled motorsports. It also advanced product development in a way not possible without access to a world-class circuit. Through organized racing and testing, Suzuka’s serpentine, 18-turn, 3.64-mile circuit provided a crucible of technical advancement, a testing regimen that existed side-by-side through the years with the many legendary Formula 1, motorcycle Grand Prix, Suzuka 8-Hours Endurance and local/regional club-racing events the track hosted in the decades following its grand opening in ’62.

“Suzuka’s effect on the development of production motorcycles through the years had to be huge,” says ex-Honda Superbike racer and Honda R&D product-testing guru Mike Spencer. “When I was involved in prototype testing during the 1980s we used Suzuka to evaluate all sorts of streetbikes—sportbikes and cruisers alike. The fast corners, the ultra-high straightaway speeds, the demands of stability and braking the track generated… it helped a ton, especially on the V45 Interceptor, the first VFR and, later, the Hurricane 600 and 1000.” Honda built a more secure test center at Tochigi later in the ’80s (because it was harder to hide prototypes at Suzuka), and it was quite useful. “But,” adds Spencer, “you couldn’t do the high-speed handling-oriented stuff you could do at Suzuka.”

“Suzuka was so important to Honda’s and HRC’s racing success,” remembers three-time world champion Freddie Spencer, “as well as my own success as a rider. Whether it was the [oval-piston] NR program, the two-stroke program, the triples and the V-fours that came later, the 250cc twins, the RVF endurance bikes, or the rise of HRC as a separate racing entity, Suzuka played a pivotal role. Unless you have the ability to test in a truly harsh environment, one that stresses engines and brakes and handling to the absolute limit, you’re not going to advance quickly. The first box-section frames HRC built early on… I broke a lot of those there, and if we hadn’t had that particular track so close by and accessible, we’d have had to learn those lessons during the season.”

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