50 Years of Suzuka

Celebrating Soichiro Honda’s Ultimate Amusement Park

By Mitch Boehm, Photography by Honda, Jun Goto

Suzuka has been modified many times in the past 50 years, with most of the changes aimed at improving rider safety. The Armco barriers were moved back in several places, a chicane was added just before the ultra-fast front straight, one dangerous corner was double apexed to slow it down, and more. But even today, Suzuka remains somewhat hazardous—especially for motorcycles—though Formula One still visits once a year.

“There are places you for sure didn’t want to crash,” says Mike Spencer. “I broke a V65 in half during testing once after it hit the barrier at about 100 mph. I just missed hitting [a barrier post] myself because they’d removed a section to make room for a quick exit for our secure pit area. So lucky.”

“Despite the danger,” 500cc world champion Kevin Schwantz says, “it’s still one of the great tracks of the world, right there with Monza or Imola. I was always extra motivated there, always rode with a bit between my teeth ‘cause it was Honda’s track. There was always a rumor that Honda paid a $100,000 bonus to any Honda rider who won a GP there, so that helped. Still, I remember watching Lawson at Suzuka; he was always a little cautious. As I got older, I realized why.”

Epic moments abounded during the 50th Anniversary weekend, and as the only American motorcycle journalist in attendance, I had most to myself. Lawson and Roberts provided plenty—some serious and some hilariously funny—as I hung out with them in their air-conditioned suite overlooking the track. Lawson is quiet by nature; Roberts much less so, especially once he gets on a roll. After all the talk about racing and tracks and riders and all the years of history between him and Lawson and Spencer, Roberts was standing tall on the biggest Kaiser of all that weekend. My stomach literally hurt on the flight home from laughing so hard, and so often.

A big moment occurred with the two of them on stage before a thousand-odd fans, discussing the ’83 season. Lawson did much of the talking, reiterating how difficult the disc-valved ’83 YZR500 was to ride (for him as a GP rookie, anyway), and how much respect he had for Roberts as Kenny chased Spencer for the crown that year. “Kenny basically taught me how to ride a 500 that season,” Lawson told the crowd. Later, Roberts and Spencer talked about the ’83 season on the same stage. And as I watched them banter about that so-difficult and so-competitive season when they had to hate one another, I realized the concept of water under the bridge is a sweet thing indeed, even for the hardest-core competitors.

Watching the Honda Collection Hall crew fiddle and fettle the handful of ’60s-era four stroke multis was a treat, and hearing the 250cc Six fire off was eclipsed only by the row of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s Formula 1 cars roaring down the front straight at full-honk. Words cannot describe the sounds. Those who truly appreciate what Honda’s engineers have accomplished could be near tears.

But what really got me was watching Spencer and Roberts together again, Freddie on the nimble NS500 triple and KR astride his hard-starting V-four YZR. That season was arguably the best in motorcycle Grand Prix history, and to see the players and the machines alive and well and running down the track together was as powerful as anything I’ve experienced in motorcycling.

Mr. Honda would surely have loved the sight. Somehow, some way, I think he may have known what was going on, too. And if so, it’s likely he had that same gleam in his eye, the same knowing look he had back in ’61 as he watched his master racetrack plan take shape. Thank you, Mr. Honda. The world still very much enjoys your fabulous motorsports playground.

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