50 Years of Suzuka

Celebrating Soichiro Honda’s Ultimate Amusement Park

By Mitch Boehm, Photography by Jun Goto, Honda

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…

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.

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.”

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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