Remembering Bob Hansen

The legendary racing tuner and moto-evangelist passes away at age 93

[ Bob Hansen

I'll admit I had no idea who Bob Hansen was when we were first introduced in the Daytona paddock at the AHRMA vintage racing national in March 2001. I was there primarily to race Battle of the Twins on my Honda Hawk GT and, secondarily, to introduce myself to then-Motorcyclist editor Mitch Boehm, who was also racing, and beg him for this job. I knew little about the history of American roadracing, and the old man with the bushy mustache, cabbie cap, and impeccable white "Team Hansen" polo shirt barely registered with me.

When Boehm finally relented and gave me an opportunity, and I got more involved in researching and writing about motorcycling, the name Bob Hansen kept popping up. When I started my grad-school thesis a few years later—a book-length history of Honda motorcycles—it was inevitable I speak with him. I eventually gathered more than 12 hours of recorded interviews with Hansen, both over the phone and in-person at the AHRMA racing events that he attended almost until his death on February 17, 2013. I quickly came to appreciate what a pivotal figure Bob Hansen was to the history of motorcycling.

A successful Class C racer himself in the 1940s and '50s, Hansen owned a shop in his hometown of Racine, WI, and was one of American Honda's first dealers. In the early '60s he became American Honda's national service manager and, soon after, one of Soichiro Honda's close confidants. Mr. Honda was a racer to the core, and he admired that same quality in Hansen. When Honda wanted to dip its toe into American roadracing, it was to Hansen that Mr. Honda surreptitiously sent three factory-prepped CR450 racers. Each was finished in Team Hansen's iconic orange-and-white color scheme, and one nearly won the 1967 Daytona 200. Hansen gave Mr. Honda his first Daytona victory three years later when Dick Mann won on a Hansen-built Honda CB750. That story of how Bob Hansen outsmarted the "factory" Honda team (and the rest of the star-studded paddock) is one of the greatest in American motorcycle racing history. It's a little-known fact that fallout from Hansen's upset victory—and the subsequent embarrassment it caused Honda's F1 team manager, Yoshio Nakamura, who ran the "official" Honda racing effort—was what drove the proud Hansen to quietly leave Honda for Kawasaki shortly thereafter. At Kawasaki Hansen racked up even more roadracing success, tuning for and mentoring great riders like Yvon DuHamel and Gary Nixon.

That was Bob Hansen in a nutshell—too proud to put up with any bullshit, but too humble to draw attention to himself—even when he so obviously deserved it. It wasn't until my third or fourth interview with him that Hansen casually asked if I had ever heard the story about how he gave Mr. Honda the idea to build the revolutionary CB750. By that time I had read virtually every book available on Honda and had never heard Hansen's name in conjunction with the genesis of the CB750. He then told me a story about dining with Mr. Honda in during an R&D trip to Japan in 1967, and brashly telling the chairman that if he really wanted to make an impression on American riders, he should build an inline-four motorcycle based on one of Honda's GP racers. The story sounded apocryphal until a few days later, when Hansen sent me a copy of a letter on Honda stationary that began: "Because it was your idea to Mr. Honda to build the four cylinder CB750…" When I asked him, incredulously, why I hadn't read this story before, he said, simply: "Well, maybe no one ever asked."

I'm enormously glad that I took the time to ask and record at least a few of Bob Hansen's best stories for posterity. His memory lives on in so many other ways, not the least of which is the continuing Team Hansen vintage roadracing effort, tirelessly maintained by Hansen's close friend, Terry Naughtin. Thanks to Naughtin, vintage racing fans can still see the familiar orange-and-white Team Hansen 450s racing—and winning—around the nation. Incidentally, I had just recently made plans with Naughtin to race one of the Team Hansen CR450s during the AHRMA vintage racing weekend at Road America next summer, for an upcoming story. I'm honored and humbled to be given an opportunity to be a part of Team Hansen effort—I just wish Bob were still around to see it.

[ Bob Jameson (left) and Bob Hansen (right) pose with a Honda CR450 racer at Daytona in 1967.