Jay Watson

Superbike Racer Thad Wolff Is Reunited With His Suzuki GS1000

A chance meeting in the early 1970s created a lifetime of memories

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had Wolff was a wheelie-popping teen like many other American kids in the early 1970s when he met Japanese emigrants Hideo “Pops” Yoshimura, his son Fujio, Suehiro Watanabe, and Minoru Matsuzawa. That chance encounter at a Southern California storefront—the nascent Yoshimura Research and Development of America Inc.—changed Wolff’s life forever.

"I was a dirt-bike kid; I had no idea about all this roadracing stuff."

“Yoshimura was just starting with Yvon Duhamel and the Kawasaki Z1,” Wolff recalls. “I was a dirt-bike kid; I had no idea about all this roadracing stuff. When it was time for lunch, they crouched down in a circle, eating fish heads and rice with chopsticks. I was 12 or 13, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

Escargot Suzuki GS1000
Thirty-five years after it was last raced, the Escargot Suzuki GS1000 resurfaced at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California, for the inaugural Classic Bike Revival.Jay Watson

A few years later, Wolff walked into the Cycle magazine editorial offices and asked to speak with the editor, Cook Neilson. "I know you won Daytona, and I think I want to try roadracing. Would you give me some advice?" Neilson tossed an AFM rule book into Wolff's open hands. "Read this," he instructed. "And remember to safety-wire your drain plug."

Wolff progressed quickly through the club ranks and then won the 1980 AMA 250cc Novice title, which led to a reunion with Matsuzawa. “Matsu had gone off on his own and started Escargot Enterprises of America, a little speed shop in Van Nuys. We went to Riverside Raceway for a private test with his Suzuki GS1000, and I went pretty doggone fast.”

Matsuzawa and Wolff made a plan to contest the '81 AMA nationals. Suzuki's American subsidiary—known at that time as US Suzuki Motor Corp.—agreed to help, Yoshimura chipped in with cams and pistons and other engine parts, and Matsuzawa built the first-year GS1000 that Wolff tested at Riverside into a full-blown Superbike.

Thad Wolff
Thad Wolff spent two AMA Superbike seasons looking through the windscreen of the Minoru “Matsu” Matsuzawa-built inline-four, with a best finish of third at Bryar Motorsports Park in Loudon, New Hampshire.Jay Watson

Matsuzawa had another surprise for his new rider. “We drove to Suzuki and went around back to the shop,” Wolff recalls. “The Japanese in their suits and ties rolled up the door, and there sat an RG500 with a big spares kit for us. So, I went from 250cc novice on a Yamaha TZ250 one season to an AMA Superbike and Formula One the next—a real trial by fire.”

Matsuzawa and Wolff campaigned both classes for two years. "The next season, 1982, was the pinnacle for Superbike," Wolff says. "Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Mike Baldwin, Wes Cooley, David Aldana, Steve Wise, and Roberto Pietri were all racing that class, and I finished sixth. F1 was technically the premier class, and I was fourth on the RG500.

“There couldn’t have been two more different motorcycles. The RG500 was faster than stock but harder to ride. I was constantly bouncing from one bike to the other. Sometimes I had to talk to Matsu about the first session after the second session. If I had concentrated on just one machine, I probably would have done even better.”

Escargot GS1000
Wolff taped copies of his two favorite photos of Matsuzawa to the Suzuki’s gas tank for the event at Laguna Seca. The current front disc brakes are a custom mix of past and present.Jay Watson

Wolff podiumed at Loudon alongside Rainey and Lawson (“passing Cooley fair and square in the process”), but he never raced another full AMA season. No longer Superbike-legal, the GS1000 met its end at the ’83 Willow Springs 6-Hour when the spun aluminum Mitchell rear wheel failed while Wolff was leading the race. The RG500 was destroyed a couple of weeks later at Road America when Wolff was taken out by a fellow competitor.

Once his injuries from the two wrecks healed, Wolff revived his photo-modeling/bike-wrangling career that began in '79 with the help of Cycle editor Phil Schilling. "My racing career was short and sweet," he says, "but it led to working not only for magazines but also manufacturers." (Remember the Honda V45 Interceptor ad, "Bring the world to your knees"? Wolff was featured in that and countless other print and TV campaigns.)

Escargot GS1000
Wolff at speed aboard the Escargot GS1000 on the Pocono International Raceway road course, his knees layered in pre-slider duct tape. The 19-inch magnesium Morris front wheel and 18-inch Mitchell spun aluminum rear wheel originally wore bias-ply Goodyear slicks.Thad Wolff archives

Like so many obsolete racebikes, the GS1000 was put up for sale. “Matsu owned the bike,” Wolff says. “He sold the expensive brakes, but I kept the fairing, fender, gas tank, and custom seat, the only one we ever used. A customer wanted a GS like the one I had raced, so the bike went to that guy. He later died and left it to a mutual friend.

“A couple of years ago, that guy—we called him ‘Freeway’ because he often tested his racebikes on the 10 freeway—called me. ‘Hey, Thad. I’ve got something for you.’ And he gave me the motorcycle. I can’t describe the feeling I had with that motorcycle coming back into my possession. It was very emotional.”

First order of business was to strip off all the parts that weren’t part of the original machine. “I started scrounging around and found the bodywork, seat, and even the front number plate. I had to come up with different brakes and other pieces that were wrong or missing, but I got the bike back to where it is today. It’s not 100 percent original, but most of it is correct.”

Escargot Suzuki GS1000
Fox shocks, 33mm Mikuni smooth bores (“I think they were the first set in the US,” Wolff noted), and handmade side covers. The Camel Pro Series sticker is signed by Kenny Roberts.Jay Watson

Matsuzawa went on to build race engines for Mat Mladin. He was later diagnosed with prostate cancer and died in 1999, one race before the Australian won the first of seven Superbike titles with Yoshimura Suzuki. “I thought that Matsu and I were going to grow old together and have all these memories,” Wolff says, “but it wasn’t meant to be.”

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Matsuzawa’s spirit is still present in Wolff’s garage in the form of two framed photos. “One is from Pocono in the pits—I always liked that picture of Matsu. In the other, I’m holding up three fingers. That was after we finished third at Loudon.” Wolff taped copies of the photos to the Suzuki’s gas tank for the Classic Bike Revival this past June at Laguna Seca Raceway.

“To work on the bike, to resurrect it to this point, and to be able to jump on it again, looking through that same fairing, sitting on that same seat, and riding it around the racetrack, thinking about the good times with Matsu, all those memories, was an emotional roller coaster. It just blew me away.

“Matsu and I were so close,” Wolff says softly. “We had our highs and lows racing together, but the bond we formed was so special. I joke that I’m reliving the glory days of my youth through this motorcycle. Well, not so much joking because it was a wonderful time in my life, as you can imagine. The only thing missing is Matsu.”