Pops Yoshimura — The Father of Superbike Speed

Remembering Yoshimura Research & Development founder and legendary tuner Pops Yoshimura.

Steve McLaughlin (left) on a Yoshimura-prepped Suzuki leads Wes Cooley on a Yoshimura-prepped Kawasaki at Riverside International Speedway in 1977.

Photo by Dain Gingerelli

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Yoshimura Research & Development is among the most recognizable brands in the motorcycle aftermarket industry today. Moreover, race bikes campaigned by Yoshimura have won multiple AMA and World Superbike championships. And who among the sport bike elite hasn’t, at one time or another, considered equipping their bikes with at least one speed component or another from Yoshimura’s inventory? In a nutshell, today, Yoshimura R&D is a big business.

But financial success didn’t happen overnight. It was a long, winding road to the top, and the story has its origins during World War II when a young man named Hideo Yoshimura aspired to become a fighter pilot for the Japanese Imperial air corps. Fortunately for motorcycling today, a parachuting injury forced young Hideo out of pilot training, and into airplane mechanic’s school.

After the war, Yoshimura applied his newfound mechanical skills to maintaining and modifying motorcycles for American GIs stationed in postwar Japan. By 1954 Yoshimura had opened his own motorcycle shop in Fukuoka, Japan, where he also earned the Pops moniker. The business, originally known as Yoshimura Motors, flourished, and Pops proved himself a proficient race tuner. He and his wife Naoe were joined in the business by daughter Namiko, who kept the financial records, and son Fujio, serving as Pops’ apprentice.

By 1971 a close relationship with two former American GIs — Larry Snively and Don Pedesto, who had set up a small business in Waterford, California — led to Pops and Fujio venturing to America to try their hand tuning a bike for AMA road racing. That same year Yoshimura built a Honda CR750 racer for 1964 AMA champion and three-time Daytona 200 winner Roger Reiman to campaign. The bike featured a new 4-into-1 exhaust system, a rarity for the time. Pops and Fujio settled in Los Angeles, and Yoshimura Racing (later changed to Yoshimura Research & Development) was rolling.

In coming years Gary Fisher and George Kerker raced some of Pops’ first bikes, but it was when Yvon Duhamel won the 1973 Laguna Seca Super Production race aboard a Pops-built, Dale Starr Racing Kawasaki Z1 that people in America began to take notice of the soft-spoken tuner from Japan. Within a few years Wes Cooley was racing a Yoshimura R&D Z1, and in 1978 Steve McLaughlin put a Yosh-prepped Suzuki GS750 on top of the podium at the Daytona Superbike race. The following year Ron Pierce, Wes Cooley and the late David Emde stood on the box at Daytona, all with Yoshimura logos on their leathers. That same year Cooley won Yoshimura’s first AMA Superbike championship, and Yosh Suzukis won Daytona the following two years also.

In 1981 Pops returned to Japan to continue running his enterprise there, leaving Fujio to carry on with the American program. The rest, as they say, is history, but consider what McLaughlin once posted on Facebook about Pops. Wrote the always vociferous McLaughlin: “The only tuner I ever raced for crazier than me … the last Japanese Samurai!” — Dain Gingerelli