Two-Stroke Thunder

Dain Gingerelli takes a look back at when red, white and blue smoke defined 500cc Grand Pix road racing.

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courtesy Peter Starr Collection and Dain Gingerelli Collection
No. 3 Wayne Rainey leads No. 34 Kevin Schwantz.

Race historians will look at 1974 as a pivotal year in the ranks of 500cc World Championship Grand Prix road racing.

For 24 years straight, beginning in 1949 with the FIM’s (Federation Internationale Motocycliste) first World Championship, bikes using 4-stroke power dominated the 500cc class. Then, in 1974, Yamaha’s new OW23, with its inline 4-cylinder 2-stroke engine, won the FIM constructor’s title. The following year the OW23 carried 14-time World Champion Giacomo Agostini — he had never raced a 2-stroke motorcycle before signing with Yamaha — to his 15th and final world title. By 1976 Barry Sheene, riding Suzuki’s RG500 square-4 2-stroke, powered his way to consecutive world titles (1976-1977).

The Americans are coming

Two-stroke technology had methodically lodged itself into 500cc GP road racing, pushing 4-strokes out of the picture. And, come 1978, Grand Prix road racing was in for yet more change. The Americans were coming.
Indeed, and as we shall learn from Peter Starr’s podcast, American Legends Series, those brutish 2-stroke Grand Prix racers were tailored for Americans to compete in world championship competition. And as history shows us, the Yanks dominated the 500cc class for a string of 16 racing seasons, 1978 through 1993. A final championship was added by an American — Kenny Roberts Jr. — in 2000. Two years later GP racing was turned topsy-turvy a second time when, in 2002, MotoGP supplanted 500 GP as the premier class. But that’s a whole different story.

A black and white photo of a person on a motorcycle in a race

For the time being let’s talk about those oil-burning 2-strokers that practically set the Grand Prix world ablaze. A good place to start is with the first two American racers to land on Europe’s shores — Pat Hennen and Steve Baker. Hennen was the first American to ever win a 500 Grand Prix in Europe, riding his Suzuki RG500 to first place at the 1976 Finnish GP. The following year, although he didn’t win a single Grand Prix, Yamaha-mounted Baker finished second in the championship points standings in his first year of Grand Prix racing. Also that same year Baker became America’s first road race world champion by winning the Formula 750 series. Then came 1978 … and Kenny Roberts, armed with his potent Yamaha OW35 to chase down the 500 GP crown.

King Kenny

We know that KR won the 500 world title for three consecutive years, 1978-1980, in the process earning the moniker King Kenny. But to fully appreciate how the Americans ruled their new kingdom, here’s a rundown of King Kenny’s successors, accompanied by their championship years: Freddie Spencer (Honda, 1983, 1985), Eddie Lawson (Yamaha, 1984, 1986 and 1988; Honda, 1989), Wayne Rainey (Yamaha 1990-1992), Kevin Schwantz (Suzuki, 1993) and Kenny Roberts Jr. (Suzuki, 2000). We could add to that list the late, great Nicky Hayden, who won a MotoGP world title for Honda in 2006, and then call it a day.

But in all fairness, it wasn’t an all-American contingent of 500cc world champions within that 16-year span. Italy’s Marco Lucchinelli and Franco Uncini won their respective titles in 1981 and 1982, and Australian Wayne Gardner was champ in 1987, while Mick Doohan established his own, unique, era — 1994-1998 — winning five titles in a row. At one point, starting September 5,1982, with Freddie Spencer’s win at the San Marino GP, Americans won 27 consecutive Grand Prix road races, the string ending May 19, 1985, when Frenchman Christian Sarron won the rain-soaked German GP.

A group of men around a motorcycle.

And 500 GP aficionados certainly can’t forget 1983, the 12-race championship year that, in terms of the world title, belonged to Spencer. By season’s end the race-win tally showed six for Spencer and half a dozen for Roberts — and none for everybody else — a remarkable year of racing by that dynamic duo, the ultimate difference being two points separating Spencer (144) and Roberts (142). Amazing.

And as if that wasn’t enough of a dominant performance by the Americans, Randy Mamola and Lawson finished third and fourth in the 1983 standings. Lafayette, we have landed.

American Legends

Much more success was to come for the American racers, and that’s where this tale of the 2-strokes takes a turn. Rather than recite facts about the racing itself, let’s all gather in Motorcycle Classics’ makeshift press room where we can collectively log in to view established motorcycle film-maker Peter Starr’s video podcast, American Legends Series so that we can listen first-hand as Starr interviews, individually on separate podcasts, America’s former 500cc Grand Prix World Champions (each podcast lasts between a half hour to an hour, and are chock full of insider tidbits and trivia about these former world champions).

A black and white photo of a man on a motorcycle

For brevity’s sake, I, your dedicated cub reporter, extracted some of the more colorful and revealing quotes by the racers to serve as a teaser not only for this narrative, but to encourage you to view all of Starr’s Legends podcasts. They reveal much about those racers and the races they survived.

And as you’ll learn, it took more than a skilled racer with a tempered throttle hand to ride those powerful 2-stroke GP bikes to their limits. Bravery was also a factor. As Cycle Guide magazine’s Sport Editor during the 1980s, I often interviewed these same world champions when they were young, bold men. We often talked about their exploits and episodes on the racetrack, but seldom did they openly share what it was truly like to ride one of these motorcycles to the limit. Doing so might have revealed a valuable speed secret to a competitor who could then have used the knowledge at a future race.

A man on a motorcycle

However, I can lend additional insight in terms of the explosive power their 2-stroke race bikes exhibited, because in late 1986 I had the opportunity to ride (not race!) Lawson’s 1986 championship winning Yamaha YZR500 during a private test session at Riverside International Raceway. In my report for the June 1987 issue, I speculated on what it was like racing Lawson’s Marlboro-Yamaha in competition. I wrote, “I can’t even imagine what that would be like: Concentrating on controlling 140 wild horses beneath you as 25 other wild and crazy guys ride their bikes within an arm’s length of each other — while doing 180mph — is insane. Worse, each rider is doing all he can to make his bike go faster than yours, so there’s really never enough horsepower to satisfy you in a race.”

Looking back

As I’ve aged, I can tell you that time, prompted by age itself, has a way of tempering a racer’s demeanor. In the process it allows that racer to be more forthright and open — even humble — concerning matters that, during his prime as a competitor, he would otherwise have secretively withheld during interviews such as those that Peter Starr conducts in his American Legends Series. Starr, in his podcasts, transcends those years, allowing our heroes, who now bask in the glory of retirement, to share, once and for all, what they experienced — even survived — years ago when their 2-stroke racers powered them to fame and, collectively, to 14 world championships.

A black and white photo of a man

And with that I hand the microphone to Peter Starr who deserves credit for the racers’ responses you’re about to read. The supporting narrative is mine, but the quotes belong to Starr and the men he interviewed:

Traction, via tire grip, coupled with frame and suspension stability, was always an issue with those explosive 2-strokers. Keep in mind that the bikes didn’t have traction control and other computer-backed conveniences enjoyed by today’s MotoGP racers. With that in mind, Roberts reminisced about his Goodyear-shod Yamaha at one particular race: “The thing (bike) flexed too much … it would just wind the chassis up, and then it (chassis) springs and comes off the ground, and moved the bike two bikes (to either side at speed).” When he pulled in to the pits to talk about the situation with his crew, one member replied, “‘So what? What do you want us to do about it?'” Translation: That’s the nature of the beast, deal with it.

Spencer confided that, contrary to what many railbirds of the time said about the Honda NS500’s nimble handling, its 3-cylinder engine actually made the bike difficult to ride, citing unpredictable handling, especially entering and exiting turns. Spencer’s solution was to apply “what I learned as a dirt track racer, compensating for the bike’s weaknesses by changing how I rode it.”

Three men in the backseat of a car on a race track.

Like most of the other Yanks in Europe, Rainey had spent a major portion of his early racing days in the U.S. competing in flat track racing where he learned the art of sliding the rear wheel. Flat track racing, he said, “teaches you to be aggressive, and keeps you focused … and that’s what road racing is all about,” adding later in his narrative that riding the 2-stroke GP bikes was “a lot like riding a flat track bike,” meaning you steered with the rear wheel, inducing controlled wheel spin to do so.

Chasing traction

By the time Schwantz made it to Europe, tire technology had progressed to the point that traction was much better, prompting him to say that, because his Suzuki’s engine delivered its power with immediacy “like a light switch,” it was best to “have that thing (bike) pointed in the right direction (when on the gas).” He best described a 500cc 2-stroke engine’s narrow power band as “2,500rpm of holy s***, hang on as tight as you can!”

A black and white photo of a man holding an award.

Schwantz was more succinct when discussing his bike’s overall setup by race time. It seems that if one thing, such as the engine’s power delivery or carburetion, was finally sorted out, then another problem popped up in the bike’s braking or handling manners. Eventually he told Starr about this sort of whack-a-mole game that the riders played, “I can count on one hand — and have fingers left (over) — the number of times I had a bike that was perfect (by race time).”

Lawson’s favorite tire traction episode actually took place at Daytona when, in 1983 he and Roberts rode over-bore 500s (based on OW69 square-4 models) for the 200 miler. After running top speed on the banking, the bike began to shimmy when Lawson slowed and braked for Turn 1. Later in the pits he asked KR about that squirrelly motion. King Kenny calmly explained that the rear tire had been spinning — at 180mph! — and during deceleration it was regaining traction, forcing the bike to methodically wobble from side to side until speed and the bike’s suspension settled down. Ho-hum, just another day at the office.

A person on a motorcycle

Indeed, Lawson shared with podcast viewers that King Kenny was the one who determined that Lawson should be the one to wear Yamaha’s royal colors into combat after the King abdicated. Lawson said that Roberts felt the younger rider was ready for 500 GP racing, “And I thought I was (too),” said Lawson, “until I rode a 500. It scared the p*** out of me.”

Perhaps KR Jr. said it best when he pointed out that GP bikes in that era “didn’t have traction control, so everything was … you know …” (And if you don’t know, refer above to Schwantz’s comment about his Suzuki’s “light switch” power delivery or to Lawson’s christening to the 500 GP class. — DG)

Junior brought up another interesting point — “the line.” By that he meant that no matter how good tires, suspension, even power delivery were by race time, “You could never get off line on a 500.” If you deviated off a corner’s preferred line, he said, you “risk crashing, usually a high-side.”

Two men indoors

To which KR Sr. had pointed out in his interview, “high-sides hurt,” clearly an understatement, adding that those endo-inducing antics were probably the biggest fear among 2-stroke racers from that era.

Interestingly, though, it was a near high-side in 1971 that KR experienced as a Junior in an AMA lightweight (250cc) heat race that helped him land his contract with Yamaha the following year as a rookie Expert. As KR tells the story, he tried to pass Yamaha factory team rider Kel Carruthers on the outside to gain the lead in that heat race. KR’s bike wobbled every which way, and although he nearly high-sided, he didn’t crash. No doubt, KR indicated, that move caught Carruthers’ attention, figuring this kid was not only good, but gutsy. KR told Starr that Carruthers must have figured “this guy’s an idiot. I’d better help him.”

The next season, at Carruthers’ urging, both riders wore Yamaha International’s team colors of yellow, black and white. And we all know where that road eventually led to. MC

Peter Starr’s American Legends Series podcast: True tales of racing bravado, high-speed skill and a dash of crazy

An older man in a jeans jacket next to a motorcycle

It was during a telephone conversation I had with Peter Starr that led to this article for Motorcycle Classics. Peter was sharing with me some of the insider information about his American Legends Series podcasts, in the process citing tales about 500cc Grand Prix road racing. And the more he talked, the more I realized that I needed to see and hear each podcast in its entirety.

And after listening and viewing them, there was no doubt in my mind that this magazine’s readers needed to hear them, too. The solution was to offer MC readers snippets from the podcast, mixed with quotes that these six world champions shared during their respective interviews.

Each video podcast is free to view, and I guarantee the experience will be as if you personally sat in the race shop while each racer shares his stories with you. So settle back with a cold one and a bowl of hot buttered popcorn, then punch in on your computer’s keyboard before settling back to enjoy the show. Make that each show. — Dain Gingerelli

Motorcycle Classics Magazine
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