The Long and Winding Road to Victory

It took Don Emde more than 200 miles of racing on a Yamaha TR3 to win Daytona in 1972 against steep odds.

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courtesy Don Emde Collection

If you’re seeking balance in the universe, consider Don Emde’s 1972 Daytona 200 win. His ride aboard a privately entered Yamaha TR3 is considered a major upset in Daytona history. Facing an army of factory-prepped 750cc bikes capable of speeds in excess of 170mph on Daytona’s steep banking, Emde’s little Yamaha 350 was good for about 160. And that speed split proved the difference between victory and defeat — in favor of Emde. The events that led to Emde winning that race easily could be turned into a Hollywood screenplay, the opening scene taking place at Ontario Motor Speedway’s garages after the final 1971 race. The camera zooms in on Danny Macias, coordinator for the Triumph/BSA factory race team, as he confidently talks to his young brood of riders, Emde among them, about 1972 plans. In so many words he says to his troops, “See ya next year.” Optimism is shared among the eager team riders as they pack their gear.

Cut to Emde’s driveway the day after Thanksgiving, 1971. Emde and some high-spirited buddies are loading their dirt bikes for a friendly foray to the desert. Suddenly appears the mailman making his daily delivery to the Emde house. The mail he delivers includes The Letter, penned by Pete Coleman, main man at Triumph/BSA’s U.S. distributorship. As Emde relates today, Coleman’s letter “began by stating how pleased the factory was with the 1971 season, but then he eventually got to the ‘but all good things come to an end’ part.” Coleman informed team riders, with exception of Dick Mann (BSA and AMA No. 1 for 1972) and Gene Romero (Triumph and second in 1971 points), that their race contracts were cancelled for ’72. Cue somber music while the scene fades.

Emde, only 20 years old at the time, scrambled to find a ride for 1972. He learned soon enough that all other factory-sponsored seats had been taken. What to do? He kept dialing and eventually his quest leads to Bakersfield, California, home of privateer tuner Mel Dinesen, the man Emde rode for in 1969 when he won the prestigious AFM (American Federation of Motorcyclists) No. 1 plate. Mel has a brand-new TR3 with a 6-speed transmission that’s slated for Juniorclass racer Jim Evans to ride. Dinesen weighs the options and decides to enter Evans in the Junior race on the older 5-speed bike, leaving the new 6-pack model for Expertrated Emde in the 200-miler. Both riders have sponsorship from Motorcycle Weekly, a racing news journal of the era. Our movie’s soundtrack carries the forceful, victorious beat you’d expect in a Bradley Cooper flick. Something in the universe has aligned for Emde.

Mel also has competitive Yamaha 250s for both riders to enter Daytona’s Lightweight support race. Ironically, and in Hollywood fashion, the 250 bike nearly proves to be Emde’s undoing in terms of not winning the 200; he crashes during Saturday’s 100-mile Lightweight race, severely injuring his right shoulder. The track M.D. tells Emde to rest for 48 hours; the 200-miler starts in less than 24 hours. Scene fades, and with it, Emde’s hopes of winning America’s premier road race.

But our movie’s protagonist won’t give up; deep in his heart he believes he’s destined to win the race. “I just had it in my head that I was going to win the race, that’s all there was to it,” Emde says nearly 50 years later.

But you can’t win unless you actually compete in the race: “I convinced the doctor and the AMA to allow me to race [on Sunday], which they did,” recalls Emde. Scene fades while Emde soaks his battered body in the motel room’s hot bath the night before the 200. There had been another obstacle in Emde’s path to victory, too. After arriving at the track earlier in the week, Emde learned that he lost his support from Dunlop Tires, which sponsored him during his two-year tenure with BSA. Every tire used during 1972 Speed Week cost him and Mel money. Meanwhile, the angry 750 triples shredded their tires at a vociferous rate. All week Emde watches in amazement as those powerful 750s complete only a few laps at a time before pitting for new rubber during practice sessions. Emde formulates a plan that he takes to the Dunlop Tires garage where he meets with the man in charge.

“Paul Butler from Dunlop said he could only give the factory teams support,” Emde reflects today. So Emde proposes a friendly wager; if he wins the 200, then Dunlop gives him and Mel tire support for the duration of the season. Fair enough, considers Butler who, like practically everybody else in Daytona’s paddock, doesn’t consider Emde’s little Yamaha a match for those huffing and puffing (and tire-snuffing) 750sfrom Japan’s other brands (read: Suzuki and Kawasaki). Emde doesn’t share that same sentiment, and after a couple laps into the race he’s cruising securely in about 10th place, hanging with two other Yamaha 350 riders, Kenny Roberts and Ron Pierce. Then yet another obstacle for Emde — his bike begins slowing down, the result of a piston seizure. But speed once again works in his favor: Racing flat out on Daytona’s banking means that Emde’s little twin-cylinder engine is pumping out extremely high rpm, and that’s what ultimately saves the engine from destruction; momentum prevents the piston from sticking. Today, as Emde recalls that moment of discovery, he’ll say: “If I pulled into the pits to see what the problem was I realized that I had no chance of winning the race — and I knew that I was supposed to win that race. So I said, ‘what the heck,’ and let out the clutch, and to my amazement the engine fired right up and ran smoothly the rest of the race.”

There’s also this: All those zoom-fast 750s either dropped out or slowed due to mechanical problems, leaving Geoff Perry and his Suzuki 500 twin in the lead. Or so people thought at the time. Again, a plot twist. Although scorekeepers reported Perry to be in first place, and even Daytona’s official infield leader board broadcast Perry’s No. 96 bike to be leading, he was actually a lap down from race leaders Ray Hempstead and Don Emde, with young Dave Smith, winner of the Lightweight race the day before, close behind them. But precisely what position Perry is in doesn’t matter when, with about a lap to go, the Suzuki’s chain breaks. The young New Zealander coasts his bike to a stop as Emde, Hempstead — now slowing from a cracked exhaust chamber — and Smith pass by. Emde is first to the checkered flag to win the race.

End of story, right? Well, sort of. Emde and Mel collect and split the race purse, and Butler and Dunlop follow through with free tires for the season, but the AMA initially awards Emde a $30 bonus for leading a single lap. That lap was, of course, the race’s final lap. So everyone thought, until the post-race scorekeepers discover a mistake revealing Perry had actually only put himself on the same lap with Emde, Hempstead and Smith when he made that late-race pass. The corrected score sheet credits Emde with nine more lead laps, in the process giving him an additional $270.

A final postscript before the movie credits roll: Don Emde’s Daytona 200 win made him and his father Floyd the first (and only) father and son to win America’s most prestigious race. Ironically, Floyd led every lap in 1948 with his Indian Scout, but as every racer will remind you, it’s not how many laps you lead in the race that matters, it’s that you lead the final lap that counts. And Floyd and Don each led the final laps in their respective years. MC

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