G.I. Joe Racers: Racing Honda Motorcycles in Japan

In 1963 and 1964, three young Americans serving in Japan raced Honda motorcycles with sponsorship from Honda Motors.

  • Dale Coffman (left) and Mike Chapman aboard their Hondas.
    Photos from Dale Coffman’s collection
  • Coffman riding a borrowed Yamaha YDS-1 during a team race.
    Photos from Dale Coffman’s collection
  • A race team party back in the day. That’s Coffman in the middle row.
    Photos from Dale Coffman’s collection
  • Coffman and his 125cc Honda CR93.
    Photos from Dale Coffman’s collection
  • The CR93 was Honda’s race-ready model with dual overhead cams, high-compression pistons and open megaphones.
    Photos from Dale Coffman’s collection
  • At the starting line of the Hakodate Raceway.
    Photos from Dale Coffman’s collection
  • GIs prep a racetrack by wetting it to keep down the dust.
    Photos from Dale Coffman’s collection
  • Coffman riding his Honda CB77 on a straightaway on Chitose Army Base, located on the southern reaches of Hokkaido, Japan.
    Photos from Dale Coffman’s collection
  • At the wave of a flag, the race begins.
    Photos from Dale Coffman’s collection
  • Winners on the podium after a race. That’s Chapman on top in first, and Coffman on the left in third.
    Photos from Dale Coffman’s collection

Who among motorcycle historians can forget Dick Mann’s landmark 1970 Daytona 200 win aboard a factory-prepped Honda CB750? Mann’s ride was impressive then, and it remains so to this day, even if, in recent years, the iconic 200-mile race has lost its luster and importance for the industry.

But few enthusiasts today know about a handful of Americans who enjoyed Honda sponsorship several years before Mann’s amazing race. This story is about three young men — Dale Coffman, Mike Chapman and Mike Wood — who enjoyed the benefit of what amounted to sponsorship from Honda Motors back in 1963 and 1964. In Japan.

And who the hell are Coffman, Chapman and Wood, you might be asking? If you’re a student of motorcycle racing history, you know for a fact that none of these men ever achieved lasting fame or glory. Although Coffman eventually earned his AMA Expert number 74c, and he and his stable of Honda CB450s currently are key figures in vintage motorcycle road racing, none of the American trio ever made the kind of splash that Mann, and later Freddie Spencer and Bubba Shobert, made during their careers racing for Honda.

The G.I. Joe connection

So we now know a little about Coffman, but what about Chapman and Wood? All three were young U.S. servicemen, stationed on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido during the early 1960s. They also happened to spend their weekends racing Honda motorcycles on rudimentary racetracks that dotted Hokkaido’s volcanic-based landscape. Theirs is a most unusual tale, one that I learned about while interviewing Coffman for a Motorcycle Classics article concerning his teaming with husband and wife vintage-bike racers Wes and Leah Orloff of WFO Racing (Racer Profile, March/April 2017).

Let’s start at the beginning: Coffman, Chapman and Wood were stationed at Chitose Army Base, located on Hokkaido’s southern reaches. Nearby and to the northwest sits the city of Sapporo, future site of the 1972 Winter Olympics. The young soldiers served as electronics engineers helping maintain America’s radar-intense early-warning system, otherwise known as the DEW Line (Distant Early Warning), that kept a watchful eye on Soviet Russia in the event their military might try to lob a few missiles America’s way during the Cold War.

After spending time at a similar DEW Line base in Alaska, Coffman reported for his Hokkaido assignment in December 1962; Chapman and Wood were already stationed on Hokkaido’s DEW Line, and over time the three became close friends. They also became involved with a small group of other soldiers who happened to enjoy motorcycle racing, and those adventurous GIs displayed enough enthusiasm for the sport to convince the base commander to sanction the construction of a small, crude racetrack near the barracks.

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