Motorcycle Classics

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

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.

Their enthusiasm also led to formation of the Chitose International Motorcycle Club that became part of the Motorcycle Federation of Japan (MFJ), a major race-sanctioning body on the island. One thing led to another, and soon those GIs were competing at other racetracks, exhibiting the same level of skill and talent displayed by the MFJ’s top riders. Their success didn’t go unnoticed, leading the Honda distributor on the island to lend a helping hand to the Yanks’ programs. Factory assistance included transporting the GIs’ bikes to distant racetracks and helping with race-related expenses. The soldiers also had the blessings of the Army base commander, who recognized early on that through their racing activities the GIs were serving as unofficial ambassadors from America.

Japan’s economy was still feeling the ill effects of World War II during the early 1960s, so few Japanese people owned automobiles. Consequently, affordable motorcycles played a key role as personal transportation for many citizens, especially on the island of Hokkaido, where business and commerce had yet to gain the traction it eventually would the following decade.

But when a young Coffman reported for duty he had no interest in owning or riding a motorcycle. Initially, that is, because soon enough he realized that if he was to get around on the island, he needed a motorcycle.

In early spring 1963, he bought a used Honda CB77 Super Hawk from a sergeant who had orders to return to the states. Immediately, and with no instruction on how to operate a motorcycle, Coffman took off on his first ride, which almost became his last ride: “I crashed into the MP barracks, careened off the side, but didn’t fall off,” he says, adding, “I just kept on going, hoping nobody saw.” No autopsy, no foul, and Coffman stuck with it.

The bait is set

You might say that he stuck like Velcro, because two weeks later young Coffman entered a race on the base’s new and larger racetrack (a course Coffman describes as “a road race course without pavement”). The base’s short course (also dirt) remained, but most racing now took place on the newer track — about a mile long — that included a quarter-mile straightaway. Ironically, Coffman’s crash episode with the MP barracks paid dividends at his first race; he fell 16 times in that event, and like his barracks blindside, he came away unhurt from every one of the 16 miscues. “I got hooked on it [racing] instantly,” he recalls, proof again just how addictive this sport can be.

Coffman, Chapman and Wood enjoyed a unique friendship as their racing prowess grew with each race entered. They became especially proficient at racing on dirt tracks, because that was the only kind of track surface to be found on Hokkaido in those days.

The island’s racetracks amounted to what would best be described as scrambles courses. They were dirt tracks composed of left- and right-hand turns that snaked over subtle elevation changes, with fist-size rocks and minimal crowd control thrown in for good measure. Coffman describes the Chitose track surface as being “fairly smooth, hard-pack” dirt mixed with small rocks — and no jumps. In fact, the only Hokkaido race course with a jump was found on a track near Sapporo. Coffman recalls that jump requiring a leap of faith: “None of us had a clue how to make that jump without our feet flying off the pegs.”

The GIs’ antics on the track were all the more impressive, too, because they were racing street bikes with street tires and street suspension with less than three inches of wheel travel. “We didn’t think anything of it at the time because, well,” Coffman says, “we simply didn’t know any better.”

There were various other tracks scattered about the island, too, and reaching them during the course of a weekend could have been logistically tough for the GIs except for the help that mighty Honda Motors provided through the island’s distributor. See, the Honda distributor took care of the riders’ train and taxi fares, plus they transported the Americans’ bikes and gear to the tracks for them.

As noted, these weren’t long-travel CR motocross bikes, either. The preferred model for the Open Class was a very slightly modified CB77, which was what Coffman cut his racing teeth on. He later sold his Super Hawk to help finance the purchase of a CR93, Honda’s race-ready 125cc model that sported dual overhead cams, high-compression pistons and megaphones. “You haven’t heard a race bike until you’ve heard a CR93’s megaphones,” Coffman fondly recalls today.

A natural question to arise at this point in our Far East tale is: Who was the fastest of the three? Chapman has since passed away, and Wood remains unaccounted for since he transferred out of the base shortly before Coffman shipped out in 1964, so we’ll leave the ballot box open to him alone. And with a sigh, Coffman will tell you, “Chapman was the fastest.”

With due modesty, Coffman rates himself as second-fastest of the trio, although Wood always made a good account of himself in competition, too. “I had a few wins and a lot of seconds and thirds,” Coffman says. Chapman, however, was the man to beat most of the time, often finishing in front of the top Japanese riders, too.

Part of the GIs’ overall success on the racetrack was attributed to their daily riding over the gravel and dirt roads that laced the island. Consequently, whenever and wherever the three GIs rode their bikes, they were also honing their racing skills over the hard-pack road surfaces. Indeed, all of that off-track practice paid off quickly for newbie-rider Coffman, who recalls, “Every minute we were riding we were practicing our techniques. After the first race I got pretty decent pretty quickly.”

Track time

Practice makes perfect, right? The three racing GIs thought so, prompting them to feel confident enough to take their little road/dirt racing circus to Honshu, Japan’s main island, where a new state-of-the-art racetrack was staging a national race in 1964. Suzuka, which opened in 1962 and served as home for the Japanese Grand Prix, offered the GIs a bona fide road race course on which to showcase their newfound talents. The hungry GIs wanted a taste of that track, so they mapped out plans to compete there during the summer of 1964 in a national event.

By that time Coffman had his CR93 dialed in, and he spent his off hours practicing on Chitose’s racetrack for the upcoming Suzuka race. He even applied the letters “ERT” onto his number plate, the three letters standing for Engineering Racing Team, which was composed of the band of brothers he worked with and who supported the three racers in the pits on weekends.

Remember how the DEW Line was established to keep an eye on those pesky Ruskies? Well, shortly before the Suzuka race the Soviet military began sending mixed signals of sorts that the U.S. military brass didn’t care for, prompting everybody assigned to the DEW Line to do the DEW. There would be no off-base leave passes issued during this potential crisis, and so the G.I. Joe racers had to pencil in a big DNS alongside Suzuka on their race schedules.

Disappointed but not defeated, the Yanks continued forging ahead with their racing on Hokkaido. Plus, whenever a break in their work and racing schedules allowed, they’d take to the open road for some overnight adventures, as well. One road trip took them to the north end of the island, a three-day jaunt that produced a flat tire among one of the riders in the group. Seeking help, they stopped at a nearby bicycle shop where the owner not only fixed the flat tire for free, he also took the road-weary group in for meals and overnight lodging. “The Japanese people were so polite,” Coffman says. “They treated us like royalty. A wonderful experience.”

Despite such memorable times, racing remained paramount among the three soldiers’ ambitions, and they talked about continuing their racing when they returned to civilian life back in the States. They were young men buoyed by young men’s dreams, and as Coffman wistfully told me, “We were going to be rich and famous racers after we got out of the Army.”

Whither G.I. Joe?

Whatever became of the G.I. Joe racers? Well, Wood went his own way and remained unaccounted for after his military discharge. As for Chapman, he returned to his hometown in Maryland, where he fell in love and settled down with an attractive young lass, leaving motorcycle racing forever.

Coffman followed Chapman to Maryland, where he pursued professional racing until eventually earning the coveted AMA Expert ranking. Like most AMA racers of the 1960s, Coffman specialized in dirt track racing as well as road racing. Soon enough, though, he saw the writing on the pit wall and hung up his steel shoe, only to fall in love with Chapman’s sister, Priscilla. They married before settling down in Dale’s home state of Iowa, where they enjoyed a happy life together up to the day she passed away a few years ago.

By then, Coffman had concluded a successful career as a high school shop class teacher, no doubt teaching countless young men the way of the wrench (we can never have too many gearheads on this planet). Today he’s back in the racing pits spinning his own wrenches on his Honda CB450 vintage race bikes so that other young men might have the same golden opportunity he enjoyed many years ago, when he and a group of thrill-seeking GIs formed the nucleus of an unknown group of racers sponsored by the largest motorcycle company in the world.

Perhaps Coffman’s recollections sum up best what he and his band of brothers accomplished so long ago: “Racing was only part of the experience, really,” he says, pausing to reflect some more before concluding. “We represented ourselves and our country well.” And that, it seems, was the biggest trophy he and his American teammates could claim during their days as Honda-sponsored racers in a faraway land. MC

  • Published on Jun 13, 2017
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