In the late 1970s roadrace nationals in America were largely a procession of Yamaha TZ750s and the AMA was looking to spice things up. Fortunately there was a roadracing class already out there called TT Formula 1, devised by the Isle of Man organizers in the mid-1970s to replace the 500cc Grand Prix World Championship, which abandoned the dangerous island circuit after the 1976 event.
In 1980 the AMA announced its AMA Formula One class would allow restricted 750cc two-strokes like the Yamaha TZ750 as well as unrestricted 500cc two-strokes and 1025cc four-strokes.
The new racing formula had the desired effect. At Daytona in 1980 Suzuki jumped into the new formula full on with its Moriwaki-framed, GS1000-based Formula One racer ridden by Wes Cooley, David Aldana and Graeme Crosby. Eddie Lawson rode a Kawasaki KZ1000-based Moriwaki-framed machine as well.
Honda, a company known for its racing four-strokes, entered its RSC-designed RS1000 in the 1980 Daytona 200 with rider/manager Steve McLaughlin, and Ron Pierce. Honda had been competing in world endurance races and at the Isle of Man for a couple of years with the father of the RS, the RCB1000. The RS1000’s powerplant was loosely derived from the CB900 street bike, upgraded with bolstered displacement and horsepower. Its engine components were made from some of the lightest and strongest materials of the era. As a result the RS was able to spin 2000 rpm faster than Honda’s Superbike engine. The RS also utilized a rigid racing frame and a slew of trick Showa suspension and Nissan brake components. Ready to race, the bike weighed just a tad under 400 pounds.
Preseason tests of the RS1000 at Willow Springs Raceway apparently didn’t go well. According to McLaughlin, Freddie Spencer, who could make anything on two wheels go fast, came off the track after his first session on the RS and sheepishly told McLaughlin that the bike handled badly. McLaughlin in turn told the Japanese engineers on hand–in rather undiplomatic terms–about the bike’s handling issues. Ultimately to keep Spencer happy, he was given special dispensation by Honda to race a Yamaha TZ750 built by Erv Kanemoto in that year’s Daytona 200.
McLaughlin got one taste of the RS at Daytona and suddenly told American Honda officials that he couldn’t be both team manager and rider, so right then and there he traded in his Bates leathers for a pair of Ferragamo loafers. “I told Pierce he could have my bike as a backup,” McLaughlin recalls. “Ron was never that particular about the way a bike handled. He just knew he was racing something unobtainable that no one else had, and now he had two of everything. He was thrilled.”
Pierce finished a respectable seventh in the 1980 Daytona 200 on the factory RS1000 and the bike was shipped back to Japan and not raced again in America that season.
The RS came back with updates in 1981 and this time it was considerably more successful. Now the RS visibly out accelerated the Yamaha TZ750s, but was still was a bit down on top speed, and being heavier, did not brake as well as the lighter two-strokes. Remarkably, Spencer qualified third on the RS for the Daytona 200, just behind the Yamaha two-strokes of Kenny Roberts and Dale Singleton. In the race Spencer got a killer start and took off and hid from the field. Roberts was out with a stuck throttle on the second lap, leaving Spencer in complete control of the race. Unfortunately for Spencer, the good fortune wouldn’t last. He was seven seconds ahead of Singleton when the RS blew a fist-sized hole in the cases after a connecting rod broke on lap 16.
Spencer finally came through and gave the Honda RS1000 its first AMA national victory at Wisconsin’s Road America later that summer. He went on and won Pocono on the bike as well.
In 1982 Honda came to Daytona with its stunning FWS1000, but Big H hedged its bets by putting Steve Wise and Roberto Pietri on the tried and tested RS1000. It was a smart move. The awesomely powerful FWS proved to be a tire eater and Spencer and Mike Baldwin were in and out of the pits. Pietri soldiered on and gave Honda its best finish in that year’s 200 with a third on the old RS.
And with Pietri’s Daytona podium the short-lived era of Honda’s RS1000 came to an end. The FWS supplanted the bike here briefly before Honda succumbed to the inevitable and produced a two-stroke racer called the RS500 used in the closing years of the AMA’s Formula One class.
–Larry Lawrence, The Rider Files