So, there I was at the bookstore, leafing through the motorcycle magazines, when up pops a piece about a replica of the Honda CR750 ridden to victory by Dick Mann in the 1970 Daytona 200.
There was a picture, taken post-race, and the caption said Dick Mann and pit crew. Wait a doggone minute! The man in the center of the group is Bob Hansen, the Bob Hansen of Team Hansen, and as Dick Mann would be the first to tell you, that epic win, which put the Honda 750 in the racing picture, was the work of Bob Hansen.
Pit crew, indeed.
Worse, my bookstore visit took place two days after Bob died, age 93, so it wasn’t a surprise. But, for the first time in years, it didn’t show yet another piece of history in which he was, or should have been, the star.
Race story first? Okay. The background needed here is that Bob was one of American Honda’s first
employees, and he was close with Mr. Honda himself. In fact, Bob had a letter from Mr. Honda thanking him, Bob that is, for persuading Mr. Honda to build the CB750.
But, when Honda’s racing team determined to showcase the CB750 with a competition version, they
enlisted a bunch of English tuners and riders—the Japanese emulate the English the way the English do the Italians.
Bob had been running Honda 450 Twins in the AMA series, so he persuaded Mr. Honda to send him a bike and hire Mann, the AMA champ in 1963, who in 1970, was considered over the hill.
Bob knew that if in romance, timing is everything, then in racing, it’s attention to detail. During practice and qualifying at Daytona, he found that the cam-chain tensioner wasn’t good for any time at full revs. So first, he didn’t mention this to the Brits and second, Mann short-shifted and kept the leaders in sight…until the other Hondas coasted to a stop. And in the Honda-sponsored poster, there’s Bob and Dick, partners in victory.
Bob came by this naturally. He was born in Racine, Wisconsin, and raised by an aunt and uncle—a troubled family, but I never asked and he didn’t volunteer. Harley-Davidson was just down the road, he used to say, but he opted for Indians.
In 1940, before the U.S. got involved in the war, Bob enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and qualified as a bomber pilot, and he did so well that he became an instructor. (He mustered out after the war but stayed in the reserves—a lieutenant colonel.)
Bob was good enough on track to pay his way, not quite good enough to win a national championship.
When the first of his two daughters was born, he began managing a team with Indian, until that make
folded, and later with English makes, mostly Matchless.
Then came Mr. Honda and a top job, running the national parts department. When the early four-strokes were replaced by the flexible-flyer, two-strokes (and maybe because his win cost the team guys face), he managed the Kawasaki roadrace team, with guys like Gary Nixon and Yvon Duhamel; his comment on that was that Duhamel was as expensive as he was competitive—that is, very.
When Bob retired from the day job and the top teams, he took up vintage restoration and racing. Some guys back East revived Team Hansen, with the orange-and-white paint and Honda 450 Twins. I got the impression they didn’t listen to Bob’s wisdom as much as he would have liked.
By lucky chance, there was a colony of old racers living in northern San Diego County, so we founded a weekly gearhead lunch; sometimes there were two of us, sometimes 10 good ol’ guys of both genders.
Not to digress here, but Bob was gallant, an appreciator of the fair sex, always in a polite way.
One day, I noticed that Bob arrived at the McDonald’s, paid his bill and sat down until the staff brought him the off-the-menu dish he always had for lunch.
Yes. At McDonald’s, and I bet you’ve never seen such a thing.
So, I took notes and realized that the manager, a woman to whom most men would not address
compliments, had enjoyed Bob’s courtesies. Okay, she had a crush on Bob.
Then, one day, there was a new manager, who stated in no uncertain terms that the special treatment was no more. We clearly had no choice but to move the meeting to the nearby Taco Bell.
Bob was always routinely the last man to grab for the check. He made sure he got his retired-exec discount when he bought a Honda car, and he always drove to the PX for government-paid health, leading to peer-group jokes about Mr. Tightpockets.
Which wasn’t entirely fair. Sure, he charged full market price for the XLR frame he sold me, but he donated the front wheel for my son’s vintage Aermacchi.
More meaningful surely was that he bought a house for his oldest daughter and his ex-wife, and when his health began to fail, he realized that his daughters and grandchildren probably wouldn’t want scores of old motorcycles, so he sold all he could sell at his asking prices.
How many? Darned if I know. Bob had a barn full of bikes and parts he was working on, and two of those huge storage bins of bikes he hadn’t gotten to yet, and it turned out there was a Triumph Trophy Trail and a 1934 hot-rodded Ford panel truck tucked away under quilts in his garage.
Oh, yes, cars. Bob maintained his used-car dealer license. He once bought a Rolls-Royce, he said, not to drive but because he thought he should have owned one.
And then Bob, Don Vesco (the land-speed record-holder) and I bought Ferraris. We hadn’t talked about it; it was just that we’d arrived at the stage of If Not Now, When? So, there came the day the McDonald’s parking lot looked like parking at Pebble Beach.
Then age began to take over. Bob needed a new hip, which slowed him down. “I’m ninety-two,” he
marveled more than once. “How did this happen?”
He had a stroke, came home, had another stroke—worse this time.
“They won’t let me go home,” he complained from the nursing home. “But the food’s good.”
And then Bob was in the memory ward, which is just what you’d guess.
And then, he was gone.
The day after Bob died, I was watching my little guys ride their bikes on the vacant land across from our ranch, when down the hill came the young couple who’d restored a pioneer cottage.
They were pushing a carriage bearing their just-born daughter, and I thought, a man dies after a long and rewarding life and then a baby is born to a couple who will do parenthood justice. That’s how it works.
Even so, as the song says, I’m not looking forward to having lunch all by myself.