Return to Imola

A former Daytona 200 winner finally gets his wish: to “race” a two-stroke Yamaha Twin in Italy.

Return to Imola - 2011 Imola Revival Race

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Tensions were high. Engines were hot. The warm-up lap was done, and the field was back on the starting line ready for the drop of the green flag. We waited and waited but no flag. Up ahead, a bike was off to the side of the track while a mechanic changed a sparkplug. Finally, it was time to go. But just as the flag fell, my Norton quit running.

I first feared that I would get hit from behind, but everyone sped safely by. I got off the track, and my crew went to work. Soon, the field was coming around, and I began losing a lap every 2 minutes. They eventually discovered a vapor lock in the fuel line caused by excessive heat from sitting so long.

It would have been easy to quit right there, but this wasn’t just any race: It was the inaugural Imola 200 in 1972. The promoter had spent a lot of money to get me there, and I felt obligated to at least make a showing. I entered the race seven laps down and rode as hard as I could from there to the finish. I never saw winner Paul Smart during the race, but he put Ducati on the map with his historic victory.

I was credited with a 19th-place finish. I had such high hopes for a good result in my European debut but didn't even get off the line with the field. It was a big disappointment that I still feel today. The organizers thanked me for continuing after my terrible start and paid me handsomely as promised. I don't recall how much it was, but I remember joking that I was a millionaire—getting paid millions of lire…all in cash! That softened the blow a bit at the time.

Fast forward to the present. Last summer, Ferry Brouwer from the Netherlands contacted me with an offer I couldn’t refuse: to take part in the Imola 200 Revival at the historic Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Italy. Brouwer’s Yamaha Classic Racing Team participates at events pairing historic Yamahas with legendary champions such as Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read, Steve Baker and others. He told me that event promoter DG Sport wanted to invite me to the 2011 event.

This would not be a race, I was told, but a weekend of classic-bike displays and other track activities highlighted by a parade of former racers who had competed in the 200-mile Formula 750 races held there in the 1970s. As I was the only American rider who had raced in the first Imola 200, I was immediately interested.

Brouwer believed at this point that I had raced Imola on the same 350cc Yamaha that I had won with at Daytona in 1972, and said he could prepare one just like it for me. That sounded great, but I had to correct him that I had actually ridden a 750cc Norton at Imola.

Walking out of Victory Lane at Daytona on March 12, 1972, I was approached by a gentleman who represented Dr. Costa, promoter of the Shell 200 Miles of Imola. He said their race was being referred to as the Daytona of Europe, and they were prepared to do whatever was necessary to have the winner of the actual Daytona 200 in the race. This sounded exciting to me, as no American had yet roadraced in Europe. I had been part of the first Trans-Atlantic Match Races in England the previous year, but going to Europe would be a door opener for American riders.

“There is only one problem,” he said. “The event is for machines from 500 to 750cc only, so your winning 350cc Yamaha could not be used.”

That was not the first time I had heard that. It was the beginning of the Formula 750 era, and the little 350 “Giant Killers” weren’t part of the new format overseas. I did have a possible alternative, though: a 750cc Gus Kuhn Seeley-Norton that I had arranged to ride in the 1972 Match Races. So, I talked to Vincent Davey of Gus Kuhn Motors, a dealership in London, and he agreed to provide the Norton for Imola, as well.

All of the other details fell into place, and I flew over for the race. Davey had invited me to ride with him and a mechanic from London to Italy, and during our drive, he told me he heard that Agostini was entered on a new 750cc MV Agusta. A number of British riders would be there, too, including Match Race competitors Ray Pickrell, Read, Peter Williams and Smart, who would ride “some new Ducati.”

The atmosphere at Imola was fantastic. It was so “international”—the people, the food, the language. I was in a whole new world, and for the first time in my career, I really felt like I was on stage.

When I accepted Brouwer's offer to ride his Yamaha TR3 350 at Imola in 2011, I would finally be able to ride the bike that I wished I could have raced in 1972.

Don Emde aboard his Yamaha Classic Racing Team 350cc TR3

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Alpinestars made me a custom leather suit that replicated my 1972 original. AGV provided a black GP-Tech helmet, and Boris Landoff of California Cycle Design added a splash of gold to resemble my old racing helmets. After I flew to Milan, Marco Riva from Yamaha Motor Racing arranged to have me picked up and brought to the race shop near the famed Monza circuit. That’s where they prep the Yamaha MotoGP racebikes, but on this day, their facility became a gathering point to meet up with Brouwer and his crew before proceeding to Imola.

Read was there, and I also met up with former Daytona 200 winner and Formula 750 World Champion Steve Baker, who generously offered to let me drive along with him and a friend for the weekend. We had a great couple of days catching up on old times. His career and mine barely overlapped, so we both had great stories to tell that the other had not heard before.

At the track, it only got better, re-uniting with Agostini, Tepi Länsivuori and a few more who I knew from the old days. There also were many other riders who I got to meet in person for the first time, including Kork Ballington, Christian Sarron, Tony Smith, Dieter Braun and Chas Mortimer. All great racers I had only read about.

The GP paddock and garages at Imola were used by the teams that brought historic machines for display and riding. In the Yamaha garage, Brouwer himself had brought about a dozen bikes. In addition to the 350cc TR3 I rode, there was Read’s 250cc four-cylinder Honda GP racer, a mid-’70s 750cc 0W29 for Ago, a later-model 0W31 for Baker, a couple of ex-Kenny Roberts racebikes and more. Farther down pit lane were equally impressive lineups of historic racebikes, including Suzukis, MVs, Benellis, Nortons and Kawasakis.

Revival riders were given three 20-minute practice sessions. The enthusiastic crowd would swarm in close to see and hear each machine as it fired to life on the rolling starters. Then, like fighter planes leaving an aircraft carrier, one by one, we took off for the practice sessions as the announcer introduced each rider.

On the track, I needed to get familiar again with riding the two-stroke 350cc Yamaha Twin at speed. I have ridden some BSA 750 Triples since retiring from racing, but this was my first time back on a Yamaha racer in almost 40 years. I had forgotten how tricky those little 350s were to ride with a very narrow powerband between 9000 to 11,000 rpm. Letting the revs fall below 9000 required a downshift to bring them back up. Each time out, what it took to ride the bike competitively was coming back a little more.

Finally, on Sunday afternoon, it was time for the event everyone had come for: the 2011 Imola 200 Revival. I mentioned to Brouwer that I had been told this was just a parade, but my gut was telling me it was a race. He smiled, knowing that his efforts had been successful in allowing me to relive the full experience from my trip to Imola in 1972.

Dr. Claudio Costa of the Clinica Mobile and son of original Imola 200 promoter, Checco Costa, was the honorary starter. When I returned to the starting line after the warm-up lap, I was in full déjà vu mode. Länsivuori, Smith, Agostini and Baker were on the front row, and I lined up on the inside of Row 2. Mentally, I was back in the moment; it was so cool to be on the grid again with many of the same riders I had raced with back in the day. Some, like Agostini, were already legends when I raced against them. Others, like Baker, had their best days still ahead of them.

I was careful to keep my Yamaha 350 revving to make sure I didn’t stall out like I did in 1972. I hadn’t done a “hot” start in a few years, so I was also telling myself to be smart when I got to the first turn and not to get tangled up with other riders. When Dr. Costa dropped the flag, 40 competitors from days gone by sped toward Turn 1. While we all wanted an impressive start, a high degree of professionalism prevailed and all the riders respectfully made room for one another. I am not saying the pace was slow, but we all got through cleanly. After that, it was on!

My 350 gave up a lot of ponies to the later-model TZ750s and assorted 500cc GP racers, so I tried to stay out of their way down the straights; "winning" the parade was not a realistic goal. From there, I just tried to put in some good laps and enjoy the ride to the finish. Mission accomplished.

It was fantastic to return to Imola for a ride back through my memory banks. And this time, 39 years after my first attempt, I ran well from flag to flag!

Arrivederci, Imola.

Don Emde was elected to the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999. He is President of Don Emde, Inc., a publisher of motorcycle dealer magazines and books on motorcycle history. His latest project is to retrace Cannon Ball Baker’s 1914 record ride from San Diego to New York City. For more info, visit: www.cannonballproject.com or www.partsmag.com. For info on the Imola 200 Revival, visit: http://www.dgsport.eu.

Don Emde aboard his #25 Yamaha racebike at the starting line

Author Don Emde is seen on Row 2 aboard the #25 Yamaha just before the start (Photo by DG Sport)

Racing legend Giacomo Agostini

At 69 years old, Giacomo Agostini still looks fit enough to ride competitively (Photo by DG Sport)

Don Emde races to victory in the 1972 Daytona 200

Don Emde speeds to victory in the 1972 Daytona 200 (Photo from the Don Emde Collection)

Don Emde aboard his #25 Yamaha TR3

Emde gets his Yamaha Classic Racing Team 350cc TR3 fired up (Photo by Marco Riva)

Don Emde at the Daytona 200 in 1972

Emde in 1972 talking with his Imola 200 sponsor, Vincent Davey of Gus Kuhn Motors (Photo from the Don Emde Collection)

Walter Villa Harley-Davidson 250 GP racer

Some machines were just displayed, such as this ex-Walter Villa Harley-Davidson 250 GP racer (Photo by Phillip Tooth)

Race action from the Imola 200 Revival Race

Grand Prix legend Phil Reed leads Steve Baker and Tony Smith in the Imola parade (Photo by Phillip Tooth)

Official Program cover from the 2011 Imola 200 Revival Race

2011 Imola 200 Revival Race Official Program

Steve Baker poses on the Yamaha YZR-M1

Steve Baker takes his turn on the Yamaha YZR-M1 in the MotoGP exhibition (Photo by Marco Riva)