IENATSCH TUESDAY: TZ750s on the Bench, on the Track

This weekend, I’ll be racing one of my all-time favorite bikes—a Yamaha TZ750.

TZ with Himmelsbach by Brad Faas (FAAS)
TZ750 from behind

Mike Himmelsbach on the Russ Bigley TZ750 at Phillip Island last year. The AMA veteran ran as high as 6th in the main event. And to the right, my TZ750 “streetbike” being reprepped after sitting for 12 years as a piece of art. The two-stroke vibes traveled across the country, and Bigley had a question for me. (photo by Brad Faas)

Two hours after my '79 TZ750 rolled onto my workbench, Russ Bigley called. Weird, very weird. The two-stroke vibes had traveled from the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast in record time. If there's one thing my mind equates to Russ Bigley, it's the Yamaha TZ750. As I clicked the "talk" button on my cell, my eyes stayed on the four-cylinder weapon I absolutely love.

Russ Bigley with TZ750

Russ Bigley: The boy knows TZs. Here, he’s fettling with a 750.

And my love of this bike started in the right place: Daytona International Speedway. Only months after being hired at Motorcyclist magazine, Editor Art Friedman sent me to Daytona to cover the 1984 races, knowing it would be a life-changing event for this wet-behind-the-ears journalist. My dad owned Kawasaki H2 and Suzuki GT750 two-stroke streetbikes, but they didn't prepare me for what I saw in 1984 at Daytona. Or what I heard.

The memory remains crystal clear. I was walking through the privateer open-air garages and almost peed my pants in fear when, behind me, a wild-bark-snarl-scream sprang to life. I jumped, ducked, and spun around in panicked self-preservation while trying to control my bladder.

Had a Martian lasered Florida into pieces? Was this the end of the world? No…this was my introduction to a Yamaha TZ750. Two mechanics were huddled around a mass of compact sculpture, bare of bodywork except the fuel tank, one gazing into the inner workings and one blipping the throttle. Yes Art Friedman, you changed my life. Someday I'll own one of those, I promised myself as I drove back to the motel for fresh undies.

Three years later, I took sight-unseen delivery of a 1979 TZ750 out of Michigan. It arrived at the Motorcyclist offices and we uncrated it. My heart sank as I saw rust on everything, broken frame downtubes, crash damage, signs of unlove. We quietly put the cover back on the crate, made a mental note of poor buying techniques, and pushed the crate into the far, far corner of the Sunset Boulevard garage.

And then someone with skills, imagination, and insight saw the bike: Chris Gieter. “What’s up with that pile?” he asked in his usual straightforward manner. “Some idiot bought it a few years ago. It’s crap,” I replied. Geiter was there with Brian Smith participating in the UFO story with an immaculate and fast Honda CBR900RR.

“Yeah, well let me take it home.”

Over the next winter, Geiter turned the TZ around and created an immaculate streetbike. He brought it back to California and we had a huge 300-person party for the piece of art, parking it in the living room and paying homage to it all night. The TZ is a bike that deserves homage.

TZ750 static 3/4 view
TZ750 spark plug close-up

Back from the (ugly, abused) dead. This TZ spent the winter in Chris Geiter’s garage 15 years ago and rolled out like a butterfly from a cocoon.  It’s still beautiful and the spark plugs still spark—a very good sign!

Steve Biganski had gone through the engine and accompanied me to Kenny Roberts’ Modesto ranch because Kenny agreed to be part of the TZ magazine story. Who else, right? Kenny rode it. And then his sons Kenny Junior and Kurtis rode it. They, like me, had heard so much about the bike, and they really enjoyed getting a leg over this historic bike that their father put on the map. Kenny was so impressed with Geiter and Biganski’s work that he rolled out his 1980 500 GP machine and gave it to us for a resto. But that’s another story.

I got the TZ licensed and insured, then rode it around for years. Journalists flew in from Japan and Italy to ride it. When it rolled into the Rock Store or Newcomb’s Ranch, it stopped traffic.

And then I moved out of California and the 750 went into hibernation, taking up residency inside the house so my wife and I could see it every day. Judy started riding motorcycles because she saw Kenny Roberts on a TZ750. She didn’t know it was a TZ750 then; all she knew was that she wanted a part of what that guy was doing.

Yamaha TZ750 viewed from above

Motorcycle or art? Yes.

The phone rang. Why would Russ Bigley be calling? I didn’t know, but I sure had hopes.

“Hey, want to ride my Spondon TZ at the AHRMA (American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association) race at New Jersey?”

Hope fulfilled. But you don’t jump to answer these questions. I knew a lot about the TZ from my friend Mike Himmelsbach who had ridden it at Phillip Island last year. They struggled with contaminated fuel there, which led to mechanical issues, but Mike loved riding the TZ.

When things go wrong on a two-stroke, it can often lead to piston seizures so Russ and I discussed the Phillip Island problems. Multi-cylinder two-strokes (the TZ is a four-cylinder) don’t always have the engine-stopping seizures of TZ250 twins that result in a locked-rear-wheel highside, but my time on a TZ250 had put me perilously close to that type of crash on two occasions. Now you know why two-stroke racers lap with two fingers covering the clutch lever. I caught one seizure at Phoenix and one at Laguna Seca; both were windscreen-breaking out-of-the-seat affairs. At 53, I’m quite motivated to never again hear that motor go suddenly quiet!

Russ convinced me that the Phillip Island deal was purely a fuel problem. He described Brian Henderson and John Long winning just about every race they entered on this bike, talked about the ongoing development of his machines, told me about how bulletproof his stuff has been at the vintage races here in the US and in Canada.

Bigley’s knowledge of these machines comes from decades of experience, and I trust him. And that’s saying a lot because in my time on a Steve Biganski-tuned TZ250, I never had a mechanical DNF. The Phoenix seizure happened in the race but I caught it, coasted for a moment and then thought, “What the hell, let’s try it.” I dropped the clutch, refired the bike, and finished the race by constantly blipping the throttle with the clutch in on every corner entry to cool the combustion chamber with fuel. The Laguna Seca seizure happened in practice. No mechanical DNFs with Biganski, and I think Bigley knew that.

Steve Bigansky and the author

Steve Biganski and my TZ250. It’s easy to get those low national numbers when your bike never fails!

So this weekend, I’ll race one of my all-time favorite motorcycles: the Yamaha TZ750. Mine sits on the bench, Bigley’s is in final prep. TZs on the mind and finally on the track.

More next Tuesday!

TZ with Himmelsbach.
Brad Faas (FAAS)
TZ750 from behind.
Russ Bigley with TZ750.
TZ750 spark plug close-up.
TZ750 from above.
Steve Bigansky.