THROWBACK THURSDAY: 8 Hours at Suzuka

A Superbike race with horns.

8 Hours at Suzuka November 1999 magazine layout

From the November 1999 issue of Cycle World.

Attention spans aren’t what they used to be...

Where were we?

Yes, the Suzuka 8-Hour. It lasts 8 hours. It’s the endurance race most race fans know, as opposed to the Bol d’Or or Le Mans 24-Hours, which are much more esoteric and take more endurance from everybody. How the hell do you watch a 24-hour race, anyway? I can barely keep breathing for 24 hours straight.

So, where were we? Attention spans. Breathe. Right.

There's a reason Wagner's Ring Cycle, operatic masterwork that it is, just isn't scorching up the charts these days. We all love the "Ride of the Valkyrie" (think helicopters, Apocalypse Now) and the fat lady in the horned helmet, but not for 17 hours.

No, most of us dig cracking a beer to a 3-minute pop-radio groove or a 27-lap Superbike race, then getting on with life. “Another beer, please!” Two World Superbike races in one day, or a little of the Doors’ “The End,” and about 7 minutes in you begin to doubt the veracity of Mr. Morrison’s lyrics and whether that first race counted for anything.

And so there is the Suzuka 8-Hour, a sort of melding of the two worlds: Madonna's Ring Cycle, if you will. (Please let me keep the image of her in the horned helmet for just a few more precious moments.)

Where were we? Suzuka, 8 hours. It is "The End" that does, or as Team Honda rider Tohru Ukawa pointed out, "Suzuka isn't an endurance race, it's eight Superbike races in a row."

Make no mistake, that’s what the 8-Hour is: two riders, trading 1-hour shifts (coincidentally, about 27 laps), balls to the wall all day and into the night. Lap one or lap 201, the leaders turn times around 2 minutes, 12 seconds.

Timed practice this year saw laps in the high-2:08 range for the first time. Like in World Superbike, however, timed practice was just that: practice. The top-20 grid assignments came ultimately from the Special Stage, held Saturday. Introduced five years ago to spice things up–you know, grab our attention from the umbrella girls for a moment–this is like World Superbike’s Superpole single flying lap. Only in this case, both team riders get a chance, one in the Attack Stage, the other in the Jump-Up Stage. Qualifying in bite-size chunks: one subject, 2 minutes at a time.

Pole position went to Ukawa and Shinichi Itoh, race-winners the last two years. Hopes were high for the team. “We already know how to win,” Ukawa said. They certainly know how to go fast. But why try so hard for pole for an 8-hour race? “It’s better than ninth!” exclaimed the smiling Ukawa. And as Grand Prix super-tuner Erv Kanemoto pointed out, “Most of the people who are capable of winning are pretty competitive people, and want to show what they can actually do.”

Much was made of Kanemoto’s participation in the 8-Hour, since he was there to support the dream teaming of Freddie Spencer and John Kocinski. Honda had hoped to pair Spencer with Wayne Gardner, but the Australian’s signing with Toyota to race touring cars precluded him from racing for Honda (which makes cars, too, you know). The reaction to the possible Spencer/Gardner team was largely indifferent–just a pair of past world champions playing dress-up. Kocinski changed the color of the effort, giving the team a much more serious edge. Though Spencer was about 4 seconds off the qualifying pace, Kanemoto, Kocinski and even Spencer himself thought his race performance would be eye-opening.

Unfortunately, the only eyes Spencer opened were his own–and wide. During Thursday’s practice, the three-time world champion highsided, breaking bones in both hands. With family and business life–not to mention TV work–Spencer had seemed to be moving toward that weird stage of becoming a “personality,” a paper shade hung on the remnant glow of his racetrack brilliance lo those many years ago. Yet there he was again at Suzuka, a racer, smooth, glorious, artful; a hero then, a hero now.

Freddie Spencer signing autographs

Madness in the paddock as fans rush Spencer for an autograph.

Spencer ended up sitting out the race, but for a brief period leading up to the event he was the center of attention. He was required to turn in three laps (warm-up, hot, cool-down) during the qualifying Special Stage in order for Kocinski and replacement rider Youichi Takeda to keep their spot on the grid, and the crowd went nuts!

“It’s kind of sad,” Kocinski said. “I think he could have surprised a lot of people with how fast he could have gone.”

So, Spencer joined the rest of us in street clothes on Sunday, sweating in the 85-degree, sauna-like tropical heat. A Suzuka regular told me the weather this year was actually quite pleasant compared to years past. Still, I couldn’t imagine wearing full leathers and a fiberglass hat, wrestling a Superbike around the 3.6-mile circuit at race pace for an hour at a time.

After their stints, riders headed for private, air-conditioned rooms behind the pit garages for an hour’s respite. Intravenous drips awaited to replenish bodily fluids, and many (on the more privileged teams) even got a massage.

The HRC pit had free-standing air-conditioners with giant tubes sticking out of them to blow cold air in the pit area. Kocinski joked to Colin Edwards that he’d like one on his bike. A nearby technician nodded. Perhaps next year...

A fascinating infrastructure exists to support flogging multiple Superbikes for 8 hours. It makes for rich color, the obvious millions spent by the factories, the umbrella girls, the dry ice to cool the fuel, pneumatic jacks, the trickest quick-change everything, piles of tires (Michelin brought 3000!), armies of mechanics and neatly organized tables of titanium and other exotic spare parts. It begins to overwhelm you. Suzuka gets between your organs, if not your cells, and you merge with the 85,000 race-day fans to become part of the event. Never mind that as someone who knows no Japanese except Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, I understood the loudspeaker commentary as well as I would Herr Wagner's German libretto. I understood the story being played out on the great stage before me.

At 11:25 a.m., Honda’s new S2000 convertible drove up and down the front straight while a trophy girl perched on the rear deck held a sign that read “5 minutes.” Riders stood in little painted circles across the track from the bikes. It seems cruel to make so much surgically implanted hardware run across the track in leather suits and boots, but the running start is a dangerous tradition that endures.

The car appeared again: “1 minute.” Umbrella girls left the riders in the sun. The lighted, cuboid sign at start/finish counted down the seconds to the start.

Green lights at 11:30. Chaos. Bikes weaved as engines wailed. Working so hard for pole makes sense when you see such madness in real life. The Lucky Strike Honda of Itoh and Ukawa was away first, the melee left to the others.

Being a lazy writer (often synonyms, those) who routinely puts things off to the last minute, I found the ferocity of the early battle surprising. “Gents, there’s plenty of time!”

Noriyuki Haga slashed his way to the front in his usual mad fashion. The Yamaha rider’s style is spectacular, as are his frequent crashes. Could he keep this up? No, Haga soon faded.

Kocinski had been his usual impenetrable self prior to the race, polite and gentlemanly, if distant, but the soft creature inside, the supple athletic genius, manifested itself on the racetrack. Five laps in, Kocinski was sixth. My notes read, “methodical march to the front,” with “methodical” underlined. He appeared to be riding well within himself, impressively smooth and in control, even after two years away from the RC45. His explanation was simple: “Everything feels slow after a 500.”

blower-inflated leathers dry the sweat

“Sure is nice to lay down for a bit, eh, Alex?” Blower-inflated leathers dry the sweat produced by riding a Superbike in Suzuka’s heat and humidity.

But even for the best, things can go wrong. Just 20 minutes in, Kocinski clipped a curb and hit the asphalt. Not an auspicious start. He lost minimal time and didn’t pit, resuming his steady method after giving up just a few places.

As the main story began to write itself, a breathtaking high-speed dance developed between two Hondas, the Lucky Strike factory team of Tadayuki Okada and Alex Barros versus the factory-supported Sakari Honda pairing of Daijiro Kato and Makoto Tamada, the lads who dropped the times into the 2:08s in practice. Nearing the end of the second hour, Tamada and Barros were engaged in high drama, racing as though it were the final lap of a GP and passing each other multiple times on several laps. But there were 6 hours left!

The arbitrary press-room updates at each hour attempted to codify and parse the fluid and beautiful events on the track into something we could chew, something we could get our brain around. But it was a horribly insufficient rendering. You missed all the plots, sub-plots, periods of intensity, crescendo, the lulling drone, the frenetic madness of a crash-induced, unscheduled pit stop.

The defending Honda team had just such a surprise after Itoh crashed in the early laps. Crumpled and dirty, the RC45 limped back to the pits, where the team of technicians laid in wait, poised with bodywork, a blanketed fuel tank (got to keep that fuel cool), and an assortment of mechanical pieces, including a whole new front brake system, readily at hand. Smashed parts flew off the bike in a frenzy. The airbox cover was removed to make sure there was no debris. Wouldn’t want to suck any pebbles through those exotic innards!

A few ticks over 10 minutes later, number 33 pulled out of the pits looking shiny, as new, waxed even. Nobly, they tried to recover lost ground, but it was all for naught, as the scene was replayed by Ukawa during the fifth hour. Looking in the airbox once again, a mechanic shook his head; the damage this time was too great, and the bike was solemnly rolled into the garage. "What's for dinner, then?"

Spotty rain changed the character of the race during the second hour, and underlined what Suzuka is all about: judgment, risk management and consistent excellence. Or at least being consistently more excellent than your rivals.

Barros made a critical judgment call, staying out on slicks when his team told him to pit. “The first part of the track is wet, the last part is still dry,” said the Brazilian. “It is a difficult moment for me to decide. The slowest (lap), I think, was a 2:35, so it’s a little bit slippery, but to change tires... I don’t think it’s a big difference. I preferred to continue.”

Judgment, risk management, consistent excellence.

I watched the tire-choice scenario being played out in the factory Yamaha pit. A mechanic stood ready with two pairs of tires, one slick, one intermediate. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. A second mechanic looked at the tires. They waited. Where was the rider? Off the warmers for some time now, the tires must certainly have begun to cool. The mechanic put his gloved hand on the slick, couldn't feel it through the fabric, then touched his bare knees to the shiny blackness. He nodded and made a facial expression that said ma-ma ("so-so" in Japanese). Which tires they would install would be up to the rider. They all looked at the front tire on the bike when it came in–a well-used slick–and replaced it with another slick. Was it the right choice? Time would tell.

Nearing the halfway mark, the Lucky Strike Honda was first with the Sakari Honda close behind–just 10 seconds apart after nearly 4 hours! It created a tension unlike any I have felt at a Superbike race. An hour later that story line was crushed, as Kato hit the gravel trap while chasing Okada. What would happen next?

Back in the pits, an RC45 again had its airbox cover removed to assess damage. I could have resodded my backyard with the grass they took out. The bike was fixed, but Kato/Tamada would ultimately drop to eighth place. Glory gone.

space bunnies in the Suzuka pit

Weirdville in the Suzuka pit: Umbrella girls have been elevated to an art form at the 8-Hour. These two are from the Salvador Dali end of the spectrum.

Perhaps for some highly skilled and gifted riders, averaging 95 mph well out on the edge of the performance envelope can become monotonous, lulling. But all of a sudden, as was the case with Kato, they’d be on the ground, hours of riding, months of preparation gone, replaced by the dull groan of leather sliding on asphalt. Then, silence. Was the rider hurt? Could the bike be repaired? Only a few hours left in the race. Let’s get to work!

Kawasaki’s lead team suffered a series of small catastrophes. Successive bad tire choices and plain mistakes cost them time in the pits (“Full rains? I didn’t want full rains!”), and then there was the running out of gas.

Akira Yanagawa joked at the post-race press conference in a way that showed he's confident about keeping his job: "I really like our company's bike–it's smoooth! Actually, the running out of gas was a request from the TV people." Yanagawa had been trying to squeak a few extra laps out of the ZX-7, banking on better fuel economy during the slower, rainy laps. Pushing past the usual mark for his pit stop, he discovered that his one-lap reserve wasn't quite worth a lap. Lucky for him, pit lane is downhill.

Somehow, the Kawasaki team managed to come back from the miscues to fight for second place with Castrol Honda’s Aaron Slight and Colin Edwards during the last hour. After an early-race tire snafu, this pair of World Superbike riders had quietly, competently installed themselves in second place. But with headlights ablaze as day turned to night, Kawasaki’s Hitoyasu Izutsu ate big chunks out of the darkness, reducing the 15-second gap to just 1.8 seconds in 17 laps.

So, Aaron, how were those last 10 laps?

“Not good!”

The end was a carnival of lapped bikes. Slight's times hovered around 2:13 in the nightime traffic–not slow, but not fast enough. Izutsu was charging, traffic be damned, turning in times 1-2 seconds quicker per lap. Each time they passed the scoring tower, we all watched the timing monitor in disbelief. Almost 8 hours, rain, sun, heat, commotion, mistakes, near-misses, speed and it had all come down to this. Nobody cared that the battle wasn't for the lead. "I could see him in the hairpin," said Izutsu. "The lights lighted his back."

But the pace took its toll, as Izutsu explained: “We chose a softer tire at the end. Once I got close enough to see him, the tire started going away.”

Slight and Edwards were safe, a lap behind winners Barros and Okada, 9 seconds in front of Yanagawa and Izutsu. Edwards still wasn’t exactly happy with his day’s work: “We got our asses kicked by the Grand Prix guys, pretty much.”

After the finish, a gate in front of the main grandstands opened, and thousands of spectators poured onto the front straight. A Japanese rock star-type with a pompadour and mirrored shades began yakking into the microphone from atop the brightly lit podium, his words like chum to the crowd below. One half of the winning duo walked on stage, and the fans chanted electrically, O-ka-da! O-ka-da! Barros emerged next, carrying two flags, Brazilian and Japanese, and the people went mad: Ba-ro-su! Ba-ro-su!

The other teams joined the ceremony, everyone was thanked, trophies were passed out and fireworks exploded.

The curtain fell on 8 intense hours, the music of Suzuka fading into the night. The fat lady had left the building. But she still had my attention.

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