Kenny Roberts Suzuka 8 Hours Yamaha FZR750 Photo Gallery

Three-time 500cc world champion lapped the Suzuka Circuit on the factory four-cylinder that he and Tadahiko Taira raced in 1985.

Three-time 500cc World Champion Kenny Roberts lapped the Suzuka Circuit in Japan this past weekend as part of a 40th anniversary celebration for the Suzuka 8 Hours, final round of the 2017 FIM Endurance World Championship.

The 65-year-old Californian was reunited once again with the factory Yamaha FZR750 on which he earned pole position and led much of the 1985 race. Roberts’ oldest son, Kenny Jr., finished eighth in the 1993 event on a Yamaha YZF750.

Nine Americans—Wes Cooley, Mike Baldwin, Dave Aldana, Fred Merkel, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Scott Russell, Doug Polen, and Colin Edwards—have won the Suzuka 8 Hours. Baldwin and Edwards each have three victories to their credit.

Japanese correspondent Koichi Hirose covered the 1985 event for Cycle World. Here is his report from the race as it appeared in the November, 1985, issue:

Seas of people cover the bleachers and grounds of the Suzuka Circuit like an explosion of brightly colored confetti. There are more than a quarter-million of them altogether, more than you’d find at any American football or baseball game, a multitude that dwarfs the numbers that flock to Laguna Seca or Daytona. But for the Suzuka Eight-Hour Endurance Race, crowds of this size are almost normal.

Suzuka Circuit is Honda’s very own racetrack, on which the company hosts the most popular—and perhaps most important—motorcycle race in Japan. Honda first held the Eight-Hour after its return to European endurance racing in the mid-Seventies, intending to use the race as a forum to show off its prowess to a home crowd.

Kenny Roberts, Yamaha, Suzuka 8 Hours, Japan
Kin to R1: With its Grand Prix-derived Deltabox chassis, the FZR750 was the forefather of Yamaha's four-cylinder racer-replicas.Yamaha

Initially, the race was simply a Honda benefit, with the Honda Endurance Race Team taking a week from the European schedule to demonstrate its superiority. But that changed in 1978 when Yoshimura combined a U.S.-style hot rod Suzuki Superbike with hot U.S. racers (Mike Baldwin and Wes Cooley) to thrash the Honda team, which used the European, no-faster-than-necessary approach to endurance racing. This turn of events transformed the Eight-Hour into a virtual sprint race. And ever since, the event has been a real race, one that any company would love to win. And Honda’s competitors take special delight in the prospect of being victorious on Honda’s track.

More than anyone else, Yamaha wanted to win this year. It had its five-valves-per-cylinder FZ750 technology to show off, and it had the strongest two-rider team: Japanese roadrace champion Tadahiko Taira, and the recently unretired Kenny Roberts.

“The golden combination” is what the Japanese press called Taira and Roberts. Obviously, much was expected of them, and Roberts fueled the expectations: A week before the event, he announced he wouldn’t have come to compete if he didn’t intend to win. Then he backed up that claim by qualifying for the pole position. Thus the stage was set for a classic race.

Kenny Roberts, Yamaha, Suzuka 8 Hours, Japan
Nearly a year after suffering a heart attack, Roberts, wife Tomo at his side, was back in a familiar setting: at a racetrack riding a motorcycle.Yamaha


Roberts arrives early, and retires immediately to his trailer. Outside, reporters swarm about like ants on a sugar pile, waiting for him to emerge. They wait for hours while Roberts receives a pre-race massage to loosen up. Afterwards, the camera crews follow him to the opening ceremony and back to the trailer again. They even follow him to the toilet, so focused is the interest in Roberts.

11:05 a.m.

Roberts appears in his leathers and takes his place on the grid. The riders are in a line on one side of the track, with pole-sitter Roberts in front. On the opposite side of the track is a line of bikes, Roberts’ No. 21 FZR at the head. It’s held by co-rider Taira, dressed suitably for the humid heat of Suzuka in a polo shirt and shorts.

11:29.30 a.m.

Roberts is the furthest from the starter, and his view is blocked by the other riders creeping forward. He tries to wave them back into line, but they’re concentrating on the signal and fail to notice.

The five-second sign lights up. All the riders count in rhythm with their bodies—“three, two, one, zero”—and the race is on across the track. Mike Baldwin, fifth-place qualifier, wins the footrace and is first off the grid.

Roberts is less fortunate. The FZR’s engine fails to start on the first try, and as Taira pushes his breath away, the engine still shows no sign of starting. Five seconds. Ten seconds. Almost all the other machines are around the first corner. When Roberts’ bike finally burbles to life, the lead group is already entering the second corner.

Kenny Roberts, Yamaha, Suzuka 8 Hours, Japan
FZR meets YZF: Three generations of twin-spar aluminum-framed Yamaha inline-fours were on display in front of the grandstands at Suzuka.Yamaha

The First Hour

Yamaha’s strategy for this race was an aggressive one. The blueprint of Yamaha’s TECH 21 team was “to jump out at the start and turn 2:24.25 laps.” As one of the staff confided, “Kenny is not content to stay in second place.”

Now that blueprint has been shot by the slow start, and Roberts is simply charging, turning 2:23 laps. After the second lap, Roberts is 28th. By the fifth, he is up to 12th. By the 13th, he is in fourth, and gaining on the leader. When he turns the machine over to Taira on the 21st lap, he has put the No. 21 in second place.

1:04 p.m.

For 17 laps, Taira has been gaining on the first-place Honda, No. 3, the Wayne Gardner/Masaki Tokuno team. Tokuno is on the bike now, and Taira has him in his sights. On the last corner, Taira slips by. He extends the lead, and by the time he hands machine over eight laps later, the FZR is 26 seconds ahead. The effort and heat have tolled on Taira, who is drenched with sweat. Roberts puts his arm around Taira’s shoulders as the bike is refueled and has its tires changed, its lead evaporating all the while. Then Roberts disappears onto the track, and Taira disappears into the air-conditioned trailer.

2:24 p.m.

Roberts completes his hour on the bike, having spent it dicing with Wayne Gardner on the No. 3 Honda, and building a lead on the rest of the field. Like Taira had been, Roberts is sweat-drenched and flushed red. A brief, eight-second pit stop sees the FZR back on the track, and Roberts in the air-conditioning.

Kenny Roberts, Yamaha, Suzuka 8 Hours, Japan
Then and now: Back in 1985, a mechanical failure cost Roberts and teammate Tadahiko Taira victory at the Suzuka 8 Hours. There were no such problems this past weekend.Yamaha

3:36 p.m.

Roberts is back on the No. 2, and he picks up the pace. He turns some 2:23 laps, which is more than a second faster than Taira has gone. On this day, only five riders can lap Suzuka at 2:25: Roberts, Taira, Gardner, Baldwin, and Coudray. Only two of them can turn 2:24s: Roberts and Gardner. Now Roberts is demonstrating that he is clearly the fastest. When he hands the FZR back over to Taira, it is more than 1:35 ahead of the Gardner/Tokuno Honda.

6:30 p.m.

Roberts turns the No. 21 over to Taira for the last scheduled rider change and pit stop. Gardner has been on the No. 3 Honda for an hour, and will ride the last hour, as well, without a break. Riding with the inspiration that grows out of despair, Gardner is much faster than Tokuno, and is the only hope for the Honda team. Even so, he is more than a minute and a half behind as Taira leaves the pits. The Yamaha crew can almost taste victory. Taira turns laps in the 2:25-2:26 range, losing ground; but then, he has plenty of ground to lose.

Then, at the beginning of the 181st lap, disaster strikes: Taira feels the FZR lose power, and white smoke billows from its exhaust. The crowd is stunned. Taira coaxes the Yamaha around the circuit to the front of the grandstand, and there it stalls and stops. He leans it up against the wall. The Yamaha mechanics come running, and excitedly consult with Taira. In desperation, Taira restarts the engine and continues a little farther. But it’s no use. He parks the bike and removes his helmet. Some of the mechanics have tears in their eyes.

7:02 p.m.

For the No. 21 FZR and its two superhero pilots, Kenny Roberts and Tadahiko Taira, the curtain closes on the Suzuka Eight-Hour race for 1985. Had they been able to continue just 28 minutes more, victory would have been theirs.

Kenny Roberts, Yamaha, Suzuka 8 Hours, Japan
Kenny Roberts | 2017 Suzuka 8 HoursYamaha
Kenny Roberts, Yamaha, Suzuka 8 Hours, Japan
Kenny Roberts | 2017 Suzuka 8 HoursYamaha
Kenny Roberts, Yamaha, Suzuka 8 Hours, Japan
Kenny Roberts | 2017 Suzuka 8 HoursPhoto by Brian J. Nelson
Kenny Roberts, Yamaha, Suzuka 8 Hours, Japan
Kenny Roberts | 2017 Suzuka 8 HoursYamaha
Kenny Roberts, Yamaha, Suzuka 8 Hours, Japan
Kenny Roberts | 2017 Suzuka 8 HoursYamaha