“Most of Your Close Friends are Roadracers…”

In 1989 Kent Kunitsugu and I were battling on 600s at Willow Springs. One weekend, my FZR600 wasn’t legal.

nick ienatsch sitting on his FZR400
Nick sitting on his FZR400 with the 600 behind, both built by Steve Johnson.Nick Ienatsch

Last week's column on Kevin Rentzell's move at Heartland Park got me thinking about some of the precious things I've witnessed in the roadracing community. Readers of this column know that I hold motorcyclists in high esteem for several reasons:

1-When we make big mistakes on two wheels, we almost always suffer consequences and this gets us focused on not making mistakes in the rest of our lives. Riders aren’t too excusey either, because “we know we screwed up” in almost any crash imaginable.

2-Almost all of us have had riders on “poorer equipment” outrun us badly. This makes us humble and gives us the realization that we should continue to work at riding, and consequently, life. “Huh, I guess I’m not God’s gift to the earth….”

3-While we are not flying fighter jets on bombing missions through box canyons while taking ground fire, we are involved in one of life’s riskier enterprises. This gives us a “spirit of youth” and an “esprit de corps” that has a common theme of mastering a risky and difficult endeavor. Find an old motorcyclist and see that he or she lives decades younger.

4-Because we do something risky and amazingly thrilling, we are fairly calm and composed when other parts of our lives are in turmoil. Once you’ve run through a sweeper pinned in sixth gear in a pack of a dozen other racers, a broken water line to the downstairs toilet doesn’t seem like too big a deal. “Let’s just fix it and mop up the water.”

I could go on and probably will in future columns, but I wanted to tell you what happened in 1989 at Willow Springs Raceway. It was the start of an almost-thirty-year friendship between me and Sport Rider Magazine's Editor, Kent Kunitsugu.

nick ienatsch and steve johnson
Nick and Steve Johnson.Nick Ienatsch

At the time, Kent was the defending ARRA #1 plate holder. He rode a self-sponsored Yamaha FZR600 and I raced a bunch of bikes, but mainly a Yamaha FZR600 built by Kerker's Steve Johnson. Johnson was the ex-Eddie Lawson Muzzy Superbike tuner and would go from Kerker to Vance & Hines and eventually NASCAR. He builds incredibly clean and fast stuff. World-class.

The ARRA schedule was once a month all year long. I was in the hunt to win the club championship, fighting tooth and nail with Kent in the 600 races. They were race-long wars, every month.

But one hot summer race weekend, we arrived at Willow with a 600 that wasn’t legal for the box-stock class: Steve had removed the starter motor for another series we had run the weekend before, and hadn’t had time to get it back in the bike. We pitted in the garages, but had to bump-start the FZR in front of anyone who happened to be looking. And everyone was looking.

The race came down to me and Kent, as it usually did. I won. Kent’s friends told him to protest my lack of starter motor.

I remember it like yesterday. Kent was sitting in a lawn chair, leathers around his waist, soaked in sweat after the race. I didn’t know him other than to say “hello”. I introduced myself and asked him what he was going to do; the rules said a protest had to be filed or the results would stand.

kent kunitsugu headhost
Sport Rider's Editor-in-Chief Kent KunitsuguKent Kunitsugu

I’m paraphrasing, but Kent said, “Nick, you didn’t beat me because I have a starter motor. You just rode better than I did today. I’m not protesting. You won.”

At the end of 1989 I had the ARRA #1 plate. Kent Kunitsugu's gesture gave me the points to win it. Our friendship started that day and within a month of that day, we were riding street bikes together on Sundays. He was part of the group about whom I wrote "The Pace" and "The Pace 2.0". We started using him at Motorcyclist magazine (guys with #1 plates don't fall off much) and when we launched Sport Rider magazine, he was testing with us almost full-time as he worked his day job for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. When I left Sport Rider in 1996, I asked then-Publisher Dick Lague to hire Kent to replace me. He took the magazine and made it better and better.

Good things happen to good people, and Kent Kunitsugu is one of those good people. I took his attitude toward protests and applied it in all my racing, thus staying pretty calm about “slight irregularities” that have little or nothing to do with finishing positions.

Last month my wife Judy said, “I’ve noticed something…most of your close friends are roadracers.”


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