Going vintage at Fuji Speedway.

The style of the seventies returns to the race track.

The R nineT Racer is reviving the early days of superbikes. The BMW R 90 S and its spectacular performances at Daytona and the Isle of Man in 1976 are unforgettable. When we recall the racing scene of the seventies, we immediately think of Japan, where the modern motorcycle was invented and where an impressive revival is now happening.  

The air over Fuji Speedway is cold and clear. Japan’s highest mountain, the namesake of the speedway, towers impressively in the distance. The nation’s sacred volcano is shrouded in clouds and you have to be patient to catch a glimpse of its snow-covered peak. Long ago, this is where Japanese rider Hideo Kanaya competed in his first motorcycle world championship and finished as a surprising third in the Japan Grand Prix. This morning, almost 42 years later, the racing action at Fuji Speedway is slowly coming to life.  

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A symbiosis of fun, speed and style.

Amateur racer Joy Lewis rolls her R nineT Racer out of the van. The new model from the R nineT family is an unmistakeable throwback to the early sport motorcycles of the seventies. “That decade was incredibly important in the history of racing bikes. It set the stage for everything that racing is today”, says Joy, admiring her racer. More small buses pull in to the left and right of the van. Daisuke Mukasa and the other members of the Curry Speed Club are busy attaching race numbers to their vintage motorcycles.

Next they put on faded leather suits that look much older than they are. “Cosplay is typically Japanese – a combination of costume and play”, says Tadashi Kono, motorcycle journalist and proven expert in the Japanese motorcycle scene. “Style is important. People who ride in vintage races usually wear retro clothes too”. After this short breather, Tadashi rushes off to give Daisuke Mukasa and Shiro Nakajima some final information about the route. The action is about to begin. Vintage racing at the Fuji Speedway.  

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Want a racing machine? Build it yourself.

Tadashi Kono (r.) and Daisuke Mukasa (l.) at the riders’ briefing.

Want a racing machine? Build it yourself.

The atmosphere at the circuit is defined by the same type of amateur spirit that prevailed in the seventies, when you could count factory riders on one hand and private riders were often the top riders in the world championships. Their success was closely linked to their talent. Often an underdog would win unexpectedly. Sponsors were not lining up at the door. At most, a local motorcycle retailer would donate a leather suit or new helmet.  

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At a vintage race you “do it yourself“.

Riders didn’t need much more than that anyway. That’s because racing was affordable. A normal salary was enough to buy the most important parts and turn a used stock bike into a racing machine: Just change the timing and modify the exhaust and carburettor to racing specifications. Take off the mudguard, mirror and other unnecessary parts. Replace the double seat with a single one, exchange the touring handlebars for stub handlebars. Put on a soft-treaded tyre, and you now have a racing machine. That was long before the days of slicks, electronic suspension or ride-by-wire.  

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Tokyo is over-saturated with the latest technologies, which become outdated from one day to the next. It’s impossible to keep up anymore, and that’s why this counter-movement is growing. We need more analogue things in our lives.

Tadashi Kono, motorcycle journalist

Inspiration from the Far East.

Inspiration from the Far East.

The young heroes raced their stripped-down bikes on natural race tracks, negotiating railway tracks, bridges, steep knolls, cobblestones and concrete slabs. Depending on the terrain, they often wore old half helmets because full-face helmets were so heavy that their vision would be blurred from all the bumping around on cobblestones. Everything was pushed to the limit; exhaust and footrests were ground down from tilted riding. Crowds of spectators stood at the edge of the race track, captivated by the spectacle on two wheels. Motorcycles had been replaced by cars as means of transport in the sixties, but now they were experiencing a brilliant comeback as sport machines.  

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The motorcycles of the seventies are fascinating. They’re not too fast, not too old and not too new. Riders have control over their speed and can enjoy it.

Shiro Nakajima, 46Works

Huge advancements with the BMW R 90 S.

Inspiration for the R nineT Racer: Helmut Dähne with his R 90 S.

Huge advancements with the BMW R 90 S.

Meanwhile BMW developed a powerful sport bike and introduced the R 90 S in 1973. It was a sensation. And a real match for its Asian competitors: 67 horsepower, 898 cc, 38 mm Dell’Orto carburettor, cockpit fairing, and a handsome smoke silver finish. The R 90 S was one of the bikes on the race track when the first superbike championship was held in the USA in 1976. “The Japanese motorcycles had much more power and everyone thought that Kawasaki would win”, says Tadashi.  

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Joyful Racer: with the R nineT Racer along the Fuji Speedway.

Instead, Steve McLaughlin won for BMW on the R 90 S right at the beginning of the Daytona series and Reg Pridmore took home the title of first US superbike champion at the end of the season. “The engines of the Japanese bikes were much too heavy for their chassis. The manufacturers wanted even more power. But it didn’t work. The bikes were all over the place and difficult to handle. By contrast, BMW found the perfect balance of power, handling and reliability and that’s why they won”, recalls Tadashi. That same year, Hans-Otto Butenuth and Helmut Dähne recorded the fastest times at the Production TT on the Isle of Man and the R 90 S became a legend.  

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Racing for fun.

The iconic machines of the seventies are seeing a revival worldwide. Especially in Japan, where vintage races have experienced a full comeback. “Vintage racing is very popular here. There are so many young riders, and they’re attracting even more young people. For them, old motorcycles are something very new and fresh”, says Daisuke Mukasa, whose custom shop in Tokyo is fully dedicated to classic bikes. Tadashi also thinks vintage racing is so popular because it’s an escape from modern technology. “Tokyo is over-saturated with the latest technologies, which become outdated from one day to the next. It’s impossible to keep up anymore, and that’s why this counter-movement is growing. A hundred years ago, every Japanese person knew how to perform a tea ceremony and tie a kimono. I don’t know how to do either of those things, and that’s sad. We need more analogue things in our life”.

The well-known customizer Shiro Nakajima from 46Works, who created one of the most successful R nineT custom builds in the R9T Japan project, is a self-confessed vintage bike lover and has been involved in the Japanese vintage racing scene for years. “I mostly use my R 90/6 for everyday riding. I’ve had it for almost 20 years and I’m almost too attached to it. I use my R 75/5 for vintage races”. The sun disappears behind Mount Fuji early in the evening and shrouds the mountain and the race track in soft red light. The atmosphere at Fuji Speedway is magical as the vintage racers take their last laps around the circuit. They’re not worried about their times or competitors. They’re focused on only one thing: the spirit of racing.  

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Artwork by Conrad Leach

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