When it comes to Honda’s racing efforts the saying goes: Honda came, they saw, they conquered. That’s often been the story of Honda’s motorcycle road racing programs, but it didn’t quite happen that way when they entered AMA Superbike racing in 1980.
Honda first raced in America in a big way when it brought over a massive effort to Daytona in 1970, although it tried in vain to minimize the look of a factory effort by running the squad under the auspices of Bob Hansen Racing - which had previously run successful AMA road racing teams with Matchless and others. Dick Mann won on the Honda that year and then that was pretty much it from Big H in American road racing for the next decade. Except for a one-off RSC effort at the Dallas AMA Road Race National in 1973 and various privateer efforts – most notably with riders Roger Reiman and Gary Fisher on a Krause/Yoshimura Honda – Honda did not road race in America until it decided to return by way of AMA Superbike in 1980, famously hiring up-and-coming road racing phenom Freddie Spencer.
AMA Superbike was just starting to mature, in its fifth season as a National series, when Honda came in in ’80. The Japanese four-cylinder 1000cc machines, previously known only for raw power, were beginning to handle and Suzuki and Kawasaki had pretty much dominated the preceding seasons. You can point to 1980 as the year AMA Superbike racing really came of age. Not only did Honda jump in for the first time with Spencer and Ron Pierce (and later Mike Baldwin when Pierce was injured), but Kawasaki was also there with a very strong team of Eddie Lawson and David Aldana, and then there was defending champ Wes Cooley on the powerful Yoshimura Suzuki. Road racing was also rapidly expanding, from just four races in 1979, to 10 rounds the following season. Throw all of that into the mix and you could see why Superbikes began to eclipse the popularity of the AMA’s Formula One class, which was the road-racing branch of the AMA Grand National Championship.
As background it should be noted that Honda had money to burn on racing by 1980 because its long-term investment in building automobiles was finally paying off in a big way. So Honda’s launch of its Superbike team (and to a lesser extent its AMA F1 effort) was done in a way no other team could even dream about. At Daytona that March, Honda had an expansive garage with a lot of personnel (both from American Honda and directly from Japan), multiple spares and every conceivable tool one could imagine. It was a massive effort; especially compared to the cramped garages of both Yoshimura Suzuki and Kawasaki, Honda’s prime rivals.
Honda launched an update of its iconic CB750 in 1979, the four-valves per cylinder CB750F. A punched out to 1025cc version of the 750F was Honda’s entry back into AMA Road Racing. American Honda had nabbed a Yoshimura Suzuki GS100 by way of Roberto Pietri and that bike was secretly sent to Honda’s Racing Service Center (RSC) so they could see firsthand what a state-of–the-art AMA Superbike was made of.
Steve McLaughlin, who was serving as racer/team manager for Honda in 1980, said that since they had access to the Yoshimura Suzuki they knew its engine produced in the 145 horsepower range. “And I knew for a fact that Lawson’s Kawasaki produced over 150,” McLaughlin said. “I told them if they could get us at least 140 horsepower we’d make up the difference with Freddie (Spencer).”
RSC assured the American side that the Superbikes would be in the 140 hp range, but to the American team’s dismay, when the bikes showed up from Japan and put on the dyno, according to McLaughlin, of the 22 engines RSC sent over “not one of them had more than 118 hp.”
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