Archives | Buffalo Hunting
This Archives edition is reprinted from Cycle News Issue 6, February 16, 2005. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. To prevent that from happening, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
What do the factory-backed Team Suzuki Flat Track DL1000s ridden by Kevin Varnes and 2005 team recruit Jake Johnson have in common with the Yamaha TZ700 that Kenny Roberts rode to victory on the Indy Mile? Well, in actuality, very little, except that neither the DL 1000 Suzukis nor the Roberts TZ were the first of their kind. The bike you see here, a 1972 Suzuki GT750 Water Buffalo, serves as that magical degree of separation between the Roberts TZ and the Grand National Suzukis of today.
Prior to 1972, there had been efforts to utilize the Suzuki X-6 Hustler two-stroke twin in competition. The little 250’s been raced, and raced well, in short tracks and in small-bore class competition on larger tracks, but they were no match for the all-conquering Harley-Davidson XRs or the British twins, which were rapidly being phased out of competition as the British motorcycle market headed the way of the Titanic. Thus, there was no Suzuki “big bike.”
But the advent of a wave of big-bore, multi-cylinder two-strokes in the early ’70s presented Ohio motorcycle dealer Gary Stolzenburg, proprietor of F&S Harley-Davidson and F&S Suzuki in Dayton, Ohio, a chance to be different. Suzuki had plans to sell a new two-stroke triple streetbike, known as the Suzuki GT750, and wheeler-dealer Stolzenburg managed to get hold of an engine before the new bikes were even available.
“It was a 1972 Suzuki GT750 prototype engine that I got from Japan,” Stolzenburg, now 66, says. “I had it on the parts counter at my Suzuki store in Dayton a month before the 750s ever hit the West Coast.”
Looking over the engine, Stolzenburg got the crazy idea that it might make a hell of a powerplant for a dirt tracker, so he went right to work on it.
“What we did was take a prototype frame, modified it and beefed it up and turned it into a dirt tracker,” Stolzenburg says.
Stolzenburg recalls that the machine was not the hit that he thought it would be, as the bike suffered from a terminal horsepower problem, as in way too much.
“The trouble was that it accelerated so hard that when you got to the corner, it didn’t want to turn left,” Stolzenburg says.
Not exactly the ideal handling characteristics for a dirt-track machine.
“You had to kind of road race it and make big circles, kind of like what Roberts had to do at Indy that time ,” Stolzenburg recalls. “You had to use the whole racetrack to get around on it because it had too short a wheelbase, and it would break the rear wheel loose really quickly. If you weren’t careful, it would put you on your ass in a hurry. You had to be a real throttle jockey to ride it.”
Fortunately, Stolzenburg had access to a real throttle jockey: 1960s cushion master Ronnie Rall, a Grand National-winning rider with whom Stolzenburg had a special relationship.
“I built Ronnie’s first KR out of everything that Fuhr [business partner Edgar Fuhr] threw away, back in 1960,” Stolzenburg says. “That was the first time that Ronnie ever rode a Harley, at Zanesville [Ohio] on Labor Day. He had fastest time of the day as a probationary Novice, and he would run that thing into the corners so hard on the primary cover that the wheels weren’t even touching the racetrack. I had to keep pulling it off and pounding it out so that it didn’t hit the clutch.”
Stolzenburg figured that if anyone could tame the Buffalo, Rall could.
“I put that Buffalo together, and we just thought that we’d try something different,” Stolzenburg says. “He’d take the thing clear out to the straw bales before he would make his turn. We ran the thing up in Troy [Ohio] one night, and I remember the rear brake froze. The disc was red hot, and he still almost beat Gary Scott with it, but when he pulled off the track and through the pit gate, the rear wheel just started sliding because the brake was just tight.”
But on the racetrack, the Buffalo had so much horsepower that it could turn the rear wheel through the dragging calipers without even breaking a sweat.
Rall ultimately stepped away from the project, but Stolzenburg’s faith in the Water Buffalo as a potentially stellar dirt tracker remained high. In 1975, he had plans to revive the beast when reigning AMA Grand National Champion Kenny Roberts made history by winning the Indy Mile aboard a Kel Carruthers-built factory Yamaha TZ700 on August 22, 1975. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the AMA banned the two-stroke multis from competition shortly thereafter.
“I’d already had the frame on order when Roberts won that race, and then AMA banned the multi-cylinders,” Stolzenburg says. “I went ahead and bought the frame anyway, but I never did finish it. I still have the thing. It’s sitting in a pile in my shop.”
Stolzenburg relates one more story about the big Water Buffalo.
“If you’re gonna talk about that bike, then you have to mention the time that [Steve] Morehead rode it,” Stolzenburg says. “He was a Junior in 1973, and we were at Greenville, Ohio, when his Yamaha blew up. So, his old man came over and asked me if I would let him ride the thing, and I said, ‘Sure.’ Morehead got on it and ran it wide open and lapped the entire field in a 10-lap final, except that on the white-flag lap, he hit a chuck hole in the turn and went over the fence. The bike went under the fence and Morehead went over it. That was the only time that bike was ever crashed, and we could have straightened the handlebars and ran it, but Morehead broke his kneecap in the crash.
“And, he claims that it hurt, too.” CN ~ Scott Rousseau