The year was 1970.
Motorcycle culture was exploding all over the country, the muscle car era was in full swing, and Americans were more interested in racing than ever before. Intrepid rider Dick Mann, and the reluctantly constructed, factory-backed Honda team stood on the precipice of racing glory, but a tough 200 miles stood between the team and the big “W” that would legitimize Honda as a force to be reckoned with in the world of motorcycle road racing.
For motorcycle enthusiasts, and automotive enthusiasts alike, one of the epicenters for motorsports passion is the sleepy town of Daytona Beach. Home to a world-class motorsports complex, Daytona hosts everything from the Daytona 500 NASCAR spectacle to the Daytona 24 Hours, and the ultimate American motorcycle race, the Daytona 200.
This amazing race has been held every year since 1931, and through the trials and tribulations of a growing nation, it has endured as the ultimate proving ground for the fastest motorcycles in the world.
For racing enthusiasts (and Honda enthusiasts), the 1970 Daytona 200 was a particularly incredible year because Honda simply was not going to compete in the race, and their march back into the spotlight took everyone by surprise.
This is a story that needs to be told.
The Back Story
Daytona’s racing heritage stretches all the way back to 1932 when the Southeastern Motorcycle Dealers association organized a 200-mile dirt track race at the old Vanderbilt Cup Course in Savannah, Georgia. The event quickly outgrew the track, as well as the subsequent venue in Jacksonville, and eventually landed on the beach in Daytona.
While most have heard of the Bonneville Salt Flats, many forget that land-speed records were also held on the densely packed sand of Daytona Beach well before Bonneville rose to prominence. Unfortunately, by the mid-1930s, the city of Daytona was suffering because land speed record seekers were headed to Bonneville instead of Daytona. Enter Bill France Sr., a legendary race promoter and epic salesman.
From 1935 (excluding the wartime years) to 1961, the 200-mile race was held on the sands of Daytona Beach, much to the delight of racing fans the world over. Increasing urbanization and rapid expansion of the surrounding communities around Daytona meant that racing on the beach would soon no longer be an option. So, what does an absolute legend like Bill France Sr. do? They build a racetrack.
Construction began in 1957, and by 1961, the Daytona 200 was ready to be moved from the sand to the brand new motorsports complex, despite some hesitation from AMA officials. Competitors moved from dirt bikes to road bikes (similar to Grand Prix bikes in Europe) that were designed to handle the banks and sharp corners of the track with ease. Within a few short years, the Daytona 200 rose to international prominence with manufacturers from all over the world looking to get in on a piece of the action and publicity.
Racing at Daytona, at least up until the 1960s, had been a distinctly American effort with manufacturers like Harley-Davidson leading the charge around the new 200-mile circuit. However, with a few crucial rule changes, everything was about to change.
Challengers To The Crown
In 1970, the ultra-conservative and often resistant to change AMA decided to allow 750CC bikes to race, crucially, without limit on the valve location OR the number of cylinders in the bike. This meant that multi-cylinder, modern bikes of the era, like the Triumph Trident Triple, BSA’s Rocket 3, and the 4 cylinder Honda CB750 would be allowed to finally race in Daytona. Game on.
BSA and Triumph were getting positively smashed by Honda in the United States and were outsold at the rate of nearly 4 to 1. To counter this dominance, BSA and Triumph merged to form one company with the hopes of making a dent in Honda’s sales. Frankly, the CB750 on the street was nearly unbeatable, but the newly formed BSA/Triumph team was going to do their damndest to win at the most important race of the year to prove they had what it took to win. You guessed it, that race was the Daytona 200.
BSA/Triumph built not one, but seven fully prepped race bikes and threw an incredible amount of money and resources at the Daytona 200 effort. Highboy frames wrapped in wind-tunnel developed bodywork were ridden by legends like nine-time World Champion Mike Hailwood, David Aldana, Don Castro, Gary Nixon, and Gene Romero . The team even had an aero specialist on staff, along with factory support from Dunlop tires.
What about Honda? Well, see, Honda almost didn’t participate in the Daytona 200! You heard that right, if it wasn’t for American Honda Service Manager Bob Hansen, they wouldn’t have entered into the race at all!
Late To The Game, First To Cross The Line
Hansen approached American Honda’s board of directors with the opportunity to race in the Daytona 200, but surprisingly, he was immediately shot down. Honda, at the time, was a traditionally conservative company that was not interested in taking risks. It seemed as though someone at Honda was listening, however, because, within a few days, the head of R&D at Honda in Japan, phoned Bob Hansen and asked a simple question: what top speed do you need to win the race? Flummoxed, Hansen spat out a number and ended the call with Hamada, wondering why that obscure question was even asked in the first place. Three days later, Bob found out why. Honda was entering the Daytona 200.
None other than Formula 1 legend Yoshio Nakamura was put in charge of the running effort for the racing program, and he along with his team rolled out three CR750 bikes for the race, augmented by an additional bike by Bob Hansen. Nakamura would bring on Ralph Bryans, Tommy Robb, and Bill Smith. Hansen would bring in AMA Grand National Champ Dick “Bugsy” Mann, a three-time runner up in Daytona.
The drama of race week started to unfold when it was discovered that the Triumph and BSA motorcycles were not running regulation five-speed gearboxes. Honda was also part of the controversy and fray when it was discovered, after an accident and subsequent fire, that their engine cradles were made of magnesium. Despite all this nonsense, qualifying took place and Dick Mann ended up in 4th behind the super-fast Triumph and BSA bikes.
Hansen knew that the Hondas were fast enough to win the race but he was highly concerned about possible mechanical problems. After some high RPM performance issues, Hansen's lead mechanic discovered that the hard rubber cam chain tensioner had completely disintegrated inside the motor and it needed a full engine rebuild. Nakamura ignored Hansen's advice and did nothing to rebuild the internals.
Although Mann jumped out of the front of the race, the Triumph and BSA bikes quickly shot around him and began to put distance out in front of the venerable Honda. However, these aerodynamically designed bikes suffered from poor cooling and began to overheat. By halfway through the race all the BSA and Triumph bikes were out. Shortly after, all three of the Nakamura-built Hondas were out for top-end performance issues. Guess they should have listened to Bob Hansen!
Halfway through the race, Mann's cam chain tensioner again disintegrated, but he had built such a lead over the much slower Harley-Davidsons that were still in the race, that even with mechanical issues it was going to be tough to catch him. With only 10 laps remaining, the last remaining Honda had his massive lead withered down to only 12 seconds. All this battered and beaten motorcycle needed to do was finish the damn race.
Mann crossed the finish line only 2 seconds ahead of the much more reliable, yet much slower Harley-Davidson bikes. Once the race was completed, it was discovered that Mann had finished the race on only 3 cylinders and that he was burning oil at an incredible rate, leaving him with only a cup at the end of the race.
Although it wasn't a clean win for Honda, it did show that the manufacturer could hang with the best in the world and that despite being completely hammered, still win races. In a way, this was the best kind of win from a manufacturer who was selling bikes based on their outright reliability.
Due to a tussle between Nakamura and Hansen, Honda immediately fired Bob after winning the Daytona 200. Insubordination was not tolerated, and Bob was not the kind of person to take that lightly. After leaving Honda, Bob Hansen went to Kawasaki, and mounted an effective factory racing effort throughout the 1970s.
That win would cement Honda as a big-time player in the world of road racing. It would also see the demise of Harley-Davidson in road racing, and the eventual demise of both BSA and Triumph.