From A Kamikaze Pilot to A World Class Biker
edited: Tuesday, February 13, 2001
By William Heft
Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2001
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How a WW11 Kamikaze pilot who didn't take off went on to create and design motorcycle engines that put Honda Motorcycles on the world map.
By Bill Heft
POPS YAMAMOTO--From Kamikaze Pilot to Motorcycle Designer For Honda Motorcycles
By Bill Heft
With some people they either have no first name, or you are never privy to what it is. In Pop's case it was the latter, for in the two years that I spent hanging around his shop, I never heard anyone call him anything but Pops. But in the racing circles of Japan and the US, that was all one was needed.
Pops Yamamoto started his adult life as a Kamikaze pilot during World War Two. He jokingly told us the reason he was still alive was that he never had to take off. Whenever special ceremonies were being held at ltazuke AFB,(the base he lived near) the base commander would invite Pops to be present up on the platform with other distinguished guest.
There would stand Pops, tall for a Japanese, dressed in his high leather boots, bloused trousers, leather flying jacket, and the traditional long, white, silk scarf. He would smile and wave to those of us he knew in the audience. We all got a lot of enjoyment from those occasions. Other times we would gather in an upstairs room of his shop for a night of beer drinking. We drank Japanese beer from what we GI’s called ‘typhoon jugs'. When typhoons would hit the Island of Kyushu. the base officials would herd us all into the barracks, and board up all the doors and windows, but not before we threw in a stock of sea rations, cartons of cigarettes and all the large bottles of Japanese beer we could haul in. Henceforth the name, ‘typhoon jugs' They held a little over a gallon a piece and contained excellent beer. Pops favorite toast was “Bonsai” with raised typhoon jugs.
Pop's genius came forth in the form of building motorcycle engines. What I write now is the absolute honest truth. I know because I was there, involved with what Pops did. I owned one of his racing bikes. He owned and worked in a shop with a hard packed dirt floor, this being his laboratory where he hand crafted his racing engines.
Now we come to that part hardest to believe. Pops did all of his machining by hand. Boring cylinder, grinding valves, grinding cams, cranks, polishing intakes, whatever had to be done. I would walk into the shop on different occasions, and there sat Pop on the floor, performing his machining jobs. Then, when he completed the engines, whether they were the 250cc or the 3O5cc’s Honda CB Super hawks, I watched, as they would turn RPM’s of 18000 or more. I was told that on the backstretches of many a road racing course his riders would turn as much as 22,000 RPM’S with his handcrafted engines.
(Allow me to digress a little before coming back to Pop's accomplishments with the Honda engines-)
My relationship with Pops began in May of 1961, when I was stationed at Itazuke AFB, Japan, on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. At Itazuke there are two predominate lifestyles: working on jet aircraft and riding motorcycles. If you rode a motorcycle, sooner or later you would make the trip out to Pops, because it was the premiere motorcycle repair shop of the area. Within your first week in Japan one learned that financially you were in the upper rungs of the income bracket of the island, regardless of rank. In those days we GI’s had a lot of money to spend on motorcycles.
If you were good at riding, you were invited to join the motorcycle-racing club on base. This group was called the Kyushu Timing Association, and sponsored two styles of racing, hare and hound, and road racing. Pops was involved at the very heart of both styles of racing. In fact, he was probably responsible for the success of the Kyushu Timing Association.
To be involved’ in either hare and hound or road racing, one had to own a good motorcycle. During the late 1950s Honda produced a 250 and 350 cc single cylinder motorcycle we called thumpers. They made good scramblers, but they weren't the best. The best we had was supplied to us by Pops, which he sold from his dirt floor motorcycle repair shop. The two makes he specialized in were Honda’s and Yamaha's. Interestingly enough, Pops worked on them both. There were other make's of motorcycles sold in Kyushu, but even as early as I961, these were the two dominant manufactures, and from Pops shop, these were the only two that were raced.
Itazuke AFB was actually divided into three sections, The airstrip, where the Kyushu Timing Association had it's clubhouse, the base Annex, which was about five miles from the airstrip, our hare and hound track was located there, and finally Brady Airfield. This was an abandon Army airfield, located about 10 miles from the airstrip.
Our first type of racing is the hare and hound. In case the reader is not familiar with hare and hound racing, the following is a description of a typical race. First, all the riders lined up at a starting line,located at the bottom of a 50 foot hill.
When they had us all lined up, sitting on a scrambler motorcycle design of some kind,
we placed one hand on the throttle, the other hand held up in the air, off the clutch lever. Then, with the drop of a the starters hand, all grabbed the cluth lever, shifted into first gear, and roared towards a narrowing point that ended in a one lane bike path at the top of the 50 foot hill climb.
When you reached the top of the hill, if you weren't air borne, it meant you would be one of the last. The leaders meanwhile were landing rear wheel first, and them immediately braking while the left foot went down in an attempt to maneuver the first turn. At that point only one person could lead, because there was no room for two abreast on the very narrow trail, unless you ran over someone as they went down. We developed a saying for this; calling it, "tires tracks on my gas tank". There were a few spots along the course where you could pass, but for the most part, once you got ahead of the group, you fought to stay upright, because the course was a narrow path, filled with mud holes, sharp turns, deep ruts, and hills. The mileage of the course was about a mile in circumference, and most races were ten laps. Overall, it was a tough course and it proved to be a tougher race.
The second style of racing that Pops and the Kyushu Timing Association were involved in was road racing. The course was about three miles in circumference and consisted of mostly black top, some gavel, and a stretch of what was known as PSP, or temporary landing strip. These were steel mats with 1' holes in it and these could be hinged together to make instant landing strips. The hazard with PSP is when any moisture was on its sur6ce it could become very slick. Racers on the backstretch of this course could reach speeds of 120 MPH, but before coming out of the back stretch had to cross the PSP. A friend of mine did go down once on the PSP at a speed of over a hundred miles an hour, and it took him several weeks to build up the courage to road race again.
The road race course is where Pop's work really shone because his specialty was building racing engines. He had started building and developing the Yamaha 25Occ’s first, in fact he sold Yamaha's before selling Honda’s. He made the change because their engines would always seize somewhere during the race, even though they were faster than the Honda’s. The Honda riders said when they were out in front, a Yamaha would pull up along side, wave, and then pass them. But eventually the Honda riders would see the Yamaha beside the course with a seized engine. Word was that no one could make a Yamaha run like Pops.
When Pops switched to Honda he really began to make a name for himself and his racing crew. His Honda 250 and 305cc’s began to dominate all over Southern Japan. He even raced them against the Honda Factory teams and began winning against them. When Honda learned that Pops Honda’s were turning up to 22,000 RPM’s they said it was impossible, that no one could get that kind of performance out of their bikes. But Pops proof was in his wining against the Honda Factory teams, even at the big racetrack at Suzuki where Honda dominated.
Finally, Honda approached Pops and hired him to design many of the Honda engines. Pops went on to develop their racing machines and kept them winning around the world. He also was instrumental in developing the CR-72, one of the first twin overhead cam scramblers,
A few GI's including myself brought back some of Pop's bikes, and of course received the same reaction when we mentioned what RPM’s the bikes would turn.
I personally brought back one of his handcrafted Yamaha YDS-2s. This was one of Pops 25Occ’s with remote float carbs. That little jewel would run 120 MPH.
The last I heard of Pops was while reading through a copy of Cycle World, and there was a picture of Pops out at Bonneville Salt Flats with a Kawasaki racing teem trying to break the motorcycle world land speed record.
The End, Bill Heft