The 1985 “Dream Team” That Ushered in a New Era
In June 1985, a day before the All Japan Road Race Championship’s 200 km endurance race at Suzuka Circuit, a certain Kenny Roberts could be seen in the paddock. Roberts had announced his participation in the Suzuka 8 Hours at a press conference at the circuit hotel: “It’s my first race in a year and a half and it’s my first endurance race, but I have faith in the bike and I’m happy to be able to ride with [Tadahiko] Taira. He’s the fastest in Japan right now.”
“King Kenny” had already retired from GPs, so the announcement that he would be riding in the 8 Hours made Japanese fans’ hearts leap. Until that point, the only chances they had to see him in action in Japan was a few times at the TBC Big Road Race at Sportsland SUGO in Miyagi Prefecture, so it was a mouth-watering prospect to see Roberts in full attack mode at Suzuka.
On top of that, he would be riding with Tadahiko Taira, who had won the 1983 and ‘84 All Japan 500cc Championship and was well on his way to a third consecutive title that year. At the time, he was the undisputed star of Japanese motorcycle racing. Taira was also the brand ambassador for cosmetics giant Shiseido’s “TECH21” line of men’s products, and as such the Yamaha factory team for the 8 Hours became the “Yamaha TECH21 Team”. The bike the team would use was based on the new and revolutionary 5-valved FZ750 supersport model launched that year, but modified for endurance racing and designated as the FZR750 (0W74) 4-stroke factory race machine.
In qualifying at the end of July, Roberts reset the standing TT-F1 class record for Suzuka with a scorching 2'19.956 lap time to take pole position and reminded everyone why he was called “King”. In the race, he was tasked with making the Le Mans-style start, but had difficulty getting the engine started and the TECH21 machine was left far behind the pack. But this mishap seemed to have the opposite effect, firing the team and riders up and only elevating their performance.
From virtually last place, Roberts rode at a blistering pace, reaching 14th by lap 4, 6th by lap 10 and 2nd by lap 20. After handing the bike off to Taira on lap 22, the reigning Japanese champion continued the charge, passing the Honda duo of Wayne Gardner and Masaki Tokuno on lap 38 for the lead at the 1 hour 32-minute mark. After that, the Yamaha pair maintained a fast and consistent pace at the front to hold onto the lead.
They were still out in front when the sun began to fall and most of the fans packing the stands were already sure of a TECH21 team debut win. But the race was not over yet. With 30 minutes left to go and Taira in the saddle, the FZR750 suddenly lost engine rpm. While downshifting on the main straight for the approach to the first corner, Taira heard a backfire-like sound. Worried about spilling oil onto the track, he pulled off the racing line and rode slowly on the edge of the track. He didn’t enter pit lane and pulled the bike to a stop just before the finish line. He talked briefly with the team manager over the pit wall and then silently got off the bike.
In the end, while the team put on a dominant performance and completed 182 laps, their raced ended as a DNF. Gardner and Tokuno ended up winning the race for Honda, but the undeniable highlight of that year was incredible riding from the two riders on the sky-blue TECH21 machine. Because the end result was so tragic, it was forever etched in fans’ minds and kicked off an unmatched era of 8 Hours passion and excitement.