The TECH21 Victory that Sent 160,000 Fans Wild
The 1990 Suzuka 8 Hours marked Yamaha’s sixth entry with the TECH21 team since beginning in 1985. Spectator attendance had been increasing every year and in 1990 those numbers reached their peak, with around 160,000 fans packing the circuit on race day alone. The Shiseido TECH21 Racing Team featured Tadahiko Taira and Eddie Lawson for the race. Lawson had already won four 500cc World Championship titles and had returned to Yamaha to contest the 1990 GP season. However, luck was not on the American’s side that year as he suffered injuries at the first round in Japan at Suzuka and then again at the next round in the U.S. at Laguna Seca, forcing him to sit out several races and making his title prospects dire. Even so, he decided to race in the 8 Hours for the first time in a decade.
Back in 1980 in his first attempt, Lawson took a Kawasaki Z1 to an impressive 2nd place while the same year Taira rode for a privateer team on a CB750E to finish 39th. Taira remembered Lawson from back then: “He bumped into me when lapping me at the entrance to Spoon Curve, but I remember him giving me a wave to say sorry after. I thought he had good manners!” Each walked his own path in road racing in the ten years that followed, but those paths would converge in 1990 as they became teammates for the race.
The race weekend got underway with free practice on Thursday. Eddie Lawson had not ridden a 4-stroke in the four and a half years since he took an FZ750 to victory at the 1986 Daytona 200. That did not stop him from going out and setting a 2’16.20 for the first day, a very respectable time that raised the team’s expectations of a strong performance. In the two qualifying sessions held on the following Friday and Saturday, the team’s expectations were answered as Taira set a fastest lap of 2’15.819 and Lawson a 2’13.520. Lawson’s time was 2nd quickest overall behind Honda’s Mick Doohan, but that year the grid was organized not by overall fastest overall time, but by alternating the top times from the A and B group qualifying sessions, which put the TECH21 team 3rd on the grid.
Taira was tasked with making the race start and running the first stint for the first time as a TECH21 rider. Just after getting off the line he was swallowed up by the pack, but by the end of his first lap he had recovered to 9th and rose to 3rd by the end of his first stint. After getting off the bike, Taira gave his take on the race at that point: “We’ve got no issues with me or the bike. I’m used to the heat now too, so I think I can keep going at this pace. My times fell off a little during the stint but that was because of backmarkers, not the heat. I can keep doing laps in the 2‘17s from here onward.” The race gradually developed into a duel between the Gardner/Doohan duo from Honda and the TECH21 team.
As the race was just entering its middle stages, something happened that sent commotion running through the circuit—Gardner had crashed at the chicane. The Australian quickly re-mounted and made it back to his team waiting in the pits, but that was enough time for Lawson on the YZF750 to move into the lead and build an advantage of over one minute. Lawson then handed the bike back to Taira. After running another successful stint, the three-time Japanese champion shared his thoughts again: “The heat is getting worse, but I was more concerned about backmarkers since there are more out there than in past years. I’ve done half of my share of the job so far, and in the second half I’ll just do my best to keep my own pace and stay focused.”
Honda had gotten their machine back in the race and Gardner was pushing to try to get back to the front, but perhaps for that very reason, the Honda came to a stop just before the hairpin at around 3:30 in the afternoon—they had run out of fuel. “After I learned that Wayne was out, I felt a lot less pressure,” said Lawson after his second stint. “But that’s also why we’ll need to be extra wary of what’s happening on track from here.” But from that point, no competitors came close enough to challenge the TECH21 team as the race approached its conclusion.
Meanwhile, Taira was being even more careful. “The air is cooler now and our water temperature has come down a bit, so that’s good for the bike,” he said just before going out for his last stint. “But we can’t let our guard down yet so I’ll focus on riding my own race. Maintaining focus is the most important thing. Just like the last stints, I’ll focus on doing every lap as it comes, one by one.” Then, after 6:30 p.m. with less than one hour to go, Taira handed the YZF750 back over to Lawson.
At that point, the TECH21 team held a two-lap advantage to their closest rivals of Honda’s Shoji Miyazaki and Tadashi Ohshima. Lawson rode true to the “Steady Eddie” nickname he got in GPs, setting consistent lap times as the sun began to set. Even the beam from the YZF750’s headlight looked smooth as it streaked across the circuit monitors. Then at 7:30 p.m., as the #21 machine could be seen on screen coming out of Spoon Curve, people outside the pit garages already had their fingers poised over cans of beer ready to celebrate and a huge cheer started to build up from the main stands as Lawson approached the beckoning chequered flag.
From the bike stopping just before what would have been a debut win in 1985 to another four years of struggle and bad luck, Taira’s perseverance ended in the best way possible—a fantastic victory. It was the TECH21 team’s second win following the first in 1987 and the third for Yamaha at the Suzuka 8 Hours. Elsewhere on YZF750 machinery, Yasutomo Nagai and Shingo Kato on the Y.R.T.R. team finished 4th while Kunio Machii and Norihiko Fujiwara finished 5th for the Nescafe RT Yamaha team. All three of Yamaha’s factory bikes had finished in the top five.
After the race, Yamaha’s press release was handed out in the media room with post-race comments from the riders.
“More than anything, I’m just happy. In my last 15 minutes out on the bike, all I could think about was what’s happened over the last six years and I was so worried. I’m so thankful to the whole team and the fans.”
“I’ve won a lot in GPs, but I’m really happy to win the 8 Hours for the first time. I didn’t help Taira fulfil his dream, he did it himself; he brought out the best parts of the bike and did a perfect race out there.”
The Shiseido TECH21 Team’s dramatic six-year story at the 8 Hours came to an end nearly 30 years ago, but the story is still fresh in the memories of many Japanese fans today and often the topic of nostalgic conversation. Tadahiko Taira’s years of hardship and eventual triumph, the best GP riders of the era mixing it up on the track, exotic factory racebikes and countless rivalries were representative of the Suzuka 8 Hours back then, but more than that, it was the passionate fans that packed the stands with their eyes giddy for a race unlike any in the world that made it a Fiery and Passionate Era.
In 2019, the Yamaha Factory Racing Team is seeking its fifth consecutive 8 Hours win in the same Shiseido TECH21 colours from 1985, looking to write a new story that can be told for years to come by both the generation of fans who remember the original team and a new generation of racing fans.