Dave Simmonds and the Kawasaki story
Talk about Kawasaki racing these days and most enthusiasts will think of the World Superbike dominance of recent years thanks to the talents of Tom Sykes and Jonathan Rea. But go further back and there’s a rider you should go to first.
Dave was one of the greatest motorcycle racers that this country produced. A family man who was as liked off the bike as he was feared on it, he proved his worth at riding and wielding spanners to eventually give Kawasaki their first world crown. Bruce Cox explains Dave’s contributions and how they fit into the larger story of the Red Tank Racers.
Words: Bruce Cox. Photographs: From the Bruce Cox Collection, Motorcycle Weekly archives and Mortons Media Archive.
Perhaps you have to go further back to the charismatic ‘naked’ US Championship superbikes of Eddie Lawson, David Aldana and Wayne Rainey in the late 1970s and early Eighties or the World Championship winning ‘tandem twins’ of Kork Ballington, Anton Mang and Greg Hansford in that same era. Or perhaps even further back to the two-stroke triples that were among the most successful Formula 750 racers in the hands of stars like Yvon Duhamel and Gary Nixon in the early Seventies. What relatively few people will remember, however, is that during the late 1960s, Kawasaki built a world title-winning 125 twin-cylinder racer, as well as fast 250 and 350cc twins that, for a while at least, were competitive with the eventuallydominant Yamaha TD and TR series racers. Those are what Kawasaki racing fans now refer to as “the red tank racers” and it was an Englishman, the late Dave Simmonds, who proved their capabilities by winning the World 125cc Championship in 1969. The reason that Kawasaki originally decided to go racing was the lack of a strong image in the USA, the market where the company had decided to concentrate its initial sales focus in the mid-sixties. In 1966, while at the Daytona Motorcycle Show, senior Kawasaki executives were exposed to the importance of racing in the American motorcycle market and to the special significance of the Daytona 200 Miles race. It became clear to them that high performance and racing had a huge marketing influence on the sales of sports motorcycles in the US and this was the marketing image they needed. And especially good for the fledgling Kawasaki Motors Corporation (KMC) in the US was the fact that Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI), the parent company in Japan, also understood this and, furthermore, realised that racing was important for strong sales in Japan and in Europe as well. In 1965 KHI built and first raced a 125cc air-cooled GP type motorcycle in the Japanese National Championship races, the KR-1. For the 1966 season KHI redesigned the bike, adding water-cooling to the two-cylinder rotary valve two-stroke motorcycle with an eight-speed gearbox. Though essentially a production racer when compared to Grand Prix machines like Yamaha’s 125cc vee-four two-strokes and Honda’s five-cylinder four-strokes of the same era, the updated KR-1 proved very competitive against all but the GP exotica, so Kawasaki decided to start racing it in Europe, as well as in Japan. This decision was made after Dave had finished eighth on the KR-1 in the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix and he was the rider that Kawasaki entrusted with racing it in Europe. It was, however, far from being a ‘factory ride’. Dave raced it in the European Grand Prix in the six seasons from 1967 through 1972, riding as a privateer with only parts support from KHI. At its development peak, the 125cc KR-1 put out about 30hp at 14,000rpm.
In 1969, on the even-then aging 125cc KR-1, Dave won the first of Kawasaki’s World Championships – something that wouldn’t be repeated until nine years later when Kork Ballington took the first of his four titles on the ‘lean, mean and lime green’ 250/350 ‘tandem twins’ in 1978. As well as the 125 during these three GP seasons, Dave also raced the rotary valve 250cc A1-RA and its bigger brother, the 350cc A7-RA. There later followed his building of a special 500 based on the 1969 H1 three-cylinder two-stroke road bike and finally the acquisition of an H1-R – the first pure racing version of Kawasaki’s famous three-cylinder two-strokes. Dave Simmonds is a name often forgotten but one that deserves to be remembered. He was born in London on October 25, 1940 and ma made his race debut on a 50cc Itom in 1960. By 1963 he was the British 125cc champion on an unusual machine – a 125cc Tohatsu twin bui lt in Japan by a factory that is still active and d more famous for its outboard boat motors and d industrial units than the motorcycles that hav ve now long disappeared from its range. D Dave had good contacts with Japan at a tim me when that was unusual and he won ma ny UK short circuit races with the rare Toh hatsu 50cc and 125cc two-stroke twins that he sourced from over there. As well as with the e Tohatsu two-strokes, he also scored mid d-decade successes with four-strokes from m Honda such as the 50cc CR110 and the e rare 250cc CR72 and 305cc CR77 dou uble-overhead camshaft twins that he also obt tained via his Japanese contacts. Dave’s UK performances with Japanese machines in the 1963-66 period led to an invitation from Kawasaki to head out to Japan for the last race of the season and ride its works 125cc KR-1 in the Japanese Grand Prix. He finished a creditable eighth on the under-powered machine against the Grand Prix exotica fielded by Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki and was therefore keen to race it in a full world championship campaign in 1967. Kawasaki, however, realised that the bike was unlikely to be a winner in that era of virtually unrestricted Grand Prix competition and insisted that it could not justify the budget to send staff and mechanics to compete in Europe. Dave then suggested that if Kawasaki would loan him the bike, he would do all the mechanical work on it himself. Kawasaki was still sceptical, however, and it was only after Dave had attended a training course at the factory that the Japanese bosses realised that he was, in truth, more than capable of doing so. Thanks to this display of his mechanical capabilities, Dave came back to the UK armed with a factory 125 – but it was still a bike that was going to be hopelessly outpaced by the works team Yamaha vee-fours and Suzuki square-fours of the time. The bike was backed up by a very small box of spares that included
two crankshafts, four pistons, a few sets of piston rings and not much else. Armed with the 125 and the Kawasaki A1-R and A7-R 250 and 350 production racers, Dave then embarked on full seasons of 11 Grand Prix races in three classes! Reliability issues and injuries plagued him in the 1967 and 1968 seasons but with the 125 in 1967 he still chalked up a fifth place in the French GP, a fourth in the Isle of Man TT and a podium finish with third place in Finland. He repeated his TT placing on the 250 and took fifth in the Dutch GP as well. In the following season, a fourth in Italy on the 125 and sixth on the 350 in Holland were the only GP finishes and the Kawasaki racers were beginning to look like rather a lost cause. But by 1969 there was a ray of light at the end of what had seemed like a very dark tunnel indeed. The FIM regulations were changed to limit 125cc machines to two cylinders and six-speed gearboxes and this was enough to cause the dominant Yamaha and Suzuki factories to pull out of GP racing, as their bikes had been legislated out of the reckoning. Suddenly, Dave stood a chance of being a title contender, even on his ageing Kawasaki. In fact, he proved to be a lot more than just a contender. He had a sensational season, with only one race at which he failed to score either a win or a second place. And that was a race at which he wasn’t even present! He elected to miss the opening Spanish GP, as there was not enough start money on offer to cover his costs. At round two, on the fast Hockenheim track in West Germany, Dave came into his own and gave Kawasaki its first ever Grand Prix win. And he never looked back. In June, he also became Kawasaki’s first ever Isle of MANTT winner, taking the 125cc Lightweight race in a year when the TT still counted as the British round of the world championship. From there Dave went on to totally dominate the championship by taking eight wins and two second places from the 11-round series. In the following 1970 season, however, the old 125 Kawasaki was outpaced by the ex-works Suzuki twin of Dieter Braun, the Derbi of Angel Nieto and the Maico of Borge Jansson. But Dave still managed to finish fourth in the world championship with a win in Finland, second places in Holland and Belgium, third in Czechoslovakia and fourth in East Germany. Another year on and the KR1 still proved itself capable of delivering a win in Dave’s hands – this time at Hockenheim in West Germany. By the end of the season, however, he had slipped to sixth on points behind Nieto, Barry Sheene (who had acquired Dieter Braun’s ex-factory Suzuki twin) Jansson and Dieter Braun (now also on a factory Maico) and Chas Mortimer on Yamaha’s new 125cc production racer twin.
It was in that 1971 season that Dave moved up to become a winner in the 500cc class as, with the H1R triple, he gave Kawasaki its first ever win in that category at the final round at Jarama in Spain. It was enough to secure him fourth place overall in the World 500cc Championship. Giacomo Agostini had sat out the Spanish round, having already won the title on the dominant MV Agusta, but Dave had already proved his mettle on the big bike by finishing second to the Italian superstar in Finland and taking third place podium finishes in Holland and Italy. Dave’s last Grand Prix was at Montjuich Park in Barcelona in 1972 where he finished second in the 500cc race to consolidate his seventh place in the world standings. He also finished fourth in the 125cc race to maintain his sixth place in the world rankings for that class. And, amazingly, seven years after it had made its first World Championship appearance at the 1966 Japanese GP, the venerable little KR1 again proved capable of taking Dave to a podium placing… which it did at Assen in the Dutch TT. At the end of that season, however, tragedy struck at a non-championship meeting at Rungis near Paris. When Australian racer Jack Findlay’s caravan caught fire, Dave and fellow racer Billie Nelson ran to help, just as a gas canister caught fire and exploded. Tragically, Dave was engulfed in the flames. His wife, Julie, ran into the inferno to try and drag him clear and suffered severe burns that put her on the critical list for several months. She would eventually recover but sadly her heroic actions were not enough to save her husband. Ironically, Findlay was not inside the caravan at the time of the fire – as Dave had mistakenly thought – so his was sadly a life wasted, his death completely unnecessary. However, he will always be remembered by riders and enthusiasts from that time as the man who put Kawasaki on the map in its earliest days by giving the firm its first Grand Prix race win ever, its first world championship, its first TT win and its first 500cc GP win. And he did it all alone in terms of mechanical support, working out of the back of a van, living in a caravan and travelling all around Europe with only his wife for company.
In the Grand Prix paddocks, however, he and Julie were always among friends and were two of the most likeable and popular people in the travelling ‘Continental Circus’ that comprised the Grand Prix racing season back then. American racer John Weed remembers that when he was struggling with reliability problems on the 350cc Kawasaki twin at the 1970 Isle of Man TT, the first person to offer him help and advice was the reigning world champion Dave Simmonds… and that is a similar memory that many other contemporary racers still have of the likeable Englishman.
Dave on the outside of Dieter Braun, 125 GP, Spa, 1969.
Above: The Kawasaki A1-RA of 1968. Above left: Cal Rayborn was fourth with the Kawasaki A1-RAS at Daytona 1969.Above right: Dave Simmonds – World 125cc Champion in 1969.
Below: Dave Simmonds (24) with the 500cc Kawasaki H1R triple on the grid alongside Rod Gould (Yamaha-4) at Spa Francorchamps.
Below:the A1-RA engine was a rotary valve twin with remote float chambers.
Above: Dave Simmonds on the A7R 350 in the 1967 Isle of MANTT. Above right: Dave with Ginger Molloy at the 1969 West German GP. Left: Californian Frank Scurria was front page news with his Kawasaki A1-R 250 in 1967.
Dave pushes off at the 1969 250 TT on the Kawasaki ahead of Derek Chatterton (4).
Above: Ken Araoka came from the factory in Japan for Dayona 1969.
Below: Kawasaki A1-RA 1968.
Above: Kawasaki 250cc A1-RAS in its final 1969 form.Right: Ralph White (left) and Rod Gould with their 250cc A1-RA racers at Willow Springs, California, 1968.Below: The Kawasaki KR1 125cc twin in ‘red tank racer’ form.
Birje Kawasaki) leads Simmonds ( atassen in 1972. Jansson (Maico)