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.

Classic Racer - - WHAT'S INSIDE -

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)

1969.

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