DON SAKAKURA

Cycle World - - The Tuner - By KENT KUNITSUGU / Pho­tog­ra­phy by DREW RUIZ

MMo­tor­cy­cle road rac­ing in Amer­ica has changed dras­ti­cally from the ro­man­tic by­gone days of a rider and me­chanic crammed into a van full of bikes and spare parts, scur­ry­ing across the na­tion try­ing to eke out a liv­ing. Mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers’ in­creas­ing in­volve­ment in rac­ing dur­ing the 1980s saw an in­flux of money and re­sources that even­tu­ally trans­formed the pad­dock a decade later into a bustling hive of big trans­porters, swarms of team per­son­nel, and star rid­ers with seven-fig­ure salaries. But that evo­lu­tion was mer­ci­less over the years; scant few who were in­volved in that ear­lier era re­main in pro­fes­sional rac­ing to­day.

There is still one vet­eran from those days of oil-stained cov­er­alls, greasy fin­ger­nails, and en­gine re­builds in the back of the van. Don Sakakura has been at the helm of famed in­dus­try pow­er­house Yoshimura R&D for nearly two decades, while also hav­ing the role of team man­ager for Yoshimura Suzuki rac­ing for another 17 years be­fore that. His 38-year ca­reer with Yoshimura has wit­nessed the con­tin­u­ing changes in rac­ing— and mo­tor­cy­cling in gen­eral—over that time.

Rid­ing dirt bikes with his fam­ily at an early age fos­tered Sakakura’s love of mo­tor­cy­cling, in more ways than one. “I not only loved rid­ing, but also the tech­ni­cal front… i re­ally en­joyed work­ing on the motorcycles, find­ing out what im­proved per­for­mance,” says the na­tive Cal­i­for­nian. Sakakura’s rac­ing jour­ney be­gan when Amer­i­can Honda poached some of the Yoshimura Suzuki me­chan­ics to help staff its up­com­ing fac­tory su­per­bike ef­fort. He joined Yoshimura in Jan­uary 1980, and soon found him­self un­der the tute­lage of leg­endary rac­ing tuner Hideo “Pops” Yoshimura, son Fu­jio, and Sue­hiro “Nabe” Watan­abe—the core of Yoshimura R&D.

“Pop(s) had that ‘never die, never give up’ at­ti­tude,” re­calls Sakakura. “He never ac­cepted los­ing; it was al­ways, ‘Why can’t we?’ or ‘What can we do to make more power,

or go faster around the race­track?’ He would work and work un­til he got what he wanted to achieve.” Of course, that work ethic was ex­pected of ev­ery­one else, and those who didn’t fol­low suit wouldn’t last very long. “If you didn’t get a ham­mer or some­thing thrown at you, along with the abuse and pound­ing he’d dish out, then you knew you were ac­cepted as part of the team,” Sakakura says with a laugh.

Yoshimura also taught him the value of old-school crafts­man­ship. “He ac­tu­ally would file camshaft pro­files by hand,” re­veals Sakakura. “Put [soft blank shafts] in the en­gine, check the de­gree wheel tim­ing, turn the en­gine. He had an idea in his mind of how he would like to see the valve move­ment in re­la­tion to the bore and stroke of the en­gine. Then he would build a tem­plate off that for the cam grinder.” Be­cause the early su­per­bikes were ba­si­cally con­verted street­bikes, man­ual fab­ri­ca­tion and con­struc­tion skills were a must. “The tools and tech­niques seem ar­chaic now, but that’s what we had to do to make what we wanted. Like stuff­ing ex­haust-pipe head­ers with sand and bend­ing them by hand, work­ing with met­als in var­i­ous ways to build what was needed.”

Sakakura pro­gressed from me­chanic for two-time AMA Su­per­bike cham­pion Wes Coo­ley (win­ning the ti­tle with him in 1980) to Yoshimura Suzuki race-team man­ager in 1993. The soft-spo­ken Ja­panese-amer­i­can over­saw what would even­tu­ally be a rac­ing dy­nasty; the Yoshimura and Suzuki part­ner­ship that be­gan in 1978 has since racked up more than 35 na­tional cham­pi­onships, in­clud­ing the mo­tocross and of­froad seg­ment. This year marks the 40th an­niver­sary of the part­ner­ship be­tween the two com­pa­nies, and Sakakura is well-aware of its sig­nif­i­cance. “We cer­tainly wouldn’t be where we are now with­out the part­ner­ship and sup­port we’ve re­ceived from Suzuki over the years.”

Yoshimura’s suc­cess on the race­track trans­lated to com­mer­cial suc­cess as well, but it wasn’t just a mat­ter of “win­ning races and then wait­ing for the phone to ring back at the shop,” as Sakakura half-jok­ingly de­scribes the early days. He even­tu­ally ended up su­per­vis­ing a rapidly grow­ing staff to han­dle a thriv­ing per­for­mance-prod­uct busi­ness, in ad­di­tion to race-team man­age­ment du­ties. Sakakura’s learn­ing curve on the com­mer­cial side was steep, but the re­sult is that the Yoshimura brand is now a house­hold name in the mo­tor­cy­cle world.

The in­creas­ing de­mands of run­ning both a ma­jor per­for­mance prod­uct busi­ness and one of the pre-emi­nent pro­fes­sional race teams in the USA were be­gin­ning to force com­pro­mises that didn’t sit well with Sakakura, so now the com­mer­cial Yoshimura R&D of Amer­ica part of the busi­ness has been turned over to Yusaku Yoshimura, Pops’ grand­son. Sakakura still will be run­ning the Yoshimura Suzuki rac­ing team “un­til they de­cide to kick me out,” jokes the 59-year-old. That likely won’t be any­time soon, judg­ing by his re­cent con­tin­ued suc­cess in that arena (team rider Toni Elias is the cur­rent Moto-amer­ica Su­per­bike cham­pion). But re­gard­less of where Sakakura goes from here, his in­flu­ence on rac­ing and mo­tor­cy­cling in this coun­try won’t be for­got­ten.

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