Pit Pass: The Man Who Created HRC
The incredible story of Shoichiro Irimajiri—the creator of many of Honda’s greatest GP machines—and his unorthodox plan that led to Honda Racing Corporation
The incredible story of Shoichiro Irimajiri— the creator of many of Honda’s greatest GP machines— and his unorthodox plan that led to Honda Racing Corporation
A in marketst justat the full around overcomeend steam.of the the Japanesethe world 1970s,oil in crisisa the products euphoriaand Japanese startedwereof progress, economy distributedproducing and had at The Honda Asaka especially,Center in Tokyo,that euphoriawhere Hondaalso includedR&D is conquest.located, was preparing the greatest works of engineering the world of two wheels had ever seen. Shoichiro Irimajiri, the then37-year- old executive director, had been simultaneously assigned three very important missions for Honda: • A plan to return to competition from the technical point of view • A plan to return to competition from the organizational aspect • A retaliation for the market share attack Yamaha was launching at the time
Graduating from the prestigious Tokyo University in 1963, 23- year- old Irimajiri was quickly snapped up by Honda to help design its high- revving multi- cylinder four- stroke Grand Prix motorcycles of the ’60s that were fending off the growing two- stroke threat. Ironically, Irimajiri often bumped heads with company founder/then- president Soichiro Honda. Honda more than once called for his resignation because of his condescending attitude. “I was young, very sure of myself, and very presumptuous,” Irimajiri admits today.
The jewel- like engines that Irimajiri designed from 1964 to 1967 speak for his engineering talents and are surely part of the reason Honda wasn’t adamant about the resignations. For example, the 50cc RC113/114 fourvalve twin with a 23,000 rpm rev ceiling and nine- speed transmission; the RC148/149 five- cylinder 125cc with eight- speed transmission; and the still awe- inspiring RC166 250cc six- cylinder with seven- speed gearbox. All three machines eventually won world championships for the company.
But then the unthinkable happened: In late 1967, Honda decided to pull out of racing worldwide. “Honda ran in the 50, 125, 250, 350, and 500 categories,” Irimajiri remembers. “As for cars, Honda raced in Formula 1, Formula 2, and other categories. We were pretty much everywhere, so there were too many people working only in racing. In the [Honda management] Council led by Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa, they realized that the [effort] had impoverished both car and motorcycle production.”
It was a big disappointment for Irimajiri and many other engineers at Honda. “I did not want to [stop racing], but I had no choice,” he says. “It was a blow to hundreds of engineers because, for Honda, racing had never been an activity among many; it was a fundamental part. So it did not seem possible to imagine Honda without racing.”
During this “racing hibernation” period for Honda, Irimajiri rose up through the management ranks to become the executive director of Honda R&D. Although the company was no longer involved in competition, that didn’t mean development of ideas and concepts stagnated. “It must be said that in the period during which we withdrew from racing, from 1967 to 1979, we were not idle; we designed so many things,” Irimajiri says.
But then in 1978, while Honda was investing heavily in its rapidly growing automobile business, Japanese rival Yamaha decided to challenge Honda’s motorcycle market supremacy. “In 1978, the heads of Yamaha decided they wanted to challenge Honda and its market, to become number one,” Irimajiri recalls. “Yamaha thought they could take advantage [of Honda’s attention being focused on automobiles] and attack.” It was a challenge that Honda management didn’t take lightly.
“Honda reacted with unprecedented aggressiveness,” Irimajiri says with a laugh at the thought of how the Honda management changed. For example, in response to Yamaha’s announcement, an internal company slogan was created: Destroy Yamaha! “President [Kiyoshi] Kawashima said, ‘For this project you can do what you want. You do not have economic limits, but you have only one goal: to win!’ ”
The war with Yamaha had its repercussions. Irimajiri uses the word “fatigue” often to
For this project you can do what you want. You do not have economic limits, but you have only one goal: to win!
describe that period because he and his engineers also had to lead Honda’s return to racing. And with the same objective. “While we were at war with Yamaha, President Kawashima said, ‘We are returning to the GPS and you, since you are the head of R&D, you have to take care of everything,’ ” Irimajiri recalls. “It was news I was expecting for a long time, but with the Yamaha war, the problems were multiplied. To protect the interests of Honda in all areas [in sport and in production], I was incredibly busy.” It was an ultra- intense effort that would eventually lead to health problems later in Irimajiri’s life.
Because anything less than winning in all areas would be considered a failure, Irimajiri resorted to an unorthodox method of boosting engineering creativity and productivity. “We needed to find new ideas and create new projects,” he states. “Since we could not fail, I decided that the only way to achieve this was to plan a kind of exile. I found a hotel near Fukushima, far north from Tokyo, which was among the hills in the woods in the middle of nowhere. I thought it was ideal for what we should do instead: think and invent. I decided I had to think 24 hours a day. And select a group of engineers who were literally exiled.
“The concept was as follows: If you’re alone— that is, isolated from family and friends— you can always think. If you’re close to home and you can go home at night, then you see your wife and your children and you forget everything. I rented the entire hotel; it was far enough from Tokyo to prevent returning home. Not only that, no one was allowed to call home
because I thought that if they called, the wives or children would ask them to come back. No one could leave R&D!”
Irimajiri readily accepts that the concept borders on fanaticism. “Maybe, yes,” he admits regarding the thought. “Anyway, the best brains in R&D were together; they were away from their families, but the result was amazing. We thought, we talked, we discussed. Each of us had an obligation to talk to each other at any time of day or night. We needed to raise discussions among engineers. I thought it was a good way to make that group produce a number of ideas so large that we couldn’t lose.
“We formed 15 groups of 10 people. Each group included experts in frames and motors and designers. Every 10 days a change was made: A team returned to Tokyo with ideas, a new group went to go in search of other ideas. And as planned, we were incredibly productive. We worked at a very high level. From that experience came extraordinary ideas. The level of energy emitted by these groups was so powerful that it influenced Honda products for many years. I left exhausted, but we challenged our minds and talents. We had a virtually unlimited budget and no one ever talked about money. We were only asked to think and invent.”
Rumor has it that all the ideas generated during this forced exile were put to paper and stored in a “war cabinet” and that Honda would simply open a drawer and pull out a concept to be put into production when it felt the need to flex its innovative and technological muscle. When the war with Yamaha finally ended in 1983 and Irimajiri’s boss called to tell him that he must “stop the launch of new products,” all Irimajiri would say about the cabinet is, “We launched the models that were already on the assembly lines and stopped many other projects. Those remained in the drawers…”
It was during this period that Irimajiri conceived the idea of a firm that could be a home for Honda’s motorcycle engineers who loved racing without the company ties that could leave them subject to the financial decisions of corporate management. “When I was told to manage the return to racing, I thought about our past,” Irimajiri remembers. “I wondered: What will happen to young engineers after a few years if we have to leave again? I did not want them to run the risk of finding a job again or, rather, to be without an ‘identity.’ So I looked for an idea to guarantee the work they loved most: the design of the bike racing. I thought that if we had created a real company, i.e., linked to R&D but at the same time managing autonomously and balanced, it would have been much more difficult to close it. So I called it The House of Racing.” And thus in 1982, Honda Racing Corporation [HRC] was born.
Besides the high- revving multi- cylinder racing RC machines of the ’60s, Irimajiri also designed the heralded CBX six- cylinder production superbike introduced in 1979. But a little- known fact is that the brilliant engineer was the catalyst behind the creation of the ill-fated NR500 oval- piston racebike that tried to take on the dominant two-strokes of the era in 1979 to 1981. “The idea was mine,” Irimajiri says about the oval- piston concept that housed eight valves and two connecting rods per piston that allowed a V- 4 to function like a “pseudo V- 8.” The idea for the concept came to Irimajiri, “…on a summer night. I was returning home after a day’s work. When I stopped at a traffic light, I was impressed by the form of the installation. Being round, it contained four lights. Suddenly I thought, ‘If, within a circle, you can have four small lights, with an elongated shape I can get eight valves and two rods!’ What came to mind was an elongated piston, i.e., oval. When I got home I drew the idea on paper.”
While the NR designation stood for New Racing in Honda parlance, the failure of the bike to be competitive had journalists calling it “Not Ready.” “We had worse names!” Irimajiri says with a laugh. “That project was ahead of its time; it was too ambitious. But it should be judged based on the specific period. And you also have to appreciate what was behind it.
“We had to conduct experiments and explore new technological areas; with the NR project, we could. The budget was adequate.” A budget that was rumored to be about $70 million during that period— equal to about $120 million today. “It was a laboratory but too advanced because at that time there was no such technology [to support it]. The NR had carburetors instead of fuel injection, and there was no electronic management. The oval pistons did not exist, and consequently we had to build the machines to manufacture them. It was very difficult to manage the problem of the rings, which could not be made sufficiently narrow. The same went for many other components.”
Many of the motorcycle concepts made between the ’60s and ’80s during Irimajiri’s time have influenced subsequent Honda projects. And of course they have influenced the careers of many engineers who were part of his select group. Many of them went on to lead HRC: Takeo Fukui, Youichi Oguma, Suguru Kanazawa, and Satoru Horiike. All of them climbed to the top of Honda Racing Corporation. Fukui even went on to be the president of the entire Honda Motor Corporation. (Interestingly, Irimajiri revealed that “an engineer of bikes cannot become president of Honda Motor.” Fukui actually came from the car division and asked to be transferred to the motorcycle side, a move considered to be a demotion by the Honda automobile sector.) All of them were part of the team that created so many innovative projects that nothing was ever the same.
Unfortunately, the heavy workload and stress of running both Honda’s racing and production capacities took its toll on Irimajiri. He eventually suffered from heart problems that forced him to resign from his executive vice president position at Honda Motor in 1992 and spend the next year
No one was allowed to call home because I thought that if they called, the wives or children would ask them to come back. No one could leave R& D!
doing nothing; his body finally had enough. “We pushed the R&D to the limit,” recalls the 76- year- old who now spends his time on his current passion: jet aircraft. “But we had to limit ourselves also,” he says. “I had precise orders: think, invent, develop, win! We, young and old engineers, we pushed. We worked to the limits of our abilities.”
It is a source of pride for Irimajiri that in its inaugural year, HRC won the 500cc Grand Prix title with the NS500 and Freddie Spencer— though the former HRC president gives more credit to Spencer. “Now the new star of Honda is Marquez, they tell me, but I think it will be difficult for this guy to be loved [by Honda] like we loved Freddie Spencer. In certain ways, Spencer was a genius. He managed to make [the NS500 triple] win because he knew how to adopt the best way to ride it. Freddie hid many problems that bike had.”
The new motorcycle racing arm of Honda soon became a force to be reckoned with in all competition disciplines and has remained so to this day. “We started well because we were ready,” Irimajiri recalls. “While we thought about this new idea, the home of racing, we worked really hard to bring many innovative developments to all categories: from GP to motocross, [observed] trials and Dakar. Because HRC was a new vision of the racing— that is, a very well- organized structure— and due to the merit of those men who worked with me at that time, this is why I think HRC has been one of the most beautiful projects of my career.” It’s certainly a legacy Shoichiro Irimajiri can be proud of. SR