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

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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


In order to counter the in­creas­ing two- stroke threat in the smaller- dis­place­ment GP cat­e­gories, Iri­ma­jiri de­signed four- stroke race en­gines that had more cylin­ders and revved higher. The 250cc RC166 was one of his crown­ing achieve­ments, with Mike Hailw

Although the project lead­ers for the oval-pis­ton NR se­ries were his hand-picked pro­tégés at HRC, Iri­ma­jiri was the one who con­ceived of the idea of an oval pis­ton that al­lowed eight valves in the com­bus­tion cham­ber and two rods per pis­ton. Honda had to de

For­mer Honda Mo­tor Corp. Pres­i­dent and CEO Takeo Fukui was one of Iri­ma­jiri’s right­hand men and was one of the NR500 project lead­ers. Fukui ac­tu­ally was in Honda’s F1 car pro­gram and asked to be trans­ferred to the mo­tor­cy­cle di­vi­sion un­der Iri­ma­jiri.

The NR oval- pis­ton mo­tor­cy­cle fam­ily tree, from the orig­i­nal 1979 NR500 0X (num­ber 5) race­bike, to the 1982 NR500 2X (num­ber 12) that achieved its first vic­tory at the 1981 Suzuka 500km race with rider Kengo Kiyama, to the NR750 en­durance race­bike (numbe

Even the bril­liance of three-time world cham­pion Fred­die Spencer wasn’t able to make the NR500 win. The Amer­i­can was able to get the four- stroke ma­chine up to fifth place in the 1981 Bri­tish GP at Sil­ver­stone, but the valve springs couldn’t take the high

Af­ter the NR500 de­ba­cle, Honda was de­ter­mined to save face with the oval- pis­ton en­gine and cre­ated a 750cc ver­sion that left even the vaunted RVF750 su­per­bike in its wake. Un­for­tu­nately, the bike was only le­gal to race in a few se­ries, and af­ter ap­pearan

Iri­ma­jiri was the man who de­signed the au­da­cious 1979 Honda CBX, an in­line six- cylin­der monster that stunned the mo­tor­cy­cle world in its de­but. His ex­pe­ri­ence de­sign­ing the multi- cylin­der RC Grand Prix rac­ing en­gines of the ’60s for Honda made this an e

When Iri­ma­jiri was given the mam­moth task of lead­ing the charge against Yamaha in both pro­duc­tion and rac­ing ar­eas, he de­cided on the un­ortho­dox method of ex­il­ing him­self and a hand­picked group of Honda R&D en­gi­neers in a moun­tain ho­tel with­out con­tact wi

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