“Go, blow or punch a hole in the fence!” Apparently, this was Yvon Duhamel's approach to racing success – but from the 1960s through to the 1980s the French Canadian was a force to be reckoned with in US racing.
Part one of our series charting the life and racing times of this versatile French-canadian: two wheels, four wheels, skis – he could race and win on them all!
NEVER ONE TO DO ANYTHING BUT GIVE 100%: YVON DUHAMEL WOULD EITHER WIN, CRASH AND SOMETIMES EVEN BURN!
Two wheels, four wheels and even skis: as long as the vehicle concerned had an engine, whether motorcycle, car or snowmobile, then Yvon Duhamel would race it – and race it hard.
So hard, in fact, that Randy Hall, Yvon's long-time friend and crew chief for eight years at Kawasaki, once memorably described the tough little French Canadian's approach to racing as being either: “go, blow, or punch a hole in the fence!”
Certainly, the career of Yvon Duhamel did include a number of crashes but it was more the spectacular nature of them rather than the total number that made this aspect of his riding approach so memorable. As far as blowing up his machines went, however, it is definitely true that if there was any weakness in their engine or transmission, then Yvon's ‘all or nothing' style would find it. There is little available evidence of him nursing an ailing machine to the finish!
When it came to having ‘the go factor', however, Yvon had that in spades and was always obviously and awesomely fast. Even when he had a machine that had a speed advantage over its rivals, he never reined in its performance to win comfortably at the slowest possible speed. As the flag dropped, so would Yvon drop the hammer on the opposition and as often as not would speed into the distance unless stopped by mechanical failure…and the occasional crash, of course!
The early years
Yvon Duhamel was born in the Frenchcanadian city of Montreal in October 1939 and aged 17 began his racing career in local wintertime ice races. He excelled in this discipline of motorcycle sport and he continued to compete in it even after his main career had moved on to road racing.
He won Canadian ice racing championships in 1961, 1962 and 1968.
From the frozen lakes in winter, Duhamel turned to flat track racing to occupy his summers and was soon a winner on the dirt ovals as well. A well known sponsor in Canadian motorcycle racing, George Davis, provided him with BSA Gold Stars for dirt-track and roadracing, CZ machines for motocross and Jawas for ice racing and Yvon put them all to good use.
He won the Canadian Motorcycle Association's prestigious White Memorial Trophy, for the best performance by a Canadian rider in all motorcycle disciplines, no less than six times. His first wins came in 1961 and 1962, and then for four consecutive years from 1965 to 1968 – a feat that has never been repeated.
In dirt track he carried the No. 1 Plate in 1963-65-66-67 and 1968 while his road racing machines also carried the No. 1 plate in 1967 and he had the coveted No. 1 plate in motocross in 1965 and 1966. In 70 motocross starts he would record 53 firsts, 13 seconds, three thirds – and only one crash! Finally, the CMA records even show him taking second place in the 1968 national trials championship – without doubt he was a ‘jack of all trades' – and the master of all!
Stateside success with Yamaha
The obvious next step in Yvon's career was to move into the more professional and much more lucrative world of the American Motorcycle Association's Grand National Championship – a series that mixed dirttrack and road-racing and therefore seemed perfectly matched to his versatile talents. To help him on his way, George Davies hooked him up with Trevor Deeley, the man who was the Canadian importer for Yamaha – another sponsor who would have a major effect on his upward trajectory – and the timing was perfect. It was 1967 and the Yamaha two-stroke twins were about to begin their domination of the 250 and 350cc classes.
Yvon's first major event with the Yamaha in the USA was the 250cc Lightweight race at Daytona in 1967 and he finished 8th. A year later, he won that race from Texan, Bobby Winters, and reigning world champion, Phil Read. Then in 1969, he won again…this time beating a world champion-in-waiting, Rod Gould. Small wonder that the French Canadian was by then already accepted as being one of the best road racers in the world, even though he had never raced outside the North American continent.
Meanwhile the 350cc Yamaha was also making its mark in AMA National road races and was proving a match for the bigger 500cc and 750cc four-strokes from Triumph and Harley Davidson that had previously ruled the roost. So much so that in the main Daytona 200 Miles race in 1968, Yvon (in second) and fellow Yamaha rider, third-placed Art Baumann, joined the winning Harley rider, Cal Rayborn, in Victory Lane.
In the following year, Duhamel underlined the incredible performance of Yamaha's little 350 twin by posting the fastest qualifying time for the Daytona 200 at a speed of 150mph. That was in the days when qualifying for the race was in the form of a single flying lap around the banked oval and was the first time that a 150mph average speed for the lap had been achieved. From 1971 onwards, Daytona qualifying would be more logically decided by a flying lap of the same combination of the bankings and infield corners used in the race.
Despite the performance on road-race courses, however, there was one area where the Yamaha 350 was lacking – it was not a suitable engine for dirt-track racing. The power band was too narrow and the power came in with such a rush that the rear wheel broke traction on the way out of the turns – just when it was needed the most.
Yvon did get a sixth place in the prestigious Sacramento Mile event in 1969 but it was obvious that the fierce little two-stroke lacked the smooth power delivery of the big fourstroke twins that dominated the dirt tracks and that it would never be a true contender in the AMA Grand National Championship.
Two skis and four wheels
From 1970 onwards, Duhamel would concentrate on road racing – or at least that was the case as far as motorcycles were concerned. Every winter, when the motorcycle season was over, he would also compete in winter snowmobile races that took place on frozen ovals and so retained his
connections with his earlier passions of iceracing and flat-tracks. In 1970, his first season with snowmobiles, he even won the singleevent world championship at Eagle River, Wisconsin and every winter through most of the 1970s led the factory Ski-doo team. It was a successful and lucrative addition to his motorcycle racing activities. As well as his world title, he also set a land speed record for snowmobiles at 127.4mph and won the Winnipeg to St Paul, Minnesota, three-day cross-country race in 1972.
Finally, and as mentioned at the start of this feature, Yvon would race anything with an engine and the 1970s saw him score a couple of top 10 placings in the major NASCAR stock car series as well as co-driving the winning Porsche in a six-hour endurance race.
The Kawasaki years
At the start of the 1970s, other motorcycle manufacturers were knocking on the Duhamel door – most notably Kawasaki with a big money offer to race its 500cc H1-R triple in 1971. Realising that Yvon would need more than the 350cc that Yamaha could offer if he were to regularly win against the 750cc opposition in the AMA Grand National Series, Trevor Deeley sportingly released him from his Yamaha Canada contract and Yvon took the Kawasaki deal.
The 1971 season didn't start well for either Kawasaki or Yvon Duhamel as there were crashes at both Daytona and Road Atlanta but then came the first podium finish for Kawasaki on the superspeedway at Pocono in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Randy Hall remembers it well and recalls: “Pocono had a faster infield road course than Daytona with higher-speed flowing corners and we thought that, once we had them set up right, this would be a good track for our Kawasaki triples.
“The race started looking as good as we hoped when Yvon took the lead and held it until he came in for his first refuelling stop. Unfortunately, Bob Hansen and I got our refuelling timing out of sync, with Bob disconnecting the air bleed before I shut the fuel off. This refuelling error pressurized the fuel tank, which flooded the carburettors. Yvon somehow kept the engine running but it was all he could do to get the bike moving and back on the track. It took about one full lap before the engine burned enough fuel to lower the pressure in the fuel tank and get back to full power. We calculated that Yvon lost about 22 seconds with this problem. Dick Mann on a BSA and Kel Carruthers (Yamaha) were 1st and 2nd but at least Yvon in 3rd place had finished on the podium and but for our error would have won the race.”
Victory for the Kawasaki/duhamel combination did come in the next race – on the Daytona-style superspeedway at Talladega in Alabama. This was a 200-mile race like Daytona and required Kawasaki to make two refuelling stops to everyone else's one due to the extra fuel consumption of the thirsty two-stroke triple.
The start at Talladega was like Daytona with the first lap being a flying lap around the banking before entering the infield portion of the course. Yvon had a two second lead on the field at the end of that lap and then disappeared into the distance. Second and 3rd placed riders, BSA teamsters Don Emde and Dick Mann, did not see him again from the end of that lap until they got to Victory Circle! It had taken six races, but Kawasaki had just won its first AMA National Championship road race. Yvon led all 50 laps, even with the two refuelling stops, only losing about 15 seconds of total lap time during each of those.
Unfortunately, the 1971 season finished as it started – with a crash. Continuing the Kawasaki momentum from Talladega, Yvon was a fast qualifier at Ontario and was very much in contention for the win. Unfortunately, he crashed out of the race because of oil on the track left from a previous crash by Harley-davidson rider, Cal Rayborn. This same oil on the track caused a multiple pile-up as, besides eliminating Yvon, the oil also took out Gary Nixon, Ron Grant, Dick Mann and David Aldana.
The 1972 season saw the introduction of the 750cc version of the Kawasaki triple, the H2-R and, while engine problems eliminated Yvon at Daytona, things came good for the new bike at the next race at Road Atlanta in the rolling hills of central Georgia. At the start, Yvon jumped out into the lead but on the 10th lap he pulled into the pits with the bike running on two cylinders. Mechanic Steve Whitelock immediately noticed that one of the spark plug wires had come loose, pushed the spark plug wire on and Yvon was off in a flash.
He quickly caught back up with the lead group and worked his way through to finish in second place behind Jody Nicholas on a Suzuki water-cooled triple. However, the AMA technical inspectors found post-race that the cylinder heads on Jody's factory Suzuki were not the cylinder heads that had been approved by the homologation rules for AMA racing. Jody was disqualified and everyone moved up one position, thus giving Yvon the win. So came the first win for the H2-R, even if it did come by default!
Now Kawasaki's hopes were high for success in the first AMA National to be held on the Laguna Seca track on the central California coast – especially as the event was sponsored as the Kawasaki Superbike International. Those expectations were raised as Yvon won the second qualifying heat. This was the fastest of the heats, thus putting him on the pole for the start of the race.
At the drop of the flag for the main event, Yvon was away up the Laguna hill and into the lead. Unfortunately, half way up the hill, at a high-speed left-hand bend, Yvon had a problem that in an instant took him off the course on to the dirt and then back across the track, taking out his fellow Kawasaki rider, Cliff Carr and Dick Mann on his BSA in the process. Back at the Kawasaki workshop, the engine from Yvon's bike was stripped and it was determined that his problem in the race was caused by a piston seizure that temporarily locked his back wheel and caused him to run off the course.
After his close encounter with the California tarmac at Laguna, Yvon headed east and south for the Talladega superspeedway. This track had seen Yvon score the first win for the 500cc H1-R Kawasaki in 1971, so hopes were high for a similar result on the 750cc H2-R in 1972. Talladega was Yvon's track and he really got around it fast – fast enough to move the lap record speed up to 113.520mph. From the drop of the flag, he flew into the lead, and kept it all the way, even with two refuelling stops. He lapped the entire field apart from his teammate, Gary Nixon, who was runner-up!
The final race of the season at Ontario Motor Speedway was a different story. Yvon crashed in his qualifying heat race and he had to start at the back of the grid for the first of the two 125-Mile races that made up the Champion Spark Plus 250. His hard-charging pace soon pushed him towards the front, however, and he was leading the race by lap 16. Unfortunately, Ontario Motor Speedway bit him again when he crashed on lap 31 while passing some lapped riders. The result was an injured elbow that kept Yvon from finishing the race and from starting the second 125-miles.
Front-runners in 1973
After two crashes for Yvon at Ontario and the one at Laguna in 1972, there was much speculation in the press that Yvon and his equally hard-charging Kawasaki team-mate, Art Baumann, had collided and caused the crash that put them both out of the 1973 season-opener at Daytona.
The pair had a commanding lead when, on the ninth lap, they went into Turn One together and both went down in an instant, sliding into the grassy infield. Art and Yvon were adamant that they had never touched
and this was backed up by Randy Hall as he had seen the incident and noted that there was gasoline on the track after a rider about to be lapped had crashed in front of them.
There was at least some consolation for Yvon at Daytona, as Yoshimura had prepared a modified Kawasaki Z1 for him to ride in an attempt on some world records and he was successful in setting a new FIM 10 kilometre average speed record of 150.845mph, and a FIM 100 kilometre average speed record of 141.439mph. He also set the AMA closed circuit record with a lap at 160.214mph.
After the inauspicious start to the 1973 season in the Daytona 200, things did get better for both Yvon and Kawasaki: much better! Right after Daytona his bikes were crated up and flown to England for the Transatlantic Trophy series of match races between teams from the UK and North America. After a second place to Dave Potter (Norton 750) at an unfamiliar Brands Hatch, Yvon beat all of the British favourites at a rainy Mallory Park. This was a track where Yvon had at least gained some previous knowledge. In 1970, he had joined Gary Nixon at The Race of the Year as one of the first two AMA Nationals contenders to race in the UK and finished 9th on a stock Yamaha TD2 borrowed from a British dealer. Now, three years later, Yvon further impressed the British fans by ending tied with Peter Williams (John Player Norton) for top individual spot in the six-race series.
Then it was back to the USA but there was once again major disappointment at Laguna Seca. Yvon crashed for a second year in succession but again crew chief Randy Hall exonerated his rider from any blame. “The crash was caused by oil all over the rear tyre” said Randy “and inspection of Yvon's motorcycle when we got back to the race shop showed that the crankshaft seal on the drive side had failed and this pressurized the oil in the transmission case, pushed the oil out the overflow tube and into the catch bottle. Then, when the bottle was full, out came the oil on to the rear tyre”.
There was still a bright side to the Laguna Seca weekend for Yvon as he won the Laguna Seca Production race on a Yoshimura Kawasaki, the company's new flagship road bike – the four-cylinder, four-stroke 900cc Z1. This race was the first one for what was to become the new Superbike class.
The next race weekend on the calendar was at Pocono in Pennsylvania and Yvon again decided to ride in the Production class. This time he chose to ride a 750cc Kawasaki H2 two-stroke street model and duly took his second production race in a row. Incidentally, this was the only AMA National win in the Production class ever scored by a two-stroke motorcycle. Eventually the big two-strokes like the Kawasaki H2 and Suzuki water-cooled triples dropped out of the streetbike market and when the Production class was renamed as the Superbike category it was specified as being for four-strokes only.
The Talladega track in Alabama is the fastest track in the USA and it was there where Yvon Duhamel had famously demonstrated his ‘win from the drop of the starting flag' approach to a shattering effect on his rivals for two years in succession in 1971 and 72. Talladega was also memorable for Yvon in 1973 but for a very different reason. Neither did he win nor did he ‘crash and burn'. In fact, he didn't crash but he did burn! His crew chief, Randy Hall, remembers it well and recalls: “Things were looking good at the 100-mile mark with Yvon leading, but soon afterwards, while he was up on the banking, it all went up in flames for him … literally! A connecting rod broke on the left cylinder, which went through the crankcases, and the bottom of the carburettor. The gasoline that this released ignited while Yvon was coasting off the track but, being the cool professional that he was, he simply coasted up to one of the groups of firemen stationed around the track with flames burning at his leathers and dropped the motorcycle right at their feet! Obviously, this meant that the fire was out in a moment and, although Yvon got a little warm, he was not burned and the motorcycle was salvageable.”
• Next time – Seventies superstardom, retirement and siring a future AMA champ!