Backmarker: Mann’s Missing Honda Part 1

September 19, 2013
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

The bike Mann rode is often described as a CR750  but thats not accurate. It was an infinitely rarer beast: the Honda CB750 Racing Type.
The bike Mann rode is often described as a CR750, but that’s not accurate. It was an infinitely rarer beast: the Honda CB750 Racing Type.

Lost and Found (or not): Dick Mann’s 1970 Daytona 200-winning Honda 750

A few weeks ago, I got a message on Facebook, from a certain Karl Magnus Wathne, in Sweden. He asked whether I was the same ‘Mark Gardiner’ who had been part of an effort to authenticate a motorcycle that came to light in France ten years ago. The machine’s owner, Daniel Mercier, claimed that it was the very machine that Dick Mann had ridden to victory in the 1970 Daytona 200.

I wrote back to confirm that I was, in fact, that Mark Gardiner. In 2003, I was living in Paris. I helped to organize an event in which Patrick Bodden (a Franco-American motorcycle journalist) reassembled Mann’s original team to examine the French bike and rule on its provenance.

Karl Magnus then wrote me to say, emphatically, that he knew for a fact that ‘the Dick Mann bike’ had ended up in Sweden before being returned to Honda. Ergo, the French bike was not the actual machine that had won Daytona.

Ah, controversy! Not surprising, considering that Mann’s Daytona-winning Honda ‘disappeared’ shortly after the race and that it has since become a Holy Grail for racing fans of a certain age. Is the Swede’s claim plausible? Well, it’s a long story; getting to the bottom of one of vintage racing’s enduring mysteries will take a few columns.

First things first. Since it all happened over 43 years ago, I’ll devote this column to setting the stage. Let’s look back on the significance of the 1970 Daytona race, and meet the central character in the (obviously ongoing) what’s-the-real-Dick-Mann-bike debate.

The 1970 Daytona 200 was the first race real race of the post-Class C era, in which every major manufacturer fielded all-new 750cc overhead-valve motorcycles. Harley Davidson had finally been forced to replace the venerable KR750 with the XR750, and Triumph and BSA planned to field Tridents and Rocket IIIs. It’s hard to imagine, now, how big a deal Daytona used to be. BSA lured Mike Hailwood back from his F1 car racing career, to ride a Rocket III. One guy who didn’t get a BSA contract in 1970, though, was Dick Mann. He was well into his 30s, he’d raced at Daytona for years without getting a win, and BSA decided he was over the hill.

With the Tridents and Rocket IIIs expected to do well, you might be surprised that Honda didn’t plan to enter a factory team on the new 750-Four. It had been unveiled at the 1968 Tokyo Motor Show, but it had not been widely available in the U.S. until after the 1969 Daytona race.

That didn’t bother the senior managers at Honda. In spite of the fact that Honda had prepared and sold an extensive ‘CR750’ kit of racing parts for the CB750, they actually did not feel the model was a good platform for racing. If they’d intended it to be raced, they would have designed the motor with gear-driven cams, like all the Honda Grand Prix bikes.

At the time, a Wisconsinite named Bob Hansen was American Honda’s most senior and trusted U.S. employee—he ran a backdoor factory race team out of his house, and was the only ‘round eye’ with the ear of the Honda Board of Directors. At a meeting of Honda bigwigs in late ‘69, Hansen suggested that Honda field a factory effort in the 1970 Daytona 200.

The company was afraid that the 750 might not win. But Hansen told the board, “I’ve sold 1200 of these things in my region alone. I know that some of those bikes will end up on the grid at Daytona, and they will not win.”

What Hansen meant was, if Honda left the racing to privateers fielding their own kitted CR750 bikes, they’d get beaten. The fans wouldn’t differentiate between factory and privateer bikes; they’d just leave the Speedway thinking, BSAs (or Triumphs) were faster than Hondas.

Honda’s racing chief asked Hansen how fast a bike would have to go, to win the race. Hansen pulled a figure of 150 miles an hour out of thin air. He told me that the meeting moved on to other topics, and racing at Daytona was not mentioned again.

Hansen assumed the factory had no interest in entering the event, but back in Japan, Honda was running mathematical simulations and deciding that they could, barely, build a bike that would run fast enough for long enough.

Not long before the race, Hansen got a phone call from Japan telling him that four bikes were on the way. Leaving nothing to chance, Honda drafted several of their World Championship riders and mechanics into the American effort. Hansen again raised his voice, insisting that at least one American get a seat. Honda allowed him to choose a rider; he called ‘Bugsy’ Mann.

Mann asked him for advice about a contract. “I said, ‘Tell them you want $5000 to throw a leg over it, and $10,000 if you win’,” Hansen recalled.

Mann was shocked by the suggestion. “Jesus, Hansen!” he said, “I need the ride!”

Honda agreed to the terms, and four crated Hondas arrived, along with a load of spare parts, just in time to be forwarded to Daytona. The bikes were not CR750s (there was never a CR750 motorcycle; it was always a kit of parts fitted onto a CB750 frame.) They were described as “CB750 Racing Type” on the customs paperwork, and the category of machine was “experimental”.

According to AMA rules, the machines were supposed to be based on production motorcycles, but they dripped with titanium parts. Even the frames were made of chrome-molybdenum alloy, instead of the mild steel used on stock bikes. In hindsight, it was surprising they cleared tech.

Bob Hansen  left  and Bob Jamieson were Manns crew chief and mechanic  for the Daytona 200. I interviewed them at length ten years ago. Hansen died earlier this year.
Bob Hansen (left) and Bob Jamieson were Mann’s crew chief and mechanic, for the Daytona 200. I interviewed them at length ten years ago. Hansen died earlier this year.

Honda’s multicultural team met up in the Daytona paddock: Hansen had seconded Ron Robbins and Bob Jamieson, two American Honda technicians well versed in the new Fours. From the U.K. came GP regulars Tommy Robb and Ralph Bryans. The third British rider was Bill Smith, an experienced racer and Honda dealer. Steve Murray was the lead British mechanic, and he brought two assistants. The senior Honda executive on the scene was Mr. Nakamura, who normally managed Honda’s Formula One racing in Europe.

They didn’t have an easy time of it in practice and qualifying. Sure, they dripped with titanium; unfortunately they also dripped with plain old oil right through their porous, sand-cast cases. Robb came in with his boots soaked. “It’s like riding a bloody Norton,” he told his wrench. Then Bryans crashed and his machine burned like a torch.

When the British mechanics announced that they’d rebuild Robb’s bike, Hansen was horrified; he feared that the frame had been exposed to too much heat. An argument ensued, and by the time it was over, the U.S. had declared itself independent from Britain. Hansen, Robbins, and Jamieson would run Mann’s bike, while the British mechanics looked after Robb, Bryans and Smith.

Back then, qualifying sessions were single-bike time trials on the oval only. Hansen thought he heard Mann’s clutch slipping. Robbins and Jamieson drained the oil from the bike and found it polluted with tiny black balls of some rubbery material. Because the American mechanics had worked on Honda’s road bikes—not Grand Prix racers with gear-driven cams—they knew that the black plastic fragments meant the cam chain tensioner was disintegrating.

Bob Jamieson walked over to the British mechanics with a bit of the polluted oil on his fingertips and explained the problem. Besides causing clutch slippage, the bits of tensioner clogged the oil pump. Along with the obvious risk of an outright failure to maintain cam chain tension which would result in a catastrophic valve-train failure, the prospects for a 200-mile race were Not Good.

Hansen, figuring that the less mileage he put on his race bike the better, told Mann to skip the rest of practice and head to the beach. Jamieson and Robbins tore into Mann’s motor. By contrast, the British mechanics treated their trip to Florida as a busman’s holiday. “They decided to go to the short track races,” Jamieson recalled.

After the warm-up on the morning of the race, Mann came back and told Hansen the bike was running better than ever. That was borne out when the race began: Mann and the Honda quickly opened up a big gap.

One by one, most of the BSAs and all the factory Harley-Davidsons dropped out. Most of the Hondas failed to finish, too. Smith was a DNS. Ralph Bryans managed only three laps. Robb did 12. As one fast qualifier after another succumbed to teething troubles, Hansen instructed Mann to roll out of the throttle and conserve his machine.

With his Grand Prix stars out of the running, Mr. Nakamura renewed his interest in Dick Mann. Gene Romero, after a slow start, was gaining ground on his Triumph. Hansen sat on the pit wall with a stopwatch and signal board. Nakamura came out and told Hansen, “He [Mann] must speed up.”

Hansen had his race face on. He was sure Romero was too far back to catch Mann before the finish. Moreover, he was certain that Mann’s bike was already off-song and could not handle any additional stress. He argued with Nakamura, who gave him a direct order to put out a board telling Mann to lap faster.

Finally, the American extended his arm and pointed, telling the Japanese executive, “Get back to the pit!” This would have amounted to insubordination in an American company. But it was truly shocking in a Japanese context.

In the end, Mann and machine did—just—last long enough to get the win. It was Mann’s first win in something like 13 ‘200’ starts, and it was hugely popular. Bob Hansen was sure that his insubordination with Nakamura had been a firing offence. Shortly after returning to his office, he saw a new Honda organizational chart without his name on it, and he assumed the company was about to terminate him.

Hansen would rather jump than be pushed, so he resigned. Kawasaki immediately hired him to run its factory team in the U.S., and Hansen’s first hire was Yvon Duhamel (who had finished just off the podium at Daytona). Hansen went on to play a huge role in establishing Kawasaki as a force on American racetracks and in the U.S. motorcycle market; he was also the guy who picked Kawasaki’s bilious ‘racing green’ paint color, because he wanted a color that was easy to spot, in those days of hand-timing with stopwatches.

Ironically, although BSA had thought Mann was too old in 1970, they hired him again in ’71 and he won again, on a Rocket III.

Even more ironically, years later someone at Honda told Hansen, “We didn’t have you on the organizational chart because we wanted to create a position for you in which you’d have total freedom to pursue any project!”

But the question today as far as Backmarker is concerned is, what happened to Mann’s bike? Well, my Facebook friend Karl Magnus Wathne has a theory, but before I get to that, I have to tell you a whole long story about my own personal experience searching for the Holy Grail of American racing motorcycles, over in France. I’ll start in on it, in the next installment of Backmarker, on October 3.