Backmarker: An American in Japan

November 13, 2014
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.'

Mike Harper today.
Mike Harper of Harper’s Moto Guzzi. Harper was a motorcycle racer in Japan before becoming a dealer.

Not far from Kansas City lives a guy named Mike Harper, who has gathered the world’s largest inventory of old Moto Guzzi parts by buying up the inventories of hundreds of Guzzi dealers as they dropped the marque or went out of business altogether. A few months ago, I rode down to visit him and write about his business.

But as we talked, I realized that Mike has another, even more interesting story: Before he was ever a motorcycle dealer in the U.S., he was a factory racer in Japan, at the very time that the Japanese motorcycle industry came of age.

You see, after a couple of years’ racing in the States, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. They trained him as a helicopter mechanic and shipped him out to Atsugi Naval Air Station, about 20 miles from Tokyo. That was in 1959.

Just outside the main gate of the base, the town of Sagami Otsuka was “a train station, 45 bars, and a police station.” The bars plied sailors with beer and government-inspected girls. For an 18-year-old kid from the Midwest it was pretty good.

To make matters even better, there were motorcycles everywhere. He quickly bought a (now unheard of) single-cylinder 350cc Honda Dream, from a sailor who’d “gotten orders” – meaning, he was getting shipped back ‘Stateside. Then Mike bought a BSA Super Rocket.

Within a few months, the Navy transferred all the base’s helicopters somewhere else, leaving Mike without a job. He was reassigned to Shore Patrol – the Navy’s version of military police. It was a cushy assignment that left him with lots of free time.

Although the Navy didn’t allow racing on its bases, there were several Air Force bases right nearby, where they raced most weekends – drags, scrambles, even road races on courses laid out on the runways and taxiways. Mike found himself racing more often in the service than he had done as a civilian.

Atsugi Road Brothers. The club’s members were U.S. Navy men and local bikers.

He joined the Atsugi Road Brothers, whose members were American sailors from the base, and Japanese bikers from the nearby towns. Officially, they held meetings on the base. The Navy even loaned them trucks to take their bikes to races. Unofficially, they hung out in front Aoki Motors, a Honda and Yamaha dealership in Yamato, just beyond the Naval Station’s east gate.

At first, he was limited by the mechanics’ broken English and his ability to communicate with sign language, but the shop’s mama-san – the owner’s wife – gradually taught him enough Japanese to buy food or petrol, and find his way around. If they weren’t racing, they were ‘boondocking’ – exploring the network of tiny roads and footpaths in the hilly countryside.

Through the Road Brothers, Mike was able to get a Japanese racing license. One of the biggest meetings of the year was Fujinamiya – a scrambles held on the slopes of Mount Fuji. In 1959, Japanese racers rode their Honda CB92s, or Yamaha YDS models, no matter what the course. John Surtees and Geoff Duke made an appearance, and took a brace of Yams out for a demonstration lap. Mike’s BSA was a handful on the rough course.

“There was a club from Tokyo, it was either called the Crazy Brothers or Crazy Riders,” he told me. “They all had YDS Yamahas with open shorty chambers and they’d get right on your ass; you couldn’t hear yourself think. They were hard to get ahead of, cause they’d gang up on you.”

Mike’s friend, Tomiyo Asabe, worked at a laundry, where he used a 250cc Lilac to make deliveries. The dealer who sold ‘Tommy’ that bike ran Lilac’s race team, and heard stories of the Yankee’s race prowess.

“I was not the Geoffrey Duke of Japan,” Mike admitted. “I just had a bigger bike than most of ’em [his A58] and was nuttier than most of ’em.”

Mike told me that the annual scrambles race on the slopes of Mount Fuji was “their Daytona.” He’s E31 in the lower photo, on the factory Lilac. It didn’t come close to finishing the race.

Whatever. The Lilac team manager recruited him for a few races, including the next year’s Fujinamiya. ‘Lilac’ was a quaint name for a motorcycle, and their metallurgy was quaint too; at least, too quaint for a 180-pound rider with a win-or-crash attitude.

One of the biggest road races was held on closed roads from Chiba to Atami. The course made a big loop around Tokyo, 100 miles or more on tarmac and gravel roads. Balcom BSA was the official dealer in Tokyo; they tuned Mike’s A58 for the event.

He was leading by the time they reached the longest straightaway, along a beach road. “I heard a bike coming up behind me; it sounded like an air raid siren,” Mike told me. “I was doing about 115, and he was still shifting.” That was his first encounter with the Honda RC160. The 250 Four was fast, but Mike outraced it in the hills and towns. “It was too wide and too low,” he recalled. “No one had enough body English to make it corner.”

Mike, on a 250 Meguro, and Tomio Aosabi on Mike’s Honda 350 Dream Single (a model that’s now vanishingly rare!) They’re outside Aoki Motors, which was the local Honda and Yamaha dealer. This was a photo that Mike sent back to his mom in the U.S. Referring to Tomio as a ‘Jap’ is politically incorrect now, but the term’s offset by the note to his mom explaining that he’s his best pal. After he was repatriated, he never saw any of his Japanese ‘road brothers’ again.

A few high-profile race wins got him an invitation to join the Tokyo Otokichi Club, whose members were wealthy and connected motorsports fans. And an invitation to Hamamatsu, where he met Soichiro Honda, and tried the RC160 for himself on Honda’s test track.

“I never wanted to leave [Japan]. By then, I’d already extended once,” Mike told me. “But I must’ve pissed somebody off, because I got orders [to ship out back to the ‘States]. There weren’t any big, teary good-byes, but we had a couple or three going-away parties.”

He sold his bikes and left most of his trophies with Mama-san at Aoki Motors. Even though he later became a Yamaha dealer himself, he never returned to Japan, or saw any of his Japanese ‘road brothers’ again.

I recently asked him if he had realized, back then, that he was seeing motorcycle history being written. “Nah!” he scoffed. “I was a wild kid; I was too busy looking for trouble.”

Did he have any regrets?

“Honda CB92s were $315 brand new. Now, even a shitty one’s worth $10,000. I bet I raced and crashed a million dollars’ worth of ’em,” he told me, ruefully. “I wish I’d kept even one.”

After a few big wins, Mike was invited to join the Tokyo Otokichi Club, and given the rare chance of test-riding a Honda RC160 250cc four-cylinder factory racer. Soichiro Honda presented him with a tie-tac and cufflink set.