Akira Watanabe Interview

In 1975 the FIM created the 125cc World Championship to go along with the 250 and 500 series. That same year Suzuki released its first RM125 – and won the title. Then the brand did it nine more times in a row. Part of that 10-year win streak was thanks to Japanese racer Akira Watanabe who won the title in 1978 (the only Japanese rider to claim a World Championship title) and now runs the Suzuki motocross race team in Japan as the team manager.

Akira Watanabe

Note: Akira’s English has been adjusted a little for clarity.

Pete Peterson: Were you a Japanese champion before you went to the World Championships?

Akira Watanabe: I won National [Japan] Amateur Championship in the 1974 season, then I was MVP of National [Japanese] Federation, then I could enter into the World Championship in 1975 – I had a chance because of the Suzuki factory's entry into the first grand prix of the 125cc class in 1975 with Gaston Rahier, so I suppored Gaston Rahier. So we have Gaston and me as the Suzuki factory team. That's why I could ride world championship the first year.

PP: So you got an award from the Japanese national championships and that qualified you, or did Suzuki pick you to go?

AW: In that era, if you earn a national champion you can go to visit Europe for the World Championship, maybe for one month for visiting, and maybe if you want to ride you can race a World Championship race. So that's why I had the chance.

PP: Was it a chance that was given to you by your national federation, the FIM, or Suzuki?

AW: The first one month is paid by the Japanese Federation. In one month I had a chance to race three Grand Prix races in 1975, so the Suzuki factory said to me if I have a top three ranking in first three Grand Prix I can stay for the full season. Then directly I got a second place, and then I was in third place after the third Grand Prix.

PP: So after three races you were in third in the championship. And Gaston, was he in the lead?

AW: Gaston was leading.

PP: Were you excited to stay there the whole year? Was that the goal?

AW: Yeah, I wanted to stay full season because my ranking was a good ranking.

PP: And what was the biggest challenge to racing in Europe compared to Japan?

AW: There were many countries and different tracks, so we had to learn quickly. And thre were many languages.

PP: How was your English then?

AW: I learn it.

PP: You learned it there?

AW: Yeah.

PP: And how was Gaston to be teammates with? Was he helpful?

AW: Yeah, very. He was experienced. He lived in Japan maybe one or two years before that because the Suzuki Factory invited him the ride in Championship in Japan

PP: Did you ever race him in Japan?

AW: I was in the amateur class, not the pro class at that time.

Akira Watanabe

PP: Was your first pro race in the FIM World Championship?

AW: That's right.

PP: That was your first pro race ever, and you got second place?

AW: Yeah.

PP: Do you remember your moto scores?

AW: I think 2-4.

PP: Were you surprised or were you expecting that?

AW: Yeah, I had confidence on the 125cc.

PP: And how was that first year, 1975, on an RM125? Was the bike good?

AW: Yeah, it's a factory bike and it was a very good machine.

PP: And then the next year, did you race the whole FIM World Series in 1976?

AW: No, I had the last Grand Prix in 1975 season, I won both motos in Spain.

PP: And then what happened in 1976?

AW: 1976 they said, to me that I had no experience in the Japanese Championship pro class, so I had to race in Japan for one year. So I wasn't interested, I had no interest, so I cancel racing sometimes.

PP: So it was not a good year?

AW: I was second in championship.

PP: And you say you skipped some races?

AW: Yeah, because I'm not interested. I'm angry. And then the president, Mr. Suzuki, I met him and told him I want to go to the World Grand Prix again, and he said to me, okay, first you must ride in Japan and you must win. And after that, I won. All championship races, win-win-win-win. Then I can get a ticket for the next Grand Prix season, '77.

PP: And what happened in 1977?

AW: Wait, one more story. After the Japanese championship I have to go to the United States for the Trans AMA, that was a big international race after racing season. So there is Roger DeCoster, Gerrit Wolsink, Kent Howerton, Bob Hannah, Brad Lackey, all tight in the 500cc, then I have to go, they say -

PP: On a 500?

AW: Yeah. Maybe in next season, Marty Smith and Bob Hannah would come to the World Championship, so the factory was maybe testing me, huh? Or maybe Akira Watanabe can ride with -

PP: evaluate you?

AW: Yeah. Then I go to the first race, it's Mid-Ohio Raceway. In the 500cc main race, I won the first heat behind Roger DeCoster. I beat everyone. Then the US spectators, everybody was saying, 'What? Who?' They don't know Watanabe.

PP: So you beat the number one Suzuki guy at Mid-Ohio, did you do the whole Trans Am series?

AW: Yes.

PP: And how did you do in the series?

AW: At end of the season, not very good, but this time, at the first Ohio race I was first and fourth. Then at next races, sometimes I was third, sometimes sixth. Then in total ranking maybe 8th in the championship.

PP: Okay, then the next year, 1977, where did you race?

AW: Then I went back to Japan, and after two months I left Japan and I went to the World Championship. And I was leading the first 1977 Grand Prix, I was winning and leading the championship. I beat Gaston Rahier, then I crashed at the third Grand Prix.

PP: Was it a bad injury?

AW: Bad injury. My left knee was broken in three pieces.

PP: So when you're leading Gaston, is he still friendly? Still nice?

AW: Yeah, we are good friends. In my first year in Europe I stayed at Gason's old house for one month. We are good friends.

PP: So that was it for 77?

AW: I had a broken leg and I stayed in a Belgium hospital, so no more Grand Prix that year. Then after two months I went back to Japan then again started training and rehabilitation. After training, then I come back at the end of the '77 season. Then in the beginning of 1978 the factory tested me by sending me to some international races, and I won directly, so I got ticket for the '78 Grand Prix season.

PP: So 1978, World Championships, is Gaston still your teammate?

AW: Yeah, he's already the three time 125cc World Champion, 75, 76, 77, he is very strong. And also Yamaha's rider Gerard Rond, a Dutch rider, he's also very fast. And me. Three riders always fighting and I don't want to crash, you know? I learned in 77, 'okay, take it easy, take it easy,' I must finish all the Grand Prix, not just one Grand Prix. So I'm very consistent. I'm never down into 4th position, I'm always first, second, or third, very consistent. But Gerard sometimes had a crash and lost points, and Gaston sometimes maybe had machine trouble, and lost points. But I'm always in the top three.

PP: Did you get the point lead early in the season?

AW: Yeah. I think maybe after the fourth Grand Prix.

PP: And then you win the championship, Suzuki is very pleased with you. When you went back to Japan was it a big celebration?

AW: Yeah, big. They sent me a letter, not emails in that era, and they say not only is the factory, but the Japanese are people very proud of your World Championship. Then I go back and there's a big party. A Championship party.

PP: And how many more years did you race the World Championships?

AW: Until 1982, because the '82 season was the last factory team in Europe.

PP: Did you come back and race with Suzuki in Japan?

AW: No, I was a member of Suzuki Factory. Not contract rider, a company employee. I worked in the worked racing department, testing new engines, new frames, I did all testing from 1974 until 1988.

PP: You were the only test ride?

AW: Not only me, but mainly I tested. I was the main test rider.

PP: All bikes? 125, 250, 500?

AW: All, yes.

PP: And which one was your favorite bike?

AW: Any class I like.

PP: And did you stay with Suzuki your entire career? Have you always been with Suzuki?

AW: I stayed until 1988. Then after the factory said maybe I must stop as rider. Then I said, 'Okay, I go out of factory.' I wanted to do something so I went to my hometown, I went back and I started a shop, and I went to Paris Dakar rally in the 1991 season.

PP: What motorcycle?

AW: At that time, Suzuki. Gaston Rahier was racing in Paris Dakar in that era.

PP: And you were still friends? And he said come and try it?

AW: Yeah. 'Why don't you come to Paris Dakar?' he told me.

PP: Did you like it?

AW: Yeah. That's a very dangerous race because many motocross racers try an then crash and get hurt, very dangerous.

PP: And a lot of navigation to learn, was that challenging?

AW: Yes.

PP: And you said you opened a shop in your hometown. Was that a motorcycle shop?

AW: Yes, in beginning. Also I started as business as an endure racing organizer.

PP: You organized off-road races?

AW: Yes. 20 years as an organizer.

PP: And when did you come back to be the team manager for Suzuki?

AW: I did riding schools starting in 1993 or '94. Long time, eh? Twenty years. Then I made a riding group and video and it had very big sales. Then Suzuki said, 'Maybe you must come back to Suzuki factory, to teach new riders.' I started in 2012. Then directly I won the national 250 championship, that first year. That's Kei Yamamoto. Now he's challenging in MXGP. He's my riding school student from six years old.

This interview was done at the Sera Green MX track just outside of Hiroshima, Japan. Dirt Rider was there courtesy of Suzuki to celebrate the 40th birthday of the RM/RM-Z line. For the full feature story about the trip, check out the September issue of Dirt Rider magazine.