Entering the lobby of Yoshimura R&D in Chino, California, one of the first things you see is a massive timeline, spanning from floor to ceiling along the wall.
It begins in 1978 and stretches down the hall, documenting more than four decades of continuous presence and success in American roadracing at the highest level. And, amazingly, it was all done in partnership with one brand: Suzuki. Then, in 2019, the alliance dissolved, and Yoshimura’s participation in roadracing came to a halt.
The seminal tuning company is washing the dust off its race boots by dipping a toe slider in the MotoAmerica Twins Cup class with a Yamaha YZF-R7, to be raced at the Laguna Seca round in July. It has invited RevZilla along for the ride, but not in the usual way. Rather than sampling the bike and interviewing the team once all is said and done, I’ll be working with Yoshimura to develop the machine, and if all goes well, taking a position on the starting grid in Monterey this summer.
This is an incredible opportunity, and as someone who loves wrenching and experimenting as much as I enjoy racing, embedding with an organization as talented and resourced as Yoshimura is a bucket-list item I wouldn’t have ever dreamed of.
“Racing is a core value at Yoshimura,” says 38-year-old Yusaku Yoshimura, CEO of Yoshimura’s American arm and grandson of the late Hideo “Pops” Yoshimura, during our first meeting for the project in early February. “With the race team, we learned so much. The challenge of it, the focus, it kept us sharp, it drove us and helped develop new products and ideas.”
The race team, however, is gone. Formerly run by paddock legend Don Sakakura and occupying nearly 150,000 square feet adjacent to the main Chino production facility, Yoshimura Racing shut down when Suzuki pulled out. The building closed, the big rigs and equipment were sold off, and the crew of technicians, as trained and focused as a SWAT team, moved on to other careers.
“When you think about Yoshimura Racing, you think about the championships, and everything Don has done over the past 40 years,” says Eric Steen, manager of the R&D department, which is responsible for designing exhausts and other products for new production models, and previously worked alongside the race team to hand-build exhaust systems and other bespoke components for GSX-R1000 Superbike competition. “Well, this is still Yoshimura, but now it’s the R&D Department that’s trying to keep those juices flowing.”
Developing an entire race bike and running a race program is a new and unfamiliar endeavor for R&D, like the servers at a restaurant suddenly taking on the responsibilities of the kitchen. Simultaneously, the department of 12 has a handful of young new hires. They’re passionate, skilled, and eager, but inexperienced. Working with a new manufacturer and starting with a twin-cylinder street bike that’s built to a price point rather than a premium inline-four sport bike designed for performance, will challenge the company in new ways, as well.
In other words, while a one-off race in a support class may seem like a mild effort for a company of Yoshimura’s pedigree, given the circumstances, it’s a huge undertaking. The benefits are too good to resist, though. This R7 project will serve as a flagpole for the R&D personnel to rally around, solidifying the team and baptizing the freshmen into the world of racing that’s such a critical part of Yoshimura’s DNA.
Yoshimura isn’t diving into this with entirely green stock, though. Yusaku and Eric have coaxed key Yoshimura Racing vets back into the fold to guide the project, though their day jobs at SpaceX mean they’re only available after hours and on weekends. Similarly, the R&D Department is already at full throttle with its regular responsibilities, so this is an extracurricular activity. Despite the additional responsibilities, stress, and expense, everyone is enthused by the venture and what it could mean for the company.
“We take for granted the time we had working with the race team,” says Eric. “Yusaku and I have had a taste, but these new guys haven’t weathered the challenge and excitement of a project like this. They all appreciate Yoshimura’s history, but we want them to be able to say they’re a part of that history, not just employees at a company that has a legacy.”
The project has just begun, and there’s a lot of work to do before the race in July. In future installments we will introduce the team, get into the nuts and bolts of the bike’s development and testing, and perhaps most compellingly, pull the curtain back on one of motorcycling’s most dedicated and iconic brands as it seeks to write a new chapter in its history.
Stay tuned. This is going to be an exciting ride.