In any discussion about the pioneers of AMA Superbike racing, one of the first names that comes to mind is Pops Yoshimura. Yoshimura's name is inextricably tied with superbike racing in the United States and Japan. His superbikes were winners from the very beginning of AMA Superbike racing and the Suzuki factory team run through his business, Yoshimura R&D of America, became one of the most successful in the history of Superbike racing. In addition to winning numerous AMA Superbike titles, the team has also won championships in the Japanese Superbike Championships and has won on the world level in World Superbike as well as the prestigious Suzuka Eight Hour.
Hideo Yoshimura was born October 7, 1922 in Fukuoka City, Japan. As a very young man, Yoshimura was called into military service and began training as a Navy pilot. A parachute accident during training kept Yoshimura from becoming a pilot. As it turns out, the training accident might have been one of the most fortunate things to happen to him. Instead of flying planes during World War II, Yoshimura was trained to work on them. He became a top engine mechanic.
After the war, Yoshimura began modifying motorcycles for Americans who were stationed in Japan. After working on sophisticated airplane engines for so many years, the task of hopping up his customers' BSAs and Triumphs came naturally. Yoshimura had an almost innate ability to know what would work when performing his modifications. With few parts and often with worn-out tools, Yoshimura learned to improvise and make old parts work like new again. He became known for his ability to hand grind or file just about any piece of an engine to make it better, everything from cams to needle jets. Yoshimura seemed to enjoy crafting something by hand and making it better.
In 1954, he opened Yoshimura Racing in a small garage near downtown Tokyo. The Yoshimura shop was a family-run business. His wife, Naoe, performed a variety of duties, including making molds for the exhaust pipes that they would fabricate. His daughter, Namiko, kept the books, and his son, Fujio, followed in his father’s footsteps and learned every aspect of the growing business. Around the shop, Hideo was known simply as "Pops" – a moniker that was soon to become known throughout the world.
In addition to being a world-class tuner, Yoshimura possessed plenty of business savvy. In the early 1970s, big Japanese multi-cylinder bikes were becoming the rage in the United States and Yoshimura sensed an opportunity. In 1971, he moved his business to Los Angeles. His timing proved to be perfect. Honda’s revolutionary CB750 was rapidly followed by Kawasaki’s Z-1 and the era of superbikes was born. Just like he had in Japan, Yoshimura quickly earned a reputation for making the already speedy new bikes even faster.
Production-based road racing started to take off all over the country, but especially in Southern California. Superbike races were being held on the club level and a few exhibition Superbike races were held in conjunction with AMA nationals. At Laguna Seca in 1973, Yvon Duhamel won a Superbike production race held during the AMA event riding a Yoshimura Kawasaki Z-1. It gave Yoshimura his first national exposure.
By 1976, AMA Superbike racing became a national class and Yoshimura was at the forefront of the new competition, making ultra-fast and reliable Kawasaki Z-1 Superbikes. But Yoshimura’s reputation was elevated even higher in 1978 when he got his hands on the first Suzuki GS750s. The Suzuki had a much better chassis than previous Japanese multis and with a young Wes Cooley at the controls, Yoshimura Suzukis began winning Superbike races and championships.
Cooley won the AMA Superbike title in 1979 and 1980 on Yoshimura Suzukis. Suzuki’s GS series began flowing out of dealers’ showrooms and Suzuki knew that Yoshimura's efforts were a big reason for the bike’s success. A relationship was formed that would see Yoshimura become the official factory Suzuki racing arm in the United States.
In 1978, Steve McLaughlin won the Daytona Superbike race on a Yoshimura Suzuki. The next year, Yoshimura riders Ron Pierce, Cooley and David Emde finished one-two-three at Daytona, marking the first time a single team had swept the podium in an AMA Superbike national. Yoshimura Suzukis won the Daytona Superbike race four-straight times from 1978 to 1981.
Yoshimura also found the time to prepare racers for the Suzuka Eight Hour. In 1978, Wes Cooley and Mike Baldwin won the inaugural Suzuka Eight Hour on a Yoshimura Suzuki. The race would become the most prestigious single event in Superbike racing.
A shop fire in the mid-1970s showed the resolute determination of Yoshimura. While Pops was testing motors on a dynamometer, fuel leaked from an old junk car gas tank the shop used as a fuel source (getting away from his frugal upbringing was hard for Pops) and it ignited a fierce fire. Yoshimura risked his life by grabbing the old tank and dragging it out of the shop. While it saved the shop from total destruction, Pops suffered severe burns on his hands and arms. With a big race just around the corner, the fire was a serious blow to the team. But inspired by Pops determination, the Yoshimura crew went to work to get bikes ready.
Of all of the famous riders that rode for Yoshimura, perhaps the one that had the best relationship with Pops was Cooley. Current Yoshimura race manager Don Sakakura recalls. "He and Wes were very close. They understood each other better than anyone I’ve ever seen."
"He taught me so much," Cooley said of Yoshimura. "He was of the Old World Japanese way of life. Everything was very honorable and dignified. His handshake was his word."
With Yoshimura firmly entrenched in the United States, Pops moved back to Japan in 1981 to oversee the Japanese operations. Yoshimura died of cancer on March 29, 1995. He left a lasting legacy as a master craftsman, tuner and fabricator. There’s no doubt that Yoshimura was one of the pioneering personalities of Superbike racing.