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The Catalina Grand Prix on Santa Catalina Island, 33.5 Kilometers out in the Pacific from Long Beach, California, was held 1951 to 1958. Yamaha entered in 1958. It was probably the most prestigious race in America that paid no prize money. All the motorcycles were lashed to a barge for the trip to the island while the racers and others came by steamer, small boats, or amphibian airplanes on Friday. The race started at the frontage street along Avalon Bay. On Saturday the 250cc and smaller bikes lined up by engine size classes and were started en masse with a short time separating the three small bike classes. The course circulated around and through the town of Avalon for about 6 miles for 10 laps. Starting on blacktop the course soon became a dirt road, then through the pits on the golf course, down to the blacktop for a short distance to pick up a wide trail of numerous turns hugging the steep mountainside, then back to the golf course and onto the streets of Avalon. On Sunday the 350cc and larger motorcyles started in rows of 5. Their course climbed the mountain to the backbone of the island where the western shore was visible, then descended back down to pick up the course the smaller bikes had followed the day before. Nowhere was a course with such a dramatic variation or as scenic.

During those times there were no factory teams and few riders traveled far just to race for trophies as they might today. It was impossible to charge for watching the race so rider entry fees had to pay for all expenses, except for some small donations. So when it was learned that a Japanese factory was sending 5 motorcycles and a rider to the event, it created much excitement around southern California. The name “Yamaha” was unfamiliar to all I knew and I was an active rider and dealer. Fumio Ito was also unknown but we heard he was a champion in Japan. No one knew if he would be fast compared to the best California riders. Most riders who were fast had some connection with a dealer for a level of support and were already entered. So, unfortunately, the only riders available to ride the other 4 Yamahas were not top level riders.

One of those riders was from my club. Frank Cooper was to be the Yamaha importer. Frank also imported the British AJS and Matchless motorcycles which were strong competition machines. He knew how competent my club, the Foothill Hawks, was in organizing a pit. He selected the “Hawks” to provide the pit for Fumio as well as our rider, Ray Presho. So I was able to learn much about this impressive but somewhat strange Yamaha. All the painted parts except the gas tank were battleship gray. The red gas tank lacked the finished look common to bikes from Europe. The effect was the Yamahas looked all business with no effort to be beautiful. Rubber bands cut from innertubes were used as springs in places on the machines. No one had seen this done before and it did not seem factory-like, but soon we were using innertube rubber bands for all sorts of things.

Of course all eyes, including mine, were on Fumio and his Yamaha when the race started. There was no practice so only those who had ridden previous years were fast the first lap. That is except Fumio. The scream of the Yamaha’s unmuffled exhaust had all eyes glued to that red tanked missile. Whenever Fumio was in sight he was visibly faster than any other rider. One spectator came to me and asked if I had seen Fumio wiping his goggles as he was in a full braking slide coming into a corner? Nobody does that! There was no one on the island who did not have the name Yamaha imbedded in their mind after that day.

Sorrowfully, the factory was under the impression that the Catalina course was a road race and they only sent very cold road race spark plugs. Due to the last minute nature of the effort, the problem was not exposed and a suitable substitute obtained. I was under the impression, as my memory serves, that he had fouled several plugs. A magazine article I researched gave it as one plug. If so, likely Fumio was not prepared to change a plug on the course and had to get to the pits on one cylinder. Otherwise, fouling just one plug would not have kept him from winning, or nearly winning, the race; he and his Yamaha were that fast. So Fumio was to lose a race he possibly deserved to win by 4 minutes 20 seconds. That was the last Catalina Grand Prix and the last we never got to see Fumio in action. It was certainly not the last we got to see of Yamaha. Fumio did ride one other race after Catalina. He turned in “runaway victories” in heat races at Los Angeles Speedway. He declined to ride the main as his point had been made and he wished that win to go to a local racer. A very sporting gesture.

The 1958 Yamahas were styled poorly for America. The 1959s were greatly improved and exceptionally fun to ride. That was the year I became an enthusiastic Yamaha dealer. Yamaha led the way for the Japanese motorcycle invasion of the USA, from the race course to the streets.

These are my first hand memories and impressions. Researching the Motorcyclist magazine and Cycle Action magazine reports I can pass on the following details:

Accompanying Fumio was Mr. Kawakami, the president of Yamaha. He attended the race and presumably came to finalize the new American distribution of Yamahas.

The following is a quote from the Cycle Action report which, if accurate, would have placed Fumio 5th rather than 6th, 4 minute 20 seconds behind, which he actually placed. That is impossible to believe.

“Fumio Ito, Tokyo, Japan entry, created more excitement than any other rider in the eight year history of the Grand Prix. Ito riding a Yamaha 250cc literally burned up the Saturday course. The Japan champion dove into contention at the start and proceeded to amaze the Catalina regulars in a display of fierce and determined riding. Fumio’s high pitched Yamaha appeared to have pressure far exceeding a 250cc, and his feet up “to the stops” drifts were beautiful to watch. A late pit stop (fouled plug) cost the Tokyo champion dearly, as it required almost two full minutes for the delay. Fumio returned to win a well deserved 6th place.”

The Motorcyclist magazine printed a full page article about Fumio and Yamaha. This revealed that Yamaha sent over a mechanic, K. Kawamura and a chief engineer, S. Ono. Also noted was Fumio’s visit to his sister who lives in Los Angeles. The final paragraph: “Those who either watched him race, met him or raced against him, can’t help but admire the young man from Japan and his red and rapid Yamaha.”

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Bill Brokaw was a Yamaha dealer from 1959 to 1992. He raced in the Catalina Grand Prix several years finishing a high of 2nd 500cc over the 10 mile mountain course.