Think you know your moto history? The first American to win a World Championship 500GP race? It wasn’t Kenny Roberts. It was Pat Hennen, at the Finnish GP in 1976. Pat rode for the Suzuki G.B. team, which was the factory supported team in the 500GP class.
Pat’s 500GP stats are stellar. Out of 17 finishes he scored 12 podiums including three wins. That’s a 70% podium finish rate. Sadly Pat’s racing career ended when he crashed in the 1978 Isle of Man TT, just after recording the first sub-twenty minute lap in TT history. He suffered severe head injuries in the crash and although he eventually recovered he never raced again.
Before heading off to Europe Pat raced for Suzuki in the U.S. This photo is from the 1975 Ontario AMA National in Southern California. Pat was racing a TR-750 Suzuki, a two-stroke water cooled triple cylinder motor from the GT750 road bike. It was such a hot weekend Pat took off his regular full fairing and ran with a fairing intended for a Ducati 750SS. Pat was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2007.
For several seasons Pat raced in the New Zealand Marlboro series. Clever boy, when it’s cold and wet winter here it’s warm and sunny summer down under. I caught up with Pat in the early spring of 1977, just after he returned from the New Zealand 1976-77 races, and recorded this interview over the phone. My questions and comments are in italics, Pat’s replies in a normal font.
How was New Zealand?
Fantastic! I always enjoy going to New Zealand. I’d rather go racing down there than sit here or go cow-trailing. I can’t think of anything better to do. The people down there are fantastic. Rod Colman, who was my sponsor there and had been last year, takes care of us like kings.
I hear you won six out of ten events.
Yes. The way it works is, they have five individual meetings and at each meet there are two races, a first leg and a second. The points are allocated to each individual leg so it’s a tally of ten races. Out of the ten we won six and finished second in the other four.
So that would be five racetracks. What are they like?
I’ll give you a quick run down. Pukakohe is the first racetrack and the longest one, about 2.5 miles. It’s got a long main straight that’s just under one mile, which made the first track the hardest for us. Riding the 500 that’s where the 750s would be able to take the fullest advantage.
Were you riding one of the Suzuki square fours?
Yes. We took over the same RG500 I’d used in Europe, and Suzuki sent over one of the Grand Prix engines from last year, but not one of the engines Barry Sheen was using. It’s 56 by 50 millimeter with the bugs worked out so it runs very dependably. We had a real good go as far as the machine goes.
How did you do at Pukakohe?
We ended up with two seconds there. Warring Willing won one leg on his OW29 Yamaha, and Stuart Avanti, who’s a New Zealand rider, won the second on a [Yamaha] TZ750.
What’s an OW29?
It’s the one Agostini had used the last time he was at Daytona. It’s a 750 monoshock but it doesn’t have all the titanium stuff the OW31 has.
The next track was Wanganui, which is the tightest of all the tracks. It’s a regular street circuit in downtown Wanganui. That’s what makes it such an interest race. People are just jam packed all the way around the track, which is streets and haybales and that’s all there is to it. Being the tightest track it’s just a matter of how well you get your stuff together with your machine on the track. We ended up with two firsts there, which is pretty good.
Does the RG500 Suzuki work well on the tight tracks?
It works really well. We took 2 seconds off the lap record from last year with the 750 Suzuki. I was really pleased and surprised. It shows how important handling is when it gets down to tighter tracks.
The third track is at Gracefield. It’s another street circuit but they have a straight just under a half-mile long, then corners and more straights, corners and straights, so the acceleration of the machine is extremely important. The handling is important getting through the corners but a few of them you slow way down. We ended up with a second in the first leg behind Warren Willing, who is the Australian champion. It was one of those back-and-forth races and I could lead out onto the straight but it didn’t work across the start-finish line. Before the second leg we played around with the bike and were able to get the handling down better and also played with the carburation to get a wider power band. We got a first in the second leg.
Is that the track with the railroad crossing?
It also has a railroad crossing but it’s Wanganui that has the reputation for the train tracks. You go over some bumpy tracks and make a fast right hand turn at the same time. Last year an English paper had a picture of me with the rear wheel in the air [laugh]– that was Wanganui.
After Gracefield we go to Timaru, which is the second to smallest track. It still has a fair straight but a lot of the track is curving. It’s a proper race track, one and a half miles around. The first leg we ended up first, having to work very hard for it. In the second leg the track started out damp which gave me a lead. About five laps into the race the track had dried but Warren was unable to do anything by then.
Is the Suzuki a better bike in the rain?
It’s not really better, it’s just that they don’t have much experience in the rain. At the start everybody else was worried about just how slippery the track was. So the [European] experience helped me.
The last race is at Ruapuna. It has a fairly long straight, much the same as Timaru, but with a longer straight with a hairpin at the end. In the first leg Warren got a really good start; it’s a fair distance to the first turn and I was ending up about 5th in the pack and had to work my way through while Warren was putting distance on the pack. That race turned out to be really exciting. On the last lap, last corner I was able to just get on the inside of Warren and beat him to the finish line. I felt really good about that race.
We had been having wheel patter problems the entire time, all through practice and were trying to get that sorted out. As a last resort, since it was so much work in the first leg, we tried a different tire [in the second leg]. It made matters a little bit worse and because of that, combined with the same sort of start, I was unable to gap the distance and ended up second.
How do you like the RG500 Suzuki?
It’s a really fantastic bike. I’m looking forward to this year because there’s been improvements on the chassis and on the engine.
This year you’ll be teaming with Barry Sheen, right?
Right, on the Suzuki Great Britain team, along with Steve Parrish, who was the English 750cc champion last year.
Are you looking forward to teaming with Sheen?
It will be interesting. I’ve enjoyed Barry but he carries a lot of weight and I think he might see things as a little bit of a threat. It’ll be quite a season.
You’ve ridden the older Formula 750 Suzuki; how would you compare it to the new 500?
The 750 would be about six mph quicker, but it’s a heavier bike. It has the same style of suspension so it has the same advantages. That’s how we were able to get away with it in New Zealand last year. Surprisingly, it worked out that the handling on the 750 was the biggest advantage of the bike. The 500 is perfected even further, being a little lighter. It also has a motor with a little bit of poop behind it.
The first year of the 500 there was quite a bit of trouble — Sheene had the rear wheel lock up several times. Has that sort of thing been straightened out?
The motor is quite a complicated design and there’s a lot of machine inside. There’s always problems and weaknesses you don’t anticipate because there’s so many individual pieces.
But last year went all Suzuki’s way, it seems.
Yes, but we had our share of problems. It’s a very sensitive machine, being a four cylinder 500. Seizing was one of the main problems, getting that sorted out and making it dependable so you could actually tune it. Things were pretty well straight for the Marlboro series in New Zealand. The electrical system is very critical in having the motor run like a normal engine. Then you’re able to tune it and make it run properly. Then it’s a rocket!
And they’ve already improved it for next season?
[In 1977] they’ll be using a square bore and stroke, new porting, and so on.
Do you have any plans for the Formula 750 events?
At this moment that is tentative depending on the homologation of the new bike.
What about any U.S. races?
We’re negotiating with the people at Long Beach, and Daytona and Laguna Seca are F750 events, so it depends on the homologation.
Do you have any plans of coming over to the AMA Nationals at Sears Point or Riverside?
Not at the moment. It’s an idea but next year there are so many races there’s no way to do all of them.
And you’re committed to the 500GP series.
Right, that’s the mainstay. The 500GP title will still be the most coveted title.That’s what the whole thing’s about. We’ll have factory machinery and I think we have all the tools to do it. It’ll be my older brother Chip and I, and I’ll be employing a mechanic from New Zealand, Mike Sinclair. That’ll round out our team, along with Frans VanDerBrock. He’s in England now but is from Los Angeles and used to do some AFM racing.
So your plans of riding at Daytona are up in the air?
I take it you’d really like to ride there.
Sure! What is it, about an $80,000 purse? And I had a super time there last year.
What will the new 750s be like?
They’re starting from scratch. They’re taking the experience and knowledge they’ve gained from the 500 and just growing from that. It will be a square four, but it’s not just a bored out 500.
So they have to get 25 of them made and approved by the AMA for you to race at Daytona. I hope they make it.
It’s quite a chore but the way we look at it it’s a Yamaha benefit otherwise.
Looks that way. Well, the best of luck to you and we’ll be keeping an eye on your progress in Europe.
For the record, Pat finished the 1977 500GP season in 3rd place with one win, the Great Britain GP. His teammate Barry Sheen won the championship. Suzuki did not meet homologation and did not compete in the 1977 F750 championship.