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Fifty Years Ago Kawasaki Won its First U.S. Road Race

Nearly 50 years ago, the 250cc A1 Samurai motorcycle won Kawasaki’s first-ever U.S. road race at California’s Willow Springs Raceway in dramatic fashion. And that’s because racer Jim Deehan and the Samurai didn’t just beat a field of 250cc lightweights, it beat the entire field of 250cc through Open Production bikes

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Nearly 50 years ago, the 250cc A1 Samurai motorcycle won Kawasaki’s first-ever U.S. road race at California’s Willow Springs Raceway in dramatic fashion. And that’s because racer Jim Deehan and the Samurai didn’t just beat a field of 250cc lightweights, it beat the entire field of 250cc through Open Production bikes – literally the best and fastest streetbikes available at the time. From Honda to Suzuki to Triumph, on November 6, 1966, the Samurai vanquished them all in its very first competition outing. Here’s how it happened.
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Attracting over 160 entries, the third annual U.S. Grand Prix at Willow Springs featured multiple classes from 50cc to 500 Grand Prix, and from 50cc to Open Production, plus sidecars – literally the entire range of motorcycle classes. Known today as “The Fastest Road in the West,” Willow’s sweeping turns, long straightaways and hardscrabble setting make it a serious track favoring high horsepower and brave pilots, and punishing those who stray offline and into the gritty desert. Frequently, unsettling winds and temperature swings add to the challenges.

And so it was that Deehan, a talented road racer and Kawasaki technician, took up the challenge to race multiple classes at Willow Springs on an overcast and breezy Sunday. He started the day by finishing second to Art Baumann in 350 GP on a Honda and winning 250 GP on a Yamaha. Switching from Grand Prix bikes to the new Samurai 250 streetbike, no one – probably including Deehan himself – could have anticipated duplicating his earlier performances in the big 250cc to Open Production race. After all, Open Production contained the heavy-hitter streetbikes of the time, including a formidable array of British twins with over twice the Kawasaki bike’s small displacement.

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But Deehan was keen to try, and the production Samurai, after its lengthy and exhaustive development program, was ready for Kawasaki’s first-ever road race. The field launched up the straightaway, with Deehan using the Samurai’s 31 horsepower to drive toward the front, ultimately taking the historic win over hot-shoes Art Baumann on a Suzuki and Triumph-mounted Pete DeRosa. A Kawasaki win advertisement noted Deehan had made a “smashing entry into the U.S. racing circuit” for the Samurai. That day, the same could be said for Kawasaki.

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