On January 13, 1954, a party of three Japanese staff set off from Haneda Airport in Tokyo, bound for Brazil.
Leading up to the Isle of Man TT Race, the first overseas race challenge taken up by a Japanese rider on a Japanese motorcycle was the São Paulo City fourth centennial celebration international motor race. Mikio Omura (No. 136) rode hard to finish thirteenth. However, there was just too great a performance gap between his modified Dream E-Type racer and the competing machines from Europe.
En route to take part in the international motorcycle race commemorating São Paulo’s fourth centennial were Mikio Omura and Toshiji Baba, a rider and engineer, respectively, for Honda, and Katsuhiro Tashiro, a rider for Meguro. This was the first time ever - either before or since the War - that Japanese motorcycles and Japanese riders had gone to compete overseas. The rider, Omura, had joined Honda in 1949 at the age of sixteen. He worked at the Noguchi Plant on the assembly line and as a test rider. In September of the same year, he had participated in a small race for the company at Noguchi Park in Hamamatsu on a C-Type that he "borrowed without permission." When he won, he was found out by Soichiro Honda, who had come to watch the race, and he was fond of recollecting how President Honda, far from reprimanding him, had actually offered praise.
Honda was actively competing in the races that were beginning to be revived in the postwar period. Soichiro Honda himself took part in local amateur races here and there on an A-Type during the days of the Honda Technical Research Institute. He only stopped entering races after becoming president of Honda Motor Co., when he started having his young employees race instead.
Kiyoshi Kawashima also liked to ride in the races, and recalled:
"There was a time when I was the rider and Omura was the mechanic."
He would travel as far as Nagoya and Shizuoka to compete in races in those cities.
Omura is still impressed by his experience of the time:
"The way it came about that I went all the way to São Paulo to race on the other side of the world, was through Chojiro Kuriyama, Chairman of the All-Japan Small Motor Vehicle Federation. In October 1953, he happened to visit the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, and found an invitation from the Federacáo Paulista De Motociclismo there in the Automobile Division. It asked if Japan would like to take part in the São Paulo City fourth centennial celebration races, and said they would cover the expenses. However, the letter was still in the division head’s pending box, and the deadline for entering was near. Kuriyama rushed to talk to all the manufacturers, of which five wanted to participate, but when they got in touch with Brazil, they discovered that the scheduled ten riders and two mechanics couldn’t be invited because the deadline had passed. They could only pay for one person, said the reply. In the end, just Honda and Meguro decided to go, sharing the balance of expenses. The air fare for each person at that time was 800,000 yen. This was a huge amount of money. Around then I was a Honda employee who rode for Honda, and sometimes I also took part in public motorcycle races for money. (At that time, enthusiasts often held dirt track races that the public would come and place bets on, much like horse and bicycle racing.) The company built a special Honda machine for me to ride in this motor race. The Old Man must have chosen me because he thought I was used to racing. I was twenty-one years old. Baba, the mechanic, was just two years out of university and twenty-three years old. The company really had a lot of guts to send a couple of youngsters like us all the way to Brazil."
It was time to prepare their machine for the race, but they had almost no information. All they knew was that the 125 cc class would take eight laps around a course 8 km long. They shortened the stroke on a 150 cc Dream E-Type to make it 125 cc, and since the three-speed transmission was still so new, they stayed with the reliable two-speed. The frame was a special pipe job. The result was more like a dirt track racer than a road racing machine.
"We went to the Old Man’s house to pay our respects the day before we left. He told us, ‘Don’t expect to win. But do finish the race, whatever it takes. That’s all I ask.’ I figured that winning would be a problem, sure, but finishing the race seemed like a pretty tall order, too," Omura recalled, laughing.
There was no time to ship the machine by sea, but air freight was prohibitively expensive. The drastic method they used in the end was to take the two motorcycles apart and carry the pieces in their luggage. This was in the age of propeller-driven airplanes, and it took them six long days to reach São Paulo. There, a great welcome awaited them, as Omura recollects:
"We were interviewed by the local Japanese-language newspapers, and invited to parties by the Japanese-Brazilians, but what I really appreciated most of all was that one of them loaned me a 250 cc AJS (an English motorcycle) to practice on. I didn’t want to use my own bike for practice. After all, if it broke down that would be the end of everything. I did ride the Dream sometimes, but its frame didn’t have much rigidity, and I would ride along telling myself not to push it too hard, just finish the run, finish the run. At night I would go over the map of the race course and practice by visualizing the race. All the while I was thinking of the Old Man. The circuit was the Interlagos, which is still famous today for its F-1 Grand Prix. Watching the people who had come from Europe to race, it was obvious they were in a different class from us. So many of the machines and the riders were top-rank. Doing ready-set-go with those guys, there was no way I could match up. The result was obvious before the race. But we had a running start, and I’m a fast racer. I did my best to make a good impression in that, at least. I was faster than everyone else, while we were running to our bikes," he said, laughing. "So at first, I was up toward the front. I didn’t have a chance on the straightaways, but tight curves were my specialty. I was the fastest there, too, and the way that I kept one foot on the ground, it was like I was running in dirt track style."
The Italians were competing with each other for first place, and Pagani won riding a F.B. Mondial. Omura was one and a half laps behind, and finished the race thirteenth out of 25 racing motorcycles. His average speed was about 115 km/h. Omura remembers:
"The F.B. Mondial was going over 130 km/h. My bike had about 6 PS, and that one had easily twice as much power. The heat was terrible, and in the end, I was glad just to finish the race as I’d promised. I could relax and look at the Old Man in the eye. I expected he would be happy about it."
However, the hard part was yet to come. Tashiro, the Meguro rider who was entered in the 250 cc class race, fell while he was practicing and seriously injured his left arm. He was unable to ride in the main race, and he was disqualified from receiving the 75,000 yen starting money that each rider was given. Omura recalls this:
"This was a time when the amount of foreign currency you could take out of Japan was very strictly regulated, so we only had a little bit of money. Our expectations were completely thrown off, and we were in a terrible fix. The local Japanese-Brazilians really helped us out. They held fund-raising parties, and invited us to eat with them. When we telephoned Japan to report that we had finished the race, we also asked them to send us money, but they only sent 40,000 yen, which wasn’t enough. We had no choice but to sell the machines locally, and use the proceeds to pay our expenses in Brazil."
The journey back was a series of connecting flights via the United States that took them five days. Omura remembers their return:
"We went straight to the company head office in Yaesu, Tokyo. From way back, Mr. Honda didn’t have a president’s office. The president was sitting on a couch at the rear of the entryway reading a newspaper. When we told him, ‘We just got back, sir,’ he replied, ‘Oh, you’re back, are you? You must have had a pretty hard time of it.’ He didn’t even raise his eyes from the newspaper, and that was it. I was disappointed, but when I got back to Hamamatsu, I heard that he had been walking all over the place telling everyone, ‘Omura finished the international race in Brazil!’ In front of me, he was too embarrassed to give me any praise."