I’m on the Isle of Man during TT 2019 race fortnight. After a week and a half of rain, the sky is finally blue and I love it here. A lot. I can smell burgers and the sound of race bikes being blipped warms me as I squeeze through crowds of men far too old to be wearing baseball caps and team jackets. But wear them they do and they’re absolutely everywhere. For everyone else at the TT, 2019 will be remembered as the one that was lucky to run due to the rain. I’ll remember it as the one where I met one of the most fascinating and powerful motorcycling grown ups on the planet.
Hirotoshi Honda is Mr Mugen. His company has tuned out F1 race winners, World championship level MX race winners, JDM race champions, oodles of street legal performance tuning kits for Civics and most recently, a TT race winner and lap record breaker.
My chance to spend some time with him is courtesy of the latter, the Shinden project is barely a decade old but is already the bike to beat in the Zero TT. The EV race at the Isle of Man has struggled for credibility in the nine years since inception. Sometimes so few bikes qualify that it barely seems worth racing. Other times the race takes place and race fans forget to look over their TT programmes as the bikes whisper their way into the record books. I know every rider that has raced a Mugen at the TT and none of them has ever said the bike is slow. I’ve met the engineers that have designed them and (now) I’ve met the guy that founded the company. The only people that aren’t aware of what these bikes are capable of is, well, bikers. You’re cutting off your ‘It doesn’t make any noise’ nose to suit your ‘I’d never buy one of them because it’s not a real bike’ face. I think you’re really missing out.
Hirotoshi Honda is the son of Soichiro Honda. You may have heard of him. Soichiro-san was the son of a blacksmith, his mother was a weaver. When Hirotoshi-san was a lad, he saw his father design a bike to improve congestion and make delivering noodles easy for people on the streets of Japan. That bike was the Honda Cub, of which Honda sold over 100 million units. Honda went on to do some other stuff as well.
In his Deus baseball cap and team jacket, you’d be hard pushed to realise that Hiro-san is a majority shareholder in Honda. Despite being nearly 80 years old his banter is razor sharp, one minute we’re trading Surtees, McGuinness and Freddie Spencer fanboy stories, the next he’s challenging me to a press up competition.
Our interview went well, you’ll be able to see it in an upcoming episode of Bike World television. I don’t want to give away too much but I was fascinated by his answer when I asked him why he isn’t wearing a suit and working at Honda. It boiled down to honour and the desire to do his own thing, rather that than take up the reins of a company that someone else has done all the hard work to build. I could have sat and enjoyed insights into Mugen, Honda and Hiro-san’s upbringing all night but he was on a schedule and our time quickly came to an end. The irony of the fact that the oldest man in the paddock is the one striving for success in the EV class of the future resonates.
I knew that I’d be meeting Hirotoshi-san in the lead up to the TT and, knowing that the 2019 TT races marked 60 years since Honda first competed, I decided to gift him my prized 1959 TT sound story on Vinyl. Written by Murray Walker and narrated by his father, Graham (himself a TT winner), the 1959 TT on vinyl contains next to no mention of the immaculate all Japanese team, headed up by Soichiro Honda himself. There was no mention of how the Japanese food they’d stored with the bikes had rotten during the eight week boat journey to the Isle of Man, so they ate Manx Mutton and nothing else during their six week stay. Nothing was said of the fact that the five riders had spent months studying cine film footage of the full TT course, only to arrive and find out the 125 race they were entering was on a different circuit. Of all the things not to mention however, was the declaration that Soichiro Honda made with regards racing at the Isle of Man TT races.
“This is an opportunity to proudly display the true worth of the Japanese machine industry to the entire world. I hereby pledge that I will devote all my creativity and skills to entering and winning the TT races”.
I think they got there in the end.
Everyone’s got something their dad has done that makes them proud. My dad was in the Guinness book of Records in 1987, he was a soldier and a great boxer. Hiro-san’s dad founded a company that has given the gift of independent travel to hundreds of millions of people. Sometimes the drive to succeed is driven by just wanting to impress one man, I get that. When your dad has set the bar really high, you just jump higher. I get that too. Soichiro Honda set the bar at a seemingly impossible height and while now isn’t the time (and I’m certainly not the right man) for teaching Japanese lessons, Mugen translates as ‘Limitless’. At nearly 80 years old, it’s clear to me that Hiro-san has yet to find his limit and in reaching for it, has surpassed all expectations.