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The following is the text of an article in the July 1973 edition of ‘Cycle’ magazine about riding a TZ350 for the first time. Bear in mind that the author, Cook Neilson, was a drag-strip specialist of modest accomplishment at the time.  Four years later Cook and his partner, Phil Schilling were the rider and builder of the famous "California Hot Rod" Ducati 750SS that won the Daytona Superbike race in 1977 as a privateer effort.

The article is reproduced here, as the photocopy was too poor to scan.

"Never ridden a Yamaha racer round a road circuit?  Or at the dragstrip? Imagine the world’s fastest lightswitch."


Where Angels Fear to Tread

By Cook Neilson

By now those of you who read a newspaper or any one of almost thirty publications that deal with the sport of motorcycling must know that Yamaha TZ 350’s finished first, second and third at Daytona, that a Yamaha won the Imola race, and that all in all, the TZ is quite an uppity little weapon.  If you have read our May issue, you know that a crate-standard TZ yanked 63 horsepower out of the unsympathetic Webco dynamometer and would have done still better but for an overheating problem-which does not appear when the bike is out running on the track.  A few of you might have marvelled: so much steam from such a little package. If any of you were at Daytona you certainly saw the TZs of Saarinen, Fisher, Carruthers, Urbanowski et al ripping around the high banks and screaming through the infield and you might have wondered…what it must feel like to ride one.

I wondered exactly that.  I spent a lot of time at Daytona talking to guys like John Long and Fisher and Castro trying to get them to tell me what it feels like.  The problem is that they’ve been riding bikes like the TZ for too many years; some of its aspects, clearly remarkable to you and me, have become commonplace to the Ace Pilot Set and do not for them bear notice or mention.  The TZ is what some of them use to make a living, much as I use this typewriter.  I do not find a typewriter particularly distracting, and so it is with the Ace Pilots and their TZs.  Tools, after all, are merely tools.

But the device of the Ace Pilot in the hands and beneath the seat of Just An Average  Character is something altogether different.  Average Character has seen TZs deal with rapacious Suzukis and Kawasakis, these last booted along by engines more than twice as big as the Yamaha’s; he has watched them dart around tracks like supersonic dragonflies trailing an exhaust note of sufficient pitch and volume to cut right to the core of his prefrontal lobes and heat up the fillings in his teeth.  For years the competition Yamahas have played by their own rules and responded to their own cryptic brand of supplication and incantation; and for years as a group they have done more to elevate American roadracing than the bikes of any other manufacturer.

A TZ resides I the Cycle magazine shop, paid for in cold cash by our publishing company, ridden in various Nationals by Jess Thomas and tuned by Grand Vizier Gordon Jennings.  Jess has been around bikes like the TZ too long himself.  I asked him what it felt like, and the best he could do was, well, you’ve got to be careful with it because cute as it is, it’s very, very fast and does not respond pleasantly to casual riding.

As you might expect, it is a sudden and serious racing motorcycle.  After a few laps at Riverside and some fooling around at Orange County Raceway I was in disagreement: it is a serious racing vehicle. A motorcycle, in the eyes of the Average Character, it is most  certainly not. Motorcycles spend all of their time in the middleground between motion and lack of motion; the TZ suffocates in the middleground and thrives out beyond the borders, foaming and happy only when it’s going faster than Average Character wants to go or stopping quicker than he can bear.

Jess had just come in from the second Riverside practice session of the day, the TZ lounged against the pit wall, propped up by a clip-on handlebar.

“Go ahead,” said Jennings. “A couple of laps.  Up for first." I buckle on my helmet and wiggle into my gloves. “Up for first?’ I ask. "Up for first, yeah," Jennings says. "Hop on. I'll push."

The motorcycle, or whatever it is, is tiny, even with its rather large fairing. Two instruments, a water temperature gauge and a tachometer, look back at you like the mismatched orbs of a wall-eyed pike. The seat is very hard and quite far back—all of the TZ is below and in front of you.  Jennings pushes and I paddle and then let out the clutch and we hear this dry, coughing rattle and then the whining breathy cackle of combustion.  I pull in the clutch, cajole engine speed up to 6,000 rpm, ease out the clutch and almost stall. The engine shakes the whole bike, blasts of vibration coursing like house current into my fanny and arms, edgy waves of sound ricocheting around inside the fairing and escaping past my ears.  I get engine speed up to 8,000 for the next launch attempt and we pulse and stagger out of the pits towards Turn Two.  I look at the tachometer: 6,500 rpm and nothing is happening. Seven thousand and still nothing except a clearly uncomfortable and balky racket from between my knees.  And it sort of slogs forward. At 8,000 the TZ opens its eyes; at 9,000 I close mine and feel an ungodly, walloping surge rocketing up my spine. This is where the TZ lives and does business all fight, and it's Desperation City from 9 all the way up to 10,500, a tiny rogue rocket ship for 1,500 rpm way out at the end and a petulant, sulky little beast everywhere else.

 I am trapped inside the fairing with; all that noise and here comes a corner.  I let off the gas and try to get my weight to the inside, but I am trapped on the seat too, and finally I jerk the handlebars to the left and the TZ leans reluctantly to the right. One down.  I turn the gas back on and the engine goes bleauggghhh.  I downshift, losing speed, let out the clutch, and the engine goes bleaugghhh again. I downshift again and I am in first gear in the middle of a part of the track usually negotiated at speeds over 100 mph.  I turn on the gas, watch the revs build to 7,000, 8,000, and hoooeeeyyy! 9,000 and right up to 10,500, grab another gear, 10,300, another, 10,300 and all of a sudden we're going just too damn fast. I put on the brakes.  The bike stops.  Instantly, and almost completely, and we have come from the happiness of 10,500 all the way back to the bleauggghhhs.  The bike must be ridden the way you operate a wall-switch. You cannot sneak up to speed gradually, just as you cannot turn on the lights gradually.

 By now we have lurched around Turn Six and a short straight faces us.  What the hell. Ten-thousand-five, ten-thousand-three, ten thousand-three and the TZ has pulled the entire straight beneath its belly and we're (again) going much too fast, and' it's time to turn off the switch. 

 We stop practically dead, the front end of the bike diving like a porpoise with the lightest touch of the front brake.  Down through a left and a right with a couple of tugs at the stubby clip-on handlebars, and then another straight, this one like the last traversed before the traversing of it can penetrate 'the mind, all circuits overloaded by bludgeoning acceleration and buffeting wind and vibration that attacks like a legion of fire-ants and shredding, rasping, tissue-splitting engine noise that darts to the marrow of your bones.  Around the sweeper and back up the front straight, less awkwardly than before since I can begin to make out the rules, but still clumsy because I do not know how to play by them.  One more lap and I pull in, give the bike back to Gordon and wonder at my own speechlessness.  For an Average Character the TZ 350 is the most difficult motorcycle to ride in the universe, impossible to consort with halfway (your rules) and terrifying to experience all the way (its rules). Wonder at the bike; wonder at the people, like Dave Smith and Ron Pierce and Kel Carruthers and Kenny Roberts, who are wired in such a way that they can understand it and work with it and look upon it as a device with which to make a living. They may be impressed with what the TZ can do; they certainly are not appalled and mystified by it, just as Baumann and duHamel are not appalled by their Kawasaki 750s nor Grant and Smart by their Suzukis. 

I was to have another crack at the TZ, this time on grounds more familiar to me.  Erase the problem of going around corners, leave plenty of space front, back and both sides and what you have is a drag strip.  Now, you know and I know that a TZ 350 has as much business on a drag strip as a Republican has at Watergate. But we were all curious, in our attempt to discover how the TZ feels as a motorcycle rather than as a weapon of war, how it would fare on a scale that we have used to measure regular ol' bikes.  Let us establish as a reference the Kawasaki 750 Mach IV, the hardest accelerating stock machine (12.283 @ 110.29) in all the world, an absolute drag strip plunderer. 

Getting the TZ ready for Orange County was no big deal. Jennings ran a compression check the day before, tightened up the gearing, and in a search for room and safety, I took off the fairing mounts and spread apart the clip-ons in case the need for exceptional leverage might arise.  With no fairing in front of me and not a corner in sight the TZ was mentally easier to take than it had been at Riverside.  With a stone-cold engine it fired after a ten-foot push and was cackling and bubbling irritably when Jess handed it over.  "Ride it down the track a couple of times before you run it, so the water temperature gets up where it belongs," he shouted into my helmet. Fair enough: down the straight, back through the parking lot, down and back and right up to the lights, the needle sitting on 70 degrees Centigrade.  Churning away from the line was like being flung off the deck of an aircraft carrier.  Every ganglion in the body concerned with the transmission of noise and velocity data, vision closed down to include nothing except the tachometer and the pylons ahead marking the quarter-mile speed and elapsed time traps, muscles worrying about the shift lever and the clutch and nothing else.  The TZ surrounds you with itself and leaves you no room for thoughts other than those concerning the manipulation of its controls and the sensing of its engine.  It absorbs you utterly and dominates you completely; it demands every ounce, every microsecond and every particle of your attention.  Its very coolest part is hot to the touch, its gentlest aspect hard as steel, its softest noise a raucous roar intense enough to glaze the eyes. 

We made six runs: its quickest was 11.67 (six tenths quicker than the Mach IV's absolute best), its fastest 119.04 (a 9-mph advantage), just barely getting into sixth gear. 

What a trip. Engine speed is 10.000 rpm on the nose as I leave the starting line. I slip the clutch and try to bring my feet up to the pegs, but before I can get them where they belong the front wheel is in the air and the tachometer indicates 10,700.  As power drops off, the front wheel comes down and I click into second, 10,400, click into third, 10,300, click into fourth, 10,200, click into fifth, 10,200. At over 110 mph things become quieter.  With no fairing the noise is behind us, and I hug the tank with-my-arms.  The bike is running on rails as I notch into sixth right at the quarter-mile beam.  A few seconds later the brakes have hauled us down rapidly enough to make the first turn-off with room to spare.  The things motorcycles can do the TZ cannot; the things the TZ can do a motorcycle cannot.  The TZ 350 is just not a motorcycle. God knows what it is.  It leaves me exhausted and leaning forward for hours, wondering what might happen next.

Finally the TZ 350 is back where it belongs, under the watchful eye of Gordon Jennings in the Cycle shop. As of right now Jennings is grumbling.  He cannot understand why the bike only went 119 in the quarter, having figured a minimum of 122 and a probable of 125.  But then again he's part of the racer crowd, and he understands the souls and psyches of racing Yamaha two-strokes.  I don't—not yet.  But precisely what it is I don't understand is clearer now than it was before.  My mystification is more contained: I simply cannot understand how that tiny engine can produce great howling, stamping, spine-compressing waterfalls of horsepower, and how guys like Castro and Saarinen and Carruthers and Long can come to terms with it. It's even more than simply coming-to-terms; the Ace Pilots have handled such machines so many times that they can deal with these wall switches as equals.  But not me. Yet at least I have learned what it feels like, when before I could only guess.”

Thanks go to Kerry Wilton for initially supplying this article.

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03/23/08 07:15 AM +1000    

This website © Greg Bennett 2002. 

The article text ©  Cook Neilson ( we assume, please correct us via. email if wrong since as far as we know "Cycle" magazine does not exist anymore.)