Erv Kanemoto was one of the best-known racing tuners and team crew chiefs of the 1970s through the early 2000s. In all, Kanemoto was the tuning force behind two national and six world road racing titles. He is best known for his association with Freddie Spencer, who earned three world championships with Kanemoto at his side.
Kanemoto was born in Utah, in May of 1943. He grew up on a farm in San Jose, California, and learned from an early age to help his father keep machinery running. As a teen, Kanemoto’s interest in engines turned to the racing variety when he began working on two-stroke boat and go-kart engines with his father.
Erv raced go-karts as a youth, but found he didn’t have the assertiveness needed to excel in the sport.
“My sister was good at it,” Kanemoto said of his family’s involvement in go-kart racing. “She was a lot more aggressive than myself. I understood what it took to win, but I always thought about the consequences of what might happen if I made a close pass. I found that the engine building was the simple part. I learned to make them quicker.”
Kanemoto was in his early 20s when he first got involved working on motorcycles. A factory where he worked went on strike and during his down time Kanemoto took up a friend’s offer to work at a motorcycle shop in Hayward, California. His experience with boat and go-kart motors served him well. He proved to be an excellent mechanic. His boss was so impressed by his excellent work the shop got Kanemoto involved in building drag racing bike motors. Subsequently he also began working on road racing, dirt track and motocross racing bikes during his apprenticeship.
One humorous part of Kanemoto’s accession to a leading motorcycle racing tuner was the fact that he didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle.
“I would fix the bikes, but other people in the shop would do the test riding,” Kanemoto said. “It was several months before I finally learned how to ride.”
As Kanemoto became more involved in racing he started building custom cylinders for other racing teams. Word began to spread throughout West Coast racing of the talented new tuner from Northern California.
In 1968, Kawasaki hired Kanemoto to tune for Walt Fulton, Jr. at Daytona. That led to more work with Kawasaki. In addition to Fulton, Jr., he tuned for riders such as Jim Rice (for one race), Jim Deehan and Jerry Greene. It marked the start of his lifelong involvement in building top-notch racing machines for some of the world’s leading riders.
By the early 1970s, Kanemoto had formed his own racing team and continued his relationship with Kawasaki. In 1973, he ran a team that featured former AMA national champion Gary Nixon. The Nixon/Kanemoto partnership proved a successful one that would last for six years.
In 1974, Kawasaki cut its racing budget and Kanemoto and Nixon worked with Suzuki in 1974 and ’75. In 1976, Nixon pursued the newly formed Formula 750 World Championship with backing from Kawasaki with Kanemoto running the team and building the race bikes. The championship ended in political controversy and Nixon and Kanemoto, who rightfully won the title, were denied the world championship when results of one of the rounds were thrown out.
Kanemoto continued with Nixon through 1978. He then began a long association with Freddie Spencer that would eventually lead to three world championships.
Kanemoto first saw Spencer race in 1977 at a WERA race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Spencer’s father later asked Erv to build cylinders for Freddie’s racing bikes. He built the cylinders and came to the race to assemble the bikes. Freddie did well on them and the association between the two was off and running.
In 1978, Spencer won the AMA 250 Grand Prix Championship riding Kanemoto-built Yamahas. Spencer came to consider Kanemoto a good friend, as well as a tuner.
“Our personalities were very much alike,” Kanemoto explained. “Neither one of us enjoyed uncertainty and unknown environments. I think later when Freddie came to Europe to race in the GPs, I was able to help him make that transition since I’d already spent a year living there.”
While Kanemoto’s working deal with Spencer proved fruitful, he was ready to move on to the world-championship level. Spencer was contracted to ride Superbike for Honda in the United States, so Kanemoto took an opportunity to work in the world championships with Barry Sheene for the factory Yamaha team in 1981.
According to Kanemoto, that first year in the world championships was the first time he really made money from racing. “Before that I would work all day building engines for customers just so I could make enough money to support my racing efforts,” Kanemoto explained. “Typically, I would do the regular customer work during the day, take a short dinner break and work on the racing bikes in the evenings.”
When Spencer began in the GPs in 1982, Honda Racing hired Kanemoto to work with him. It was during this time that Kanemoto began developing a new set of skills, helping develop a racing motorcycle from the ground up.
“Honda was just introducing its two-stroke GP bike and with my experience in two-strokes I was able to work with HRC’s engineers and give them input on developing the motorcycles,” Kanemoto explained. “Also, I was able to get input from Freddie and that also helped guide the factory into making a motorcycle that suited his style.”
Kanemoto’s dedication to working with Honda to refine its GP machines paid off in a major way. Spencer won his first 500cc World Championship in 1983 after a season-long battle with fellow American Kenny Roberts. In 1985, Spencer went on to do what no other rider did before or since – he won both the 250cc and 500cc Grand Prix World Championships in the same season. During that season, Kanemoto oversaw a large crew of mechanics who worked on Spencer’s machines.
“It was an incredible accomplishment by Freddie and the entire team,” Kanemoto explained. “Looking back at 1985, I would say that year may have cost Freddie in later years. It took so much out of him to win both of those titles. He was burning the candle on both ends, so to speak. Still, winning both those titles in a single season is something that he will always be remembered for.”
Spencer was always quick to credit Kanemoto for helping him accomplish such a major feat.
“The way Erv approached racing so professionally and with such dedication, I think it really built a solid team atmosphere,” Spencer said. “He was tireless in making sure everything was perfect for me when I went on the track.”
Kanemoto continued to work for Honda’s racing arm, HRC, through the 1988 season, working with Spencer and later Niall Mackenzie. He also was instrumental in getting Jimmy Filice a ride with the factory Honda 250cc team for the 1988 U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. A rider was injured and Kanemoto suggested to Honda that Filice would be the perfect fill-in rider at Laguna. His hunch proved correct. Filice rode to a popular victory at Laguna that year.
In 1989, Kanemoto formed his own company, Kanemoto Racing, to actually field his own GP team. With backing from Rothmans and Honda, Kanemoto fielded a world championship winning team with Eddie Lawson. Lawson said that Kanemoto was instrumental in helping him make the transition from riding Yamahas to Hondas.
“The characteristics of the bikes were completely different,” Lawson explained. “Erv helped me understand how I needed to ride the Honda to get the most out of it.”
It was also during this period with Lawson that Kanemoto says computers started to really become a major factor in racing.
“We used computers before that for simple things such as wheel speed, engine rpm, throttle opening, suspension movement and so on,” he explained. “By the 1990s, computer technology really began to come in a very big way and to a certain extent it changed racing. But there was still a need to work closely with the riders to take the comments they were giving and tie that in and compare it to the data computers gave us.”
Kanemoto’s Rothmans Honda team also won 250cc world championships with Luca Cadalora in 1991 and 1992. During the 1990s, Kanemoto worked with a number of leading riders such as Wayne Gardner, Nobuatsu Aoki, Max Biaggi, Tadayuki Okada and Alex Barros.
By the mid-1990s, the price of fielding a world championship GP team was escalating at an astounding rate. Kanemoto found it increasingly difficult to find the financing to field a team. Several of his teams went largely unsponsored during the latter 1990s. After running an unsponsored team with John Kocinski in 1999, Kanemoto realized that the financial risks of trying to run a team, which ran into the millions of dollars, and the never-ending battle to find sponsors was becoming unsustainable.
He accepted an offer in 2000 to help Bridgestone develop a GP racing tire. That association led to a Bridgestone-backed GP team Kanemoto directed with rider Jurgen van den Goorbergh in 2002.
After 2002, Kanemoto no longer fielded a GP team, but stayed involved consulting with Suzuki and later Honda’s Grand Prix teams throughout the first decade of the 2000s.
Kanemoto will always be remembered for his rise from shop mechanic to world championship winning team owner. His dedication to the sport earned him the respect of anyone who followed road racing during his era of accomplishment.