By Colin Fraser, CSBK
Yvon Duhamel, likely the greatest motorcycle racer in Canadian history, has passed away in Montreal. He was 81. Duhamel was an iconic racing figure in the late 1960s and 1970s, and then raced with distinction in a variety of categories into the 1990s. His number 17 plate became one of the most desirable set of digits in the history of racing.
While Duhamel had considerable competition success across a wide range of categories, six times voted the best multi-discipline racer in Canada, he will be best remembered as a Kawasaki factory super star in the 1970s. Aboard the fast but fragile two-stroke triple line green racers, Duhamel was one of the few aces who could take on and beat the hordes of factory Yamaha TZ350s, then four-cylinder TZ700 and TZ750s.
Specifically, Duhamel faced off repeatedly against King Kenny Roberts on the works Yamaha bumble bee-yellow U.S. entries, and while he frequently tumbled or suffered mechanical issues, he became a fan favourite for his flair and determination.
After yet another seizure with the early air-cooled triples, Duhamel was asked about stopping out on the track and watching the rest of the race. “They don’t pay me to push them,” was his response. At one point in the 1970s, Yvon kept a baseball hat in his leathers to cover his head during the wait for crash truck pickup, usually with snowmobile race equipment make Kalamazo Tractions Products branding.
“Y-Von” loved the crowds, and played up his French-Canadian identity, particularly in the U.S. and France. He didn’t mind at all the nickname “super frog,” and leveraged his celebrity with public appearances including stock car and dune buggy racing, as well as a successful winter career in snowmobile competition. He also owned a bike dealership in Montreal that sold, naturally, Kawasakis.
During limited appearances in Europe and especially the U.K., Duhamel became a major era hero. He was a front runner in the long-gone Formula 750 Championship, took Kawasaki into 500cc Grand Prix, and was a big deal riding for the works Goudier-Godeux factory Kawasaki Endurance squad.
Duhamel famously wore a hole in the side cover of the trick-framed G-G Kawasaki at the Bol D’or 24 Hour Endurance Classic, unwilling to slow his pace. He also did the same thing in Endurance action at Mosport, sharing the infamous “green monster” Kawasaki Z-1 with “Crazy Frank” Mrazek.
Duhamel’s small stature made him ideal for small pure-race bikes like 250cc Grand Prix machines, and his first fame in road racing came with the Trev Deeley distributor backed Yamahas at Daytona, winning the International 250cc Grand Prix event at Daytona in 1968 and 1969.
Moving to Kawasaki in the era of the multi-rider super teams, Duhamel out-survived most of his fellow Kawasaki stars to become their go-to racer with the much developed works triples. He also was in on the ground floor of Superbikes, although his small stature made handling the big bikes a bit of a chore.
Duhamel triumphed in one of the first AMA National modified production races at Pocono in 1974, borrowing a 750 triple Production racer from the Canadian distributor (Manley’s) team right before the race, looked after by fellow Hall 0f Famer and top tuner Mike Crompton. Duhamel also rode for Yoshimura and their brief satellite business, Dale Star, on the fire breathing Kawasaki Z-1s.
At one point Duhamel showed up for Daytona in March not fully recovered from a major snowmobile racing injury, and competed with bungy cords locating his injured leg. The next year, Kawasaki paid out his contract not to race when they withdrew, and then Duhamel started returning for celebrity, start money one-off rides, usually on the exact same factory Kawasaki.
Duhamel was a major star at Mosport, a crowd draw that track owners knew would help fill their stands. By 1980 Duhamel was competing at the Mosport FIM Formula 750 round, not on the green KR but aboard a red and white works Yamaha, built and handled by legendary Canadian wrench Bob Work.
Duhamel rode the same bike at the Montreal F1 support race in September 1981, winning in late afternoon against a strong field of younger racers. The next year, Castrol funded a second Hindle Kawasaki for occasional outings by Duhamel, still pulling the crowds.
Duhamel cut back on racing in the 1980s, but got much more involved when both his sons, Mario and Miguel, started climbing the ladder, to considerable success. Duhamel funded the early family efforts, drove the motor home across the country, and signed lots of autographs along the way.
Duhamel’s last major outing was a ride and “victory lap” with his sons at the Bol D’Or in 1988, and after that his competed in the AMA Harley-Davidson 883 spec class, and then was a Vintage racing hero for Team Obsolete in the AHRMA Historic National Series.
However, a bad crash in turn three at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park during VRRA Vintage action a decade ago caused Duhamel to “pause” his racing career – he never officially retired. Many figured his dedicated and long-suffering wife Sophie had finally put her foot down.
I raced against Duhamel several times in AHRMA National action in the 1990s, and he remained a fun and very confident competitor. He once passed me on the grass at Mid-Ohio on the opening lap of a National, and made fun of me for not blocking him when we spoke after the race!
I also remember a long, uphill slog pushing my Renaissance Race Team bike back from Tech at Mid-Ohio, eventually discovering Duhamel was walking right behind, pulling on the tail section of my bike.
Duhamel will be much missed, a truly legendary character from a key era of motorcycle competition. The say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but Duhamel was just as good as advertised.
It is also worth mentioning that number 17 both was born and died on that day of the month.