For decades, a win at Daytona was almost priceless. Victory in the fabled 200 set the tone for a manufacturer’s year, with marketing possibilities that drove sales in the showrooms. That was especially true in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, when the 200 was so important that Grand Prix world champions such as Mike Hailwood and others would compete.
Honda has won many times at Daytona, but there are two standouts: 1970 and 1999. The 1970 event marked Honda’s first win at the Speedway, and was a triumph of rider Dick Mann and machine. The 1999 race was remarkable not only for the slim margin of victory—0.014 second—but also another victory for man and machine: Miguel Duhamel, who could barely walk without crutches because of a badly broken leg the year before, and his RC45. These are their stories.
1970 Daytona 200: Last Mann Standing
Honda’s 1969 CB750K0 changed motorcycling’s landscape completely. It offered a Grand-Prix-inspired inline-four-cylinder engine, hydraulic disc front brake, eye-watering performance and confidence-inspiring reliability. It was only a matter of time before it turned a wheel in battle.
It was Bob Hansen, then American Honda’s national service manager, who convinced Honda to mount a full-factory effort for Daytona. There were four entries, three CR750 race bikes based on the CB750K0 for the official factory team made up of Ralph Bryans—a 50cc-class world champion—GP-racer Tommy Robb and veteran Bill Smith, plus an identical fourth bike for Hansen to run with rider Dick Mann, an AMA Grand National Champion.
Mann qualified fourth behind pole-sitter Gene Romero, Mike Hailwood and Gary Nixon. But there were signs of trouble: The CR750s were suffering camchain-tensioner failures. Hansen’s team took appropriate steps, and alerted the factory team. Before the race even started, Bryans destroyed his bike in a high-side practice crash, and Smith stepped aside so Bryans could race his bike.
During the race, Mann got the holeshot of a lifetime, but it didn’t last. Hailwood and Nixon got past on the second lap and looked like they were going to run off with the race. But both their bikes overheated and they dropped out, leaving Mann with a huge lead. The other two CR750s dropped out with camchain-tensioner problems.
Even Mann’s CR750 wasn’t immune. His bike was smoking and missing with 10 laps to go, but he soldiered on, nursing his wounded Honda long enough to win by a healthy margin.
It was Honda’s first Daytona win, but there would be more to come over the years, perhaps none more dramatic than the 1999 Daytona 200.
1999 Daytona 200: Duhamel Can’t Walk, but He Can Win
At the start of 1999, it wasn’t certain if Honda’s Miguel Duhamel could even walk to the starting line, let alone race in the 200. The former Superbike champion had suffered a compound fracture of his left femur at the AMA road race round at Loudon, New Hampshire, and almost lost his leg. He was far from recovered as Daytona 1999 loomed.
Duhamel opened his 1999 Daytona account by winning the 600 SuperSport race. Then, needing assistance just to climb on board his Honda RC45, he put together one of the grittiest performances in U.S. road racing history, battling for 200 miles—more than an hour and a half—to beat Mat Mladin across the line by a mere 0.014 second for the win, one of the closest finishes in Daytona history. It was Duhamel’s third Daytona 200 win and his 22nd Superbike victory. What’s more, Duhamel’s average speed of 113.469 mph broke the record for the fastest ever Daytona 200. It was, by all accounts, the most amazing comeback ride in AMA history, and remains so to this day.
Afterward Duhamel was quoted as saying, “I didn’t even want to celebrate after that. If I could have rode my bike straight to the Hampton Inn and gone to sleep, I would’ve done it.”