It was announced in Japanese media yesterday that Yoshimi Katayama (片山義美) — the legendary race car driver often associated with Mazda — had passed away on March 26. He was 75. His prolific career was marked by some of Japan’s most iconic race cars, including the Mazda Savanna RX-3, RX-7, and many of Mazda’s Le Mans prototype racers such as the 717C, Lola T616, 767B, and 787.
Katayama was born in Hyogo Prefecture in 1940. He had a rocky childhood and became a bit of a daredevil, which drove him to take up motorcycle racing. Working at a motorcycle shop as a live-in apprentice, he practiced riding on the touge of Mount Rokko every morning and soon became known as the Rokko Legend.
Katayama earned a seat in his first professional race riding for Yamaha at the 1961 All Japan Clubman Race. He won the 350cc class and was nicknamed the “Kansai Kid” for his speed. In 1963, he became a Suzuki works rider and during this stint raced at the grueling Isle of Man TT, placing second in the 1967 World Grand Prix, 50cc class.
While Katayama was an accomplished rider, he is most famous as a legendary Mazda works driver. His partnership with the Hiroshima carmaker began in 1964 when he signed on as an official Mazda factory racer — while still racing motorcycles!
His Mazda debut was a humble one, competing in the 1964 Japan Grand Prix in a Carol. By the late 60s, though, he was racing cars full time. Notably, Katayama was instrumental in Mazda’s on-track development of the rotary engine. When Mazda fielded a pair of Cosmo Sports at its first international motorsports exhibition of the rotary at the 1968 Marathon de la Route (aka 84 Hours of Nürburgring), Katayama was behind the wheel. When Mazda returned the following year with the Familia Rotary R100s, he returned as well.
Katayama drove for Mazda in Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia and North America, but back at home he was a fierce pilot in Japan’s touring car races. Starting with the Familia Rotary R100 and then Capella Rotary RX-2, Katayama helped hone Mazda’s newly developed rotary engine. Later, he was essential to the development of what would become Mazda’s most formidable track weapon, the racing Savanna RX-3.
For the Japanese, Katayama will always be most famous for being the man who defeated the seemingly undefeatable. In the pre-oil embargo golden age of Japanese motorsports, Nissan’s hakosuka Skyline GT-R dominated domestic touring car championships. A heated rivalry was building up between underdog Mazda and juggernaut Nissan. Finally, it was at the 1972 Fuji Masters 250 that Katayama drove his Savanna RX-3 to victory, blocking the Skyline from its highly anticipated 50th win.
However, his most famous car in Japan was perhaps his green-on-yellow 1975 championship Savanna RX-3. In fact, after the car’s debut, its massive bubble flares with which it was equipped became known as “Katayama flares.”
The other genre of motorsports Katayama became famous for was endurance racing. He, along with Takashi Torino (his half-brother, with whom he was called the “Rotary Brothers”) and Yojiro Terada drove the newly launched RX-7 to its class victory at its racing debut at the 1979 24 Hours of Daytona.
Across the pond, Katayama also drove Mazda’s first full-on Le Mans prototype, the 717C, in 1983. From there, Mazda fully embraced the Le Mans challenge and clinched a class win at Sarthe in 1984 with Katayama at the wheel (co-driving with John Morton) of a 13B-powered Lola T616.
From that point on, he drove every model of the Mazda’s Le Mans prototype up through the 787. Though Katayama retired from Le Mans after the 1990 season, the 787B’s victory the following year would not have been possible without his development work and experience.
To cover all of Katayama’s racing exploits — an RX-7 at Bathurst in 1983, a R100 at 24 Hours of Spa in 1969, and various contests spanning five continents — would require a book. His impact on Mazda, racing, and Japanese car culture runs deep. Though his legacy and legend will live on, Katayama-san’s passing is a heartbreaking loss to the automotive world and the JNC community. He will be missed.