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.
Images: tomies’bar, rinyujin-BEAT, Recharge, Katayama Racing
What a shame, one of the true greats. You say you require a book, there must be one? Does any one know if katayama has a book with a detailed history? I would love to have it if its available. Man he is a bit of a hero.
Great man. Rip.
RIP the great champion of Mazda and the rotary engine.
Gentlemen like Mr. Katayama, in no small part, can take credit for bringing Japan front and center stage in the modern, industrial world. It’s one thing to have technology and innovation. It’s another to capture the hearts of people across another ocean through racing.
RIP little giant killer the 6 speed gearbox did confuse you though, a legend of the sport
In 1969 and 1970 the Mazda racing team came to Spa-francorchamps 2 weeks before the 24h race with the Mazda R100 and all the team prepared the race in my parent’s garage which were a Mazda dealer, just 50 meters before “La Source Curve” on the Spa track. The place is now a petrol station and a workhop for racing cars.
Yoshimi Katayama and Toshinoi Takechi drove the red and white Nr 31 R100 coupé and both drivers were terribly fast and held the race for some hours.
I can’t forget Mr Katayama and the Mazda team. They “took” me in their team for the 24 h. race as interpretory, because I could speak english, which helped them.
I got as a present an orange Mazda jacket and the wonderful white Mazda racing jacket from Katayama. The japanese drivers (Katayama, Takechi and Katakura) were much faster at Spa than the other drivers, who considered them as “crazy rockets” on the very fast Spa track.
Katayama and his R100 got he fastest lap time of the race in 1970.
I’d like to offer my condolences to Yoshimi’s family and to the Mazda racing team. an I’ll try to find some pictures of that time, but I don’t know whom to send them. Rest in peace, Yoshimi.
Yoshimi Katayama will forever stay in my mind as a fantastic and fast driver, and I am very sorry that he has left us. Never will I forget how fast he was along with his team mates in the rain at the 24 Hours of Francorchamps in 1970, with that difficult to drive small Mazda R100 with rotary engine!
Never will I forget how he stayed ahead of the big car brands, with the Mazda R100!
After seeing this long distance race in Francorchamps where the Mazda R100 surprised everyone with his performance, because I was young I was convinced, I want to work for this Mazda brand.
Because my parents run a garage with petrol station, I contacted the importer of Mazda, and a few months later I sold the first Mazda’s in my garage.
And today after almost 50 years, and thousands of mazdas sold, my garage is a company with many employees,
Yoshimi Katayama you are forever in my mind, rest in peace!
Mr. Serge Nicolet, I would like to contact you, my e-mail address is:
lemmens.frans @skynet .be