Don Emde
Page updated 24-Mar-2020

Don Emde on the Gus Kuhn Norton at Brands Hatch.
Photos from the Gus Kuhn archive

Don Emde, the American, came from a racing family. He won Daytona in 1972, and in the same year he rode a Gus Kuhn Norton in the American Team of the Transatlantic Races. This gave the GK team a unique opportunity to meet the American team, and what a charming bunch of gents they were.

The picture on the right shows Art Baumann (left) and Don Emde (right) with Vincent Davey (centre) when some of the American team visited the Gus Kuhn showroom.

Don remembers: "Gavin Trippe said the promoter in England didn't want anyone on 350s. They were trying to get the Formula 750 concept going in Europe and they wanted everyone on 750s. Gavin contacted a Norton dealer in London named Gus Kuhn Motors and the head guy Vincent Davey agreed to provide a Seeley Norton 750 if I would ride it. I wanted to go back (having ridden in the BSA/Triumph Transatlantic Trophy races the previous year), so I agreed. Once we all arrived in England, the Gus Kuhn guys took me under their wing and I spent my whole trip with them. We all had things to do about the bikes on a day to day, and in some cases, night to night basis and I was busy all the time.

The 1972 Seeley Norton I rode was fantastic, but they also had an older model that was not as much fun to ride. Every time the new bike would die, they would drag out the old one and I was probably one to two seconds a lap slower on it. It was the electrics that killed us in that series, not even Lucas stuff! They had some trick (at the time) electronic ignition and a battery system that would put burn out soon, and often.

Don Emde on the Gus Kuhn Norton in 1972

"By the end of the first day of practice at Brands Hatch, Vincent Davey told me I cut a faster lap around Brands than any rider they ever had ride their bikes. It really worked well and only in my mind can I enjoy now what may have been. I don't know how I would have measured with the Rayborn-Pickrell battles, but I know I could have been close. In the first race at Brands, I think I got sixth. In race two at Brands, we went off the line and Cal, Pickrell and Phil Read (John Player Norton) were all lined up tight in line going into the first right hander. I went in 4th and took an outside line around Read and then when we banked left to come down the hill I had the inside on him and took 3rd. I stayed right with Cal and Ray all the way across the finish line of the first lap, into turn one and again down the hill and then, in a split second the motor died out. No sputter, nothing. it just died.

At Mallory Park, I set the fastest lap in practice, then the battery died right on the line before the start of the first race, and they quickly dragged out the older bike for me to ride, but it wasn't as competitive. In the second race I was going back and forth, dicing for position with Phil Read on the JP Norton. When I got off the bike, his wife Madeline was right there telling me 'YOU were cutting my husband off.' well, where we come from if you are in the lead you take your line. and then I crashed at Oulton Park. GRRRRRR! That's what my Match Races was like.

Cal Rayborn. almost nobody goes somewhere for the 1st time and does something like that, he used to ride the highways out near Tecate, riding fast on curvy up and down roads that he didn't know, he learned to adapt. (An understatement to be sure, as Don's friend Rayborn tied Pickrell for individual honors on the older iron barrel Harley-Davidson.)

I also rode that bike at the Imola 200 a month later and gremlins messed me up there too. After chasing Agostini around in practice I felt ready to do well at Imola, then the carburetors got an air bubble about ten seconds before the start of the race and I lost about seven laps getting going. Dang it." []

By Don Emde

In the early 1970’s a new class of international motorcycle roadracing was created: Formula 750. The concept was based a lot on the AMA’s rule system that called for race bikes up to 750cc that could be highly modified, yet still based on a model built in quantity.

Even though the class would eventually stray from the original concept (when the TZ750 Yamahas took over), in many ways, it was the beginning of today's Superbike class of racing. The early fields were filled by production-based BSAs, Ducatis, Nortons, Triumphs, Hondas, Suzukis and, yes, Yamahas.

The first major Formula 750 race to run in Europe was a 200-mile roadrace held at Imola, Italy in April of 1972. As it turned out, I was the only American-born rider to race in that event and the following are a few of the memories I have about it:

The worldwide attention that the Anglo-American Match Races (later called Trans-Atlantic Match Races) generated in 1971 caused a number of things to happen in 1972. First, the AMA got together with the FIM and the Daytona 200 was to be run under the new “Formula 750” rules. In Europe, race promoters began to look at Formula 750 as a new class to build on, separate from the Grand Prix schedule.

Prior to arriving at Daytona that year, I was contacted by the promoters of the upcoming Trans-Atlantic Match Race Series in England. I had been part of the U.S. team in the inaugural 1971 series and they wanted me to come back again, but on one condition. They said, “We want you to ride a 750cc machine. The fans want to see riders on the big 750's, not a little 350 Yamaha.”

This was a bit of a problem for me, since I was teamed up for 1972 with a 350cc Yamaha TR3, owned and tuned by a Yamaha dealer from Bakersfield, California named Mel Dinesen. Luckily, we were sponsored by the publication Motor Cycle Weekly, a fairly new publication being produced in Southern California by two transplanted Brits, Bruce Cox and Gavin Trippe. The two still had good connections in England and were able to line me up with Gus Kuhn Norton (a dealer in London) to ride one of their 750cc Seeley Norton Commandos in the Match Races. Problem solved for England.

The story now shifts to the 1972 Daytona 200. The first I heard of the race at Imola was as I was exiting Victory Lane (which I won on my “little 350 Yamaha”). Mr. Carlo Galavotti approached me and said he would like to speak to me about inviting me to come to their new race. He said basically that as the winner of the Daytona 200 they were prepared to do whatever was necessary to get me there. For the second time, though, I heard those words: “We want you there, you just can't ride your Yamaha.” He said he was aware that I was lined up with Gus Kuhn for the Match Races and maybe I could ride that bike?

It seemed that in just a few minutes, we had a deal put together. Pending confirmation from the guys at Gus Kuhn, I would be going to Italy in April. As soon as I got back home, I contacted Vincent Davey of Gus Kuhn Motors and his response was an enthusiastic “yes, let's do it!” So the deal was on.

The month of April was quite busy for me. Following Daytona I was off to England to ride in the Match Races. That series didn't go real well for me. While the bike was pretty competitive against Cal Rayborn's Harley and the British BSAs and John Player Nortons, we had a lot of trouble with electrical failures throughout the series and I crashed the bike once.

I then went home to ride the Road Atlanta AMA National on my Yamaha and then it was back overseas to Imola. Instead of just flying to Italy, however, Davey invited me to come to England and drive down there with him and his crew. I am really glad I did that, as we had a great time on the road and seeing some great sights in Germany, Austria and then down into Italy.

I recall that when we finally pulled into the pits at the Imola racecourse, Vincent Davey parked near the John Player Norton team. Even though he had a privateer effort going, he seemed to have a close relationship with them and I knew the riders: Phil Read, Peter Williams and Tony Rutter from the Match Races. There weren't a lot of English speaking people there, so it was nice to be around people we knew.

I guess you can't talk about the 1972 races at Imola without mentioning the big Ducati effort. I can honestly say that I did not hear the word Ducati mentioned until their big double-deck race hauler pulled in to the pits. My immediate impression was: “what's that all about?” Until that weekend, my only experiences with Ducatis were from the old AFM club racing days on the west coast, beating a few guys on Ducati 175s with a 100cc Hodaka that I used to ride for Mel Dinesen.

When Ducati pulled in, it got everyone's attention, but for me the people that I felt I would need to beat were the guys on the John Player Nortons, plus some of my old Triumph/BSA buddies from the Match Races. Guys like Ray Pickrell, John Cooper, Tony Jefferies, Percy Tait and a few others. I also knew that Giacomo Agostini was entered on a 750cc MV Agusta and expected him to run good. People were telling me that the Formula 750 class was a big thing and that MV had put a big effort into getting one of their new 750s ready for this event.

The next day was the practice day. I got out onto the racetrack and really started to enjoy myself. The year I rode there was before they put in any of the chicanes and the course was really great to ride on. With the exception of one hairpin at the back end of the track, you really kept a lot of momentum going all the way around the rest of the track. My Norton was really working well and by the end of the day I was feeling very good about my lines and putting in some pretty good laps.

In one of the last sessions, I was heading up towards the start-finish line and I noticed a rider coming out of the pits onto the track. I soon recognized the helmet and knew that it was Mr. Agostini himself! He had about 50-75 yards on me as we got into the fast Turn One bend. He then got up to speed and we headed around the course.

This was obviously a much bigger moment for me than it was for him, but he was keeping an eye on me for the two or three laps we ran together. I was able to inch up on him while he was out there and was within just about a few bike lengths when, as we completed a lap, he suddenly pulled into the pits. My dice with the “Champ” was over but, as things turned out, it was the highlight of the trip for me.

The way they handled qualifying at Imola was that all of our practice sessions were timed. I believe I was logged in around 12th fastest. Ahead of me was Agostini, plus the Ducatis of Paul Smart and Bruno Spiggiari, the British contingent and a few others. Twelfth wasn't anything to be proud of, but the times were all pretty close and I think I was on the third row for the start.

Come race day, there was one change to deal with. It was raining in the morning. It wasn't a pouring rain, just light drizzle, but enough to have to refigure what to do. What would the best tire be for 200 miles if it were raining all the way? Or, what if it stopped? This was before the days of quick-change wheels, so a tire change would result in a long stop if needed, so we had to make the right call. I think my crew decided against chancing it and went with a hard tire that they knew would go the distance wet or dry.

Something that I still remember well was that just prior to our race, the promoters had a parade lap for old bikes and riders of days gone by. I remember seeing Luigi Taveri on a little 50cc Grand Prix Honda he used to ride. There were plenty of others too, but then the big moment was the appearance of one of the original Moto Guzzi V-8 Gran Prix bikes from the 50's. The sound of that bike gave me goose bumps as the pilot revved up through the gears.

Finally, it was time to race. Somehow there was a bit of a mix up about how to start the race. There was some discussion at the rider's meeting about the way they start races in America, with the 5 minute boards and the count down from there. What we did not know when they told us that was that we would first be sent out around the track, and they would not start the 5 minute countdown until we got back to the starting line. This is what happened and then we just sat there for five minutes in our starting positions.

Just as the countdown was getting to the final seconds, my Norton had had enough. It felt like it just ran out of gas, which, essentially was what happened. The Amal GP carbs on the Commando motor basically boiled out the gas and developed an air bubble. The engine then quit just as the flag fell! I think I got a hand in the air, I don't remember exactly, but lucky for me no one ran into me. I remember thinking about a crash at a race I was in at Talladega in 1970 when Ron Grant's Suzuki X-6 stalled on the line and another rider hit him. Lucky for me everyone got by me without any incident.
After the pack went buzzing by, we got my bike off the track and over into the pits. It was really frustrating to be so ready to go for a long 200-mile race and not even get off the line. I lost about seven laps in the pits before the Gus Kuhn mechanics were able to get the engine to fire. They, of course, did not have the luxury of knowing what my problem was, and since we had so many electrical problems at the Match Races, the things they checked initially were the spark plugs, the battery, the ignition system etc., things like that.

As I stood there for what seemed like an eternity, I began to think that maybe I should just pack it in. After all, now being down seven or so laps, what could I accomplish anyway? The thing that made me stay with it though was the fact that the promoters had spent a lot of money to get me and the Gus Kuhn people to the race. I knew that even if I wasn't in the hunt, there were people out around the track that had heard that I was going to be there, and I felt obligated to at least make my appearance for their sake.

So, out I went, down seven or eight laps, but finally in the race. I recall that as I pulled out of the pits and into the race, I saw Agostini off his bike on the outside of Turn One. His MV had already broken and he was out. I wasn't going to get a second chance to dice with him again.

Nothing too exciting happened to me the rest of the way. I just tried to get up to speed and to be consistent. When the day was done, I was still running and got credited with a 19th place finish.

One thing that I recall was that on the cool down lap, the fans started hoping over the fences and were out on the track. It reminds me of what they had to deal with just last year at a couple of roadraces in Europe. For about the last mile or so, there was just a narrow passage left on the track to proceed to the pits. Someone mentioned that it was a good thing I didn't stop, because you couldn't be certain what the fans may have wanted for a souvenir. Me and the whole bike could have disappeared from what I was told.

Afterwards, I talked with Mr. Galavotti and he was very appreciative of my decision to race, when a high finish was obviously out the window. He mentioned that a number of the big stars who were there would have just headed for their trailers had they suffered my misfortune. I felt good about that.

It wasn't until after I was back to our paddock that someone mentioned that the Ducatis of Smart and Spiggiari finished 1-2. I don't recall ever seeing them out on the track, so this was all news to me.

Later, I went to where the riders were being paid. I don't remember how much I got with my start and prize money, but I remember adding it all up and for the first (and only) time in my life I was a millionaire. The trouble was, you had to count it in Italian Lira – not dollars. Oh well.

All in all, even with my trouble on the line and losing all those laps, being a part of that first 200-miler at Imola remains a highlight of my racing career. I got to see some parts of the world that I have not been back to since, dice with Giacomo Agostini for a few laps, and be a part of the lore of the big win at Imola by Paul Smart on the Ducati.

It's funny how something that seemed so routine at the time can be so interesting all these years later.

Daytona winner on start line mishap

by Daytona 200 winner Don Emde:

I rode in the first Imola 200 in 1972 and there was some mix-up with the Italian organizers of that race where they were first sent the field out around the track for the warm-up lap, but the five minute board did not go up until we got back to the starting line. That meant that the entire field had to sit there revving our engines for five minutes.
I was aboard a Gus Kuhn Norton 750 with Amal GP carbs and just as the flag fell, the carbs boiled all the fuel out and the motor quit. Like Scott Russell, I was sitting there with the field starting to blow by very fast. Not don't get me wrong here. I don't want to anyone to think I really knew what to do at this point, just some instincts take over I guess, and luckily I was able to get a hand up and I stayed pointing forward. In a few seconds the entire field had motored past and we then got my bike over to the pit wall to fix the problem.

Recalling my experience, the following points occurred to me that I would like other riders to consider:

  1. While the odds of you getting hit if you stall on the line are huge at that point no matter what you do, you can lessen the odds if you can give the riders behind you something visual to warn them you are there, and a hand or hands waving is about all you have to work with. You need something that will stick out higher than the bikes and riders.
  2. When I saw a television replay of a rider (Scott Russell) trying to pedal over to the right, I realized that he was actually making himself a wider target to hit. When I had my Norton straight in line I was only taking up, what, maybe three feet? With his bike pointed towards the sideline, that distance might have doubled.
  3. With the bike pointed straight forward, if you do get hit from the back, there is a reasonable chance that your rear tire and frame section might absorb some of the impact rather than the direct shot that rider took to his arm and leg. A collision in this position still presents some potential for injury as you would probably get thrown off the back of the bike, but I am theorizing that it would be the lesser of two evils.

I hope this is useful to any reader that might get into a similar situation. Racers are supposed to be fearless, but I can assure everyone, it's a pretty terrifying moment and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I know Scott Russell is pretty banged up and I wish him well. From someone that knows how hard it is to win Daytona once, I have great respect for what he has accomplished at Daytona and in his other racing activities. This was originally posted on

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