It’s not often that race mechanics can be hand selected and set off on a career path that has them working for different riders all over the world. Racing in a different city each weekend, several different countries per year and living constantly on the go. Welcome to the life of Tsuyoshi Watanabe. The last couple of years have seen the man they call ‘Nabe’ jam a lot in his life. In fact, the last six months has seen the energetic and super enthusiastic motorcycle mechanic work in the US, New Zealand and now in Australia. He is a busy man who loves his job and wouldn’t have it any other way.
At 40 years old, he is a seasoned veteran of racing having experienced it from all parts of the world. He has worked for factory Yamaha riders in Japan, Gas Gas in world off road, struggling privateers in the US and just came off a sensational win in New Zealand where he worked with Josh Coppins and the JCR Yamaha team as head mechanic and on the tools of the MX2 champ, Maximus Purvis.
But for the remainder of the 2020 season, give or take a global pandemic, Nabe is in Australia working with Kota Toriyabe. For an aspiring mechanic, Nabe has some amazing experiences and has worked with some talented riders and teams. Just like a rider, he had a goal to improve his craft and it didn’t matter where he applied it, it can be at Angel Stadium for round one of the AMA SX, or pit boarding at a bush track in South East Queensland.
Sitting down with the likeable Nabe often ends up and a campfire style chat about racing, riders and working around the world.
How did you first become a mechanic and who was the first rider / team you worked for?
This is a very long story. I started work in a motorcycle shop in Japan after I finished school as an apprentice mechanic. I had just finished my apprenticeship and I had a friend who raced Enduro in Japan but wanted to race the ISDE in Europe, so I went over there with him and it was exciting for me to see the racing and how good it was.
Not long later, I got an opportunity to go back to Europe and work for the Gas Gas Racing team in the world Enduro championships and I stayed there for about three years – from 1998 to 2001. I then returned back to Japan and was working for Suzuki when they started developing the RMZ450. I was part of the product development and assisted with parts and also worked with the Suzuki satellite teams on weekends.
In 2005, I worked with HRC in Japan and my rider won the championship then went on to work with Kawasaki from 2008 to 2011 where we also won some championships.
In 2012, I stated working at Factory Yamaha in their racing department. Part of their strategy was to send riders to New Zealand to work with Josh Coppins to help them become better so that’s how I met Josh. I worked at Yamaha for several seasons before going to the US with privateer rider, then back to New Zealand with Josh and now here in Australia with Yamalube Yamaha team.
Is there any country or championship in the world you would like to experience?
It doesn’t really bother me where I go. I would love to work for a major factory team in the AMA or the MXGP as I have yet to experience this.
Working at all those teams, you must have seen some exotic bikes during your time, does any one of them stand out to you?
The bikes at factory HRC, Kawasaki and Yamaha all had many special parts on them and a lot different from what was on the production bike at the time. Maybe the best bike that was so much different was the Yamaha YZ450F in 2015 as many of the parts and development we did at that time were introduced to the production bike in the future. The bike we were racing was also used in testing a lot of parts and those parts, while they might not have been exactly the same, they were the basis for the development of the bike and what came on the production bike in the years to follow.
So, how does a factory team like you have worked for in Japan differ from what you have experienced elsewhere?
In Japan, everything is very structured and systematic as there are so many people involved. You are racing, but also testing, so there are many different departments who need to be aware of exactly what is happening with the bike and what direction things are going.
The other teams I have worked for a purely race teams, so their testing is to satisfy the rider and get the results. None of it has anything to do with future product planning or testing so they can use the parts or products needed to suit rider or team sponsors.
How many weeks of the year are you at home in Japan?
For the last couple of years, I have been in Japan for about two months of the year. I love what I do, and I get to experience so many new places and new people. It’s not a normal job but I like seeing riders do well and being able to help them with the bike and their riding.
Who has been the best team or rider you have worked with?
JCR. Josh doesn’t have the budget that a big race team would in the US or Europe, but he and his wife Amy are very well organised and there are great people in his team. I like racing in New Zealand and this year when we won both 250 and 450 championships, it was very satisfying.
As far as a rider, I have no favourites, they are all my friends now and liked working with every one of them. Working with Maximus in New Zealand was maybe the hardest because my English not so good and he speaks no Japanese.
How have you found things in Australia so far?
Everything has been good and Yamaha Australia are really looking after Kota and myself. We haven’t been able to race yet, but the bike is good, and the team have been very helpful in getting everything we need.
There are some fast local riders, so Kota has been able to see what they do and its been a good learning curve for him. He is here to improve and become a better rider and I think when he returns to Japan at the end of the season, he will have benefitted greatly from riding and training in Australia.