Patrick “Pat” Hennen on his 500 cc four-cylinder two-stroke Suzuki was the first Grand Prix winner from the USA in the premier class. Sonnyboy, who was born in Phoenix, Arizona and grew up in California, started his career like so many in the USA in dirt track racing. On April 7, 2024, Pat passed away at the age of 70.

On the death of the former US pilot and Suzuki Grand Prix star

When Pat came to Europe in 1976, he accepted the offer of his mentor at the time to take part in Grand Prix racing for the first time. It was not an easy undertaking to fight for the world championship on a private Suzuki as a competitor to Barry Sheene with his now sophisticated 500cc Square-Four factory machine. This was anything but an easy task, especially as a rookie with no knowledge of the route. The many private Suzukis were almost on a par with the factory machine. This meant that numerous private pilots such as Teuvo Länsivuori, Marco Lucchinelli, John Newbold and Phil Read, to name just a few of them, were almost on a par with factory pilot Sheene. The US boy, who was only 23 at the time, learned quickly and made his first podium finish in the fifth lap of the Dutch GP in Assen. But his career as a racing driver was ended far too early by a very tragic accident

Pat Hennen as he was known and appreciated in the paddock – the American was the first of many young talents who left their mark on the motorcycle world championship in the two-stroke era.

The golden handle for Pat in the mid-1970s

After proving to be a talent in the regional dirt track scene at the age of 15, Hennen, who grew up in the San Francisco region, switched to road racing at the age of 20. There he initially rode a 250 cc Suzuki built by his brothers David and Chip. A little later he came under the thumb of Suzuki factory rider Ronald “Ron” Grant, who helped him set up and prepare his machines. The Englishman, who was born in London, also used his initials to give the Suzuki racing machines their name, which Hennen would later drive as a works pilot. The Suzuki RG 500 in particular, with its square four-cylinder engine, was responsible for the breakthrough of the two-stroke engine from the mid-1970s against the previously dominant four-stroke engine from MV Agusta. By the way, in 1964 Ron Grant was the first (now naturalized) American to achieve a podium finish in a motorcycle world championship race. This was 2nd place in the 250cc class on a Moto Parilla (a former Italian manufacturer from Milan) at his “home race” in Daytona.

Many of the later motorcycle Grand Prix winners got their first polish at the dirt track races, which are very popular in the USA. In 1978, in the wake of Pat Hennen, a short man named Kenny Roberts from California was supposed to “come across the pond” to scare the crap out of the competition on his factory Yamaha.

Pat’s career developed rapidly

After his retirement, Grant mentored Pat and later Randy Mamola. He later returned to England, where he served as team manager for Honda and Suzuki and died in a boating accident in Northern Ireland in 1994. It was also he who guided Pat as a mentor into the larger categories up to 500 and 750 cm³ and built a Suzuki with Rickman chassis especially for his protégé. This meant that the young Hennen got used to the high-displacement two-stroke engines early on. His final breakthrough came in 1974, at the age of just 21, when he won the so-called junior category at the famous Daytona International Speedway on a Yamaha TZ-700 provided by Grant. Further victories followed at the Loudon Classic, Laguna Seca and Talladega, with Pat winning the AMA title that year and becoming US champion in this category. Perhaps the most important race of the year was still ahead of him and it would have a lasting impact on his career.

Kenny Roberts on his Yamaha – the Californian was Hennen’s competitor in the 250cc race in 1976 and after a duel between the two that lasted many laps, he kept his nose in the lead in the end. Despite finishing second, Pat was very satisfied in the interview and respectfully called Kenny a true poet on two wheels.

A guest appearance in New Zealand brought the Christmas present

This was followed over the festive season in the same year of his first US title by a short guest appearance at the New Zealand Marlboro Series, in which Hennen drove his opponents to despair on an inferior Suzuki TR-500. He caught the attention of Rod Colemann, the Suzuki importer from this country on the other side of the world. The former Grand Prix pilot and winner of the Isle of Man Junior Race (see also our reports on the early GP years on this page) wrote to Japan in 1954. He recommended the young talent highly and suggested giving Hennen a contract for the US Championship. He was heard and the US boy’s career as a works driver was launched. As a replacement for multiple AMA champion Gary Nixon, who was injured during test drives for Suzuki, he also took part in the world-famous Daytona 200 race in 1975. However, a technical problem ended his race prematurely. However, he won the New Zealand Marlboro Series three times in a row from 1975 and in 1976 he impressed with third place in the Daytona 200 behind Johnny Cecotto and Gary Nixon (new to Kawasaki). At the same time, Pat’s highly respected Grand Prix career began this season.

Pat Hennen with the number 23 in front of Mike Baldwin (20), Mick Grant (hidden behind the 20), Dave Aldana (16), Roger Marshal (1) and Dave Potter (hidden at the back). In the so-called Match Races of 1978, a kind of international competition between the USA and Great Britain, Pat Hennen was the clear winner with 92 points, ahead of a certain Kenny Roberts (Senior) with 74 points.

The background to Hennen’s move to Grand Prix racing

The 500 cm³ Suzuki factory team, newly founded for the 1974 season, initially consisted of the pilots Barry Sheene and Jack Findlay. The former got off to a furious start to the season when he finished third in the first lap behind MV ace Phil Read and ahead of his factory team colleague Gianfranco Bonera. However, there was still a lack of stability at the beginning and Barry only finished sixth in the World Championship at the end of the year, directly behind his teammate. Things weren’t any better the following year, but his RG 500 had now matured into a real rocket. Sheene won the Dutch Grand Prix in Assen and Anderstorp in Sweden with only two finishes compared to three last year. Suzuki then launched a small series of so-called production racers of Barry Sheene’s victorious Square-Four RG 500 for the 1976 season in order to sell them to interested teams and private pilots. The Suzuki factory team, which was no longer official, now consisted of Barry Sheene and John Newbold, as well as John Williams. This was a project supported by the English importer Heron.

Barry Sheene with the famous number 7 on his Suzuki – the English crowd favorite was on the verge of his final breakthrough at the beginning of the 1976 season, while Pat Hennen had to overcome an incomparably difficult debut in the premier class of motorcycle Grand Prix sports in the same year.

Pat’s short Grand Prix career began in 1976 as a private driver

Inspired by Hennen’s successes, his mentor Coleman decided to purchase an RG 500 for Hennen in order to enter the 500cc GP season as a private rider. However, Pat’s budget was very modest and together with his brother Chip as mechanic and man for everything, the two of them then traveled across Europe, where in 1976 they drove without exception for the first time. Of the actual 12 rounds, the premier class was only advertised for 10, which means that the former Yugoslavia with Opatija and the Montjuic Park in Barcelona were not on the Hennen brothers’ travel program. According to the regulations at the time, only the three best results of the two halves of the season with five Grand Prix each were counted. While Suzuki factory driver Sheene got off to a furious start to the season and won the first 3 races, Pat remained without points at Le Mans and the Salzburgring before his first countable result in Mugello with fifth place behind Sheene, Read, Virginio Ferrari and Länsivuori (all Suzuki). succeeded. Like many other professionals, he had voluntarily given up on the most dangerous of all World Championship courses and had not even traveled to the Isle of Man for the fourth round that followed.

Pat Hennen had a lot to thank the Finnish Teuvo “Tepi” Länsivuori for in his first European season. Such a friendship between pilots, as was common back then, has become completely unthinkable decades later. If you consider that the safety precautions on many tracks at the time were extremely poor and that drivers risked their lives in every race, this perhaps becomes a little more understandable.

The breakthrough in Assen and the historic first Grand Prix victory

The first podium followed in the Netherlands with second place behind Sheene. Only the third time in the points was in round 6 in Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, with an eighth place. After a third zero at the 7th round in Sweden, the redeeming first Grand Prix victory came in Länsivuori’s home country of Finland. Barry Sheene had given up this race, just like the TT, which he felt was too dangerous. This decision was easy for the audience idol at the time, as he had already been confirmed as the new 500cc world champion ahead of time. Nevertheless, the path to Hennen’s first triumph in Imatra was anything but easy. Many were surprised that he didn’t receive Sheene’s factory machine for the Finnish GP. Perhaps this really spurred Sonnyboy on, in any case he was the first American to win in the premier class and thus went down in racing history. Incidentally, his friend Tepi came second behind Pat, ahead of the Swiss Philippe Coulon (all Suzuki), Karl Auer and Max Wiener (both Austria/Yamaha).

The usual sliding start at the time with the left in the picture and the number 3 Pat Hennen, world champion Barry Sheene, as in the years that followed, has the legendary number 7 on his Suzuki. The Englishman died of cancer on March 10, 2003 in Australia and was the most popular two-wheel racing driver of his time.

Impressive first World Championship season as a privateer

In Brno (Czech Republic), Pat Hennen remained without points for the fifth time in his rookie season, while third place followed at the finale in Germany at the Nürburgring-Nordschleife, which resulted in third place in the World Championship behind Sheene and Länsivuori. Three podium places and two top ten results were enough and the Hennen brothers’ adventure ultimately paid off. At the start of the season, the Hennen brothers were laughed at by many as GP newcomers, but they were not impressed and patiently gained their first experiences on the completely unknown new courses. Hennen had become friends early on with his Suzuki privateer opponent and at the same time his colleague “Tepi” Länsivuori, who gave him valuable tips, such as how to set up the gearbox for the various race tracks. The Länsivuori team manager also supported Pat in obtaining registrations for the events.

Pat Hennen (Suzuki RG500) ahead of his compatriot Steve Baker on the Yamaha YZR500 with a 4-cylinder in-line engine. The glasses wearer from Bellingham, who was a year older than him, was, along with Barry Sheene, his toughest challenge in the 1977 season and would ultimately win runner-up in the World Championship, well ahead of Pat.

The support from the factory team did not suit everyone

The Hennen brothers received valuable spare parts and support from the manager of the England-based Suzuki factory Grand Prix team, Merv Wright. This was supposedly much to the displeasure of Suzuki’s top driver Barry Sheene, who already knew about Pat’s driving qualities before the start of the 1976 season. The Suzuki figurehead may also have been the trigger for the decision not to let him use the factory machine at his first GP in Finland. But the Englishman had to swallow the bitter pill at the end of the 1976 season that Hennen became his teammate at Heron-Suzuki for the following year. Like many other pilots in the 500cc World Championship, the American took part in the Grand Prix as well as the still young Formula 750 series. He rode the same TR750 Suzuki with which he impressed with third place at Daytona on March 7, 1976, before the start of the Grand Prix season. Together with Patrick Pons (Yamaha, France, overall winner two years later), he ended 1976 in 8th place after eight rounds. All of these successes were the springboard for Texaco Heron Suzuki, the successor team to the Suzuki factory team.

Pat Hennen on his Suzuki doing a wheelie out of a curve – his first World Championship season as a private rider may have motivated some of his compatriots from the United States to take the step “across the pond” into motorcycle Grand Prix racing. In the following year of his rookie season, he again came third in the premier class in 1977, while Sheene defended his title.

Sensationally good start to the third season

The year 1978 began sensationally for Pat when he won three races in the so-called Transatlantic Match Races and took overall victory with two second and one third place. Once again, Sheene had to struggle with being so overshadowed by his brand colleague. Barry even went so far as to complain after the races about the American’s allegedly dangerous driving style, so bitterly had they dueled. The psychological games he practiced on the sidelines during conversations with journalists were later strongly reminiscent of his successor as MotoGP icon, Valentino Rossi. But this bounced off Hennen, who remained calm and gave his answer on the race track. Last year, the US boy had already handed Sheene and his compatriots a painful defeat at the end of the season. 1977 was the first year in which the British Grand Prix was no longer held on the Isle of Man. For the many Brits and especially pole sitter Barry Sheene, it was of course a disgrace that an American won at this premiere.

The Dutchman Wil Hartog, often called the white giant because of his size, with Suzuki brand colleague Barry Sheene. These two dueled very often and the Englishman was usually in the lead. But “Hot-Dog,” as some sometimes jokingly called him, finished fourth in the World Championships twice (1978 and 1979) and even won his home race in 1977, ahead of the Englishman.

A catastrophic accident led to an untimely end

The next season was actually supposed to be his, as Pat started brilliantly with a second place in Venezuela behind Heron-Suzuki colleague Barry Sheene and won in Jarama (Spain) ahead of rookie and Yamaha factory pilot Kenny Roberts (sr.) and the Japanese Takazumi Katayama ( Yamaha). His compatriot Roberts won the next three races, while Hennen dropped out in Salzburg, but then came second twice. Only 6 points behind championship leader and newcomer Kenny Roberts with 57 points, Hennen was in second place before he made what was probably the most fatal wrong decision of his life. After skipping the Grand Prix round on the Isle of Man in 1976, Hennen decided to take part in the Tourist Trophy, which was not part of the World Cup for the second time, two years later. If he had finished the race, he would certainly have become the next TT hero after the first lap in under 20 minutes and thus a new absolute lap record by breaking this sound barrier. But fate had it differently and, according to unsubstantiated claims, he collided with a bird at an estimated speed of over 270 km/h and therefore fell at Bishopscourt. With severe head injuries, an endless period of rehabilitation began.

After his announcement that he would immediately win the world championship title with Yamaha as a factory rider in 1978, the young Kenny Roberts in his famous Yamaha USA outfit was initially considered a loudmouth in the style of Muhamad Ali in his early years. However, after his first 5 races in the premier class, the short Californian from Modesto had shut up his critics.

The long years of recovery

The UK-based Texaco Heron Suzuki semi-factory team had wanted one of its top riders to take part in the event, which is why Hennen had been invited to do so. With Sheene they always bit the granite, as he avoided this course on the two-stroke rocket as long as he could afford it. For his rival from the USA, his career ended prematurely at the age of just 25. Hennen’s injuries turned out to be very serious and he only recovered very slowly from his brain damage. As a result, he suffered from impaired speech and memory. However, physical mobility came back. Things gradually improved, and Pat was ultimately able to lead a relatively normal life in the San Francisco Bay. After a few years he was able to get a job again at a local manufacturer of racing go-karts and later worked for United Airlines, carrying out maintenance work on jet engines. Hennen also worked as a technician for an American motorcycle parts dealer. He was 70 years old and died in early April 2024, just 20 days before his seventy-first birthday.

How it all began in his homeland – the young Pat Hennen as a dirt track pilot on a 750 cm³ three-cylinder Suzuki, based on the production model GT-750, also called the water buffalo (© AMA).

Unless otherwise stated, this applies to all images (© MotoGP).