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Call him what you will, but the late French-Canadian was one of the most fearless racers of the 1970s.

Wildman’, ‘crazy’, and ‘crasher’ were some of the descriptions thrown at Yvon Duhamel during his rough and tumble career. Born in Montreal in 1939, Duhamel’s love affair with two wheels started aged 13 when he opened a small backyard bicycle shop.

His first taste of competition came with ice racing when he was 17. He took up dirt-tracking in 1959, kicking off his reputation as a real hard-charger. By the mid-1960s he had turned his hand to road racing at Loudon, New Hampshire. Duhamel debuted at Daytona in 1967 on a Fred Deeley Yamaha 250. A quick learner, he won the Lightweight race at the Florida tri-oval in 1968 and again in 1969.

Riding a Yamaha 350, Duhamel had helped create history in 1968 when he finished second behind Cal Rayborn (H-D) in the Daytona 200. Along with third-placed Art Baumann (Yamaha 350) they became the first ever two-stroke podium finishers in the US classic.

Team Suzuki rider Jody Nicholas with Yvon Duhamel at Daytona in 1972

Reputations meant nothing to Duhamel, riding his Yamahas over the limit to compete with Rayborn and Gary Nixon, America’s top racers at the time. In 1971 his dynamite riding earned him a deal with Kawasaki to race its hair-raising two-stroke triples. He gave Special K its first AMA national win at Talladega in 1971 aboard its 500cc racebike, winning the 1972 race on a H2R 750.

At the Ontario 250-miles run over two legs, Duhamel wailed into the lead followed by Nixon and Rayborn. When his gas-guzzling Kawasaki started sputtering with 20 miles (32km) still to run, a fuming Duhamel pitted for fuel as Nixon’s Triumph triple burbled into the lead. Duhamel rode angrily to finish a distant second.

When they lined up side-by-side for the second leg, Duhamel caught Nixon’s attention. His dark eyes flashing, Duhamel declared, “I’m going to get your ass, Nixon.” He botched the start, allowing Nixon to motor away for an easy victory… until he dropped his Triumph in the Ontario infield.

In 1973, Team Kawasaki was the world’s largest road-race team: Duhamel, Nixon, Art Baumann, Cliff Carr, Hurley Wilvert, with cameos from Masahiro Wada. Duhamel and Baumann infamously took each other out at Daytona to the chagrin of team boss Bob Hansen.

yvon duhamel

At the Pocono Heavyweight Production round in 1973 with BMW’s Reg Pridmore and his Kawasaki teammate Hurley Wilvert

Despite Duhamel’s reputation for doing more crashing than winning, he was held in the highest regard by teammates and rivals as he pitched his big 750 into corners like a dirt-tracker. “As far as I’m concerned, Yvon is the best 750 rider in the world,” declared Baumann. “I’ve been behind him when he’s being going real fast and, believe me, he’s the best.”

Steve McLaughlan said, “I think Yvon has been unduly criticised. Yes, I have seen him crash spectacularly, but he’s fantastic to watch.”

Speaking through his square, clenched jaw, Nixon mumbled, “Yvon is the best there is on two wheels because he was beating me, and I’m pretty good.”

In the 1975 AMA National at Laguna Seca, Duhamel led Kenny Roberts but crashed in the Corkscrew for the third year in a row, this time due to a blown oil line.

Duhamel was one of the highest earning racers of the 1970s, topping up his $90,000 annual contract with Kawasaki and prizemoney with success in snowmobile racing in the off-season, and several canny investments and hefty sponsorships. His annual income peaked at $US315,000 in 1975 ($A3.35m in today’s money).

Celebrating Kawasaki’s inaugural AMA win in 1971 at Talladega with BSA’s Don Emde and Dick Mann

Battered and bruised after his hat-trick of Corkscrew offs, Duhamel snarled, “I should buy this goddamn place and take the Corkscrew out of it.”

Duhamel demonstrated his class on the world stage in 1975, delivering Kawasaki its best GP finish of the year with fifth in the Dutch 250 TT. He also competed in the Le Mans and Bol d’Or 24-hour races on gun Kawasaki 900-based endurance weapons.

The diminutive French-Canadian was mobbed by fans at Bol d’Or where he finished third with co-rider Jean-Francois Balde.

His crowning glory was winning the Assen round of the 1975 FIM 750 Championship with a first leg victory over champion-elect Jack Findlay (Yamaha), Yvon’s first 750 race win since 1973.

At the final round of the 1977 World F750 Championship at Mosport, Canada, Gregg Hansford blitzed a quality field to win both 25-lap legs to claim the overall win with Duhamel, who had come out of retirement, carding a 3-2 finish for Kawasaki’s only 1-2 in F750 championship racing.

Mobbed by French fans after finishing third in the 1975 Bol d’Or

Promoters considered cancelling the second leg due to the wet and oily track, but Duhamel and Co. didn’t hold back. For much of the treacherous journey Hansford and Duhamel swapped the lead several times a lap. When a dry line formed, the pair fought it out to the end, the win going to the Aussie by less than a second from the 38-year-old veteran.

Duhamel was the father of AMA Superbike champion, Miguel Duhamel. Yvon’s Team Kawasaki USA tuner Steve Whitelock went on to become WorldSBK’s technical director in the 1990s.

After surviving any number of big crashes, Yvon Duhamel died on 17 August 2021, in La Salle, Quebec, aged 81. Racing rival Emde reflected, “Yvon often asked more of his tyres than they could deliver. He was ahead of his time in many ways.”

Barry Sheene reckoned Duhamel was ‘nuts’