Riding the Iron Butt Rally on a Suzuki GT750 ‘Water Buffalo’

Jerry Anderson Iron Butt
Forget packing light. Anything can happen on the Iron Butt Rally, so you have to be ready for it. Photos by Jerry Anderson, Rick Corwine and Bo Sills.

Jerry Anderson likes Suzukis—a lot. “I’ve always had Suzukis,” he says. “Never owned anything else.” So when his application for the 2017 Iron Butt Rally was accepted, it’s no surprise he decided to ride a Suzuki. What is surprising is the Suzuki he chose, a 1974 GT750, a water-cooled, two-stroke triple. Appropriately, he entered it in the Hopeless Class.

Jerry Anderson Iron Butt
The calm before the storm. Most of these bikes will finish, but some will be finished before the end.

The Hopeless Class is reserved for bikes and riders who aren’t content with the inherent challenges of riding in an 11-day scavenger hunt that ranges from coast to coast through the worst that nature and the rally planners can throw at them. The first Hopeless Class entry was another Suzuki, an RE5 Rotary, in the first Iron Butt Rally, in 1984. Running an oddball motorcycle powered by an engine practically nobody had ever heard of seemed like a hopeless cause, and thus the class was born.

Jerry Anderson Iron ButtFast-forward to 2017, and Anderson’s reasons for choosing a bike some call the Water Buffalo. “There aren’t a lot of them on the road any more,” he says, adding this particular one has been very good to him. “I’ve done a lot of riding on it. It took me coast-to-coast-to-coast in 92 hours, and from Key West, Florida, to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.”

Jerry Anderson Iron Butt
Here’s the Iron Butt Rally in a nutshell. Ride hundreds of miles, take a photo of your bike with giant fish, and get back on the road.

Iron Butt Association president Mike Kneebone approves Hopeless entries based on little more than the opportunity to answer the question, “Can it be done?” He liked Anderson’s willingness to see if an antique two-stroke could buck the odds and finish. Unlike most IBR entrants, Anderson had never ridden a long-distance rally of any kind before submitting his application. So why choose the toughest of all for his first? “I’m not really sure much thought went into that,” he admits. “But I knew the Hopeless Class would be my way in.”

Anderson found the GT in someone’s backyard in Dallas, Texas, 10 years ago. He bought it and went through it front to back, powdercoating the frame and rebuilding the engine. For the Iron Butt Rally he added an auxiliary fuel tank, made brackets for saddlebags, ditched the stock points for electronic ignition, bolted on a set of Clearwater driving lights and installed a water pump for a rider hydration system. “Other than that,” he says, “it’s a stock GT750.”

Jerry Anderson Iron Butt
Jerry with one of his Water Buffaloes, when he rode from Key West to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

“Can it be done?” turned out to be the theme of Anderson’s rally. First, there were problems with the heat. “I started running into vapor lock problems before the second bonus I picked up. It was so hot the fuel boiled in the carbs. Every time I parked the bike for the night I’d get up the next morning and it would be flooded.” The aux tank started acting up, too. “I was always fighting it and switching the tanks to see which one I could get gas out of.” Not only was getting gas tough, buying it almost became impossible. “Going into Wichita, Kansas, the clear plastic sleeve on my Aerostich suit with all my gas cards in it blew off.”

Jerry Anderson Iron Butt
With no rally experience to draw on, Anderson gets ready to start the biggest of them all.

The heat affected Anderson, too, nearly causing personal vapor lock, but he found a cool solution. “When I got to Texas it was seriously hot, so I put a bag of ice inside the front of my Aerostich suit. After a while it melts and you’re wet for the rest of the day but it beats being overheated.”

On the Fourth of July in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he discovered his rear Heidenau tire had two tread blocks missing; he could see the tire’s carcass. “Where am I going to get a tire on the Fourth of July in Cheyenne, Wyoming?” he recalls wondering. “The answer was nowhere. So I had to keep going.” He found a tire the next day but didn’t stop to mount it, a decision he reversed when the old one shed a third tread block.

Jerry Anderson Iron Butt
The office for the next 11 days. If something’s not right there’s little time to fix it now.

At the end of the rally, he says, “It was kind of emotional. You spend a year and a half working on your bike. You get out there and it becomes all about finishing. I wouldn’t mind doing it again. But the IBA tells you right up front this isn’t just about you, it’s about your family, too. I was gone for a good three weeks—according to my wife I was actually gone for the last year and a half.” Anderson finished the rally 78th out of 104 riders, a solid showing that proves there’s hope even for the hopeless.

Jerry Anderson Iron Butt
It’s just a piece of plastic to most people, but to a rally rider it’s as good as a World Series ring.

4 COMMENTS

  1. When I was in college at IU in 1981, I traded my troubled since brand new, RD400, for a blue 1974 GT750. When I got it, the steering head bearings were shot, as well as super sloppy swing arm bushings. There was even a knobby tire on the back! The ride home from Bloomington to Tell City was interesting to say the least. A college buddy, James Russell from Muncie, IN, and myself, rode to New York City on that 750. I left James in NYC and continued on to Boston to see another college friend, Bernadette Yao. That was a trip to remember!
    In 1983, I rode the GT750 on a trip from Tell City, IN through southern Arizona and New Mexico on a 4000 mi trip with my 3 friends (Steve Lamar, Pat Lamar & Larry Seibert aka Zeebo). This was an 11 day trip that won’t ever be forgotten. Sad to say that of the four of us, I’m the only one still living. RIP guys.

  2. Great story and great accomplishment.

    My first bike was a Suzuki Titan Twin 500 and my second was a 76 GT750. I really liked that bike. Always ran on fresh oil (800 miles to the quart as I recall) and no valves to adjust. Good tractable power. My wife and I did a couple of long trips on it before kids. It had a Vetter that I color matched to the tank. Not only did it have points, it had three sets.
    I sold it when I started having kids and took a break from riding. Now I’m back at it. You always need more than one motorcycle….maybe I should look for an old Buffalo.

  3. I bought a blue ’73 brand new with a Vetter fairing. I put 24,000 miles on it commuting the the first year. Then I cut my commute down to 19,000 for the next three years. It always ran but the pipes hang down so low that its favorite thing was low speed low siding. Very infuriating, however it was smooth, fast and quiet. I sold it after the center crankshaft seals went out. Had fun, don’t miss it.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here