Abe is reported to have collided with a truck, while riding a motorcycle near the city of Kawasaki, after it made an 'illegal' U-turn in front of him.

Abe was one of Japan's most celebrated racing heroes, having burst on the scene by battling for victory as a Honda wild-card in the 1994 500cc Japanese Grand Prix. Abe fell three laps from the finish, but had done enough to earn a full time ride with Kenny Roberts' factory Yamaha team for the following season.

A 19-year-old Abe took his first 500GP podium at Suzuka in 1995, but it was at Suzuka '96 that Abe etched his name firmly in the record books - by becoming the first home rider to win the 500cc Japanese GP, turning him into a national hero overnight.

"I can remember everything about that race," recalled Abe, speaking in 2005. "It was my second season with Yamaha and I had been very fast in pre-season. The first two races of the year were in Malaysia and Indonesia, but they both went very badly for me, worse than they had done in my debut season in '95. The third round was my home grand prix at Suzuka and there was so much pressure on me to do well, it was unbelievable.

"In practice and qualifying I was no good and by the time the race came around the pressure had built up so much that I couldn't even think about what I was doing. In the end it worked in my favour because I just went out and raced as hard as I could. Everything came really easily and I was so fast, it was a bit of a surprise! I finished over six-seconds ahead of [future world champion] Alex Criville... I couldn't believe it really.

"I remember the next day the interest from the press, television stations and the fans was amazing. More importantly, people within the sport started taking me seriously. Some people weren't so sure that I had the talent to win races but after Suzuka '96 they started to look at me differently and trust in my ability. That race changed my life," declared Norick, who took two further 500cc victories, at Rio in 1999 and Suzuka again in 2000.

Abe - who switched to Wayne Rainey's Yamaha team for 1997 and 1998, before becoming a d'Antin Yamaha rider from 1999 to 2002 - claimed 17 podium finishes during his grand prix career, with a best championship position of fifth (1996), but struggled to adapt his raw 500cc pace to the new 990cc four-strokes that arrived in 2002.

After spending 2003 as a test and wild-card rider for the YZR-M1 project, Abe returned for one final MotoGP attack - with Tech 3 Yamaha - but finished 2004 just 13th overall and moved to World Superbike, with Yamaha France, for the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

Although close on several occasions, Abe never climbed the WSBK podium and retired from international competition at the end of last year.

Norick remained contracted to Yamaha - his employer since 1995 - and had returned home to compete in the Japanese Superbike Championship, where he held third position with one round remaining. The 32-year-old was present in the MotoGP paddock, as a spectator, during the recent Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi.

One of the many people amazed by Abe's explosive 1994 Suzuka ride was a young Valentino Rossi, who later adopted the nickname 'Rossifumi' ('Norifumi' was Abe's official first name) in tribute.

"I was struck immediately by this wild-card named Norifumi Abe," Rossi, watching the race on TV, wrote in his official autobiography What if I had never tried it. "Abe had long straight hair and even when he was standing still, he looked like a great character. But most of all, he rode like a madman. He was absolutely fearless. I think that that day was the fastest race of his life.

"His racing style made me think he was an absolute nutter. He took turns with his steering locked, and often had to keep himself up with his knee. His suit was usually smoking, and he overtook in the most outrageous spots. His steering finally gave out and he fell... But to me, Abe was a hero."

Crash.net joins the motorcycle racing world in offering its condolences to Abe's family and friends.



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