Here you can find random free stories, mostly taken from The Fast Stuff, Zen and the Art if Motorcycle Racing, MotoGenius and my other books
‘Colonials are real hard, aggressive people’
Britain’s former colonies have always punched above their weight when they go motorcycle racing. Here’s why…
Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa are under-populated countries, half a world away from Grand Prix racing’s European heartland, but the list of Grand Prix stars bred by these nations is long and illustrious.
Australia is the world’s 53rd most populous country, and yet the Aussies have won more 500 GPs than any other nation bar Italy, Great Britain and the USA. Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and New Zealand have the 72nd and 123rd largest populations and hold eighth and 13th in the 500 GP winners’ league. South Africa is the world’s 25th most populated country and lies 11th in the 250 GP winners’ table.
What are the reasons for such improbable successes? Who better to ask than the men themselves; the riders and mechanics who retraced their ancestors’ footsteps in reverse to chase Grand Prix glory in Europe and beyond.
‘We were fast because we needed to eat’
‘Happy’ Jack Ahearn was one of the great characters of the Continental Circus in the 1950s and 1960s. A true-blue Aussie, he rode a Matchless to second in the 1964 500 championship
“We were fast because we needed to eat! We’d race and earn just enough to get to the next meeting. It was a bit of a struggle, so we’d help each other; we’d lend each other spares so we could start and get our start money. If you broke a leg, you’d disguise the plaster, get out on the starting line, ride down the road for a couple of miles and stop. You had to get your start money.
“The English were in a better position – they could go to Belgium or Holland, do the race, get some start money and be back at work Monday morning, so they had an income. We had our start money and that was it, after that we starved to death. At the end of some meetings the organisers put on a dinner, so you were guaranteed one decent meal a week.
“We were gypsies – we had a Thames van to live in and that was it. We used to park them in a circle like the cowboys and Indians. It was a good life.
“We were tough because England’s been going thousands of years but we’ve only had a couple of hundred years since we pinched the bloody country off the blacks, so we were still pioneering. Racing in Australia we had no bits, so we had to make our own stuff. There was a couple of good engineers in Sydney. They would make everything, valve seats, everything.
“Back in the ’50s there wasn’t a lot of sport in Australia, just the odd weekend soccer game. Racing was about the only pastime we had. We all raced the normal bloody motorbikes we went to work on; the tracks were dirt with oil spread on them. When I went to Europe in ’54 I still put me feet down going around corners, but by then I was pretty good at riding because I’d done more than ten years of riding all over bloody Australia.”
‘Grand Prix racing was magic and mysterious to us’
Mike Sinclair won the 1972 NZ 250 title, then came to Europe where he worked with Stu Avant, Pat Hennen, Randy Mamola, Max Biaggi and three-time 500 king Wayne Rainey
“Colonials are real hard, aggressive people. You’ve gone to another country and the people don’t want you there, they want to kill you. Even though that was a couple of hundred years ago it’s still in the colonials. It was the same in both world wars, the ANZAC soldiers were always highly rated; same reason, I reckon, they were bloody aggressive. The same attitude goes into racing.
“I grew up with the idea that I’d have to go to war one day, there was the Malaysian conflict with a lot of Aussie and Kiwi soldiers there, then Vietnam. Life wasn’t that secure and when it’s like that it’s easy to get on a motorbike and go like a nutter.
“When I worked at the local bike shop I was the original schoolboy dreamer – daydreaming about racing Agostini, Ivy, Hailwood and Read. Then we’d go out and race at weekends. We all had Jarno Saarinen handlebars and all that, although we didn’t know what we were doing with them…
“Grand Prix racing was magic and mysterious to us. Our boss would get British bike magazines air-freighted to the shop. It was something you aspired to: to be good enough to race in Grands Prix or to go as a mechanic.
“Before I went to Europe, I went to Australia in 1972 and they were really fast, really aggressive. [Giacomo] Agostini went out there and got blown off. Those guys were harder peddlers than he was, they were real hard men. What struck me was that the tracks were real dangerous, fast corners and no run-off, but those guys still went like mad buggers. It stunned me. If you could win in Australia you could go to Europe and be competitive.
“A lot of the Aussie guys had done dirt track. In New Zealand we’ve got speedway. I really liked the idea of riding speedway but I didn’t like the guys. They were roughnecks; if you carved them up they were likely to bash your head in.
“When you got to Europe you didn’t do it half-cock because you were so far from home you couldn’t go home to mamma if you got it wrong. And we were good with the technical stuff because we couldn’t get hold of parts back home, so we were used to cobbling things up.
“We were quite happy living in caravans; first year I went with Stu we were in a tent. There were times we had no money and no food. [Continental Circus legend] Jack Findlay’s lady Nanou used to feed us on the quiet, not letting Jack know, because we were eating his food.
“You couldn’t go home, so you put up with it. It was good for you. Also, you were so focused on what you were there for. We used to put all our time into the bikes and then using them properly. Jon Ekerold and the South Africans were the same – real hard guys, there for a job, with nothing to distract them. They got stuck in and did it.”
‘The racing back home was very, very feral’
Multi-talented, fun-loving New Zealander Graeme Crosby won Daytona, the Isle of Man, the Suzuka Eight Hours and finished second in the 1982 500 world championship
“As colonials, we can all fuck, fight, ride a bike and wheel a barrow. We’ve got that gutsy, gritty determination. When an Australian or a New Zealander goes to Europe they put their lives on the line and their financial future on the line. They beg steal and borrow just to get there, so they’re not going to roll over easy.
“We always bought a one-way ticket to Europe because it was cheapest, then we’d work out how the hell we were going to get home at the end of the season. Once we got on the plane, we were very committed, we were uprooting ourselves by 12,000 miles, so we had the drive and the passion to succeed. The guys who were borderline on commitment never made the move across, so what Europe saw was our finest.
“The English were very good at conquering other countries but they got a bit lackadaisical. The riders didn’t have that drive where they’d say, there’s no racing at home this weekend, let’s do some race in Czechoslovakia.
“I did the gypsy lifestyle in ‘79. We arrived with the Moriwaki, a spare engine and some tools. We didn’t have a van, we begged, borrowed and stole because we weren’t going to be there for long. I only wanted to do the TT. I never even dreamed I’d be on a Grand Prix bike the next season. I can remember as a kid sitting around the Auckland motorcycle club, reading all the British bike magazines. The TT was the goal for everybody from Australia and New Zealand.
“The racing back home was very, very feral and lacked depth, but we’d seen guys go abroad and do well, so we thought, why not? Our first step was Australia – let’s have a go at these guys, then we’d go to Europe. We were always in the hunt for something better.
“And once you got there you were only focused on one thing. You didn’t have the wife or the kids, so you felt like you had an advantage. We always turned up with no fuckin’ money, so you got a job in a pub or a bike shop, but racing always came first.
“I shared a flat in Surbiton [in the London suburbs] with Mick Smith [factory Suzuki mechanic] and Dozy Ballington [Kork’s brother]. It was like Grand Central Station – the last person in at night slept on the floor. We had a rule: if there was no race on Sunday we put on a roast, went across to the pub, came home when they closed at three, ate the roast, got absolutely shit-faced and went back to the pub when it opened again at seven. It was one big, huge party. Then when the telephone bill came in there’d be arguments. didn’t make that call! Yes you did. No I didn’t! We had a coin-operated gas meter, you had to put 50p in if you wanted hot water, so it was always cold water. It was good, character-building stuff.”
‘We learned plenty because parts were difficult to get’
Mick Smith first worked in Europe with Aussie privateer Jeff Sayle in the late 1970s. He went on to work for Steve Parrish, Graeme Crosby, Randy Mamola and Rob McElnea
“The original racing heritage in Australia came from Britain. During the 1950s the Auto Cycle Council of Australia funded an Isle of Man team. They’d pay riders to go and then they’d pay them to come home at the end of the European season, so they would bring their bikes back here.
“One of the big advantages we have as a breeding ground for riders and technicians is our weather – we used to race all year round.
“The other thing was the travelling. Can any English rider imagine driving from London to Moscow to do a race? That’s we did – drive 4000km from Sydney to Perth. You got used to the distances, so when you got to Europe you took it for granted.
“Dirt track was a big thing too, same with the Americans. I spent a lot of time with Freddie Spencer when HRC came testing in Australia. He told me that when he was a kid he’d put on his helmet in the morning and not take it off till the afternoon; just racing, racing, racing, racing. That helped our kids too, they got that competitive edge from racing so much. Here, every rural town has a dirt track. Plus, kids would start off at seven-years-old, so by the time they had their first roadrace at, say, 17, they’d been racing ten years.
“As mechanics in Australia we learned plenty because parts were expensive and difficult to get. We would make and modify a lot of our own stuff. We were always fiddling, modifying cylinders, making exhausts. Everyone was a tuner, and mistakes were expensive so we tried not to make them.”
‘We colonials all came from the same breed: settlers’
South African Paddy Driver came to Europe with Jim Redman in the late 1950s. He finished third in the 1965 500 world championship on a Matchless G50 behind MV’s Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini
“The colonial upbringing had a lot to do with it. Rhodesia, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand are fairly bushy countries. We’d make dirt tracks out on the svelte, then we’d get permission from the mayor to close the roads in a local town. They’d put up straw bales and design a circuit out of a few street intersections. We raced on Dunlop Universals because they worked on tar and dirt. When I rolled up at Brands Hatch in 1958 with my Manx Norton on Universals I remember these guys shaking their heads and saying, you can’t race on those. And I said, you’d be surprised.
“We colonials all came from the same breed – our grandparents were settlers. In the 19th century they were brought out and dumped in the middle of nowhere with a couple of bags of seed. Nothing was ever a problem for us. That’s the racetrack? Okay, we’ll race on it, no problem at all, and we were all mechanics.
“Out here in the colonies you had to make-do. If your Norton engine was so bad you couldn’t use it you’d put a Triumph twin in there, whatever, and go race that.
“If you broke down on the road it was the same. It’s 750 miles from here (Johannesburg) to Salisbury, and the road in those days wasn’t a road, it was just a twin-track farm road, so it was a hell of a bloody journey. That helped us on the Continent tremendously.”
‘Quite often it was just bread and jam for a few days
Rhodesian Nobby Clark went to school with Gary Hocking and later worked for Hocking, Hailwood, Redman, Kel Carruthers, Barry Sheene, Giacomo Agostini and King Kenny Roberts.
“In the past in Rhodesia we used to have dirt track racing, not like the American ovals, but with a roadrace layout with lefts and rights. I think that helped an awful lot, but that sort of racing disappeared in the 1970s.
“The distance from where we came from helped a lot too – we had to make it to survive. Hocking once told me that before he got a works ride quite often it was just bread and jam for a few days, no fancy stuff like tinned spaghetti.
“Europeans thought we were arrogant. They’d say, why don’t you go and buy a new one? And we’d say, why the hell go and spend money on it when I can fix it myself? If something broke you put your thinking hat on and came up with a solution.”
This story and many, many more can be found in the Kindle version of Zen and the rt of Motorcycle Racing, the second collection of my writings on MotoGP, the TT, World Superbike and so on…
E-Book available here