Motorcycle Racing Heroes and villains

With Phil Hall

As a teenager growing up in the 60’s the staple diet of music was the British invasion of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the myriad of other groups who snatched the pop music initiative from the USA and firmly planted it on the other side of the Atlantic for many years.

However, spending my teenage in Newcastle, on the edge of Lake Macquarie and close to the ocean, the music of choice of my peers was less Beatles and more Atlantics, Surfaries and the myriad of surfing songs coming out of Southern California.

The music teacher at my high school had a small record player which he used in music lessons to expose us to classical music, a genre about which most of us knew nothing (I was already acquainted). So, early in the morning, before staff began arriving at 0830, a small group of senior students used to get into the music room and use Bill’s record player to play their surfing records. If you knew about it, you could go along and listen but the caveat was that, the youngest student had the additional responsibility of sitting at the window and watching the road. When Bill Turner’s car was spotted, the lookout shouted a warning, the records were put back in school bags and the music room was vacated in plenty of time to avoid being caught. It was only in the last five years or so, just before Bill’s death, that he told me that he knew all about the wheeze all along and didn’t mind at all, though he did say that the expense of buying extra needles for the record player was a bit annoying.

Now I’ve said all that as an obtuse way of getting to the theme of my article today, the famous Beach Boys song, “Heroes and Villains.” Of course, I am going to relate the article to motorcycles rather than music but I’ll bet some of my readers will be singing the song for the rest of the day after reading this!

My very early involvement in cars and car racing and my conversion to motorcycling and motorcycle sport in the early 1970’s was, of course, filled with both heroes and villains. When the late Sir Jack Brabham won the F1 World Championship in 1959, he became every Aussie kid’s hero. A little later, through a curious connection that only became apparent much later, another hero was British racer, John Surtees. “Big John” as he was known, drove for Ferrari, a team I have never liked, but split with them in very acrimonious circumstances not long after he won the F1 World Championship in 1964.

What I could not have foreseen at the time was that Surtess was already a multiple motorcycle world champion (motorcycles had not yet entered my area of consciousness) and that he drove for the Honda team a couple of seasons later, famously winning the Italian Grand Prix in the “Hondola” and featuring in the closest finish ever in a Formula One race. So the connection to motorcycling and my allegiance to Honda were seeded in the one hero of my teenage years.

Surtees is still the only person in the history of either sports to have won both a motorcycle world championship AND a formula one title, a fact which is being widely publicised at the moment as the movement to have him granted a knighthood for his achievements gathers momentum.

My first motorcycle race was an accident, my brother and I heading in to King Edward Park in Newcastle expecting to see the car hillclimb event only to find that we were a week early and that motorcycles were competing in their event. FTD of the day that day was set by another man who was to become, much later, another hero of mine, Kel Carruthers, who set the time on his Norton and also rode the Jack Gates Honda 4 at that meeting, an ear-piercing sound that I still vividly remember.

Kel Carruthers
Kel Carruthers

My first road race meeting was nearly 10 years after this, in February 1976 where I met one of my all-time heroes, the late and much-lamented Kenny Blake. Since I have recorded this meeting in detail on this site before, I am not going to cover the ground again. From that moment, Kenny was “God” as far as I was concerned. I cheered myself hoarse when he beat Ago that day and I cheered him every time I saw him on the track. I screamed myself silly the day that he and Joe Eastmure, on Don Wilson’s BMW, broke Kawasaki’s dominance of the Castrol Six Hour race in 1977 and I remain, to this day, a devoted fan despite the fact that more than 30 years have passed since his tragic death at the Isle of Man (to the extent that I created and continue to run the memorial web site dedicated to keeping his memory alive).

Kenny Blake
Kenny Blake

At that meeting (Laverton) I also saw and met two more of my heroes. In common with every road race fan in Australia, the late Gregg Hansford and the late Warren Willing enjoyed a status that soared above their contemporaries. A strange and silly-sounding quirk saw Gregg being more favoured by me than Warren and it had nothing to do with them.

They say that you always have a soft spot for the first brand of motorcycle that you own and that certainly has been the case with me and my identical twin brother. Fiercely competitive in every aspect of life, Paul’s first bike was a Yamaha and he has remained a Yamaha man for the last 40 years. So it was no surprise that he favoured Willing. My first bike was a Honda and I’ve pretty much been a Honda man. Of course, Honda had no competitive Formula 750 bike so I naturally swung in behind Gregg. Funnily enough, I have never owned a Kawasaki bike in all that time with the exception of the Shadowfax Kawasaki, the Coca Cola 800 endurance bike that I and a bunch of crazies restored a few years ago.

Gregg Hansford on the podium
Gregg Hansford on the podium

Needless to say, post-race discussions in the car on the way home from meetings was always a “lively” affair.

The era, still regarded by many as the Golden Age of Australian motorcycle racing, was littered with dozens of riders, all entitled to hero status. Bob Rosenthal achieved that status on the basis of one amazing race at Hume Weir in 1978; Tony Hatton for an inspired ride in the sheeting rain at Bathurst in 1979?, and so the list goes on.

Buying and reading every motorcycle mag I could afford meant that I collected more than my fair share of overseas heroes, too. Kenny Roberts won three consecutive 500cc titles despite never having raced on most of the European circuits where the races were contested, BUT he was a Yamaha rider so he could never be quite “up there” for me! I read about this crazy Pommie rider called Ron Haslam who rode for a guy called Mal Carter. Carter, a shameless self-promoter, called his business “Pharaoh Yamaha” and he arrived at the tracks in a Rolls Royce and got around the pits dressed up like an Arab sheik. I mean, what’s NOT to like about that?

Ron Haslam
Ron Haslam

Later I got the chance to meet Haslam and see him race here, in the Castrol Six Hour Race in 1980 and later in the Swann Series where he rode a glorious Honda F1 bike that had been previously raced at the Isle of Man. Much, much later I ran into Ron again and had the privilege of interviewing him on two separate occasions. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes because they can sometimes fail to live up to your expectations. It certainly wasn’t the case with “Rocket Ron.”

I was fortunate to see and photograph Wayne Gardner at Oran Park in November 1976 (his first-ever road race meeting) and followed his career from that point onwards. Needless to say that, as a person who spent a great deal of their life living in the Illawarra, Wayne was my “local boy makes good” hero too. Despite the bad press that he attracts, especially locally (“a prophet is without praise in his own country”) he and I remain close friends and, whenever our paths cross, talk quickly turns to the “good days” of racing a TZ350 out of the back of a decrepit Holden ute!

Wayne Gardner at Hume Weir
Wayne Gardner at Hume Weir

Little was I to know that, just around the corner, my all-time, greatest road racing hero, was just waiting to burst onto the world stage. Louisiana-born and raised, Freddie (“FAST Freddie”) Spencer was, until the advent of Marc Marquez, the most meteoric star to appear on the world stage. He broke every record possible and lowered the colours of The “King” Kenny Roberts to win Honda’s first-ever 500cc World Championship. It wasn’t just the fact that he did it on a Honda that mattered, it was the WAY that he did it. Spencer re-wrote the textbook on motorcycle dynamics and physics, doing, with apparent ease, things on a bike that nobody had dared to try before. Listening to him explain how he DID this is even more difficult to grasp than actually watching him do it. In the opinion of most experts of the day, Spencer went faster on cold tyres than any rider before and few riders since.

Freddie Spencer with Phil Hall
Freddie Spencer with Phil Hall

If you can get off the line and back it into the first few corners while the rest of the field is “babying” their tyres, you are going to have a HUGE gap on the rest of the field after just a few laps and that is exactly what he did. 

That was 30 years ago. Marquez has broken most of Freddie’s records now, but it doesn’t matter. To the true believers, Spencer is still in a different universe and will remain that way.

Now, what about villains, you might be asking? Well, there aren’t really any. Oh there have been a few who have pulled the occasional dodgy move; Lorenzo got himself banned back in the 250 days and Loris Capirossi’s 250 title is forever tainted, in my opinion, by the means whereby he achieved it. A very famous rider recently earned my contempt through the use of come very questionable tactics, but the fact is that, every last one of them gets out there on the track and does things that elevate them far above what I could HOPE to do, let alone achieve. They are ALL heroes.