Hot weather on Friday and patchy rain on Sunday did not prevent the PCRA (Post Classic Racing Association of NSW) from completing another hugely successful Barry Sheene Festival of Speed on the weekend at Sydney Motorsport Park.
In a meeting that was unfortunately blighted by some serious accidents and altogether too many race stoppages, the hard-working PCRA crew soldiered on and delivered the good yet again.
Expecting mechanical reliability out of 30+ year old air cooled engines that have been hot-rodded to within an inch of their lives is always going to be an exercise in optimism and the weekend showed again that P5 as we know it has probably reached the limit of what can be expected from these bikes. Add this to the raised expectation of riders, desperate to perform well in front of a good crowd, their sponsors and their friends and the possibility of accidents also increases.
That said, the racing was champagne stuff, as it always is. Huge fields of combined class races meant that there was entertainment all through the pack with positions being fiercely contested anywhere you would like to look. Even the smaller and older bikes provided great entertainment, something that is difficult to do in the wide-open spaces of the Eastern Creek layout. And, given that the majority of the interesting parts of the track are not visible to spectators (whose dumb idea was THAT?) it speaks wonders for the competitors that they kept us entertained as they did.
John Denver sang that some days are diamonds and some days are stones and some of the favourites this weekend certainly found that out. The formidable TBR team of Shawn Giles and Steve Martin had a very ordinary weekend by their high standards with accident and mechanical mishap blunting their attempt to duplicate their Island Classic performance.
Robbie Phillis is starting to think that his new Trident Suzuki is jinxed after another bad weekend. A big crash on Saturday broke two bones in Robbie’s right hand, aggravating a previous injury as well as breaking the scaphoid in his right wrist. Exit stage left one of the crowd favourites.
It was left to fellow veteran, Malcolm Campbell to step up to the plate and he delivered. Riding Rex Wolfenden’s Honda, the bike normally ridden by Michael Dibb, “Wally” put in a vintage performance, showing that he has lost nothing of his legendary skill. He was harassed throughout most of the races by his son, Scot, who showed that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.
However, it was in the pits that spectators were able to sample some history of the non-racing kind. Since a General Admission ticket allows access to the pits, the paying public, as at the Island Classic, get to see, up close and personal, the mechanics of racing and the many other aspects of the meeting that is denied spectators at “normal” meetings.
Highlight of the meeting this year was the attendance of three times World Champion, American “Fast” Freddie Spencer. The first and only man to have won the 500cc and 250cc championships in the one year, Spencer was invited by the PCRA to be here in Australia to commemorate and celebrate the 30th anniversary of that legendary feat. It was tempting to think that the personal appearance would be a little like some other similar occasions recently with the star being cocooned inside a media shell and only brought out on a few occasions to say a few words. Such was not the case. Spencer was in attendance all three days. He attended a party on the Saturday night where he spoke for over an hour about himself, his racing and his perceptions of racing today. He addressed the officials on the steps of the control tower before the day’s racing began and made himself available for numerous autograph signings over the weekend. He rode a beautifully constructed replica of the 860 V4 Honda of Daytona fame in some demonstration laps on both days and could be seen all weekend, walking around the pits and socialising with the punters. And, when he wasn’t doing that, he could be found, sitting in a deck chair in Pit 3, available for a short or a long chat for anyone who wanted to plunk themself down in the chair next to him.
Charming, erudite, eloquent and what we would love all our champions to be, Spencer ticked all the boxes. As a 5th Generation Australian, you would think that my all-time racing hero would be an Aussie rider, but, no. It is FFS and has been since 1976-77. They say that it isn’t always a good idea to meet the heroes of your youth as it can sometimes be a disappointment. Spencer certainly proved that saying wrong for me. I was privileged to conduct a one hour interview with him and what I saw was not a carefully constructed media persona but the real deal. Yes, I am biased, but my sentiments seem to have been echoed by everyone else who had dealings with the man over the weekend. The long lines that formed each time an autograph session was announced was testament to his enduring popularity and the time he took to not only sign autographs but connect with the punters during those sessions was hugely impressive.
The other special guest of the PCRA on the weekend was the First Lady of Speed, Britain’s Maria Costello. On her second visit here, Maria was here to race and also be available to meet and greet, and she fulfilled both aspects of the brief beautifully. Maria is quietly spoken, forever smiling and passionately devoted to her racing and particularly to mentoring other female riders who wish to go road racing. As the self-appointed grodmother of a bevy of lady racers, she is forging a path for others who will hopefully not have to do it as tough as she had to do. Enthusiastic about her racing and her role within it, she is a real gem and I am sure that everyone who met her was impressed as I was with her passion and dedication.
On Sunday afternoon a very special event took place in the pits that, for a little while, seemed to make what was happening on the track fade into the background. On display was the Kawasaki Mach IV that had been ridden by one of Australia’s greatest ever riders, Warren Willing in the old Chesterfield Superbike Series. Lovingly restored by his brother, Glenn, the bike probably looked TOO good to be a race bike but it isn’t going to raced again, so who cares?On display with it was the new Kawasaki superbike, the “R” version, provided by Murray Sayle and Kawasaki Australia. It certainly was an interesting contrast, especially as Murray started the H2R up from time to time and cleared its lungs a little.
It was a gathering of the clan, so to speak as the Willing family, who had organised the event with some very close friends, had invited a veritable who’s who of road racing stars form the era to come and help celebrate and commemorate. Names like Len Atlee, Gary Coleman, Stu Avant, Alan Kay, Phil Hitchcock, Jeffrey Sayle and Big Bad Dennis Neill all gathered to pay tribute to the bike but, more importantly, to its rider.
Suffering very poor health these days, Warren Willing looks a pale shadow of the virile young man that he was when engaged in the legendary duel with the late Gregg Hansford at Bathurst in 1974. Walking with the aid of two walking sticks, Warren was carefully cosseted by the family, obviously aware of how hard this first public appearance for many years would be for him. Nevertheless, he stayed for the rest of the afternoon, signing autographs for a long line of the respectful and chatted with anyone who wanted to pass the time. It was great to see the two Adams brothers, Warren’s original sponsors, there and it was very emotional for me to meet him again after all these years. I said, “Warren, you probably won’t remember me, my name is Phil Hall.” He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Of course I remember you.”
In the lunch break, Glenn, dressed in Warren’s old leathers, took the Mach IV out onto the track for some demo laps. The crowd around the bike broke out into spontaneous applause as he left the pit garage in the familiar cloud of two stroke smoke, accompanied by the “cackle” of the three cylinder engine that those of us who can remember the glory days still love so much. Warren and his daughter Nicole followed in a convertible and the pit wall and roof of the pit garages cheered them on their way. It was a hugely moving moment and one which I am very privileged to have witnessed.
Do I recommend that the BSFoS be a “compulsory” on every bike enthusiast’s calendar? Too right I do. The PCRA puts on a brilliant show and the attendances continue to show that they are doing the right thing. Quite how they are going to “top” the appearance of Freddie Spencer this year at next year’s event I have no idea, but you may be sure that they will have a good shot at it.
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