Not so long ago, one hundred miles per hour was a magic mark to attain on a motorcycle, even in a straight line. But to average ‘the ton’ around a racing lap, now that was a bigger thing altogether. When that lap included a one-in-six climb up, across and down a mountain, on a narrow public road where any mistake was punished in the extreme, you had Boys Own stuff.
Ever since it opened with a dirt surface in 1938, Mount Panorama at Bathurst had vied for the title of the fastest track in Australia, although it had several competitors like Longford (Tasmania), Mildura and Gnoo Blass in Orange.
Achievements in the Bathurst lap tended to be recorded in ten miles per hour segments. The first year the track was sealed, 1939, Bat Byrnes pushed the figure to 71.18 mp/h (114.5 km/h) on his home-brewed 500 Norton. The 80 mp/h mark was reached in 1961, when Eric Hinton pushed his Norton to 80.76 mp/h (129.94 km/h). 90 mph/h came up in 1972, when Bill Horsman and Ginger Molly were credited with identical times of 90.39 mp/h (145.44 km/h) during their epic dice in the Unlimited GP. It is a measure of progress at the time that the magic ton came just four years later.
For 1976, the whole of Con Rod Straight had been resurfaced and many of the numerous bumps eliminated. Warren Willing’s 1974 lap record of 2m23.35s had stayed intact (just) in 1975, but quantum leaps in both power outputs and tyres had occurred in the twelve months that had passed before the troops assembled at Easter once again.
Practice saw several serious accidents, beginning when Stephen Klein dropped his 750 Yamaha at McPhillamy Park and piled into the armco barrier. He received a broken leg and spinal injuries. Then in the final time trials for the Bathurst Unlimited, Ross Barelli suffered brake failure on his RG500 Suzuki at the end of Con Rod Straight. He too struck the metal fence and died instantly. His brother in law, Bob Rosenthal, who had been due to ride the ex-Agostini TZ750 Yamaha, withdrew from the meeting.
Much of the action went out of the opening clash of the big guns, the Unlimited International on the opening lap when Warren Willing was forced into the pits to adjust a slipping clutch, losing a lap in the process. Out in front, Ikujiro Takai on the works OW31 Yamaha was in control over Gregg Hansford’s KR750 Kawasaki, but Gregg pulled a daring pass in The Dipper to lead the Japanese rider onto the straight. Takai slipstreamed past without difficulty, the extra tow flinging him through the speed trap at exactly 300 kph. But a slide at Murray’s Corner let Hansford through again, and with lap times falling into the 2m19 bracket, the Queenslander held the advantage for the next three laps. Then on the fifth lap the Kawasaki’s gear lever snapped, and Takai inherited a 15 second lead over Rob Hinton and Masahiro Wada’s works KR750 Kawasaki. Although a lap behind, Willing was flying and set up the first 100 mph lap, then reeled off a succession of scorchers to finally post an incredible new record of 2m17.1 – over six seconds under the old mark and an average of 162.18 kph. On the last lap both Murray Sayle and Willing ran out of fuel, while Takai reeled off three ‘ton-up’ laps on the way to a comfortable win.
The following day brought the big one – the 30 lap Unlimited GP. Hansford, on the air-cooled Kawasaki in preference to the troublesome KR750, won the start but was almost blown off the road by Takai as they surged up the mountain for the first time. Before the lap was over, Willing was through into second place as Hansford effectively gave up the chase. Hinton took over third, but crashed on lap three at XL Bend when his rear tyre punctured. Woodley was putting in a terrific ride on his RG500 Suzuki to annex third place ahead of Asami and Wada, but Murray Sayle was making good progress and soon latched onto the group. By mid-race distance the pit stops started, with Sayle in first, but the key stops were those of Takai and Willing, who both stopped on lap 17. Willing was seven seconds quicker and set about his plan of making a charge in the later stages. With a colossal 2m15.68s (163.76 kph, 101.78 mph) on the 25th circuit, Willing closed to within three seconds of the works Yamaha. Then came the rain. As the leaders started their 28th lap, a major downpour drenched the pits and chased them up the mountain. With the circuit awash, officials hung out the chequered flag as the field slithered around – the major casualty being Garry Thomas who fell at low speed but was unable to continue. It may have been the fickle Bathurst weather that once again put paid to what was building up to be an epic finish, but Willing had shown his skill and tactical ability in taking the battle to the Yamaha factory.
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Willing leads Takai in 1976 at the mountain