Feats of endurance – With Phil Hall

Ron Boulden, Clive Knight, Mark Waters at the 1978 Six Hour
Ron Boulden, Clive Knight, Mark Waters at the 1978 Six Hour

I consider myself privileged to have begun my motorcycling journey in the 70’s. Everything about motorcycling was big. The economy was big, bike sales were big, hell, even the bikes themselves were big. Motocross was big; who will ever forget the epic Gall/Gunter battles in Mr Motocross? Road racing was big; the ABC did a live telecast of the ARRC rounds including Saturday practice and qualifying. Observed Trials were big; Dave Pinkerton and later Peter Paice wowed crowds at the rounds of the championship as well as crowds at country shows when they turned up and did demos. Speedway was big; solo and sidecars fans still look back on the era as the golden time of the sport. If it had two wheels (or 3), it was big and even non-motorcycling people knew about it.

But nowhere was it bigger than in the arena of Production Motorcycle Road Racing. This was the age of the Castrol Six Hour production race around Sydney’s Amaroo Park and the other endurance races that it spawned at other circuits; the 2 Hour at Calder, the 3 Hour at Sandown Park, the Adelaide Advertiser Three Hour and so it went on. Every road race meeting featured pure racing bikes and races for the production bikes as well. The production race at Bathurst every Easter was nearly as important as the Grand Prix events on the programme and distributors and dealers spent what they needed to spend in order to get their name on the trophy and their copy inside the front page of REVS and AMCN. “Win on Sunday – Sell on Monday” was never truer than it was in the 70’s.

And the Six Hour, especially, was a microcosm of what was happening in the broader world of motorcycling. It is significant that, of all the races, from 1970 to the last race in 1987, only one race was won by a British bike and that was the very first one. As surely as night followed day, the Six Hour epitomised the death of the British motorcycling industry and the ascendancy of Japan as the world leader. If you wanted a barometer of the health and trends of motorcycling you need only to have looked at Amaroo Park on the third weekend in October.

An event that started out as a fun ride for club racers rapidly changed its focus to become a deadly serious game of one-upmanship that pitted manufacturer against manufacturer, tyre brand against tyre brand and accessory giants against other accessory giants. Indeed, so serious did the battle between the industry giants become during this time that the intense competition between the various riders almost took a back seat. It became more of a matter of which BIKE won rather than which rider.

And, just as today, when loyalties over brands polarise the masses, so it did back then. Myles Stivano was the head honcho at Kawasaki. Don Wilson was at BMW and each manufacturer had their “man” whose brief was to ensure that their brand won on Sunday.

The racing was intense and the crowd involvement was amazing. The little bowl in which the track was built was filled to capacity with scarcely any room left for bike or car parking and getting a decent viewing position in the crowd was just as problematical. Streams of vehicles could be seen slowly wending their way up the hill to Annangrove Road long after the event was done and dusted.

So important had the Six Hour become in the late 1970’s that both Honda and Suzuki produced special models, only available in Australia and specifically designed to win the Six Hour. Honda’s weapon of choice was the CB1100R and Suzuki countered with a special version of their GSX1100 featuring wire wheels rather than cast wheels and a host of “improvements” that were only available on this limited production model.

As well, by about the same time (although it had started earlier) the “Tyre War” hit fever pitch. Companies like Dunlop, Bridgestone and Metzler were hit by the Pirelli steamroller, the company’s “Phantom” tyre being a “made for racing” special, looking exactly like the road tyre of the same name an appearance, but distinguishable by features that only those “in the know” knew about, prompting numerous allegations of “cheating” and “favouritism”.

For, despite the attempts by the organisers to ensure that the bikes and the accessories were “strictly stock standard” clever and devious mechanics and team managers spent nearly as much time trying to circumvent that rules as they did doing just about anything else.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter; as long as the punter on the hill could go down to the pub on Monday and say to his mate, “Hey, my bike beat your bike on Sunday,” all was well.

And so it stayed until the early 1980’s. Bike sales plateaued  and then started to decline. Manufacturers started to question the return that they were getting from their involvement and the punters started to become disillusioned with the politics. Tyre companies began to feel that they had learned as much as they could learn from the present formula and monies started to dry up. It had, suddenly, it seemed, become a very expensive proposition to even ENTER the race; entering and having even a ghost of winning had become an impossibility for all but the most well-heeled and the best connected.

The death warrant of the Six Hour was signed when, at the last minute, and for all sorts of reasons, good and bad, the race was suddenly shifted from its traditional home of Amaroo Park to the southern Sydney circuit of Oran Park. There it ran for four more years before Castrol, the event’s traditional sponsor, pulled the pin and the book was closed. The purists will tell you that it was the move to Oran Park that hastened the demise of the Six Hour. Indeed, some feel so strongly about it that they actually disregard results from 84-87 or at least treat them as being of lesser importance. The Facebook page about the Six Hour, for example, lists it as being a race that was run at Amaroo Park Raceway, ignoring the Oran Park years completely in the group description!

But the main problem, and it was the elephant in the room long before the race finished, was that the manufacturers and distributors were getting less and less value from their involvement in the race in the latter years. Whereas the early races showed a clear delineation between the good bikes and the VERY good bikes, by 1987, ALL the bikes were very good. So good, in fact, that the differentiation between the winners and the runners-up became more a matter of which team had signed the best RIDERS rather than which bike they had chose to campaign.

“But, isn’t that how it should be?” I hear you ask. The answer is yes, of course; the best riders should win, but, as I noted above, for a long period of the Six Hour’s existence, the BIKE was as important as the rider. The race was a race of manufacturer/distributor against manufacturer/distributor with the riders being of slightly lesser importance. Once the playing field became almost level, what the Six Hour was supposed to PROVE, wasn’t being proved any more.

And, of course, money…from a simple club event for a bunch of mates to enter a bike, belt around for six hours then go home, the race became the most prestigious of its type IN THE WORLD. And all of that costs money and money doesn’t grow on trees.

So, for all sorts of reasons, the Six Hour and its brethren production races all around Australia, ceased to be. The subject of Jim Scaysbrook’s epic book is still revered and those of us who remember it do so with a fondness that approaches passion. It will never be forgotten and the legendary bikes that tamed the 1.9kms of Amaroo will always be appreciated. Kawasaki Z1 and variants; The underdog Ducati 900SS, Various BMW iterations and the big guns of later, CB1100R, GSX1100, Suzuki’s Katana and the RZ500 Yamaha…it’s an impressive list.

As is the list of the riders who became the stuff of legends one day in October each year. Who could forget John Warrian’s epic ride on the Ducati, losing the race through mechanical issues with only a quarter of an hour to go? Or Kenny Blake’s stunning solo ride in 1973, wrestling an awkward big beast of a Z1 around for the whole race distance without the benefit of a co-rider? The 1984 duel between the Honda and the Yamaha that saw both bikes slowing to a crawl on the slow-down lap, out of fuel? The tiny puddle on the outside of the main straight that halted Lenny Willing’s seemingly unstoppable charge to the flag in 1985? And Graeme Crosby’s heart-in-mouth qualifying lap in 1978 that put the CBX (surely a totally unsuitable mount?) on pole? The list is endless and every item on it is a gem.

So the age passed but not without enough memory of it to have people regularly ask, “Well, if they could do that back then, why can’t we do it again? And, over the years, many have tried. The late 90’s saw a few six hour races, one at Oran Park and a couple at Eastern Creek. More in the spirit of the original club events, the races were entertaining and the racing was fierce. But, despite all that, something was missing. What was it? Well, firstly and most importantly, there was a lack of manufacturer/distributor involvement. There was also a lack of a big budget sponsor who could, as Castrol used to, inject large amounts of money into the event and into the promotion of it. Then there was the lack of the BIG names. Riders don’t ride for free any more or even for the prestige, they ride for money (see my point above). So the Six Hour races of the year were fun; the club riders formed the bulk of the entry and they raced in front of empty grandstands and with no TV coverage.

But the thing that was missing most about the later Six Hour races was that they were not like the original ones; races for strictly stock production bikes. And the later attempts at staging the event (2008-2009?) suffered from all the problems that the early noughties races had. Nobody was willing to say that the race had to be for strictly production bikes because they knew that, by doing so, they would never get enough entries to make the race viable. And you can’t argue with the logic. It seems fair to say that, the same reasons that saw the Six Hour fade away in the 80’s are still there. Every manufacturer makes, not just a good 1000cc sportsbike, but a GREAT one. What really would it prove?

And there is another issue that militates against the concept. That is that all the modern sportsbikes look the same. Last weekend we had the Suzuka 8 Hour race in Japan. 70+ bikes in the field and, unless you were really an anorak, telling the various brands apart would have been extremely difficult. Back in the day, telling the bikes apart was easy. It isn’t any more. Trust me, I commentate at the races and I think I’m pretty hip with what is happening in the market, but it is getting harder and harder to tell the bikes apart, especially at speed and especially if they are painted up in a colour scheme that doesn’t look anything like stock.

“Well, why not just have a race for naked bikes; get back to the original Six Hour concept?” I like the idea. Most manufacturers (I think) have one or two potential candidates, why wouldn’t that work? Well, for a start, the manufacturers don’t want to promote their naked bikes over their flagship hypersports bikes. If they are going to invest, they want to invest in promoting their most sales-worthy models. (and, yes, I know, nakeds ARE gaining strength in the market)

Cost is also an issue. It would mean that most riders who want to enter, would have to buy and prepare a new bike. Even riders who are presently riding naked bikes in the classes where they are allowed would have no advantage because their existing races bikes would almost certainly be heavily modified.

In the absence of a big-spending sponsor, the possibility of a revival of production racing in Australia is virtually nil. I know that there are a number of ex-racers, especially some who have competed in WEC, who would like to bring a round of the WEC here to Australia. It wouldn’t be the same thing but it sure would be good to have SOME endurance races here rather than the none that we have at the moment.

I count myself privileged that I lived through the era of the great production races. I’d like to see them back again, but, somehow, I think I will have to content myself with memory rather than anticipation.

Clive Knight at the 1978 Six Hour
Clive Knight at the 1978 Six Hour
Dave Robbins at the 1979 Six Hour
Dave Robbins at the 1979 Six Hour
Graeme Crosby, Debbie Brinkley at the 1979 Six Hour
Graeme Crosby, Debbie Brinkley at the 1979 Six Hour
Jim Budd at the 1978 Six Hour
Jim Budd at the 1978 Six Hour
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