Saturday, February 23, 2008

Motorcycle Racing: a long and deep passion

By Jimmy Martin

When I was a young kid in the 1980s, Barry Sheene was a national hero in the UK. Not only was he double 500cc Grand Prix world champion, but his cockney charms gained him literally millions of fans. What amazed me as a youngster was that Sheene's skeleton was held together with various metal plates and screws, mainly thanks to his rear tyre exploding at 178mph on the banking at Daytona. I mean, setting off airport metal detectors with your body, how cool is that?

I didn't get to see much 500GP racing because the BBC only televised the British GP, so my love of motorcycle racing was really formed by TV coverage of British national bike series such as F1. One of the coolest bikes in history came along in the early 1990s: the Norton rotary F1. With a sleek black colour scheme and the spine-tingling howl of its crazy Wankel rotary engine, if Darth Vader rode a motorcycle it would be this one.

Around the mid-1990s there was a shake up of the British racing scene with the introduction of an all-new British Superbike championship. My fellow Scotsman Niall McKenzie had taken podiums in 500GP, and he won the first 3 BSB titles in a row with his smooth, calm riding style, despite making atrocious starts in nearly every race. His main rivals in those 3 years were his Yamaha team-mates, who were Steve Hislop, Jamie Whitham and Chris Walker. The late Steve Hislop was a Scotsman who had won many Isle of Man TT races. He was an extremely quick rider who usually thought that his bike was unrideable and that the entire world was lined up against him (very Biaggi-like in that respect), but was a fans' favourite. Jamie Whitham's hair-raising riding style was reminiscent of Ruben Xaus. Whitham claimed that he used the race number 69 because it looks the same when it's upside-down in a gravel trap. He is now a TV commentator known for his outrageous sense of humour. Chris Walker took a double victory at the first British Superbike round that I attended at Knockhill, Scotland. Knockhill is a short, twisty track in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sheep-covered hillsides. Turn one is a mirror image of the Laguna Seca corkscrew: turn right, plummet off the edge of the world and remember to turn left when you reach the bottom. There is a chicane insanely situated on the crest of a hill, with the start-finish line on the crest of another. The track's only hairpin sits in a natural arena filled with crazed fans, making it more like a rock concert than a bike race.
This is where I was standing when Walker, by then a Suzuki rider, passed Neil Hodgson's Ducati for the lead. The crowd, who were bigger fans of "The Stalker" than of the clean-cut Hodgson, erupted with joy as if Ozzy Osbourne had just bitten the head off a chicken in front of them. Walker repaid the compliment by stopping for a huge victory burnout, choking us half to death on rubber smoke as we were so close to the track.

Ducati dominated superbike racing at the time, and it was electrifying to stand just fifteen yards away while a pack of Ducatis thundered past at 150mph, the ground shaking under your feet. In between them were the screaming 4-cylinder Japanese bikes, making the kind of noise that a UFO would be proud of. These are the experiences that created my passion for motorcycle racing. I don't care whether a bike is a prototype or a road bike with the headlight removed. As long as the racing is close and the riders are crazy, I'll be watching.


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