Feb 6, 2014

Posted by in Bikes

A Kid Watches a Grand Prix (Pt I)

A Kid Watches a Grand Prix (Pt I)

Part One of what will probably be an overly long autobiographical waffle about motorcycle racing in the late eighties in Australia

With three days of pre-season testing having just concluded in Sepang the 2014 MotoGP season is officially underway.  Over the course of the year I’ll be no doubt writing a fair bit in this section of the blog about MotoGP, that is the premier class of motorcycle racing.

Why you ask?  Most the people who read these blogs have probably arrived from links from my work in science, comedy and The Incomplete Map of the Cosmic Genome.  But people who know me also know that the other continuing passion of my life is motorcycle racing.  It’s an odd fit I grant you for a lefty, comedy writer who also studied science at university.  Especially since my usual stance on things often doesn’t fit with the MotoGP world, ala a previous post I wrote on brolly dollies that got me a fair share of abuse in a number of outlets.  Anyway, I love bikes.

I’ve written for a number of sites about bikes over the years and have been the exclusive MotoGP column writer for British sports site B.B for the past six years and will be continuing on this season as well.  But I’ll be writing less formal, more opinionated stuff here as well.  So before I do that, I thought I’d give you a bit of a ‘My MotoGP background’. Explain myself if you will.  For the people who come here just for the bike stuff this is sort of an answer to the question, ‘Why is this bloke who interviews cosmologists and writes jokes about homeopaths trying to give me opinions on motorcycles?’

Back in the late eighties my father worked for Rothmans Australia who as you might imagine had quite a bit to do with motorcycle racing down under at that time with Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan both under the Rothman’s Honda banner.  He had always had an interest in motorsport, as had my mother, but that was primarily in speedway.  As a kid I’d been to many a meet at the now defunct Claremont Speedway.  I enjoyed the Solos but was more into the Sprintcars.  No doubt, as a kid, I was attracted to the giant wings that made them look likes some sort of Transformer that would win the race and then turn into a giant robot and collect the trophy itself.

As such I was already a motorsport fan.  I watched the Australian F1 GP, which back then was really the only one televised in kid friendly hours.  I enjoyed the Australian Touring Car Championship watching the likes of Peter Brock and Dick Johnson.  But it was never a big thing for me.  My favourite sport to watch back then was probably basketball, massive Chicago Bulls fan that I was then as now.

But then in April 1989 Australia got it’s first motorcycle Grand Prix, held at Phillip Island, and everything changed.

Dad was interested to see how it went, especially since there had been such a build up both at his work and in the general media.  It was the first motorcycle Grand Prix shown live, during the day, on Australian TV as far as I can recall.  Certainly the first time the 125cc and 250cc classes had been shown live, possibly ever.  The nation’s interest in the sport was growing at a rapid rate thanks to Wayne Gardner who’d been the first Australian to win the World Championship just a couple of years earlier.  He had worked tirelessly promoting the sport since and it was largely due to him, and promoter Bob Barnard, that saw the Grand Prix come to Australia for the first time.

GJYUYUSo on April 7 1989, we flicked Channel 9 on in the morning for the day’s events.  We watched the 125cc race together.  The commentary was from Barry Sheene and the man who is still the voice of MotoGP today, Nick Harris.  It was an enjoyable affair.  Future champion Alex Criville took his first ever GP win.  Not that that meant anything to me then of course.  Next up was the 250s.  I remember Dad went out to mow the lawn.  Don’t ask me why I remember that, but I do.  He told me to come and get him before the start of the main race.  I asked him how I would know what the main race was.  He told me it was the one with Gardner in it.  Fair enough.  I could remember that.  Go get Dad when I see the Gardner bloke.

Now, if I’d gone and got him everytime that number two Rothman’s Honda appeared on screen I’d have covered more miles than Burke and Wills as the hype surrounding the 500cc race, and whether Gardner could win it, was immense.

But instead of going off and jumping on the Commodore 64, as was my want in those days, (probably to play H.E.R.O.  I never did understand why that guy could fall six floors and be perfectly ok but a wall covered in red moss killed him instantly.  That’s no moss I’ve ever heard off.), I stayed sat on the couch and watched the 250s.  I enjoyed that quite a lot as well.  The podium again meant nothing to me back then but for the record it was one of extremely high qaulity featuring Sito Pons, Jean-Phillipe Ruggia and Luca Cadalora.  But the names didn’t matter to me.  I was just a nine year old enjoying this new thing.  Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing.  If it was on again, I’d probably watch it.

So as the early afternoon rolled around it seemed the main race was drawing near and so I went and fetched Dad.  He stopped the mower and came inside and we took up residence, with Mum, on the couch.  Probably with some sort of icy pole as that’s how I rememeber watching any sport as a kid in Australia.  The race hadn’t started and the hype was building and I found myself asking all sorts of annoying questions.  Namely, who’s he?  And who’s he?  And who’s he?  I don’t remember if Dad knew all the riders or not but he was very aware of Gardner as well as the two other Rothmans riders, Eddie Lawson and a rookie called Michael Doohan.  He wouldn’t be Mick until years later.  And then there was Kevin Magee and Malcom ‘Wally’ Campbell, the two other Aussies.  Dad had seen Wally race in Australian superbikes previously explaining, I believe, why he was more au fait with a wild card than Wayne Rainey.

So the race started, Kevin Schwantz binned it in rather spectacular fashion and I heard my first joint commentary box ‘Woah’ from the late, great Barry Sheene and Channel 9 commentator, the late, great Daryl Eastlake.  Think a bigger, louder, more entertaining and infinitely better informed Charlie Cox.  There’s sadly little of Daryl on YouTube but here’s a bit of him doing some V8 commentary to either remind you or introduce you.  He was one of a kind alright.  The man was comedy gold.  This was around the time the comedy bug had started to bite as well and in full flight, Daryl was like a Monty Python character.

Schwantz entered lower orbit on a cold tyre high side and as a kid, it was pretty spectauclar to see.  I sat forward a little in my seat.  Wow.  Would someone else do that?  That was pretty awesome.  And he just got up and walked away.  These guys must be super heroes or something, I thought.  And why didn’t they just tip over when they went round the corners leant over so far?  I’d look it all up later and unwittingly start to get my head around physics for the first time.

In the early laps, Gardner was back in sixth or seventh and Dad started to yell at the telly a little.  This made for a nice change, to see him yelling at motorbikes instead of Aussie Rules football umpires.

Anyway, as any bike racing fan will know, what followed was one of the all time great grand prixes.  Talk about an introduction.  Gardner, Rainey, Magee and Christian Sarron went at it like Moto3 kids.  I don’t know many lead changes there were that day, but it was a lot.  Mid race, when the four of them had started a little bit of a breakaway, I was starting to cheer.  To really get into it.  I started to grasp the concept of this being the first ever Australian Grand Prix and there was a genuine chance of an Australian victor.  Or even a one-two.

And besides that, the racing was incredible.  The speed, the skill and the bravery were all instantly apparent to me.  And I wanted to understand everything straight away.  Why did the matter how hot the tyres were?  What’s this slipstreaming they speak of?  I’d always liked sport (I was an Australian kid, not liking sport wasn’t an option) and had always enjoyed science stuff as well having a little home chemistry kit and microscope, and this just seemed to be melting to two together.  And this Gardner chap, he was hard as fucking nails.  He didn’t seem real to a young kid.

22So Gardner pulled off the historic win and I can hear clear as if it was yesterday, Sheene yelling, “He’s got it!  He’s got it,” as Gardner powered onto the front straight that now bares his name, for the final time and past the line.  I had no idea why, but I was cheering too, swept up in all of it.  Then came one of the most replayed and dare I say iconic images in Australian sporting history as Gardner’s then wife Donna ran the length of the front straight in high heels to meet him and celebrate.  It was all a bit odd, a bit cheesy and a bit special.

So my first ever Grand Prix just happened to be one of the all time greats, won by the home town hero, who was from the same country as me, on a bike sponsered by the company my Dad worked for.  It all just seemed to click.  I was hooked.

The next day at school I was talking to anyone and everyone about the race the day before. It turned out that very few people had seen it, and those that had, didn’t care in the way that I did.  Didn’t they understand?  I’d just seen the most awesome sporting event ever and it was going to change my life.  I no longer cared about what happened in the latest Ninja Turtles comic that came out this morning.

OK, that was a lie, I still cared about that.

Anyway, this was 1989 and there was no internet for anyone outside of the military so I had no way of quickly looking further into this new found passion.  I had just decided that Wayne Gardner might be some sort of God and I needed to investigate further.  So after school I got Mum to take me to one of those ancient things we used to call, “The Video Shop.”

I’ll continue tomorrow in what I am tentatively calling, Part 2.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A Kid Watches a Grand Prix (Pt II) | Trunk Talk - […] One of me crapping on about how I got into motorbike racing is here.  Part two, quite clearly is…

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