Our Stafford Show special guest talks to CMM!
Idon’t like you and I don’t like the newspaper you represent. Keep out of my way from now on.” It’s August 1996 and I’m stood in the sweltering pit-lane of the Sentul racetrack in Indonesia. Aaron Slight is jabbing his finger into my chest as he utters those words. He’s half my size but I’m scared. Scared because those dark, unblinking eyes are boring into my skull and the right hand and forearm that the jabbing finger is attached to are very heavily scarred, courtesy of an almost careerending crash at Suzuka in 1990. He’s also got a brightly coloured Mohican haircut. On track or off, you really don’t mess with Slighty. I’d written something in the weekly paper about a war of words between Aaron and his then-team-mate Carl Fogarty. Honda didn’t like their two factory stars bickering and told them off. The pair of them then told me off! By the following round at Sugo, the normally friendly and affable Aaron was back and all was forgotten. Aaron Slight is guest of honour at The 24th Carole Nash Classic Motorcycle Mechanics Show (October 14-15) and what a guest he will be. Now, we could now harp on about Slighty being ‘the best rider never to have won a World Superbike title’ but that would do the man a disservice as there’s so much more to find out. Alongside the seven poles, 13 World Superbike race wins (plus one at Hockenheim in ’99 where the results went back a lap) he also took 42 seconds and 32 thirds, all of which gave him the two runner-up spots in the WSB championship. There are other remarkable achievements, such as three back-to-back Suzuka 8-Hour race wins (’93-’95) the 1991 Aussie and Pan-pacific Superbike championships and a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit Award. Perhaps the most impressive of all was coming back to race just 12 weeks after major brain surgery, when – at the start of 2000 – a two centimetre bleed was found on Aaron’s brain. This condition had clearly
not only affected his run-up to the 2000 WSB campaign, but also his 1999 campaign, where he finished an out-of-sorts third overall. Looking back now, how does he feel about his amazing career? “I came from a small town in New Zealand so when I look back, it’s been an amazing ride. At the time lots of great Kiwi racers came on the scene and I think if I was around just five years later it wouldn’t have happened that way. It’s a tough road for a Kiwi to make it on the international scene so you have to take any opportunities with both hands.” And take them he did, but the road out of Masterton was a long one. The young Aaron first showed an interest in rugby but soon bikes took hold, following a family holiday to the Wanganui circuit to watch some racing. Persuading his future uncle to lend him a go on his Yamaha GT80MX started it all and there was no looking back. More dirt bikes and then dirt racing courtesy of local sponsorship from Gregory Motorcycles all helped and were backed by Slighty’s own knowledge working for Gregory’s as a mechanic. The move to road-racing happened aged 18, when he followed pal Peter Blackwood onto the Tarmac, but tragedy struck soon after when the pair decided to enter a flat-track race for fun, a race in which Peter was to lose his life. Back in the 1980s, most of the racing occurring Down Under was production based. Aaron rode TZRS, RZ350S (RDS to us) and an RZ500 but his first big four-stroke stuck in his mind. “My Yamaha FZ750 was an awesome bike,” recalls Aaron. “It was my first big four-stroke. All the hype was about the five-valve head and that this was gonna be the big thing. I was racing with Robert Holden and he was the man to beat alongside Bob Toomey but our rules were open production so they had GSX-R1100S and I had a 750! They were sure I had something like an 860cc motor in there, as I would leave them for dead and when they caught up, I was outbraking them motocross style! The FZ wasn’t a full-on race bike for the road like the GSX-R750 but it did things as good or better. I won an F1 race because – when we rolled up onto the grid – it was sprinkling with rain and all the F1 bikes had slicks or full wets on, but my production tyres were half-and-half and I won even though I was spinning and sliding! I beat Rob and Rodger Freeth that day on their F1 bikes, so it was pretty special.” During the late 1980s/early 1990s, Aaron was crossing swords with the very best of the Down Under talent. Not just Kiwis like Holden, Simon Crafar and Andrew Stroud, but Aussies like Michael Dowson, Pete Goddard, up-and-coming riders like Mick Doohan and later Daryl Beattie as well as veterans like Rob Phillis – a rider who would become Aaron’s team-mate in the Team Kawasaki Australia squad. Winning the 1991 Australian Superbike championship would lead to Aaron making the step to World Superbikes, where he won his first WSB race at Albacete in 1992. More wins didn’t come, as he was often asked to play back-up to Scott Russell, especially during the American’s championship year of 1993. For 1994 came the call from Honda to ride the new RC45 V4, the replacement to the legendary RC30. He would be paired with previously dominant Texan (on a Ducati, at least) Doug Polen. “That V4 eventually became an amazing piece of kit,” recalls Aaron. “For the years we raced it, we were doing everything to beat a bigger capacity V-twin. If we wanted something to make the bike better, Honda would make it. One year we tried five different swingarms to get the tyres to last longer. When I rode it for the final time at Sugo in 1999 it was a masterpiece. At that final session they put
So, what of the Honda V-twin that became the all-conquering Honda VTR1000/RC51? Slight was the man doing the developing but fate decreed that he wouldn’t get a fair crack at the title on it… He says: “I was at a test just after I’d missed out on the 1998 title and I was following Shinichi Itoh and found I was 23km/h slower on the Firestorm-powered test bike down the straights, but just a second behind on lap times. I knew that if we got some power in this thing, we’d be laughing. You’d have 30% more torque on the big V-twin which you could use more than any top-end.” Aaron had a tough time in 1999 as he was “often pulling double testing duty on the VTR and the RC45. I’d had the best year ever in 1998 but started 1999 feeling pretty shit. I knew I was fitter than ever and a better rider than ever, but I spent 1999 feeling constantly fatigued. Little did I know that a malformed vein was putting pressure on my brain and would bleed out while testing the VTR at Eastern Creek: thankfully an MRI scan in early 2000 found it.” Aaron came back for the fifth round of the 2000 World Superbike championship. He’d never win a WSB race again, but he’d won the hearts of race-watchers the world over and – in an emotional finale – he threw his Castrol Honda leathers into the Brands Hatch crowd at the final race of the season. Aaron earnt well from bike racing and today – after a number of years touring car racing and Porsche Cup racing – Aaron invests wisely, including in his dad Rex’s business: Mitre 10 Mega Store, which has 40 big hardware shops located across New Zealand. He adds: “In my small town racing career I didn’t make the dollars that Carl Fogarty did: he opens his mouth and makes dollars! “Here, back home in Masterton I’m just Aaron Slight and I’m grounded. I’m making things happen with my money and investing here and there. The pond is so small here. I did look a bit green eyed at people after racing and the opportunities they have around the world, but there wasn’t anything else to do here. No commentary work, management or anything like that. This is why coming to the CMM show at Stafford will keep me in the bike scene.” a new crank in it, which gave 1.5bhp more. I asked what that was for and was told it was a development part for the future four-stroke Honda Motogp V5 engine. Lots of the RCV211V’S tech came from the RC45 race bike – including some cylinder head and crank tech. Our 750cc V4 was by then pumping out close to 190bhp, so think about it: if you’re adding another 30% displacement, the power from adding another cylinder is huge.” It’s a shame that Slighty’s time on the V4 was one of those ‘what ifs’. While 1994 was a pure development year, he still managed to be in the fight for the title and handily beat his team-mate. There were improvements in 1995, but with Polen’s early departure Aaron shouldered most of the development and raced for most of the year alone in the team. He beat Foggy on identical bikes in 1996, but the V4 was still suffering in comparison to the Ducatis. The next saw the mercurial talents of John Kocinski take the title, but only after the whole Castrol Honda set-up was spun around and focused on the little American and (it has to be said) the many wet races suited him. It really should have been Slighty’s year in 1998, but the man just had no luck. The huge list of misfortunes is too long to recount, but included being knocked off by back-markers, a mechanical blow-up at Monza, electrical issues at Donington, year-long brake issues with the Brembo master cylinder and a duff Michelin tyre at the season-ender at Sugo, which saw him the bridesmaid once again by 4.5 points to Foggy.
Carl Fogarty: if one rivalry needs to be brought up it’s this one. Carl would remark that ‘no-one put pressure on you like Aaron did’. Today perhaps the pair have both mellowed. Slight says: “We saw Carl a few years back at Monza as we still talk to Michaela and she explained how he’s changed – and he has.” With Slight’s vocal challenges over the years in World Superbike about the rules between the four-cylinder machines and the twins, it was strange that he never made the swap to Ducati. He says: “The reason I wouldn’t, was that I wanted a signed contract in front of me, whereas the Ducati way was more ‘turn up for the first test and we will see you there!’ I really only had year-on-year deals and I wanted a signed contract. I got that from Honda.” Talking of contracts, back then the 8-Hour was vital to any Japanese factory’s agenda: “The 8-Hour was at the top of my contract then it talked about World Supers. It was the same for Mick in 500s. The 8-Hour was great back then, as you had all the grand prix riders and the superbike riders racing together. I think my three wins there came from mechanical sympathy. I’d even roll off if it meant I didn’t have to do another lap at the end of the race. The racing there hasn’t moved on as much. I heard they did 216 laps at the 2017 8-Hour race on a 1000cc bike with rider aids, but in 1995 we did 212 laps in 8-Hours on 750s with no electronics…” And what about 500cc GPS: many felt Slighty would be well-suited to a 500cc two-stroke. His first chance came when he abortively flew to Europe to negotiate with Giacomo Agostini to join the Marlboro Yamaha team. That fell through as it was dependent on Ago stealing the services of Kevin Schwantz, where Aaron would be the team number two. He also had talks with Garry Taylor of Lucky Strike Suzuki, but these too led to naught. His loyalty to Honda almost got him in. Aaron recalls: “It was at Phillip Island and the GP team had a three-day test there. I did the last afternoon only and was two seconds slower than Mick Doohan, 0.4 behind Alex Criville and Loris Capirossi and faster than Itoh. I was like; ‘where do I sign?’ Honda said: ride for nothing in 500cc GPS or ride in WSB and get paid. Itoh was Japanese and the Europeans brought money to the teams. The NSR500 was a lovely motorcycle, built to do the job, but if GPS had gone four-strokes earlier, perhaps things would have gone better?” Today Aaron says that life is good. He and wife Megan returned back to Masterton in 2004 after living in Monaco during his bike and car race years. Now with a 10-year-old daughter, Slighty fits in the odd bit of driver training with Aston Martin and Lamborghini while helping coach sports teams at his daughter’s school. He’s now drawing up his own plans for their new house (he was good at maths and technical drawing at school) and he may well restore his old TZR250 proddie race bike, should he get the time. Hey, Slighty, write about it for us!
The Slight style was awesome to behold: hunched over the front, searching for grip.
His hairstyles got wilder...
Leading greats like Gobert, Crafar and Edwards at Donington in 1996.
BELOW: Check the Maori tattoo on his Arai.
ABOVE: Aaron was a Honda man for seven years.
ABOVE: Three of the best superbike riders of the 1990s: Carl Fogarty, Scott Russell and Aaron Slight.
BELOW: Aaron winning one of his three back-to-back Suzuka 8-Hour races.