There is an old saying that ‘behind every great man there is always a great woman’. But on the motorcycle racing scene, while women have always been plentiful, that saying should be more suitably paraphrased as ‘behind every great rider there is always a
From a racing start to spinning the spanners for some of the biggest names in racing history, French was one of the most influential and instrumental people in racing’s past. Here’s his story and an explanation of why many big names owe this particular man a lot.
Way into the Seventies even world champions usually only had a single mechanic assigned to each of the bikes they were riding in the various Grand Prix classes and, in the cases of privateer riders, there was quite often just one man for all available bikes. Those were the days when the riders themselves expected to get their own hands dirty! Not for them the brigade of crew chiefs, computer technicians and ‘engineers’ that fill the pit garages at a Motogp. More often back then it was a luxury to even have a pit garage. Bikes were worked on either in the open air of the paddock, maybe under an awning or even in the back of a van if the weather was bad. Note the use of the word ‘engineers’ by the way – there is no such thing as a lowly ‘mechanic’ these days! And back in the days when engineers were ‘mechanics’ they were also essentially invisible men when it came to press and public recognition of their long hours of labour. There were no backroom boys in those days enjoying the guru-like reputation that Jerry Burgess did during his days with Valentino Rossi. In fact, I can only think of two truly famous ‘spanner men’ from the Sixties and Seventies – Nobby Clarke, who was Mike Hailwood’s right-hand man and the only Westerner that Honda would allow to delve into the internals of its complicated six-cylinder GP racer, and Arturo Magni, who managed the MV Agusta race team and helped prepare the bikes. Kel Carruthers fulfilled the same function with the Kenny Roberts Yamaha team, of course, but he had already achieved his personal fame by winning the 1969 World 250cc Championship as a rider. But many other names could, and perhaps should, be added to what would still be a relatively short list and most assuredly, one of those is that of Vince French. How many other people can possibly say that they have prepared bikes as the Yamaha factory-designated mechanic for no less than five world champions – Giacomo Agostini, Jarno Saarinen, Barry Sheene, Johnny Cecotto and Rod Gould – plus other Yamaha team riders and Grand Prix winners, Tepi Lansivuori and Hideo Kanaya? Not only that, but Vince also stood proudly in Victory Lane with a machine and its rider at the Daytona 200 on three occasions in four years! He prepared the bikes that were ridden to victory in America’s greatest race by Saarinen in 1973, Agostini (working along with Nobby Clarke) in 1974 and Cecotto in 1976. All in all, it’s a success rate that few, if any, of the hard-working men who wield the wrenches have matched.
Even in his pre-teen days, Vince was fascinated by motorcycles – both as mechanical entities and the opportunities they offered for speed and excitement. And as a jockey-sized 13-year-old he came close to having a massive crash on one, even though he had not even learned to ride by that point and the machine was still on its stand! For what he had learned was (a) that he could switch on his brother’s Triumph Bonneville with the aid of a screwdriver in the ignition switch and (b) despite not even being tall enough for his feet to reach the ground, he could kick-start it into life when the bike was on the centre stand. Next, he worked out that with the bike on the stand, the rear wheel was in the air and by selecting first gear he could watch the speedometer needle climb upwards as the wheel spun free. Then the obvious thing was to go up through the gears and see how far round the dial he could get the needle while the bike was still stationary on the stand – all this taking place on the front garden path of the cottage where Vince lived and on which his brother always parked the Bonneville! “I got into top gear and the needle around to about 85mph by the time my brother came charging out of the house to shut me down. I was lucky that he did, as I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of the big twin vibrating itself off the stand. If that had happened I would have smashed down the front door, shot through the house and straight out into the back garden!” A year later, at age 14, he had acquired a bike of his own – a BSA Bantam on which he cemented his ‘bad boy’ reputation amongst the neighbours in the row of what were once plush weavers’ cottages near the centre of his home town of Banbury in Oxfordshire. Around these were a network of pedestrian lanes leading down to the local park and these immediately became Vince’s test track. “The neighbours got really mad when I tested an expansion chamber exhaust one Sunday afternoon,” he recalls, “and that resulted in the bike being taken off me until I was legally able to ride it on the road. In retrospect that probably helped in my future career, as I spent the time stripping it down and tuning it up with the help of Phil Irving’s famous booktuning for Speed. “What we used to call ‘racing Bantams’ were popular with the Banbury boys back then and the time I had spent working on mine meant that it was a quick one once I was able to take in on the road.” By that time Vince had left school, he had learned enough about how a motorcycle worked to get a job as an apprentice mechanic with Eddie Dow’s famous specialist Gold Star shop and he was a junior member of a group of several young Banbury motorcyclists, myself included, who went road racing in the hope of emulating the success of local aces like Eddie himself (he won the Clubman’s TT in 1955) and Dan Shorey, one of the best riders on British short circuits. One of these was Rod Gould who, by 1966, was already battling with Dan on UK tracks and by 1970 he had become a Yamaha works rider and the World 250cc Champion. As can be imagined, he was later to have a big influence on the career of his fellow ‘Banbury Boy’. In 1967, however, Vince still had racing aspirations of his own and he began competing on a Greeves Silverstone Mk2, which he rode for the next season and a half. On the two-stroke single he took a win on the Club circuit at Silverstone, as well as good placings at Cadwell Park and Snetterton, plus the airfield tracks at Llandow in Wales, Wroughton, Staverton and Gaydon, near his Banbury home. Within a short time he had made quite a mark on the club racing scene and was ready to move up to national meetings. Feeling that the Greeves would be outpaced at these, he dug into his hard-earned savings and purchased a short-stroke Aermacchi 250 – at the time seemingly the way to go. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, as more and moreyamaha twins began becoming available in 1970. Vince continued to show his promise in club racing with the Aermacchi, scoring wins at Brands Hatch andthruxton and winning the 1970 Southern 67 Club Championship. But he ruefully remembers a national at Snetterton in which he was up near the front after a good start. That was until the pack got onto the 1/2-mile-long Norwich Straight, which was a feature of the track in those days… “I was flat out in top when a couple of Yamahas came by and changed up twice!” he recalls. His best ride at a national was when he finished eighth in a Mallory Park race late in the 1970 season that was won by Derek Chatterton from Barry Sheene – and in which Vince was the only rider on a now out-dated four-stroke. Despite being out-paced at the nationals, Vince felt that with a change to a Yamaha he could do well enough to warrant quitting his job and becoming a full-time professional for the 1971 season. One of the plus points about getting the Aermacchi was that race commentator Fred Clarke (another of our group of Banbury boy racers) introduced him to Ron Herring, a guy Vince credits with helping him a great deal in his later career. Ron was a bit older than most of our group, whereas Vince was a bit younger, which was why the two had never met. A good rider in his own right and a winner on bikes ranging from racing Bantams to Norton 650 twins, Ron had worked for Sid Lawton, the UK importer of Aermacchi racers. Therefore, he was a great help in imparting his knowledge of the bikes to Vince. Not only that, he was the guy who had built the Yamaha-bultaco that Rod Gould rode to a storming fourth-place finish in the 1968 World 250cc Championship, headed only by the factory Yamaha vee-fours and the factory MZ twin. Furthermore, Ron recognised Vince’s talent and the two had a plan for 1971, aided by the promise of support from Joe Henderson, a Berkshire cattle dealer and enthusiastic sponsor. The plan was that Ron would build a replica of Gould’s Yamaha-bultaco that Joe would own and Vince would ride, with Ron maintaining it during the season. It was a combination that seemed to have more than a good chance of success. To put it into action, Vince felt that he needed a job that paid more than he was making with Eddie Dow and that allowed the chance of lots of overtime during the winter to come. So, he took a job delivering for a local publishing company and left the employ of ‘the Captain’ as ex-military man Cpt W E Dow was referred to by his workforce. Back in those days Eddie also commentated at race meetings and was at Thruxton where Vince scored his first win on the Aermacchi. Joe was also there and happened to remark to Eddie that Vince had ridden well. But ‘the Captain’ was in no mood to give Vince a pat on the back… “Don’t talk to me about Vince right now, Joe,” he said. “The silly young bugger has just left my employ for a dead-end job… just for the sake of a paltry shilling an hour!” Sadly, Vince’s plans for putting that extra shilling an hour to good use never did come about, as he was badly hurt in a crash at Brands Hatch in the Stars of Tomorrow race at the end of the 1970 season. He had won three or four times at Brands earlier in the year, but arrived at this important race to find he had been relegated to the back of the grid, as his entry had arrived late. Worse still, his arch-rival and local club favourite was on the front row. A hard charge through the pack was needed to make up this immediate deficit, but Vince charged too hard, too soon and, after passing almost half the field by the first corner, slid off into the barely-protected barriers at the bottom of Paddock Hill. The marshals and medical staff got to him quickly enough, removed his helmet and began checking him over. But more mayhem was to come. While the medics were working on Vince, another rider slid off and crashed right into them. So, instead of the hoped-for trip to the podium, it was an ambulance ride to Sidcup General Hospital, where he was detained for a week with broken bones all down the left side of his body from his collarbone to his knee. After that he was picked up and brought back home to Banbury by Rod Gould and Fred Clarke, stretched out on the back seat of Rod’s big BMW saloon. The subsequent recuperation and convalescence, plus the fact that he was unable to drive, meant that he would be off work for three months, so there would be no cash to go racing as a full-time professional in 1971.
DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT VINCE RIGHT NOW, JOE, HE SAID. THE SILLY YOUNG BUGGER HAS LEFT MY EMPLOY FOR A DEAD-END JOB… JUST FOR THE SAKE OF A PALTRY SHILLING AN HOUR!
Rod realised this and, having known Vince for years, made him a job offer as his mechanic in the 1971 season. Randy Hall, the guy who had worked with Rod since 1968 and helped him to the 1970 world title, had returned to his native California to become manager of the US Kawasaki race team, so Rod had a vacancy for someone that he knew and trusted. He knew that Vince had already had a taste of the race mechanic’s lifestyle from accompanying and assisting Ron Herring at race meetings when Ron was working with various Yamaha riders such as Tony Rutter and Phil Read. “Actually, Phil was the first world champion I worked with,” says Vince, “as I helped out when Ron Herring was looking after his 350 Yamaha and I had gone with Ron to Monza. It wasn’t as a mechanic, however. I was just the gopher… going for this and going for that.” At the end of the weekend, Phil gave Vince £5… which was, in fact, £5 more than Vince had expected. And, as Phil said when the pair met again recently at Silverstone, “a fiver was good money for a gopher in those days!” So, when Rod’s offer of a full-time job on the Yamaha payroll came along, Vince certainly seriously considered it. At the time, however, he was still dreaming of a racing future of his own and eventually told Rod: “Thanks, but no thanks.” As it happened, 1971 was a frustrating year for them both. Once he had spent just about all of his money rebuilding the Aermacchi, Vince’s season never really got off the blocks and Rod lost his world title to Read by just five points. He had several non-finishes with mechanical problems when just one more finish as low as fifth place would have seen him take his second championship. Therefore, at the end of 1971, he again made the job offer to Vince. And at that point Vince faced up to reality about the prospects of his own racing career and accepted. It was a sensible decision and undoubtedly the most significant career move of his life. In those days, the Yamaha bikes were all run by satellite importer teams. Rod’s bikes carried the name of the Swissyamaha importer, Hostettler, for example, while Jarno Saarinen’s were under the auspices of Arwidson, the Finnish importer and so on for the various Yamaha riders like Kent Andersson, Chas Mortimer and Barry Sheene. The base for all the race bikes, however, was at the Yamaha Europe workshops just outside Amsterdam in Holland and that was where Vince would live in a hotel when not on the road at races across Europe. It was a glamorous life for a young Banbury boy, albeit a hard-working one. But it wasn’t all glamorous. When the team arrived in the Eifel Mountains for the GP season-opener in West Germany in April, for example, it was snowing! Rod was running one of the first water-cooled Yamaha twins and Vince deliberately drained the cooling system in anticipation of an overnight freeze. “It just seemed like common sense to do that,” says Vince, “but several guys whose bikes had water-cooling didn’t drain their systems and there were lots of people running around the paddock next day looking for Araldite to repair cracks in the radiators and cylinder water jackets.” Rod finished sixth in that race but, after a DNF at Clermont Ferrand in France, he was leading the Austrian Grand Prix by a comfortable margin from the eventual winner Borge Jansson (Derbi) and Saarinen when the crankshaft of the Yamaha ran its main bearings. The team stayed on in Austria for testing and fault-finding after fitting a new crankshaft. Double checking after re-assembly, Vince found the drive-side main crankshaft bearing was running free in the direction of the engine’s rotation. But when he took the unusual step of checking in the other direction, he did find some resistance. Stripping the engine again, he found that the bearing cages were breaking up. He reported his findings to Mizu-san, the factory race team’s chief engineer, which led to a re-design in Japan and a big thank-you for Vince. All satellite teams were issued with new crankshaft assemblies for the next race. That was at Imola, where Rod was second to the Aermacchi of Renzo Pasolini but ahead of Saarinen. Two more second places followed, in the Isle of MANTT and Yugoslavian GP, before Rod won the Dutch TT at Assen, again beating Pasolini and Saarinen. It was the first of many big race victories for engines prepared by Vince and one he celebrated in style in the notorious ‘party district’ of Amsterdam, his new home town. Following the Assen win came a solid string of results for the team. Rod was second to Saarinen in Belgium, third to Pasolini and Saarinen in East Germany, fourth in Czechoslovakia and finally another win came when Rod relegated the champion-in-waiting, Saarinen, to the second step on the podium. That was to be Rod’s last GP win, as he crashed in a UK non-championship race at Oulton Park and smashed his kneecap in what was to be a career-ending injury. But his final year had still been a good one, with third place in the championship thanks to a couple of Grand Prix wins, and five podium places. Moreover, only he and Pasolini had been able to beat the new sensation, Saarinen, in a straight fight. Rod also rode to fourth place in the World 500cc Championship behind Giacomo Agostini, Alberto Pagani and Bruno Kneubuhler after only four races on the 354cc twin Yamaha were using as a development exercise that year. Vince was also preparing these bikes and Rod rewarded him with second places to Agostini in East Germany and Sweden and thirds in Belgium and Finland. After Rod had gone into retirement after his Oulton Park crash, Vince still had work to do in the 1972 season, as it was decided that the engine from Rod’s 250 would be loaned to the young rising star, Barry Sheene (riding for the French Sonauto Yamaha team) for the final GP of the year at Montjuic Park in Barcelona. With the engine went its custodian, Vince, and the combination put the Yamaha on the podium in Spain with third place behind Pasolini and another Flying Finn, Tepi Lansivuori. So Rod’s decision to bring in fellow Banbury boy Vince as his mechanic proved to be a good one and his choice was ratified by the Yamaha management when they told Vince that he would be the mechanic entrusted with the 250 and 350 machines that would be ridden in 1973 by the new World Champion, Saarinen. Moreover, Vince would now be a full factory mechanic. With the arrival of the new 500cc four-cylinder racer, Yamaha Japan would be back in Europe with a bang! Satellite teams would continue but the focus of the factory would be on its new superstar, Saarinen, backed up by the Japanese Hideo Kanaya for the first half of the season that was all the factory seemed to allow its domestic riders in GP competition. They would each ride the 250 and 500cc classes with Japanese mechanics looking after the 500s and Nobby Clarke responsible for Kanaya’s 250. Vince would be taking care of Jarno’s smaller machines, as well as helping with the new 500 four as and when needed. It had the makings of being a dream season and it certainly started that way. The Daytona 200 was the first race and Vince prepared a 350 twin for Jarno in the unique yellow and black Yamaha USA livery. Jarno won comfortably from the similarly-equipped Yamaha USA team leader Kel Carruthers and privateer Jim Evans on another Yamaha twin, this one prepared by well-respected American tuner, Mel Dinesen. Then came what was being described as ‘the European Daytona’ – the Imola 200 – and Jarno won again. After that, the Grand Prix season got going – and what a start it was for the combination of Jarno, Vince and the 250 Yamaha. Three straight Grand Prix wins for Jarno in France, Austria and Germany, with Kanaya second each time. And things were almost as good in the 500 class. Jarno topped the podium in France and Austria and then set a new lap record at Hockenheim in Germany before the drive chain broke and Phil Read inherited the win for MV Agusta. The popular and likeable Finn was literally on the top of his world and, after little more than two GP seasons, was already established as a racing superstar. But then came the tragedy at Monza. A multiple-rider crash in the 250cc race took the lives of Jarno and Pasolini and seriously injured several others. For the motorcycle world in general – and especially for Vince – it was a disaster of unimaginable proportions. “I had never been at a meeting before where a rider was killed,” Vince recalls, “and at first it didn’t seem real. I just felt numb and just wanted to be by myself. It doesn’t take much to imagine what the atmosphere was like at the Yamaha team hotel afterwards.
AT THE TIME, HOWEVER, HE WAS STILL DREAMING OF A RACING FUTURE OF HIS OWN AND EVENTUALLY TOLD ROD: THANKS, BUT NO THANKS.
“I had to wait there for three days with Nobby Clarke until Jarno’s brothers came down from Finland to collect him. In some ways, they were more composed than me.the Saarinen family were in business as funeral directors, which I suppose gives you a different attitude to death, even when it affects you personally. “Nobby and I drove Jarno’s VW camper back and followed his brothers for three days across Europe. It was an awful trip knowing that his body was just up ahead of us. “When we got to Finland, the whole of the Yamaha team came for the funeral and I felt honoured to be one of the coffin’s escorts along with Jarno’s brothers, Hideo Kanaya and Rod Gould. But it was still an awful time and it took me a long while to get over it all”. After Saarinen’s death, Yamaha withdrew the official team from racing and all the 500cc fours and the crew returned to Japan. Vince and Clarke returned to Amsterdam, unsure of their racing future and in the meantime they switched to research and development on road bikes like the problematical 750cc four-stroke twin of that time. Vince, in fact, wasn’t even sure that he wanted to continue working in the racing area. Meanwhile, although Yamaha Japan had withdrawn its factory team, the satellite importer teams were continuing to race with the 350 and 250cc twins. And about a month after Jarno’s death, Yamaha Europe asked Vince if he would be interested in working with another Finnish rider, Lansivuori, and the Arwidson team at the Dutch GP in Assen. This circuit was an hour or so north of the company’s base in Amsterdam, where Vince was still working while also contemplating his future. “The offer was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time,” says Vince, “as I knew that Tepi and Jarno were great friends and this changed my outlook. I truly felt that Jarno would have approved, so I agreed to work with Tepi.” A very fast 350 arrived from Japan a couple of days before Assen and aboard it Lansivuori broke the lap record ahead of the MV Agusta duo of Agostini and Read but then he had gear selector problems and dropped back to finish third. With his mind now in a better place, Vince worked with Lansivuori for rest of his season on the 350 and this resulted in wins in Czechoslovakia and Sweden. In turn, this meant that he finished second in the 350cc Championship, splitting the MV Agustas of Agostini and Read. For the MV riders, the writing on the wall hadn’t been hard to read – even though Ago had won the World 350 Championship and Read had taken the 500cc title. It was obvious that the two-strokes, were the way of the future and the MV stranglehold on the 500cc class, which had lasted for an incredible 16 years, was surely soon to be broken. Since first contesting the classes in 1965, Agostini had won an incredible 13 World Championships in the 350 and 500cc classes by the end of the 1973 season. At that point he surprised the world of motorcycle racing and probably outraged the whole of Italy by switching to Yamaha after a secret deal brokered behind the scenes by his former Grand Prix rival and nowyamaha Europe PR Director, Rod Gould. For Vince, this meant another new chapter in his life, as Yamaha Japan came back into racing at full-strength for 1974 and Vince was co-opted into the factory team to work with Agostini and his team-mate, Lansivuori. Now he would be working full-time on the sensational four-cylinder 500s. Before that, however, there was an equally sensational machine to prepare. Yamaha had built a 700cc version and had built 200 of these to qualify the bike for the popular Formula 750 class. As a result, Vince would be going back to Daytona whereyamaha Japan was to run a pair of TZ750S for Agostini’s first visit to America’s most important race and Lansivuori’s return after an exploratory visit as a privateer in 1973. A new experience for Vince at this race would be refuelling the big and thirsty Yamahas. This was a two-man job, so in the week before the race, Vince and Clarke practiced the routine under the guidance of Kel Carruthers, now retired from riding and the manager of the Yamaha USA race team. Vince handled the large intake hose, holding it on his hip and plugging it into the aircraft-type filler valve on the side of the gas tank. Nobby handled the vent tube, which allowed air out of the tank as the new fuel rushed in. The procedure was that Nobby would place the vent tube in first, then Vince followed with the fuel. Then, only when Vince pulled out, Nobby would follow suit. The whole operation took only a few seconds but had to be performed absolutely in the correct order. If Nobby pulled out first, then the four carburettors would flood and restarting would be difficult, perhaps even impossible. “I loved it, as it was intensely exciting,” says Vince. “There’s not actually much in a mechanic’s life that gets the adrenalin pumping, but those few seconds certainly did!” The other thing that gets a mechanic’s juices flowing is watching ‘his’ rider win… so Vince got a double dose at Daytona 1974. Ago led from the start, then got involved in a battle with fellow Yamaha rider Kenny Roberts and the Suzuki team of Barry Sheene and Gary Nixon. Sheene retired with bike problems around the halfway mark, Roberts dropped back with a cracked exhaust pipe slowing his TZ750 and then, with 10 laps to go, Nixon crashed out of second place. After his perfectlyexecuted fuel stop a lap later, Agostini then cruised on to an uncontested win from Roberts and Vince was on his way back to Daytona’s Victory Lane for the second time in two years! Back in Europe, Vince was assigned the responsibility for the machines to be ridden by Lansivuori, who had also been at Daytona on a bike prepared by Vince and finished in a solid fifth place, the last rider out of the 100-strong field to finish on the same lap as the leaders. Working with Tepi was a responsibility that Vince was happy to take on, as he had enjoyed working with him during the last half of the 1973 season. “Apart from Jarno, he was the rider I most enjoyed working with,” says Vince. “I totally respected him, both for his ability and his honesty. If he was having an off-day, he would admit it and not try to hide behind some imagined problem with the bike.” The ‘dream team’ of Yamaha and Agostini paid off to the extent of the Italian winning the World 350cc Championship but the 500 fours of both he and Lansivuori did have more than a few mechanical issues. Phil Read and Gianfranco Bonera topped the 500cc standings with their MV Agusta four-stroke fours ahead of Tepi, who was just two points behind Bonera and 10 ahead of Agostini. The highlight of the year for Vince was the Swedish GP at Anderstorp, where, prior to the race, there were issues with porous crankcases on one of Tepi’s engines. Vince had to argue with team personnel to borrow a spare engine for Tepi to use in the race – an engine that had been earmarked for Agostini. Tepi then went out and did the 350 and 500 double and Ago crashed while chasing him in the 500cc race! But with Agostini always going to be the designated number one in the Yamaha GP team, Lansivuori felt that this was holding him back and he switched to Suzuki for 1975. “He asked me to go with him,” Vince remembers, “and I enjoyed working with him and respected him so much that I would have switched camps had we been able to get agreement with the Suzuki factory before the end of the year.” Still at Yamaha for 1975, Vince began the season with Hideo Kanaya, working on his 350 twin. On this bike, Hideo won the Austrian GP and then went on to win the 500 race as well after Agostini had problems. “I was always very impressed with him,” says Vince, “and I could never understand why he only ever did half a year in Grands Prix. “And as with Tepi, I always had the feeling that he and Hideo were perhaps having to ride to team orders and genuinely feel that either of them could have been a world champion in the right circumstances.” After Kanaya’s customary mid-season return to Japan, Vince became part of the crew working on Ago’s machines in the year that the Italian superstar delivered Yamaha its first World 500cc Championship.
I LOVED IT, AS IT WAS INTENSELY EXCITING, SAYS VINCE. THERE’S NOT ACTUALLY MUCH IN A MECHANIC’S LIFE THAT GETS THE ADRENALIN PUMPING, BUT THOSE FEW SECONDS CERTAINLY DID!
The winner of the 350cc title that same season was a young Venezuelan by the name of Johnny Cecotto and it was to his team that Vince was despatched by Yamaha for 1976. The team was a satellite operation run by the Venezuelan Yamaha importer, Venemotos, so in January Vince packed his bags and headed to Caracas for the early season preparations. It was his first time working in a ‘third world’ Latin American country and he wasn’t impressed. “There was no organisation and everything seemed to be left to the last minute,” he says. “I didn’t speak much Spanish and, obviously, I didn’t understand the general culture. But it seemed to me like it was a culture in which people figured that things would always work out in the end and that, if you finally had to make something happen, you could do that by the back door. “That was usually by ‘knowing a man who could’ or maybe by persuasion in the form of a favourable deal, perhaps even a threat and for sure a backhander into the right pocket.” Vince’s first evidence of a lack of organisation at Venemotos came when he was about to fly to Miami to collect the bikes and spares that had been shipped on ahead for the Daytona 200… only to find that no rental transport had been arranged in advance and he would need to find one on arrival. This he did, but he had to make do with the only one available – a monster van about 35 feet long! Moreover, American truck drivers are generally big ol’ boys and Vince is just a little chap. He had to put his suitcase between himself and the seat-back so he could reach the pedals for the 200-mile drive north to Daytona Beach. More evidence of the lack of pre-race organisation came when he got to the track and found that Venemotos hadn’t organised a pit garage. He finally secured one but it was so inconveniently positioned outside the main paddock that it was better to use the back of a truck as a workshop. It was lucky that he had been forced to rent a big one! Further evidence of the Venemotos’ lack of planning was that they had not read the Daytona regulations and, therefore, the bikes were not equipped with the silencers demanded by American racing rules. These had to be sourced, purchased and fitted before the bikes could be scrutineered. This delayed practice for the team but, once underway, it did go reasonably well, apart from some problems with pistons cracking around the skirt area. Some judicious filing removed the stresses at these points and the newtz750 OW31 ran well enough for Cecotto to qualify fourth behind Roberts, Steve Baker and Kanaya – all on similar machines. On the morning of the race there was drama when Cecotto thought that the Yamaha might have seized in the pre-race warm-up session. There was no option but to check this out. Luckily, all was okay, but Vince only just got the bike to the grid in time. Roberts led in the early laps from Cecotto, both riders running a very fast pace at lap record speed. The fuel stop went smoothly for Vince and at about the 175-mile mark Cecotto had a good lead over Roberts. It was at this point that Vince noticed that one of the Yamaha USA hierarchy in the next pit was deep in conversation with the Goodyear tyre representative and the pair were glancing over in his direction. Almost immediately after this, the Goodyear man approached Vince to tell him that it would be advisable to bring Johnny in for a rear tyre change. This race was Vince’s first experience with Goodyear tyres, so he had asked the technician several times whether the rear tyres would go the full 200 miles and was repeatedly assured that they would last out the race. Therefore, he didn’t feel inclined to follow orders and deny Cecotto the victory – especially as he had finished third the year before without problems and would have a good feel for tyre behaviour. Suspecting that Yamaha USA might have been after a bit of home side advantage, Vince told the Goodyear man: “I must have asked you a dozen times if the tyres would go the distance and every time you said there would
ALMOST IMMEDIATELY AFTER THIS, THE GOODYEAR MAN APPROACHED VINCE TO TELL HIM THAT IT WOULD BE ADVISABLE TO BRING JOHNNY IN FOR A REAR TYRE CHANGE.
be no problem. So I’ll tell you what I’ll do; when I see you bring Kenny in for a tyre change, then I will bring Johnny in on the very next lap.” Theyamaha USA team never did order Roberts into the pits, though he made their mind up for them when his rear tyre later deflated in a slow corner. Fortunately, Kenny was able to get back to the pits and change the rear wheel, eventually finishing ninth, two laps down. Meanwhile, Cecotto had a very comfortable lead over Gary Nixon’s Kawasaki, even though his race pace had been reduced by a cracked expansion chamber. And, with Roberts out of the running, he could ease the pace still further to bring the Yamaha home with a full lap advantage over the rest of the field. “Via our pit boards I told Johnny what his advantage was over Nixon and that Roberts had pitted. By this time there were very few laps left and I felt that with his previous experience at Daytona he was completely able to monitor his tyre’s behaviour and make up his own mind. “I feel that Kenny’s tyre problem might well have come about because he was having to ride harder to reduce Johnny’s lead – and certainly Johnny had no qualms about riding carefully to the finish once he was clear of the pack. “There was some gossip afterwards about his rear tyre being down to the inner cords at the finish but that wasn’t the case. There was 100% of the rubber coating left… admittedly not a very thick layer, but still enough to do the job without any cords showing.” Despite it having been a close-run thing, the result meant the third trip to Daytona’s Victory Lane in four years for Vince and a great start to a new year with a new rider. Unfortunately, the rest of season would turn out to be one he would rather forget. One reason was that he was delegated to work on a year-old 500 that wasn’t competitive with the new 1976 bikes. And it wasn’t long before the pre-daytona worries about Venemotos’ lack of organisation came up again. For an early season race in France, Vince arrived with the bikes to find that Venemotos had not filed an official entry. This meant that the FIM and French federation bureaucrats denied the team access to the paddock! Obviously, the reigning World 350cc Champion was going to be allowed in at some point but Vince sat in the transporter outside the paddock entrance and fumed for a whole day while the situation was sorted out and important practice sessions were missed. It was this sort of thing that led to Vince quitting the team, disillusioned with the way that it was run. “There was more than one occasion when we had to make an overnight drive to a race after working late the previous day,” he says, “and then get the bikes out for practice after a quick nap in the cab of the truck. “I thought that this was dangerous for the rider at the track and even for the crew when out on the road. “By halfway through the season I’d just had enough with the various hassles, so I quit. It wasn’t the way I wanted to finish the season – especially as it meant that I had burned my bridges with Yamaha. You don’t just walk away from a Japanese factory team and expect to walk back in again in the future. “On top of that I had submitted a very critical report on the Venemotos team situation to Yamaha Europe, but was asked to let the PR department tone it down before it went to Japan. “I wouldn’t put my signature to a watereddown version, so it was a case of sayonara to one of the best periods of my life.” Despite this, Vince remained a fixture in the Grand Prix paddocks for many years, firstly as Champion Spark Plugs man on the spot and then in the same role for Shoei Helmets. Finally, his life turned full circle when he joined the prototype department at Aston Martin and found himself driving cars around the company test track on the former V-bomber base at Gaydon, not far from his Banbury home. Part of this track was where Vince had raced his Greeves Silverstone and Aermacchi and, where even earlier, he had cycled over to watch air shows as a schoolboy. Now retired, he lives comfortably in an 18th-century cottage in a North Cotswold village not far from Banbury where it all began for him.