THE BE­GIN­NING OF COM­PE­TI­TION

Classic Racer - - HOW IT BEGAN -

John Surtees may have had his first taste of rid­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle at the age of 12 on the Wal­lace-black­burne speed­way bike, but it wasn’t un­til the lofty age of 14 that he took his first step into mo­tor­cy­cle com­pe­ti­tion. John said: “I was 14 when I first en­tered a race. It was as a pas­sen­ger to my fa­ther in his 1000cc Vin­cent side­car out­fit at Trent Park in Lon­don when his usual part­ner couldn’t make the race.” In a set of his fa­ther’s old leathers, the young John be­came adept at pro­vid­ing trac­tion by shift­ing around the out­fit, but his early taste of ac­tion was cur­tailed when of­fi­cials dis­cov­ered his age, and promptly dis­qual­i­fied him for be­ing un­der­age! He was bit­ten by the bug though and just be­fore his son’s 15th birth­day Jack Surtees let John loose for an im­promptu blast along a pub­lic road at War­ling­ham Heights on the North Downs: “It was a glo­ri­ous mo­ment. Al­though the bike was too big for me I took to it im­me­di­ately. I re­mem­ber my fa­ther warn­ing me to take it easy but once I was on the bike and had the open road in front of me I was away. It was a life-chang­ing mo­ment.” Nat­u­rally, John Surtees was to find his way to a solo race and this was in 1948 aboard a 500cc B14 Ex­cel­sior-jap, pretty much fol­low­ing in his fa­ther's foot­steps. That first out­ing at Ea­ton-bray grasstrack in Lu­ton had many more downs than ups and af­ter a clutch of falls Jack stepped in and said that his son had bet­ter try out some­thing smaller and more man­age­able. As it was, this co­in­cided with a piece of his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. Brands Hatch had just been given its new paved sur­face and in April 1950 John Surtees took to the solid sur­face with gusto on a Tri­umph Tiger 70, a pre­war 250cc mo­tor­cy­cle. “At the start of the race it wasn't rain­ing but it started soon af­ter we got go­ing. One mo­ment I was up and the next I was slid­ing on the track with­out the bike un­der­neath me. It was a les­son learned that day though, I couldn’t just try to win by go­ing fast, I had to be more aware of what was hap­pen­ing around me.” It wasn’t long be­fore the un­re­li­able Tri­umph made way for some­thing big­ger and more ro­bust – a Vin­cent – which, in turn, was moved aside for the first 500cc Manx Nor­ton. That was in 1952 when John made his de­but in his first World Cham­pi­onship race, fin­ish­ing sixth in the Ul­ster GP. The thrill of do­mes­tic racing had lost its glare, in the wake of Les Gra­ham win­ning the in­au­gu­ral 500cc World Cham­pi­onship in 1949, John Surtees had found a route to global com­pe­ti­tion...

Left: John work­ing on the Tri­umph at Brands Hatch. His fa­ther is hold­ing the han­dle­barss and jour­nal­ist Char­lie Rous (in the beret) is one of the on­look­ers.

Right: Jack the driver, John the pas­sen­ger but both are us­ing their bod­ies to coun­terr the ef­fects of the big Vin­cent’s torque. Left:L John’s mother Dorothy wwas a keen mo­tor­cy­clist hher­self.

Right:R A 12-year-old John looks on as his dad and ppart­ner pose for a pic­ture. Ttwo years later, John wwould pas­sen­ger for his ddad for the first time (al­beit il­le­gally).

Be­low:B Icon pic­ture – on the grid at Brands Hatch.

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