Back to the future (Scotland take the spoils)
Back in the good old days when television consisted of three channels and blanket sports coverage on Saturday afternoons prevailed on two of them, it’s little wonder that when ITV decided to beam the Yamaha RD350 Pro-Am Challenge into millions of living r
Renowned for its all-action, fairing-banging style that pitched established professional riders (the ‘Pros’) against rising stars (the ‘Ams’) on identical RD350LC Yamahas, with keys drawn out of a hat, the simple yet brilliant concept of the Pro-Am Challenge is still talked about 30-odd years later.
The idea was reintroduced in 2015 to provide a new, albeit classic angle to the support package at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, whereby the nostalgic element proved hugely successful with fans as machines and original riders from 30 years ago returned to the track.
Chris Herring, long-time enthusiast who, at the time, was working for the Circuit of Wales, the owner of the rights to the British GP (that’s another story…!), fondly remembered the original series and came up with a plan to add something a bit different. Daryl Young, of IDP Moto, was given the unenviable task of tracking down and restoring 30 RD250LCs in just eight weeks.
“Chris came up with the idea after a few beers and a curry on a Friday night,” says Daryl. “We were in the process of building a 2015 version of the LC, so we started on that and Chris thought it’d be great if we could get a few originals on the grid. Before I knew it, we were sourcing bikes and the Silverstone race was taking shape.
“We thought the biggest challenge would be finding 30 RD250LCs, but in fact that was probably the easiest bit. Turning them from pieces of crap to something that looked pretty much brand-new was the hard bit. We’re a bit anal about it, with great attention to detail, but we wanted to keep everything authentic.”
Fast forward a few weeks and running identical Yamaha RD250LCs, as opposed to the original 350cc version, the original event was won by Niall Mackenzie ahead of Andy Muggleton and Charlie Corner in a strung-out affair that saw a number of riders fail to see the chequered flag.
The exercise was repeated at the British Grand Prix of 2016, with victory going the way of Muggleton, who led home Corner with Dale Robinson claiming the final podium place after red-hot favourite Mackenzie was forced out on the warm-up lap in dismal conditions.
The weather meant a lap of the 3.66-mile Silverstone GP track saw the ageing machines and even older jockeys take over threeand-a-half minutes to complete a lap with the shortened six-lap race taking over 21 minutes to complete and three minutes covering the 15 riders who finished. Many people thought that might be it for the project, until the idea of an inaugural Anglo-Scottish Challenge was mooted as part of the MCE BSB programme at Knockhill, again the brainchild of ex- MCN reporter and HRC employee Herring.
Covertly working with British Superbike boss Stuart Higgs, a plan was hatched on a slightly smaller scale than the Silverstone races but just as exciting. A slot was found in the busy timetable and with the support of Knockhill events director Stuart Gray, a plan was formulated to pitch eight Scots against eight English riders in a one-off race.
Eligibility was simple – if you’d raced in the original Pro-Am series, it was a bonus, but more importantly if you’d been famous in a former life, or perhaps even knew someone who was, you were in.
Herring set about appointing two captains, both of whom were original Pro-Am competitors. Although domiciled in England for the past couple of decades, former GP ace and triple BSB champ Niall ‘Spuds’ Mackenzie was ordered to dig out his kilt and lead the Jocks, while former teenage prodigy and French 250cc GP winner Alan ‘Mighty Mouse’ Carter was to front the Sassenach invasion. Mackenzie rounded up his bunch of Bravehearts, which included former Pro-Am men Donnie McLeod and Joe Toner, bolstered by a number of aces who had no experience of the original series at all. World Endurance champion and TT winner Brian Morrison, double British Supersport champion John Crawford, British Production champ and TT winner Iain Duffus, Thunderbike and BSB race winner Iain MacPherson, as well as Scottish champion Sandy Christie, went into the Scottish team.
Carter, meanwhile, drew on his experience of the 2016 encounter at Silverstone whereby he was determined not to fall off on the opening lap again. Pro-Am originals Corner, Geoff Fowler and Curt Langan gave the English team some credibility, bolstered by Marlboro proddy racers Muggleton, Dave Crampton and Robinson while Graeme Mitchell was coerced into battle, mainly because his elder brother Kevin was one of the stars of the original show.
With a combined age conservatively estimated at 870 years, giving an average age of just over 54, the ageing juveniles gathered on the Scottish mountainside before the established Pro-Am ritual of the key draw took place. All bikes looked identical, but some were faster than others and poor McLeod, as much removed from his Dalmac Racing and Silverstone Armstrong days as he could ever be, drew a duffer.
Testosterone levels suitably topped up as the smell of liniment wafted around the paddock and out wobbled the gladiators, some in ill-fitting leathers, for Friday’s free practice. It saw ‘Fearless’ MacPherson top the time sheets with a best of 66.404sec, only 18sec a lap slower than Shakey Byrne’s BSB lap record he set last year around the 1.3-mile Fife track overlooking the Firth of Forth.
Mackenzie, in youngest son Taz’s McAMS leathers and fitting him like a glove, was second quickest ahead of lanky Yorkshireman Corner with Morpeth property developer Robinson and former Doncaster miner Langan inside the top five, just ahead of part-time rally driver and
builder Crawford, making it three from each nation inside the top six.
Meanwhile, McLeod, on his duffer, was 16th and last, nearly nine seconds back of MacPherson, and lapping at an average speed of a smidgeon over 60mph. Carter and his henchmen denied any skulduggery in loosening the plug caps of the #62 machine (to correspond with McLeod’s age, incidentally), although this wouldn’t be the last of the accusations of foul play as it turned out.
Qualifying followed a similar pattern late on the Saturday after a day of delays with retained firefighter MacPherson (his daytime job post racing) once again top of the sheets some half a second quicker than he’d gone in practice. Corner set the second fastest time, just over a 10th behind his Scottish rival, with Mackenzie third.
Crawford, Muggleton and Robinson were on row two with Langan, Carter and Christie on row three. Mitchell, Morrison and Duffus qualified on row four ahead of Toner, Crampton and Fowler, with Donnie, having swapped to one of the spare bikes, pulling the keys out of yet another duffer as he was last again, four seconds adrift of Fowler in front of him as he spluttered some 8.6sec behind the pole-setter.
Race day brought glorious sunshine and with it, a massive crowd to witness the clash of the titans, not to mention that there were a couple of BSB races on the card too. With three races under the organisers’ belts on Sunday, the pit walk cleared in time for the inaugural Anglo-Scottish Pro-Am Challenge to take centre stage. The clock ticked on towards the 12.20 start time and slowly but surely the riders made their way to the grid, or not as the case may be. Corner, Muggleton and Langan all took their dutiful places on the grid but Mackenzie had a cunning plan. He and most of the Scots hung a left through the pit lane to get an extra sighting lap in to warm their tyres up and they arrived out on the grid just in time for the warm-up laps.
Off the field went on two warm-up laps when it was noted that Carter was taking this part a bit seriously. Mighty Mouse had puffed out his chest and seemed intent on breaking the lap record, only to look surprised as he arrived back on the grid first, to see the starter holding the red flag aloft. He’d only thought the race had started and he was leading it when it had now been stopped. He was so convinced of it, he argued he should have gone onto pole position for the restart before realising his mistake… With the race under way, Mackenzie shot into the lead and enjoyed a race-long dice with Corner and MacPherson, while down the order, and not that far away, the various troops mustered points for their countries. McLeod was the second to retire on his duffer after fellow Scot Christie went a lap earlier. At half distance, a snapshot of the points had it Scotland 70-70 England, before Robinson crashed out and Langan went grass-tracking, allowing Mackenzie to take the spoils after 12 laps, a third of a second in front of Corner with MacPherson less than a 10th of a second back in third. Muggleton, Crawford and a red-faced Carter competed the top six, making it a final score of Scotland 71-66 England. As a delighted Mackenzie, who’d hardly broken sweat, pulled up into Parc Ferme, he pointed to his dash, which proudly displayed the smiling face of Scottish politician Nicola Sturgeon, which one of the English team had candidly placed just before the start.
“I’m not sure whether that spurred me on or put me off to be honest,” he quipped as he headed up onto yet another Knockhill podium. Corner and lap record setter MacPherson exchanged pleasantries as the trophies were handed out and the sound of Flower of Scotland rang out around Knockhill, acknowledging a famous Scottish victory.
In keeping with the spirit of the event, race director Higgs and event promoter Herring were seen in conversation soon afterwards. “We must do this again sometime soon,” they both agreed. And so say all of us.