Short lived but sweet
By the mid ‘seventies the Castrol Six Hour Production Race had comprehensively demonstrated the reliability of showroom stock motorcycles; and gone some way to lifting the stigma on the reputation of motorcyclists. Yet new motorcycle registrations had almost halved over the past three years. So it was with some trepidation that Rob Atlee approached the Proudly Australian Owned fuel supplier Ampol for sponsorship of his unique concept; a truly national rally to improve the image of bikers – as opposed to bikies. The Ampol executives anteed up $7,000 and a lot of credibility to a Round Australia event. Now all Atlee had to do was set the course and prepare the Supplementary Regulations. The first involved a three week trip around the continent in Atlee’s ageing Kombi Van, travelling at legal speeds, establishing daily checkpoints and noting various points of interest that could later be used to prevent participants short-cutting the course. The second was making the rules simple enough to entice sufficient adventurous motorcyclists to participate. In what today would be titled a Mission Statement, Atlee issued the following preamble to the invitation for entries... “The Ampol Around Australia Motorcycle Competition will be the largest ever motorcycle promotion undertaken in this country. Motorcycling, to the
general public, has not been portrayed as a favourable type of transport, and yet anyone who has experienced the thrill of owning a motorcycle finds it difficult to portray how safe they can be. This event is being conducted under the authority of the various Police and Councils of each state, and the emphasis is on normal road speed and safety conditions. The event will pass through seven states, cover approximately 15,000 kilometres and will provide competitors the opportunity of meeting new friends, and at the same time enjoy a wonderful touring holiday around Australia.” Communication can often cause confusion and perhaps the wording “Motorcycle Competition” in Atlee’s presentation gave the wrong impression. From the onset the proposal received lots of ink. How could it not with headlines such as “1500km around Australia motorcycle road race” and “race will prove bikes reliable”. And one that read... “$7000 bike contest”.
Whilst the Ampol Trial was definitely not a race, there would be any number of endurance tests during the 15 day odyssey. The gravel ‘development roads’ between Toowoomba and Mount Isa would test riders’ ability on loose surfaces, particularly Sid Duncan with pillion Trisha Todd on his Kawasaki Z1000. The road between Halls Creek and Broome was said to be as ‘rough as guts’ and had already been the undoing of American Don Kerr on his Around Australia record attempt only three years earlier. Certainly all surviving entrants would arrive in Perth with ‘monkey butt’ after the 1650km leg south from Port Hedland. And it appeared that the 15th leg from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta would pose the real test of stamina. The big bikes such as Rob Robertson’s BMW R90S and Ken Flaherty’s Moto Guzzi 850 should be able to cruise all day considerably faster than Atlee’s Kombi had managed, but there was no way ‘Butch’ Windsor’s Honda CB250 was likely to cross the Nullarbor in a single day. However all that was to come when only ten entrants turned up on Bondi Beach Promenade on 4 September 1977 to be flagged away by Alderman David Taylor – the Mayor of Waverley – and a large press contingent; at least one scribe per entrant. The rules were simple. Atlee had set a prudent, legal, elapsed time between checkpoints as calculated under normal road speed conditions. The rider who consistently nailed Atlee’s secret calculations would score zero, with a one point loss per minute for arriving early; and the same for arriving late. Entrants arriving over two hours late would face an additional 500 point loss. A questionnaire about the landmarks of interest along the route would act as a tie-breaker. Though the competition was covertly intense the camaraderie was high; how could it not be with ten adventurous riders taking on the elements, often sharing daily war stories at rudimentary outback accommodation. And from a publicity angle the inaugural Rally enjoyed a fairy-tale ending. Neva Richman, a 24-year-old photogenic photographer’s assistant from the Sydney suburb of Lindfield – riding a Kawasaki Z900 – won the event with a loss of only 1007 points, finishing ahead of Jack Webb, an agile 52-year-old grandfather from Penrith, riding his Yamaha XT500 with a loss of 1802 points. Sid Duncan and his pillion Trisha Todd rounded out the podium on 2130 points. There was no mayhem, no deaths, only one DNF due to mechanical problems, Ampol was happy and Atlee was already lining up prizes for the 1978
Ampol Round Australia. And, whilst the 1977 event had bypassed the antagonistic Victorian ‘boys in blue’, by heading directly to Broken Hill from Port Augusta, the second event, now titled ‘The Ampol Around Australia Rally’ would traverse the Southern Alps on its return to Sydney. And the event became longer, up from 13000km to 19000km – over 21 days with rest days in Darwin and Perth. Atlee’s original concept had proven practicable and, considering the lack of telecommunications, safety was improved by the network of Ampol service stations and a long list of contacts in the event of breakdown. And a sweep vehicle would be employed. The grand prize was a return trip for two to Singapore – flying Singapore Airlines – with 7 days accommodation at the Singapore Hilton; a prize far more valuable in 1978 than it would be today. Every entrant received a colourful jacket from Golden Breed and even last place scored a Bikini Fairing from La Parisienne Engineering. Chris Davy was a roustabout working in Goldsworthy, West Australia, when he read about the event and he was hooked immediately. His mount was a Honda CB750 with a homebuilt sidecar to tote his tools of trade. So keen was Chris he rode across the continent, picking up old mate Wayne Keeping in Darwin, giving the Honda’s top end an overhaul on the way and arriving at the Kings Cross startline with a day or two to spare. Chris and Wayne were joined by a total of nineteen entrants – almost double that of the inaugural event – all of whom headed north from the forecourt of the Hampton Hotel in Kings Cross – the first major checkpoint and overnight stop being the Ampol servo at Taringa in Brisbane. Chris recalls that many of the solo entrants were losing points for checking in too early whereas their outfit was flat out making it to the checkpoints before it was time to leave the following morning. “We managed to take the points lead in Townsville” says Chris “and held it through Darwin and on to Perth. Strong headwinds from Perth to Adelaide left us a long way behind the field and we were so late checking in at Adelaide that we missed the reception and were lucky to find half a sandwich each and a warm beer.” It was John Westerman on a Suzuki GT750 ‘waterbottle’ that took and held the points lead all the way to the end of the final timed stage at Goulburn. Then on Sunday the entrants rode in convoy to the prize- money ceremony at Sydney Showground. “Wayne and I received the trophy for second” says Chris “and a magnificent three-drawer chest of Sidchrome Tools which I still have to this day.” The reception at Sydney Showground lived up to expectations with scores of people expressing interest in a third running of the rally. Ampol appeared keen in setting up a sports sponsorship venture with a major insurance company, however several committee meetings later the venture stalled. Rob Atlee, busy at the time trying to raise sponsorship for his brother Len’s Grand Prix efforts was happy that the rally provided a more positive image of motorcycling however it appears that, at the time, a three week motorcycling holiday didn’t have the same appeal or economic appeal as a week in Bali or Fiji.
TOP RIGHT Supplementary Regulations for the 1977 event. ABOVE Neva Richman and Alderman David Taylor. ABOVE CENTRE Jack Webb – Yamaha XT500 – from Penrith. RIGHT The Mayor of Waverly prepares to flag away Rob Robinson and his BMW R90S.
Rob Atlee checks in Chris Davy and Wayne Keeping (in chair) on their CB750 Honda.
Chris Davy – still at it 20 years later.
ABOVE Support vehicle, 1977. RIGHT Neva Richman, winner of the 1977 event, attends to maintenance on her Z900.