King of the Royale
Hooked on speedway in his early teens, hot summer nights meant only one thing for Jim. First was the steam train to Granville, meeting up with his mate Gordon Guasco to catch the red rattler to Central Railway, the bus up the hill to Moore Park, then follow the crowds to Sydney Showground; where the pair would hang as near as allowed to the fence, watching their heroes Bill Bryden and Lionel Levy. The excitement lasted until well past the witching hour when Jim faced the final long walk home from Wentworthville Station. Thanks to Gordon’s skill with a paintbrush their Speedwell bikes became Speedways – cut down pushies on which the pair joined the ‘Skid Kids’ racing around Cumberland Oval, emulating their heroes. By the time ‚
they’d obtained their licences and joined Fairfield Motor Cycle Club these ‘Skid Kids’ had become the ‘Terrible Twins’. Though they’d made a pact not to attempt pro speedway until they’d mastered short circuit; it didn’t take long. At 21-years-old, both had notched up Australian Short Circuit Championship Titles. Jim had already had a shot riding Speedway at Westmead, first on a borrowed machine then on his own JAP; purchased for three quid. In only his second Sydney Showground appearance he won the Encourage Race and was immediately elevated to the pro ranks by promoter John Sherwood. By the end of the decade Jim was all but invincible on the unique egg shaped track known as ‘The Speedway Royale’ where, during the late 1960s, he won an alltime record 33 consecutive races and was inevitably the backmarker in handicap events. Meantime Gordon proved just as dominant at the Kembla Grange track near Wollongong and it was no surprise when English promoter Mike Parker offered each of them a contract to compete in the British Provincial League. “In those days going to England was like going to the moon, and it may well have been” recalls Jim. “It was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey and it rained constantly.” “Gordon and I shared a Morris Minor Van to transport our bikes. And a house in Manchester with a small workshop so, if we arrived home late after a meeting, we could rest up before preparing our bikes to race the following day.” Jim, who’d studied at Granville Technical College and learnt his trade as a motorcycle mechanic at Adams & Sons in Guildford, got a job as a mechanic near the Belle Vue Speedway in Manchester, whilst Gordon was set with a signwriting job for the local council. “Due to our experience at Kembla Grange we didn’t handle the tighter English tracks all too badly. But the surface was usually wet and it took me a season to realise I was running the wrong size countershaft sprocket” says Jim. Replacing the sprocket, Jim adapted his style to the Wolverhampton Wolves amphitheatre but remained a British League second stringer. Not so back home over the summer of 1966, where he won the first of eleven State Titles. Now married to childhood sweetheart Ronda, Jim rejoined Wolverhampton in 1967 with some reluctance. “I hadn’t liked living in England and was always homesick. One winter in England was enough.” When the Wolverhampton promoters wanted him to relocate even further north to Glasgow, Jim transferred to the local team – the Sheffield Tigers. The previous summer Jim had won his second Australian Championship, scoring his hat trick the following year. In Britain the move to Sheffield shot Jim to superstardom – one of the elite riders in the British League. In 1971, only weeks after he’d made the final of the Individual World Championships Jim made history as the first Australian to score Gold at the World Team Cup in Wroklaw Poland. And it was Jim who convinced Sydney Royale promoter John
Sherwood to revive the Speedway Ashes in 1967 after a seven-year break. The Brits, led by Ken McKinlay, won the series 3-2 with Eric Boocock the top scorer on 71 with Jim on 64 and old mate Gordon on 56. The series was a resounding success, not only in front of capacity crowds at the Royale, but also on tour to Brisbane’s “Ecka” and the provincials at Rockhampton and Kembla Grange. During this lengthy purple patch Jim managed two trips to the speedbowls of Southern California. “I couldn’t believe how tight a 175 metre track was, and on the quarter mile clay track at Ascot we had to stuff newspapers into our leathers to reduce the impact of flying rocks. It was while in America I learned of Gordon Guasco’s tragic accident at Sydney’s Liverpool Speedway and I flew home to find Gordon on life support. The Doctors thought if I sat and talked to Gordon it may spark something. It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. Gordon and I were great mates and competitors, his death was a great loss to everyone who knew him.”
Then, at the pinnacle of his overseas successes, Jim announced his retirement to concentrate on his motorcycle business in Fairfield, Western Sydney. Thanks largely to the Japanese, new bike sales were booming with national registrations approaching 50,000 in 1971, bringing with it a new professionalism to the industry (see Brian Collins –
OBA 72). Jim oversaw the construction of entirely new two storey premises adjacent to the cluttered Honda and Suzuki outlet he’d purchased from Alf Baglee; a large showroom for new bikes, an even larger display area for used machines and a ride-in workshop for a team of mechanics. Not long after, Honda appointed Jim to the franchise from Liverpool to Parramatta – a region that grew four-fold in the seventies. Jim claims a very hands-on approach, somewhat at odds for a bloke who maintained a single figure golf handicap for many years. Jim may have retired from the British League, however his successes at the Royale continued unabated with a fourth Australian Championship in 1972 – at Rowley Park, Adelaide – and a fifth NSW Championship title in 1974. Now, despite his booming business, his golf handicap, his V8 powered speedboat named ‘Wildfire’ and fishing wherever he could throw a line in, his motorcycling diversified. No stranger to road racing, having competed at Catalina Park, Oran Park and Bathurst – where he won the Unlimited C Grade on a 650 Triumph in 1966 – Jim preferred the dirt; where successes included the Senior and Unlimited events at Moorebank in the 1961 City of Sydney Scrambles Championships. Due to the influence of the Americans, cross-country trials events were morphing into enduro. Just the ticket for a former speedway ace with a shop full of new trail bikes and the latest in power kits from the USA. Jim was regularly on the grid for the Goodwin Shield, the Nepean Six Hour Race, and many reliability trials in mid-west NSW around Bathurst, Oberon and Orange. Around this time, fellow Honda dealer Max Connolly imported a pair of race prepped Honda MR250 2-strokes and after considerable negotiation Jim managed to get
hold of one. “It was certainly the right machine” recalls Jim “but after bashing ’bars with the likes of Laurie Alderton and Hans Appelgren over some sketchy tracks I decided to pull my head in a bit.”
This didn’t deter Jim from signing on for the inaugural BP Sunraysia Desert Rally – the precursor to the Wynn’s Safari. But the standout outback challenge in his memory was the Broken Hill to Renmark and return over the June long weekend in 1975. “The riders’ briefing was basic” recalls Jim. “Follow the rabbit proof fence and carry a box of matches in case of emergency.” Similar to the BP Sunraysia, the event attracted a diverse bunch of celebrities as well as seasoned racers. “I had a Honda XL250 with all the latest American kit and was with the leaders when my bike dropped a valve” says Jim “and that was that. A bunch of riders stopped to check I was OK and I waved them on. A few hours later the same group came past again. They’d followed the wrong fence all the way round this 10,000 acre property. A lot of riders got lost and quite a few got hurt in the dust. It was bloody freezing so I lit a fire and waited. And waited. Overnight the fire got bigger as I uprooted all the ‚
dead mulga I could manage. It wasn’t until well after dawn I was picked up. I’d driven to the start with my old mate Les Burdus who wanted to buy a Pro Hart painting for his wife, so we called past for a cuppa. Pro showed us around his studio and the property where he had an old Velocette Venom he used around his property. He was very keen to buy a Honda XL350 so we did a handshake deal on the spot. Pro autographed the old Velo’s tank and we loaded it on the ute. When I got back to the shop I sent him a new XL350. Then, a month later, I received a charcoal sketch of me sitting on my helmet roasting a goanna over the campfire.” Surely the goanna was a touch of hyperbole but the sketch remains a treasured memento from this otherwise historic desert race.
Jim stopped competing in the late ‘seventies but the bike shop – now a multi franchise outlet for Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki – with BMW and Harley on the side – continued to thrive. And whilst the racing was done with, Jim’s attachment to motorcycling persisted. In 1981 Jim, together with John Hitchcox, John Hones and Col Adams, took on the bucket list ride to the tip of northern Australia. Hiring bikes in Cairns – Jim’s a Yamaha XT500 – they rode the length of Cape York then, on the return, Jim insisted on riding across the crocodile-infested Jardine River. With a bush-engineered snorkel protecting the airbox, another on the exhaust and, dressed in shorts and little else Jim made his point. He kept the water out, but the motor was well and truly dusted on return to Cairns. If nothing else the adventure provided Jim with a taste of motorcycling without racing the clock. Selling the shop, Jim moved from Sydney’s outer west to the Gold Coast waterfront in 1986 – well before the high-rise race became ludicrous. A new boat came next, a locally-built 11 metre Fairway Cruiser. Shortly after Jim’s purchase the Fairway sales rep became ill and Jim took on the task of selling the boat builder’s entire output of 50 vessels over the following decade. “It was a laid back lifestyle” admits Jim “taking prospects out for a pleasant cruise and returning to a few drinks and nibblies overlooking the Gold Coast skyline. If someone bought a boat well and good, if not… it was a very pleasant way to pass the time; and there’s an endless number of top class golf courses on the Gold Coast.” It was 1997 when Les Burdus talked Jim – who hadn’t thrown a leg over a bike for the best part of a decade – into a second adventure ride. Les had some long service leave to burn and time was limited, so the two mates shipped a pair of Honda 650 Dominators to Perth where they strapped swags and fishing gear aboard and headed north. Swimming with the whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef, feeding the dolphins at Monkey Mia, fishing the Coral Sea from Cape Leveque, sunset on the Ord River with a tinny full of barramundi and watching the sun rise from atop Uluru before hiking the rim of Kings Canyon, Jim was hooked. But they soon calculated road bikes were a quicker, more comfortable option to travel such a vast continent as Australia. The option of a 4WD, boat or helicopter excursion was always on the cards when circumstances warranted. Since that ride in 1997 Jim has clocked up 300,000km – no that’s not a typo – riding the highways and byways of Australia, whilst seeking to catch a fish off every beach and from every inland waterway on the continent. When Jim unfolds his expansive map of the continent it’s impossible to find a stretch of bitumen not highlighted as being ticked off the bucket list. I did note however, a lack of highlighter across the Tanami Track and the Gunbarrel Highway. Though, as Jim correctly noted, neither of these are likely routes for the series of Honda ST1100, 1300 and Yamaha FJR1300 he’s favoured since that initial outback adventure on the Dominator. Jim no longer rides but he’s not above jumping on to one of his grandkid’s trailies for a lap or two of the track his son Shane built on the family farm, just outside Kyogle in the northern rivers hinterland. The bikes may be gone but the wanderlust remains. Jim and Ronda have already put thousands of kilometres on their luxurious Mercedes motorhome sightseeing around Tasmania, the Eyre Peninsula and the Flinders Ranges; and scores of weekend trips to the north coast of NSW. Jim, having turned a young 77 in 2018 and celebrating his Golden Wedding Anniversary with Ronda, reckons there’s any number of fish yet to be caught and birdies to be scored.
ABOVE ‘King of the Royale’: Jim in action at the Sydney Showground. TOP LEFT Program ad from Claremont, WA 1968. OPPOSITE Jim with the spoils of an illustrious career.
In the pits at Amaroo Park Scrambles track.
Jim (second from left) with the ‘three quid JAP’ at the family home.
Jim the Skid Kid.
In action for Wolverhampton, UK.
Negotiating the Esses at Bathurst in 1961. BELOW On the Adams & Sons Triumph, leading Tasmanian Brian Woods at Bathurst, 1966.
Gordon Guasco and Jim Airey – the Fairfield flyers.
ABOVE LEFT Jim and best mate Les Burdus on the Dominators at Uluru. RIGHT Jim does a lap of honour on Mick Poole’s bike at the final Sydney Showground meeting, 27th April 1996. LEFT Les Burdus and Jim on one of their rides. BELOW Jim’s passion for fishing knows no boundaries.