Jim Airey

King of the Royale

Old Bike Australasia - - CON­TENTS - Story Peter Whi­taker Pho­tos Rob Dames, Brian Darby, Airey archives, OBA archives

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.

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