This was a situation that had existed for years. Back in 1955, the privateer professional riders in the Dutch TT at Assen had noted the huge crowd (estimated at over 100,000) and asked for an increase in their pitifully meagre expense money. Their request was refused so they staged an impromptu strike on the start line and were publicly supported by the Gilera team riders, Reg Armstrong and the six-time World Champion, Geoff Duke, even though neither of them were personally affected by the paucity of expense payments. The enraged organisers gave in, paid a fair sum to the private riders and took no further action against them personally. Their spleen was vented against Duke and Armstrong, who they blamed for giving them the final arm-twisting in favour of the privateers. The Dutch Federation (KMNV) lobbied the FIM and got the world governing body to ban the Gilera riders for the first six months of the following season (1956). The net result of this was that Duke was denied the chance of a seventh world title and his up-andcoming young rival, John Surtees (riding for the rival MV Agusta team) was handed the first of his seven World Championships on a plate. With that as an example of how the World Championship organisers had treated the best rider in the world, the decision of Kel Carruthers, Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read and Rod Gould to speak out against the TT’S shortcomings was not one that was taken lightly. Going some way towards their defence in terms of criticism of the poor rewards for the TT’S risks, the ACU could, of course, point out that, unless they wanted grandstand seats, most TT fans got to witness the races for free, once they had made the trip to the Isle of Man. “That was a naïve argument at best,” says Rod Gould. “You didn’t have to be a genius to work out how much the TT meant to the Manx economy and that the Isle of Man Government could, and should, have been making a much bigger contribution. That this was indeed possible was proven after we had made our protest and prize money went up dramatically in subsequent seasons.” In his 1974 autobiography, Tommy Robb, the Ulsterman who rode for both Honda and Yamaha factory teams, recalled that happening and commented on the situation both before and after Agostini, Read and Gould had started the ball rolling on getting better treatment for riders. Writing before the 1974 TT, Tommy said: “Financially I find it difficult understanding how many riders keep going and this is the main reason why I quit the international (World Championship) circuit”. He went on: “The best-paid meetings are the non-world Championship ones for the (Grand Prix) organisers bank on us going to the classic meetings because of the title points. Although there is no financial incentive to take part in classic meetings, if you finish in the top six of the World Championship in a particular year, it gives you a bargaining card for the more lucrative (via appearance money) non-title events the following season. So in effect, the world title meetings are a means to an end, though they can be a very expensive means…” Tommy continued: “The worst of the classics when it comes to appearance money is the TT – the most expensive race to take part in. You used to get £25 towards travelling, which didn’t go far towards paying your hotel bill, but then they even took that away. Up until this year (1974) no starting money was paid to British riders and very little to Continentals”. But then he concluded: “However, big changes have been made for 1974 with a thousand pounds first prize on offer”. Unfortunately, in financial terms at least, it was a year earlier that Tommy had scored his TT win! He was riding the same Yamaha 125 twin with which Chas Mortimer had won in 1972. In Tommy’s very readable book, entitled From TT to Tokyo, he also raises the question of why so many riders have been prepared to race in the TT despite the financial downside and the danger.
“BACK IN THE DAY THEY WERE PROFESSIONALS WHO EARNED THEIR LIVING PURELY BY RACING, SO THEY HAD TO WEIGH UP THE EQUATION OF RISK VERSUS REWARD.”
“I can only say,” he concludes “that it must be because the races are steeped in tradition and generate such an electric atmosphere”. And I have to agree. Less than 10% of the riders in any TT race, whether in the past, the present or the future have any chance of getting on the podium, let alone experiencing the glory of standing on the top step. For the rest – myself included – riding in the TT has always been a question of climbing as far up one’s own personal Mount Everest as it is possible to go in one’s chosen sport – and that was especially true during the days when it was a part of the World Championship. To first earn your International racing licence, then to have your TT entry accepted and finally to make the qualifying time that allowed you to start a World Championship race on the awesome Mountain circuit in company with your idols like Mike Hailwood, Phil Read, Bill Ivy, Jim Redman, Tarquinio Provini and the rest... just to start in a TT in those days was a dream fulfilled. But that sort of romantic attitude by the TT field-fillers had nothing whatsoever to do with the real purpose of being there as far the guys at the top of the World Championship pyramid were concerned. The GP stars were competing because they felt that they had to be there in order to at least have a chance of earning points that would help them win a title. But, in reality, by the 1970s attitudes had changed and just the Championship points were no longer enough. Riders felt that there were nowhere near the rewards on offer to compensate for the risks. Obviously, when Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read and Rod Gould spoke out against the TT in 1972, there was a large degree of self-interest and self-preservation involved but their calls for as responsible an approach as possible to safety considerations and a better division of the race profits were things that would ultimately benefit all riders. Predictably, however, their statements led to a massive backlash and a furious public reaction from TT fans to this obvious diminishing of the importance of their much-revered race. From the pages of the UK newspapers of the period, it is easy to deduce that the general motorcycling public’s reactions to their decision back then began with heartfelt anger – “how dare those riders criticize the greatest race on earth, etc. etc”. Then came the sniping and the backbiting and the suggestions that the riders leading the boycott were too scared to face the dangers of the TT course, with angry fans airing their views in the letters pages of the motorcycle press. As usual Shakespeare had a phrase for all of this ranting and raving, this one coming from Macbeth and talking of “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…” For, with a bit more thinking about it, to essentially accuse men like this of cowardice was patently ridiculous. After all, these were the riders who had collectively scored more successes and put in more fast laps of the Mountain circuit than any of their contemporaries at that time. Also seemingly unconsidered was the fact that they and other GP riders of that period routinely raced on equally dangerous tracks on most weekends during the season – for example, the rock walls of Clermont Ferrand and Opatija, the pine forests of Imatra, the urban park hazards of Montjuic Park and the fearsomely long and fast road courses at Spa-francorchamps and the nearby Nurburgring. Moreover, just about all GP tracks, whether on road courses or not, were lined with Armco in those days. Designed to save the lives of F1 racers strapped into their cars, these metal barriers were directly responsible for the deaths of several motorcycle racers unfortunate enough to have slid into the trackside ironwork.