Classic Racer - - PEOPLE -

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.


“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.

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