Ge­off Duke: The Lost In­ter­view


Classic Racer - - WHAT’SINSIDE - Words: St uart Barker Pho­tos: Mor­tonsm Ar­chive

An eye-open­ing, tell-all from the late Ge­off Duke in an in­ter­view that un­til re­cently was thought lost. One lucky find gives us the thoughts of the great man for one last, fresh, time.

Geooff Duke won six 350cc aand 500cc world cham­pi­oon­ships be­tween 1951 aand 1955 and six TT races be­tween 1949 and 1955. He was rac­ing’s first truue su­per­star and house­holdd name, win­ning the Ss­ports­man of the Year awward in 1951 (the fore­runne r of to­day’s BBC Sports Pper­son­al­ity of the Yearr), and be­com­ing an OOBE in 1953. He wwas cred­ited with in vent­ing the onepi iece leather race suit and his clean-cut looks and dap­per dress sense did won­ders for the im­age of mo­tor­cy­cling. He passed away on Ma ay 2, 2015, at the age of 92 in an Isle of Man nurs­ing home. On n Septem­ber 22, 2005, I had the pri vi­lege of vis­it­ing Gge­off Duke at his hhome on the Isle of Man, to talk about his as­ton­ishi ng ca­reer and to get his take on mod­ern rac­ing. Ssoon af­ter­wards I lost myy com­puter hard drive and thought the in­ter­vieew had been lost with it. Oonly re­cently did I dis­cov­ver I had ac­tu­ally made a copy... This iss what the great man had to say:

On be­ing sus­pended from the world cham­pi­onship in 1956

Af­ter sup­port­ing pri­va­teer rid­ers in a bid to se­cure bet­ter pay­ment for them (most were liv­ing a hand-to-mouth ex­is­tence while race or­gan­is­ers made huge prof­its), Ge­off Duke found him­self banned from the first six months of the 1956 sea­son, de­spite be­ing the reign­ing world cham­pion.

I was shocked at be­ing sus­pended in 1956. It seemed to be very un­fair – over­done, shall we say. But I think the pow­ers that be were want­ing to make an ex­am­ple to make sure that it didn’t hap­pen again. So Reg Arm­strong and my­self were the ones who suf­fered most. We had noth­ing to gain by the strike, we just sup­ported the pri­vate rid­ers, but that didn’t seem to make any difference. Un­for­tu­nately our own gov­ern­ing body, the ACU, didn’t seem to make too great an ef­fort to as­sist us. We looked at the le­gal side of things and ev­ery­thing but when you’re up against the gov­ern­ing body of the sport then the law, as it stands, is not that pow­er­ful – they (the FIM) are all-pow­er­ful. They con­trol the sport and that’s the way it is. So even­tu­ally we just had to grin and bear it. Re­ally it was crazy to deny race fans the chance to see the world’s top rid­ers and, thank­fully, I don’t think it could hap­pen in this day and age. It re­ally was a very bad time for mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing. It had so much ef­fect; the loss of top flight rid­ers and the com­pe­ti­tion that in­volved, and the to­tal supremacy of MV Agusta which re­ally didn’t mean very much. I think the com­bi­na­tion of these fac­tors very nearly put an end to mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing. Gil­era was ab­so­lutely fu­ri­ous at the sus­pen­sion. They could not be­lieve that they had not even been con­sulted or con­tacted in any way re­gard­ing the mat­ter.

With­drawal of Gil­era from the world cham­pi­onship in 1957

When Gil­era, Moto Guzzi and Mon­dial with­drew from rac­ing in 1957 due to the huge ex­penses in­volved, Duke found him­self without a cur­rent fac­tory bike. And with MV Agusta be­ing the only fac­tory left in Grands Prix, a mo­nop­oly soon fol­lowed.

I think our sus­pen­sion had a bear­ing on Gil­era, Moto Guzzi and Mon­dial’s later de­ci­sion to with­draw from world cham­pi­onship rac­ing. Those com­pa­nies felt they were out on a limb a lit­tle bit – and also the cost of rac­ing, it was noth­ing com­pared to now, but the cost was quite high and I think the ac­coun­tants at Gil­era were try­ing to en­cour­age Com­menda­tore Gil­era to at least cut back on rac­ing. There was an­other fac­tor as well as far as the Com­menda­tore was con­cerned. His son, Fer­ru­cio, who was only 26, died sud­denly in Ar­gentina where Gil­era had a fac­tory. He sud­denly went into a coma. There was a problem with his liver, not that he’d been a high-liv­ing young man at all. The Com­menda­tore was very aus­tere and seemed to be very fit but I think the ef­fect of los­ing his son who was, in ef­fect, just about to take over the busi­ness, was an ab­so­lute dis­as­ter for him. Fer­ru­cio’s mother was in a nurs­ing home al­most a year af­ter this hap­pened be­cause she was in such a ter­ri­ble state. This, need­less to say, did in­flu­ence Gil­era’s en­thu­si­asm for rac­ing be­cause his son was very keen on rac­ing and would def­i­nitely, I think, have con­tin­ued. So that had a big ef­fect but I sup­pose all the fac­to­ries felt the fi­nan­cial bur­den was get­ting a bit much. But the re­mark­able thing was that the year af­ter Gil­era pulled out of rac­ing they sold more bikes to the pub­lic than they had ever done be­fore. I think it was just a co­in­ci­dence but of course the ac­coun­tants said ‘There you go, we’ve saved you thou­sands and thou­sands of pounds and y you’re still sell­ing bikes.’ But the fol­low­ing y year, from then on­wards, came the de­cline. A Also, Com­manda­tore Gil­era was an old man by then as well. They tried putting var­i­ous re­la­tions in charge of the fac­tory and none of t them seemed to make a very good job of it. Even­tu­ally of course, Pi­ag­gio took over. When Gil­era, Moto Guzzi and Mon­dial all pulled out of rac­ing in 1957, it left a huge v vac­cum for MV Agusta to dom­i­nate in. What shook a lot of people was that MV had in fact agreed with the oth­ers to stop rac­ing at the end of 1957 and then they re­neged on the deal and of course they had a clear run from t then on­wards, es­pe­cially with a rider like J John Sur­tees on board. But, quite hon­estly, I don’t re­ally think it did them any good. I think t the ma­jor­ity of en­thu­si­as­tic mo­tor­cy­clists w weren’t very im­pressed by a lot of MV’S suc­cess. I think that was un­for­tu­nate for J John Sur­tees re­ally be­cause he was go­ing round win­ning races and break­ing records so t the per­for­mance was there but he ob­vi­ously w wouldn’t get the same sat­is­fac­tion be­cause he w wasn’t win­ning against real strong op­po­si­tion.

The be­gin­ning of the end of Duke’s rac­ing ca­reer

Duke never won an­other world ti­tle af­ter 1955, largely due to his sus­pen­sion and the with­drawalith­drl of Ggilera.

Thhe su­us­penn­sion rul­ing ef­fec­tively ruled me ou ut ofo the 19956 world cham­pi­onship and I a alw ways look ked upon that sus­pen­sion as bein be­ing the beg be­gin­ning of the end as far as I was con­cerned. I don’t know if it was fate or what­ever but I was still rid­ing quite well and the Gil­era was still a very com­pet­i­tive ma­chine but noth­ing seemed to go right. We couldn’t get crack­ing un­til the Bel­gian Grand Prix which was the first Grand Prix in 1956 that I was al­lowed to com­pete in. Sur­tees was there with the MV and there was quite a lot of op­po­si­tion but I man­aged to build up quite a good lead and then I had some me­chan­i­cal prob­lems with only a cou­ple of laps to go which ruled me out. That was the start of the dis­ap­point­ments. Sur­tees, of course, won the race. The next race was the Ger­man Grand Prix at Soli­tude – a cir­cuit which I re­ally loved – and there I had a re­ally good race. Bill Lo­mas was there on the V8 Moto Guzzi. He was on very good form and the bike was be­gin­ning to get quite re­li­able and it was ex­tremely quick. I shared the lead most of the time with Bill in the race and then I de­cided I had to make a big ef­fort and try to open the gap a lit­tle bit. I think I had pulled out about 100 yards when sud­denly my ma­chine cut out with what was ob­vi­ously an elec­tri­cal problem. But it’s amaz­ing the way things hap­pen n be­cause be­cau I pulled in to the side of the road d and sto opp ped and a mo­ment later Bill Lo­mas comes along­side me with steam pour­ing ing out of o his bike! Reg Arm­strong went on to o win the t ra ace.

On money

Ge­off Duke was the high­est paid rider in the world by 1955, earn­ing the equiv­a­lent of £366,000 in to­day'sday money ney.

I oob­vioously llost quite a bit of money be­caus­ese of be­ing sus­pended. I was still be­ing paid by yg Gil­era w ho were very good to me and ce ert ainly y pai p id bet­ter than Nor­ton did! But it was chick­en­feed com­pared to what present day Grand Prix rid­ers get. In 1955 I prob­a­bly earned about £15-20,000 as the world cham­pion. But I must ad­mit rac­ing was a sport to me and I loved it – I loved the chal­lenge and I en­joyed every minute of it. I per­haps didn’t pay enough at­ten­tion to the fi­nan­cial side of things but I sup­pose, apart from John Sur­tees at MV, I was the best paid rider at the time. The one good thing that did come out of the whole sus­pen­sion busi­ness was new guide­lines con­cern­ing rider pay­ment. Things got bet­ter im­me­di­ately. I think the av­er­age start money for a pri­vate rider at the Dutch TT was about £20 and that was for ev­ery­thing; trav­el­ling to Hol­land, ex­penses, ve­hi­cles, fuel. A lot of them had to live in a tent or in their vans as that was all they could af­ford. Things have never gone back to be­ing as bad as they were be­fore our strike so at least some long term good came out of it. Things were get­ting more com­pet­i­tive by 1956. My break­down in the Ger­man Grand Prix that year, on top of my six-month ban, ef­fec­tively de­stroyed any chance I had of re­gain­ing the cham­pi­onship. I was later lead­ing the Ul­ster Grand Prix by two or three min­utes when it started to rain and I fell off at Letham­stown Bridge. What re­ally an­noyed me at the time was a photographer who came up to me af­ter­wards and said ‘I knew you were go­ing to fall off there!’ I must have looked out of con­trol every lap be­fore I crashed! In ac­tual fact I had left my peelin­goff a frac­tion late which meant I was cranked over a frac­tion more on the ape ex of the eb bend t than I should have been. It was s very sl lip pery and the front just went. There was wa no need eed to be in a hurry or any­thing but… th here we w were. w

On pro­tec­tive rid­ing gear

Duke is cred­ited with in­vent­ing the one­piece leather suit. He had dis­cov­ered the ben­e­fits of a tighter-fit­ting suit when he taped back baggy parts of his leather jacket and trousers while speed test­ing and knocked al­most half a sec­ond off his times. Know­ing that this im­proved stream­lin­ing would be equally ben­e­fi­cial in rac­ing, he asked his lo­cal tai­lor, Frank Barker, to make up a tight-fit­ting one-piece suit and it be­came so pop­u­lar with other rid­ers that Bark arker r turned ed to mak­ing them full time.

My M lea athers s didn’t of­fer very much pro­tec ctio on but th he trick was not to fall off in the firs st place! A lot of in­juries could have been s saved ved back then if we’d had mod­ern rid­ing gear. But it was more up to the rider back then – if he made a mis­take then he paid the con­se­quences and he learned from the ex­pe­ri­ence. My first one-piece suit had no pad­ding what­so­ever but then I started hav­ing them padded at the shoul­ders and el­bows, that sort of thing. But it was aero­dy­nam­i­cally ef­fec­tive and com­fort­able and my think­ing was that you’re not sup­posed to fall off any­way so I didn’t worry about the suit’s pro­tec­tive qual­i­ties. It hurt quite a bit crash­ing in the thin leathers we had back then. I seemed to suf­fer with my shoul­ders as much as any­thing. I dis­lo­cated my col­lar­bone once and broke it a sec­ond time, partly be­cause of the pre­vi­ous dis­lo­ca­tion. It had been pulled back into place and when I thumped it when I fell it just broke. My feet suf­fered quite a bit too, par­tic­u­larly my toes be­cause of my light­weight boots based on my tight-fit­ting one-piece suit. When I wore the first ever one-piece suit at the 1950 TT, there was a pho­to­graph taken of me go­ing round Kate’s Cot­tage show­ing my boots ab­so­lutely flat­tened by the force of the wind. It was caus­ing a lot of drag and I thought ‘I’ve got to do some­thing about that.’ I had tigh tight-fit­ting tting boots made which solved the drag d pro obl em but they were very thin and I should s re eal ly have gone for some­thing a bit more mo st turdy rdy. Things grad­u­ally got bet­ter.

On in­juries

With so lit­tle in the way of pro­tec­tive cloth­ing, se­ri­ous in­juries and fa­tal­i­ties were all too com­mon in Duke's day. He wa as one on of the th l lucky ones.

Id don’t t suffe er from any of my breaks too badly the t ese days s. The worst thing was when I broke my y ankle in i 1952 at a non-cham­pi­onship race in Ger­many. Ger­many I was lead­ing at the time but af­ter be­ing stung by a wasp on my arm dur­ing prac­tice it had swollen up and was dis­tract­ing me a bit. The cir­cuit was aw­ful; there were cracks ev­ery­where which had been filled in with tar­mac and there were trees ev­ery­where too. There were two bends and one was flat out in top and the other flat out in third gear. With only about a lap to go, I got the two mixed up. I can hon­estly say it was the only time in my ca­reer that I al­lowed my con­cen­tra­tion to slip. I nearly got away with it but then I caught my foot on a straw bale which was strapped to a tree and badly dis­lo­cated my ankle. It has since caused me some prob­lems. I had quite a limp be­fore I did any­thing about it and that in turn did my left knee in, with the ex­tra weight on it, so I had to have my left knee re­placed and a also om my right knee as well. The ankle is s fused n now w and I’ve got a cou­ple of screws in it t s so it’s prett etty stiff but other than that I’m okay y.

On his best race

Ge­off Duke won 33 Grands Prix and sixtt races but says his most sat­is­fy­ing race win was the 500cc Bel­gian Grand Prix at SpaFran anco or­cham mps s in 1951.

Iw was o on a Nor­ton N sin­gle against all the multi-c cyl lin­der m achines of Gil­era, MV Agusta and Mot M to Guzzi. . Johnny Lock­ett was the only other ot er Norto Nor­ton in the race. I went for a walk with the Nor­ton man­ager, Joe Craig, the night be­fore the race to dis­cuss tac­tics and it was ob­vi­ously go­ing to be one hell of a race be­cause ev­ery­one was go­ing re­ally fast in prac­tice. I told him to for­get about giv­ing me sig­nals and de­cided in­stead that if I could get to the hair­pin at the end of the first lap in the lead then I would be all right. I knew that as I was com­ing out of the hair­pin I could look back up the road to see where the op­po­si­tion was. I dived into the hair­pin and looked back to see all the oth­ers right be­hind me but grad­u­ally, lap by lap, I was able to see that my lead was in­creas­ing bit by bit, but I’ve never, never tried as hard as I did that day. I was rid­ing on my ab­so­lute per­sonal limit all the way through the race. The rea­son it was so sat­is­fy­ing to win that race was be­cause of the chal­lenge; be­cause I was on the Nor­ton, a sin­gle-cylin­der ma­chine against so many mul­tis. Joe Craig got a lot of sat­is­fac­tion from th hat win too t o, see­ing his Nor­ton beat all the oth­ers. o Tha T at was rac­ing for me. It was just a wonde w er­ful, ful won­der­ful chal­lenge.

Rossi should do the TT

At the time of this in­ter­view, Valentino Rossi was still win­ning world cham­pi­onships but Duke felt the Ital­ian needed eeded a big ig­ger er chal­lenge...

I’m m pre etty sure s Valentino Rossi could have cut it i nm my era. He’s just got a whole lot of natura la abil­ity an d that’s re­ally what counts. I mean, an n abil­ity that you’re born with. I don’t think any rider has achieved great things without be­ing born with a lot of el­e­ments which go to­gether to make him a world cham­pion. Rossi seems to like a chal­lenge as I did – even mov­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers to Yamaha in 2004. No one thought he could pos­si­bly win on a Yamaha and of course he did. I wish he would come over to th he Isle of o Man M and have a crack at the TT thou ugh! He’ ’s got g noth­ing left to win in Mo­togp so mayb be it’s it s time he tried an­other chal­lenge.

On mod­ern rac­ing

Right to the end, Duke main­tained an in­ter­est in rac­ing but did ad­mit that it had slack­ened off slightly as rac­ing changed alm mos st be­yond ond recog­ni­tion.

To o som me ext xtent I’ve lost in­ter­est in world champ pio on­ship ra ac­ing now be­cause it’s so dif­fere ent t that I ca an’t re­ally re­late to it. There is a ‘sam men ness’ ab bout all the cir­cuits that I find dull. There’s so much run-off that a rider can af­ford to ride near the limit in the knowl­edge that if he does fall off he’s prob­a­bly not go­ing to hurt him­self. I never had that lux­ury. They’re not so chal­leng­ing as the cir­cuits I rode on. And that’s what I loved about rac­ing – the chal­lenge. The more chal­leng­ing it was, the bet­ter I liked it. I mean, places like the Nur­bur­gring, it was cer­tainly on a par with the TT. I loved the TT but the Nur­bur­gring prob­a­bly was my favourite. And places like Spa in Bel­gium, I loved the fast, sweep­ing bends there where I could make up a lot of time. I think it’s been a good move to have four-strokes back in Grands Prix. I was never a two-stroke man so I’ve al­ways been a bit prej­u­diced in favour of four-strokes! But I must say that the ac­tual per­for­mance of GP two-stroke en­gines was ab­so­lutely un­be­liev­able. They had more than an edge on any four-stroke of their time. But I think ba­si­cally two-strokes, al­though they were com­par­a­tively simple, seemed to de­mand an aw­ful lot of tech­nol­ogy and de­vel­op­ment, more so than the four-strokes. And they’re not rel­e­vant to road bikes ei­ther so I think, ba­si­cally, it was a good thing to turn to fourstrokes in Grands Prix. To­day’s ma­chines are so much more pow­er­ful and they have brakes which re­ally work and tyres which of­fer so much grip it’s in­cred­i­ble. We had tyres made of nat­u­ral rub­ber – all the same com­pound – and they had to cope with both wet and dry con­di­tions . I also raced with drum brakes and the drums al­ways ex­panded with the heat so you never knew if you were go­ing to have brakes when you got to any par­tic­u­lar cor­ner. That’s no longer a problem with disc brakes. In some ways it’s a much eas­ier life for mod­ern rid­ers. For ex­am­ple, they only race in one class whereas rid­ers used to race in as many as three Grands Prix in a day. It’s also much more fi­nan­cially re­ward­ing for to­day’s stars. But I can hon­estly say that I raced be­cause I loved do­ing it, not be­cause of what I was go­ing to get paid. Money was a sec­ondary thing for me. The main con­sid­er­a­tion was the thrill, the chal­lenge, and the com­pet­i­tive­ness of the rac­ing it­self. Grand Prix rid­ers used to have to race on road cir­cuits as well as pur­pose-built cir­cuits but the man­u­fac­tur­ers put a stop to that be­cause they didn’t want to risk their rid­ers get­ting hurt and miss­ing out on world cham­pi­onships. I didn’t think the dan­gers of road cir­cuits were that much greater be­cause you rode ac­cord­ing to the type of cir­cuit you were on. You do get the im­pres­sion that there are fewer per­son­al­i­ties in the sport now but I’m not in­volved in rac­ing any more so I wouldn’t re­ally know. Mod­ern cir­cuits are al­most to­tally safe whereas even ‘safe’ cir­cuits in the 1950s were still lined with trees. But I still think those cir­cuits were more fun tot ride. Peo P ople thought I was mad tak­ing the bigb Giler ra-4 to a nar­row, tree-lined cir­cuit like Scar car­borou­ughh butb I loved the chal­lenge of it.

Then and now

While so much in rac­ing has changed, Ge­off Duke says the key el­e­ments of a racer’s psy­che will al­ways be the same, no matat­terer whatat er­ara he races in.

I sstill thhink I’’d take up rac­ing if I was 20 years ooldd to­day bbe­cause I still have that in­built com­peet­i­tive streeak but, in my opin­ion, I raced in the bestest pe­ri­ope­riod. The cir­cuits varied so much that no two were any­thing like each other. And while the rac­ing was highly com­pet­i­tive, all the rid­ers were very friendly and mixed in the pad­dock hap­pily to­gether. Nowa­days they just dis­ap­pear straight into their mo­tor homes. The same basic things ap­ply to a rider to­day that ap­plied 50 years ago. I can’t think of any­thing from a rider’s point of view that’s changed. We are all born with an abil­ity to ride a mo­tor­cy­cle fast and you havee to be bborn with that abil­ity – it can’t be taught. Buut youy then have to de­velop your speeded ac­co­ording­ing to what­ever bike you’re rid­ing – in wwhatetever era.

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