Geoff Duke: The Lost Interview
THE LOST INTERVIEW
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.
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.
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.