Jon Ekerold Last king of a wild fron­tier

Classic Racer - - JON EKEROLD - Words: John Mc­comisky/jon Ekerold Im­ages: Don Mor­ley

This is the story of a solo Grand Prix World Cham­pion’s re­turn to the TT. It hap­pened dur­ing a time when the ma­jor­ity of the world’s lead­ing Grand Prix rid­ers were anti-pub­lic roads. The days were num­bered for Fin­land’s Ima­tra cir­cuit, the fear­some Brno cir­cuit in East­ern Europe as well as the Nur­bur­gring. By the mid-1980s they would all van­ish from Grand Prix rac­ing.

With pure road rac­ing and the TT now ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a huge resur­gence and ex­ten­sive me­dia cov­er­age world­wide, it is per­haps hard to imag­ine that it was all so dif­fer­ent in the 1980s. The top Grand Prix rac­ers of the day shunned cir­cuits like the Isle of Man and Ul­ster Grand Prix, but were more than happy to take in the big money Dutch and Bel­gian street cir­cuit meet­ings such as Sint-joris-tenDis­tel, Chi­may and Met­tet. The TT, post-hail­wood come­back, had been in some­thing of a free fall, with only the TT for­mula classes car­ry­ing world sta­tus, largely only con­tested by the works UK based teams and rid­ers, al­beit in a spo­radic se­ries with Ul­ster’s Dun­drod, Hol­land’s Assen and Vila Real in Por­tu­gal host­ing the early in­car­na­tions of what ended up be­com­ing the fore­run­ner to World Su­per­bike rac­ing. Grand Prix rac­ers who would race on The Is­land were few and far be­tween with only a smat­ter­ing of rid­ers such as Alex Ge­orge, Jeff Sayle and Den­nis Ire­land among the no­table ex­cep­tions. The main bulk of tal­ent came from the main­land UK and pure road rac­ing mecca North­ern Ire­land. Al­though the or­gan­is­ers reg­u­larly scoured the Grand Prix paddocks of Europe in an at­tempt to lure rid­ers to add pres­tige to the event, which by the 1980s boasted over £253,000 in prize money and in­di­vid­ual start pay­ments – it was still a hard sell to have a Grand Prix rider com­mit to at least two weeks on the Isle of Man. Some star rid­ers even­tu­ally tempted in­cluded Dale Sin­gle­ton, Boet Van Dul­men and Keith Huewen who at least came over the Ir­ish sea to try the event, and by their own ad­mis­sion pick up a pay cheque.

One rider, how­ever, stand­ing head and shoul­ders above all his Grand Prix coun­ter­parts at this time was Jon Ekerold. Ekerold, a renowned hard rid­ing, no non­sense rider al­ready rel­ished rac­ing on the shorter road cir­cuits in Europe and had achieved many suc­cesses abroad. He was never go­ing to be a rider who sim­ply rode around a few laps to grab ap­pear­ance money (even if a few of the star rid­ers of the time were openly grum­bling about how much the ACU had paid the then reign­ing world 350cc cham­pion to make his first ap­pear­ance at the TT since 1976). Jon would prove to be more than ca­pa­ble of tak­ing a race to the in­grained road tal­ents of the day such as Mick Grant, Chas Mor­timer, Steve Tonkin and Char­lie Wil­liams. Head­ing out on a hit-and-miss prac­tice week wasn't ex­actly the best of ways for Ekerold to re­learn the Moun­tain course though, be­cause he also had prior con­ti­nen­tal com­mit­ments to deal with dur­ing the fort­night. It was a tough time made busier with a lot of com­mit­ment and rid­ing to jug­gle back and forth. Ekerold says: “I re­turned in 1981 and made the mis­take of think­ing it would only take a few laps to re­fresh my mem­ory – I only ar­rived a day be­fore train­ing be­gan. I soon dis­cov­ered that I had to learn the track all over again from scratch, which, con­sid­er­ing I was also com­pet­ing in two in­ter­na­tion­als in Europe over the same pe­riod, wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen.” On the week­end be­tween prac­tice week and race week, Jon ar­ranged for ex-racer Rex Butcher to fly him to the Con­ti­nent in his twin en­gined Beechcraft Baron for a race meet­ing in Chi­may, Bel­gium. Fin­ish­ing the in­vi­ta­tional race abroad, Ekerold’s thoughts turned back to

the 37.73-mile long track. En route in the small plane, there was trou­ble brew­ing though as the weather closed in just out­side of Liver­pool – so much so that it looked as though the plans might be side­lined with a forced land­ing as it got rougher and rougher. Butcher had other ideas though as it turned out he had a hot date that evening in Dou­glas. “As we ap­proached Ron­aldsway air­port, vis­i­bil­ity was down to zero, and as we flew through the dark­ness and dense fog, with the rain lash­ing the wind­screen. I glanced at Rex who was hud­dled over his in­stru­ment panel as the con­trol tower at­tempted to talk us down, and I no­ticed beads of per­spi­ra­tion col­lect­ing on his fore­head. “I strained to catch a glimpse of some­thing, any­thing, ex­pect­ing the cliff face next to the air­port to be the last thing I ever saw, but when we were about 10 me­tres off the ground we sud­denly broke cover and there, di­rectly be­low the wheels, were the land­ing lights and the run­way. It was prob­a­bly the best bit of fly­ing I’ve ever seen.” Shaken and stirred by the aero­nau­ti­cal ad­ven­ture which Butcher con­sid­ered a piece of cake, a good night’s sleep would be needed for the up­com­ing Ju­nior TT race. With his reg­u­lar Grand Prix ma­chin­ery over­seas, Ekerold was for­tu­nate enough to pick up a works Arm­strong ride to sup­ple­ment his Har­ris 500 TZ Yamaha out­ing for the main Se­nior and Clas­sic races. Af­ter post­ing the fastest time in prac­tice (106.68mph) on the petite Bolton-made bike, Jon had high ex­pec­ta­tions of a re­sult on a bike he con­sid­ered to be fab­u­lous to ride. Sadly, the bike never per­formed as ex­pected in the race, and on the fourth lap, while ly­ing sec­ond be­hind his Arm­strong team-mate Steve Tonkin, the big end bear­ing de­cided to eat it­self and the bike ground to a halt. In the Se­nior 500 and Clas­sic TT events he rode the Har­ris Yamaha, in typ­i­cal Manx fash­ion the weather had closed in and left con­di­tions rather damp and tricky. “I didn’t want do any­thing to jeop­ar­dise my world cham­pi­onship ti­tle chances, so I must ad­mit I didn’t put my heart and soul into it, with pre­dictable re­sults. A 13th place in the Se­nior and a non fin­ish in the clas­sic were all we could muster, so not re­ally a week to write home about. Even so, I was al­ready look­ing for­ward to 1982 as I had ev­ery in­ten­tion of re­turn­ing to set the record straight.” In the 1982 sea­son Ekerold re­turned with his strik­ingly painted ‘Shark Tooth’ Rg500cc Suzuki. He had been rac­ing in the 500cc Grand Prix af­ter re­lin­quish­ing his 350cc GP crown to arch ri­val Toni Mang the pre­vi­ous year, and ar­rived on the Is­land want­ing some sort of re­venge af­ter the bad luck-dogged and lack­lus­tre per­for­mance the year be­fore. “I went to the Is­land in 1982 on a mis­sion and that was that I was there to win. Noth­ing else was go­ing to be ac­cept­able to me. As well as my trusty RG500 Suzuki, Arm­strong again pro­vided me with a mount for the Ju­niortt event to bol­ster my chances”. The week started poorly when, less than three miles into the 250 race, the tan­dem twin Ro­tax en­gine seized solid, and that was that. Fur­ther in­spec­tion af­ter the race and the trou­ble was traced to a faulty ig­ni­tion. A bit­ter end to what promised to have had the South African chal­leng­ing even­tual win­ner Con Law on the Wad­don Ehrlich. Al­though eluded of Ju­nior TT suc­cess, the main fo­cus was get­ting re­sults in the Se­nior and Clas­sic events. Bril­liant sun­shine greeted the se­nior field as they basked in its sum­mer glow as the as­sem­bled rid­ers lined up on the Glen­crutch­ery road. “Af­ter a fairly cau­tious first lap, I got down to it. Un­like sev­eral other top com­peti­tors, I had a stan­dard fuel tank which meant two stops in a six-lap race. It was a good ex­am­ple of my lack oftt ex­pe­ri­ence, as an ex­tra litre meant one could get by with only a sin­gle stop. Af­ter re­fu­elling at the end of lap two, my chain started jump­ing the rear sprocket un­der hard ac­cel­er­a­tion, forc­ing me to pit again at the end of lap three in or­der to ad­just the chain. Of course, big Dave John­son, who was span­ner­ing for me that week, had no idea why I was pulling in, and by the time he had the right tools out and the chain read­justed, we were a minute-and-a-half in ar­rears. “With a third pit stop to re­fuel at the end of lap four, I re­ally thought any hope of vic­tory had van­ished, so I was very sur­prised to see a P 2 on my pit board as I flashed past the Grand­stand to start my sixth and fi­nal lap .The bad news was that I was still 48 sec­onds be­hind the leader, Nor­man Brown on the Hec­tor Neill RG500 Suzuki. Nev­er­the­less, I put ev­ery­thing I had into that fi­nal lap, but it just wasn’t enough in the end. When the flag fell I was still eight sec­onds shy of vic­tory, and al­though I knocked 13 sec­onds off the ex­ist­ing lap record on my fi­nal lap, Char­lie Wil­liams on the Mit­suitz 500 yamaha went one bet­ter though by best­ing my time by a sec­ond to grab the new 500 record at 115.08mph mph. “Wil­liams was to­tally out of luck and had ear­lier pulled in at Sulby only to no­tice a kinked fuel pipe and lost a huge amount of time but like my­self just kept push­ing on at record pace.”

The shark mouth on the RG500 says it all.

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