Classic Racer


- Words: Bertie Simmonds Photograph­s: Mortons Archive and Haslam family archive

The ever-modest Rocket Man on his early days in racing, the tough family upbringing, the losses, the fun and how to cover a top Honda UK man with a cowpat, armed only with a microlight…

If there's a more humble legend in the race paddock, we here at CR have yet to meet him or her. Stand up Ron Haslam: multiple British champ, founder of Team Great Britain, passer on of much knowledge via his race school and sire of another British champ, Leon. Here's part one of the ‘Rocket Men' story.

Here's my favourite Haslam family anecdote. The year is 1999, it is Brands Hatch and in the opening British Championsh­ip 125 race of the year there are two Haslams competing: Ron and his son Leon.

Towards the end of that race, Leon is lying in 3rd place with Ron just in the points in 13th. Suddenly, Leon crashes at Graham Hill Bend. Ron, against racing rules or wisdom, sees his boy has crashed and gets off the track right on the corner to see if his son is hurt.

Ushered away by marshals he gets back on his Honda RS125 and catches up with his 15-year-old son in the pits, just as he's being transferre­d into a waiting ambulance. The prognosis is a broken wrist. Mum Ann is being comforted by a Honda race PR man: she's spent years seeing Ron bash himself up and has had sleepless nights with Leon also doing youth motocross with some serious injuries along the way.

Ron needs to know something, urgently, is it to find out that his son is okay? “What was it son, what was it? What ‘appened?” Leon, knocked about more than a tad, answers: “It just nipped up dad.” Ron, with a half-smile on those trademark side-burned chops, exclaims: “Ah! I knew it were running lean!” Then he rushes off to the garage to sort out the spare bike.

This is part of Haslam family folklore – but is it actually true, Ron? “Well, not quite – it was Paddock Hill Bend he crashed on,” smiles Ron. “I was very old back then (he turns 65 just after this issue hits the shelves) and I just wanted to help Leon out. There was quite a bit of jealousy out there in the paddock that season and some 125 riders didn't like me helping Leon, but they couldn't stop me as I entered the events. I could see that Leon had been knocked out but he'd said the bike had seized up on him, so yes, it's true! To be honest, I never liked the little 125s, instead I'd always preferred the bigger bikes.”

So, ‘bigger bikes', best we go right back to the start, Ron.

I was one of 10 children from Langley Mill and we had hard times, some really hard times. There was Ken, Dennis, Roy, Terry (we called him Babe), Molly, Sheila, Cyril, Phil and Janet. Then me, who turned up when mam (Florence) was 42.

I was the lucky one in the family being the youngest so they had it harder than I did, but of course it was a case of hand-me-down everything. Me dad wasn't the best of dads to be fair: he'd spent some time in prison and he did like his drink. I remember one time we had this little pantry in the house – it was just a little cupboard with a door on it. One day, he came home and went crazy. He grabbed a shotgun and chased four of the kids around the house. They hid in the pantry and held the door shut. And he fired through the door… Gospel truth.

We finally got rid of dad when he tried to kill our mam with a knife. To this day I have no doubt that he would have killed her if he had caught her. By this time my brothers were older and told him to clear off. When they'd turned up to tell him, he'd taken all our furniture out of the house and set fire to it, laughing. My brothers stood up to him and told him not to bother us again and he didn't.

ROCKET RON ON: Being a naughty boy…

Where do I start? Okay, best place is the Cap Slack Hill: a place where – as a kid – you'd go mad in old cars. I can't have been more than about 15/16 as I think I'd started racing… These were crazy times and the local bobbies weren't bothered! We'd have old bangers down there: really old cars or bikes and just drive along in the long grass. It's amazing we didn't have bad accidents or kill anyone!

One such time was when we'd driven around for half-an-hour on this grass and – suddenly – up popped this couple who were clearly making out. How they didn't hear us going flat-stick in those cars I'll never know!

Then there was the time my mate Pete Riley decided to do a ‘telly thing': he jumped on the roof of the car like a stuntman, I wound the windows down, he's grabbing on with both hands across the roof and his head is upside down looking at me through the windscreen. Laughing like mad, both of us, I'm trying to get him off, swerving and the like but he's not shifting. So I hit the brakes as hard as I can… off he flies… no broken bones…

Then there are the naughty times when racing: Cadwell Park had its own hidden luxuries! We used to sleep in an old Ford Thames van, then – one night – we found an old ambulance in the scrutineer­ing bay and used to ‘use' that as it had beds/stretchers in! Next up, we then broke into a burger van and put the gas on and slept in there!

Oh and there's my time signing on – for the dole. When I raced for Mal Carter he'd want me doing all the practice days I could: he provided everything and expected 100 per cent so I couldn't keep a job down and wouldn't last long anywhere. So, I signed on for a bit and one day when I turned up they had all these press cuttings of me winning races and they were asking: “Where's the prize money Mr Haslam?” I told them Mal was taking all the cash – which he was! I tried to pay board to our mam but I also had to pay my fuel bills to get to race meetings, so it was hard. This pushed me into working for the Gas Board: of course, they have lots of vans and the vans have fuel in. Let's say I waited until dark and filled up some cans for my race van. But I was clever and just took a bit out of each van so no one cottoned on. That lasted about a year, that job…

ROCKET RON ON: Getting into bikes…

So, Babe had this moped – it was cheap transport to work. In fact Phil and Babe had a moped each but they used the same numberplat­e on it to save on road tax! Well, I borrowed it (one of them) one day as I'd always wanted a bike. I was no more than 10 years old at the time. The best place to ride it was down the canal but of course I hit this massive pothole: the headlight came straight off it and went into the canal! I had to strip naked and then jump into the dirty canal to get the headlight out then try and get back before Babe at the other end would find out… Luckily he never did!

ROCKET RON ON: Getting into racing…

Terry ‘Babe', my brother started it in 1966. He'd got this Norton Dominator and felt that he was king of the road – but he was banned ‘off' the road in just three weeks! He basically thought he was ‘it' on the roads so he entered the same Dominator into some races at Cadwell Park. He hadn't a clue! But he looked down the entry list and saw his 1000cc bike against all these 750cc Triumphs. He thought he would win it, but they lapped him! To be fair this never put him off – instead it was a wake-up call and it made him work harder at it.

Both Babe and Phil worked hard at building sites in the week so they could go racing, as Phil had started by then. They bought a 1500wt Ford Thames van – the bike was in the back, those two in the front and me sitting down by the back doors. Off we went… Of course we slept in the van, until we spotted the ambulance and burger van at Cadwell…

I'd ridden bikes and mopeds in fields by my teens but not done much, but with both my older brothers racing it followed that I would too. Phil saved up for two years for his own bike to race – a six-speed Suzuki ‘Super Six.' It was going to be the business but seized at every race.

I got into it around then… Cadwell Park again, aged 15 (we lied and said I was 16) and it was 1972 and I was on a Norton 750. What a disaster that was. It was the full circuit and I got a circuit record: a record for crashing the most times in one lap – three times! I went over The Mountain – and crashed. I jumped back on, went through Hall Bends and into The Hairpin thinking: ‘I'm going too fast, here…' I ran wide and fell off when I hit the bank. So, I fired it up and headed to Barn: by this time I realised why I crashed the second time as the throttle seemed to stick a bit open, then I opened the throttle up and I was heading to Barn with the throttle wide open and going very fast… I was also still sidesaddle as I'd bumped-started the bike and not yet had the time to swing the other leg over… I crashed for a third time at Barn.

ROCKET RON ON: Racing loss…

Phil, my brother, was clearly marked for great things. After all, Phil beat Barry Sheene a few times – even taking The Man of the Meeting Award at Mallory Park in 1973 at The Race of the Year. He also did the first 100mph lap around the Manx in 1972 (102.17mph) so he was on the up.

Mal backed him with 250, 350, 500 and 1000cc machines: he even went to Daytona, Florida and made himself known. He crashed at the North West 200 in 1974 and broke his ankle, but he cut the plaster cast off just six weeks later and took a 3rd at Croft. Then Phil died at Oliver's Mount in Scarboroug­h in 1974, aged just 24. His bike broke down, one rider clipped him and another hit him. This was the first death in our family and you can imagine – with a family of 10 – how hard it hit us all. I cried instantly.

Mal told us how it occurred: something happened to the bike and Phil held his arm up. Derek Chatterton had clipped his handlebar sending him into the middle of the track where he was hit by Steve Machin, one of Phil's good friends.

Steve was also killed soon after in a racing accident – we never blamed him. We all stopped racing when Phil went – eventually we realised he'd have wanted us to keep racing. Mal then asked Babe and mam if I could take Phil's place. That's when my involvemen­t with Pharaoh Racing started, but the heartache didn't end there.

It's 1984 and I was doing all right in GPS (I was on around £90,000 on a good year back then and my team-mate Freddie Spencer was probably on three-times that) but it meant I could sponsor Babe on his sidecar with our Molly's son, John Gainey.

It was the end of the 1984 season and they'd done well. At Assen they were having some sort of brake problems on their outfit but had got into the top three. This new braking system then failed and Babe drove straight into the hay bales – one of which broke his neck. John had badly injured his knee. We drove back from Assen and when we got home mam had broken down. She'd lost two sons to racing, doing what they loved and I still had some of my career ahead of me.

ROCKET RON ON: Mal Carter…

As brothers, Babe, Phil and me raced, but Mal Carter, a Bradford/halifax car dealer had seen Phil riding. Mal rode himself then, but even then he was a big lad! He was a proper Yorkshirem­an: every other word was a swear word, which was different to my family who never swore at all! If we were in the pub and someone swore in front of a lady, my brothers would sort them out! Then Mal came along – and we had to get used to it, as he swore all the time. He was a real rough diamond was Mal, but he started to help Phil out: Mal lived for the sport and he lived for Phil back then…

When Phil passed away it was difficult as I felt I was replacing him and I had it easy. The likes of Babe and Phil had done the groundwork for me. Mal felt sorry for us a bit after Phil passed so he asked mam and Babe if he could help me out and I started to do well. I got it easy by a bad way, really. Mal's sponsorshi­p paid for everything: he'd pay for the bikes, the van, the only thing he never paid for was me actually going to the races. The fuel bill in the van I had to pay for – but you know by now how I sorted that out!

ROCKET RON ON: His rivals and Barry Sheene…

Mal had one thing in mind – to win. So when it was Barry Sheene I was up against, there was respect, but I always went out for the win: whether it was him, Phil Read, Mick Grant – any of them. Barry once told me to ‘slow down.' When he first said that, I thought: ‘Ha! I've got you, you're worried!' But that wasn't it, he was giving me advice. What he meant was: ‘Slow down, you'll go faster!' And it was good advice, as I did.

When I got to know Barry, I realised he was a really good lad – and he always told the truth, so respect to him for that. Many of us came along on the tails of ‘the Barry Sheene Phenomenon.' Barry was fantastic for the sport, the TV, papers, all of it. We didn't look at it that way at the time, but he made the sport prestigiou­s, instead of yobbos on bikes, we were profession­al sportsmen.

ROCKET RON ON: Joey Dunlop…

Joey was a fantastic bloke: I couldn't praise him enough. He was quiet like me. If you didn't know him, you'd think he never spoke. But when you knew him, you knew that wasn't the case. His was a broad Irish accent so going to Japan was strange… Even when I spoke to him it was difficult enough – it took me two years to understand him!

At the Suzuka 8 Hours one year, I'd come in and tell the Japanese about the bike. Then, he'd come in and the Japanese HRC Honda people were all huddled around him and he'd be telling them about the bike and they were nodding. I knew they were simply doing this out of politeness as there's no way they could have understood what he was on about. When he left the pits you could see them saying: “What did he say?”

When you did get to know him, he was so much fun. We used to have card games in the seafront hotels at night – and booze was often involved, not that I drank much! The loser of the card game had to take a dare and it was Joey: he had to run out of the hotel, naked, go onto the beach, into the sea, and then back to the hotel. Of course we locked the doors just as he got to them… He ended up climbing up a drainpipe to get in. I think he still won the race the next day…

Then there was the Honda CB1100R launch in South Africa. I'd been there for a week and I'd learned the circuit but for some strange reason we only had the one bike. Joey came out for the launch a week later and we were all at the track so I said: ‘Jump on the back Joey and I will show you the way around.' Well, we'd not arranged anything about swapping over or when, so after about five laps I figured it was his go. So, as we shot down the main straight – right in front of all the Honda and HRC top brass and the many technician­s – all I did was hook my leg off, hung off one side and then Joey shuffled forward and I got on the pillion. We never backed off at all. The Japanese were horrified! He then did another six laps with me on the back…

ROCKET RON ON: Microlight­s and cow dung…

Dave Hancock is a lovely man and was one of the top men at Honda UK as well as one of the European test riders for bikes from the first Fireblade through many other bikes. He was so particular and meticulous – if he had fluff on his jacket, he'd be annoyed and take it off. He came up in my microlight it was the old fashioned kind – a trike layout, one wheel at the front, two at the back. We eventually took off and his girlfriend was watching from the ground: it was a twin-seater with sideby-side layout. Coming into land I could see these cow pats – I knew we were going to hit one. In fact I made sure… As we went over it, I moved to one side and he took the lot over himself: you could not have shovelled any more of it on him. His girlfriend was laughing her head off…

ROCKET RON ON: The Isle of Man TT

Mal loved road circuits – he loved his drink, pubs, the nightlife and therefore he loved the Island. He put no pressure on me: “just have some fun,” he said! But then he added pressure as he sent me over there for two weeks to do laps in a car! It took me three years to learn the place – I learned it like a short circuit really. Down Bray Hill, get lost, full lap, then keep doing laps until it all comes together. I think that way meant that I knew where all the bumps were: by the fourth year of going there I won it.

In 1982 I won a TT: it's different from a short circuit: I would say I was going at 60-70% at the TT but now I think they are going at 80-90%, that's too close for me! I think that's taking some of the safety margin away. I support the TT and always will. If you do short circuits, I don't think it's so good to do the Island – because if you take that level to the TT you can win, but that's quite tight on safety.


The Honda Elf 500cc GP bike…

I guess I was thought of as a developmen­t rider mainly. I was a Honda rider and they wanted someone to develop the Honda Elf 500cc Grand Prix machine. What swung it was that HRC said to me that I would have the factory bike in Elf colours for the next three years and when the Elf came up to speed I could change to that. It sounded like a good deal to me but it didn't quite happen that way…

In 1987, I'd taken two 3rds, two 5ths and a 4th and was doing well overall in the early part of the season. But I think that – while we were running in Elf colours on the factory bike, Elf wanted their ‘funny front-end' bike to be raced and told Honda so. I think that's how it happened, but the Elf wasn't quite ready to be raced. I think I may have even been right around the back when we rode the Elf machine itself. The deal was really good, Honda was the top bike, but the strong relationsh­ip between Elf and Honda was too strong. Later on they said run the Elf through to last practice then the factory bike – that leaves one session to run the ‘normal' bike, set it up and go fast. So that led to many crashes.

Next issue: more on Ron's later racing career, GPS, Team GB and son Leon!

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 ??  ?? Left: Ron on Babe's bike!
Left: Ron on Babe's bike!
 ??  ?? Yet to grow those famous sideburns! A young Ronald.
Ron with mam Florence.
Yet to grow those famous sideburns! A young Ronald. Ron with mam Florence.
 ??  ?? Signing on time Ron!
Signing on time Ron!
 ??  ?? Right: Brother Phil was on the rise until his tragic passing.
Right: Brother Phil was on the rise until his tragic passing.
 ??  ?? Above: Ron's first race in 1972.
Above: Ron's first race in 1972.
 ??  ?? Left: Terry ‘Babe' Haslam and passenger John Gainey.
Left: Terry ‘Babe' Haslam and passenger John Gainey.
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 ??  ?? Below: Mal (right) supported Ron and brother Phil's careers.
Right: Mal, trophies and Ron.
Phil Haslam, Mal Carter and wife, and Ron.
Below: Mal (right) supported Ron and brother Phil's careers. Right: Mal, trophies and Ron. Phil Haslam, Mal Carter and wife, and Ron.
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 ??  ?? Above: Ron checks out the opposition which includes Barry Sheene, Steve Parrish, Barry Ditchburn, Pat Hennen and Dave Potter.
Left: Joey and Ron.
Above: Ron checks out the opposition which includes Barry Sheene, Steve Parrish, Barry Ditchburn, Pat Hennen and Dave Potter. Left: Joey and Ron.
 ??  ?? Right: Microlight larks!
Right: Microlight larks!
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 ??  ?? Above: Cow pat interface with...
Above: Cow pat interface with...
 ??  ?? Right: ...Honda legend Dave Hancock!
Right: ...Honda legend Dave Hancock!
 ??  ?? Great style on the Honda Britain machine.
Great style on the Honda Britain machine.
 ??  ?? Ron reckons he only raced at 60-70% at the TT.
Ron reckons he only raced at 60-70% at the TT.
 ??  ?? Funny front-ended Elf led to strange times.
Funny front-ended Elf led to strange times.
 ??  ?? Ann and Ron with the TT trophy at last.
Ann and Ron with the TT trophy at last.
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