Motorcycle racing memories
I was always keen on motorsport and after I started riding bikes I was interested in trying road racing. The first time I ever saw race bikes was at Sandown Park in Melbourne and the speed and sound of those wailing 2 strokes just blew me away. I was prompted by a friend to join the Sandringham Motorcycle Club because the members were primarily interested in road racing, and in 1968 bought a new Yamaha YAS1, a tiny 125cc twin road bike. It was a lucky choice; in 1969 Yamaha introduced a GYT kit (Genuine Yamaha Tuning) for the bike. The kit consisted of aluminium cylinder with chrome bores, single ring pistons, higher compression heads, expansion chamber exhausts, bigger carburetors, new con-rods and big ends for higher RPM, thinner and more clutch plates for higher power and a lower 5th gear set. Power went from 15 at 8500 RPM to 24 at 12,000, and they were pretty big horses. At about that time Suzuki introduced a 125 twin that was really a better engine and frame but they never brought out high performance parts so they were never really competitive.
First race meeting – Winton, Victoria, October 1968 – the bike was stock with a bit of the useless stuff stripped off. I recall coming 9th in the 125 race and getting out-ridden by South Australian Otto Muller who was riding a tiny 50cc Kreidler, but later astounding one of my friends by running as high as 3rd in an unlimited C-grade race after getting a really good start from around the 6th row of the grid. In those days all races were push starts with a dead engine and the little 125 was simply easier to push-start.
Second race meeting – Mac Park, South Australia, late December 1968 – About 5 or 6 days before the race meeting I rode the bike the 500 km to Mount Gambier, left it at a garage and then travelled on to Adelaide with a friend. We drove back the day before the meeting, retrieved my bike and I rode it to the track where I stripped it down for racing. I can’t remember much about the meeting except I finished 4th in the 125 race and dead last in the production race before refitting all the lights so I could ride home that night.
I did another 4 or 5 race meetings in 1969 on my very limited student’s budget with the bike in roughly that configuration. The only other modification I made was to remove the air cleaners which required going from 90 to 160 main jets. My riding improved and I vaguely recall some interesting dices, often with larger capacity bikes. The bike must have looked reasonably fast because I remember someone asking me what modifications I had made to it. I was very earnestly telling him about removing the air cleaners and re-jetting when one of my friends rolled his eyes and shortened the explanation by saying “It’s stock!”
The GYT kit – In about August or September I bought one of the first GYT kits and it totally transformed the bike. If the bike was geared for a short track it was easy to do unintended wheel stands.
First race with the race kit installed – Mac Park early October 1969 – the bike ran well but I was having trouble getting it to fire up on starts. I finished second to Denny McCormack on his Suzuki in the 125 but I was closing fast. In a later handicap race where we started in the reverse finish order, Denny pushed off after me and passed me while I was still pushing but I was able to pass him going into the first corner and that was the last I saw of him. I finished second in that and third in an unlimited D grade race.
First race win – Winton – late October 1969 – Victorian GP – The picture above shows the esses on the second last lap of the 125 race, Graeme Smith on the Bert Flood Bultaco leading. It doesn’t look all that exciting in the photo but I had started on the third row of the grid and had done a lot of catching up, cutting the lap record by 4 seconds in the process. Up until then the Bultacos had been the bikes to beat but they gradually disappeared after this; they simply couldn’t match the Yamahas. Not shown in this photo is Peter Kopp from the Sandringham club who had jumped the fence and was standing on the edge of the track screaming encouragement at me. It was an interesting day because as well as winning my first race I crashed twice. I was really running hot but hadn’t yet learned the limits of the crappy tyres that were available then. In a heat for the 350 C-grade race I had run 3rd which should have put me on the front row for the final but they had run the race one lap longer than it was supposed to go so took the results from the previous lap when I had been 7th or 8th. When they put me on the third row of the grid I was furious and rode with fury. I was up to 3rd and closing hard on the leaders when I crashed. I was much more circumspect in a later 250 B-grade heat, and also in the 125 race. The 250 B final was immediately after the 125 race but I was so over the moon about winning the 125 that I forgot to take a corner and crashed for the second time that day. I became an instant celebrity in my club, and I did deserve it, but I was also very lucky; there was an even faster bike in the race. Ron Toombs, one of the best riders in Australia had a brand new Yamaha factory racer, a prototype of the TA125 production racer, but he fouled a spark plug and only completed one lap. I had accidentally dodged that particular trap when I bought Bosche race plugs instead of NGKs. The two plugs cost me $12 which was a quarter of my weekly pay at that time but they worked.
It has a home-made seat and fuel tank and a twin leading shoe front brake from a 250 Suzuki. I rode this bike during 1970 and 1971. I think it took me a while to win another race but in 1971 I won several races. In the mean time, Ron Toombs rode the factory bike until the end of 1970 when he received the latest model. The older bike was sent to Victoria where it was ridden by Barry Smith who had just returned from riding 50cc bikes for the Spanish Derbi factory in Europe and finished with several race wins as well as placing third in the 1968 and 1969 world championships.
Here’s me on the 125 at Calder, near Melbourne in 1971. On this particular day I won the 250 C-grade race and about this time I also managed to beat Barry on the factory bike in the 125 race at Calder. The only real differences between my bike and the factory bike were that the factory bike had a close-ratio gear box and the frame shape had been changed to lower it a few inches. The main thing I remember about the 125 race is that after about 4 laps we came on a very slow tail-ender entering a corner at the end of the back straight. With Barry on my back wheel I was unwilling to hesitate so simply aimed for the closing gap to the apex of the corner and hoped we missed. Our speed difference was so great that it was impossible to judge. It must have scared the bejesus out of him. This was a great little bike. It could outrun any 250cc road bike from the time and match it with the 350cc road bikes. At one of the Calder race meetings I rode it in an unlimited capacity C-grade race. I think I finished about 4th, but led for quite a while, passing and re-passing a guy on a 750. Not that I could hear it but the crowd apparently really got into it, cheering every time I passed him in a corner or under brakes and the announcer saying “Anson’s supposed to be riding a 125, but that can’t be right” . The engine hung together pretty well as long as you didn’t run it over 13,000 RPM. If you only used 12,000 it would last forever; well, a season of racing anyway. You might notice that in the above photo there is a dent in the seat tail. Someone had collided with me in an earlier race.
1971 Australian TT at Symmonds Plains, Tasmania – Winning this race, in theory, made me a sort of 125 champion of Australia, but it was a bit of a joke really. The TT and the GP got shared around between the states. In 1971 it was Tasmania’s turn to host the TT. There was racing over two weekends but I only went for the second weekend. I loaded my bike on the ferry where it was tied down with about a 2″ diameter rope around the fuel tank while I went as a 2nd class passenger. The Bass straight is a notoriously rough patch of water so I was feeling pretty seedy from the over-night crossing when I wheeled the little racer off the ferry at the other end and was picked up by some friends. It turned out that hardly any of the top riders from other states had bothered to make the trip so there were only 9 starters for the 125 race and only 3 of us were really competitive. I made a good start and led the first lap, going as hard as I could. When I finally looked over my shoulder there wasn’t another bike in sight. I thought they must have stopped the race but they weren’t showing me a red flag so I went round and round for 10 laps. The only other bike I saw was when I lapped a tail-ender after about 7 or 8 laps. It turned out that the other two fast riders had collided on the first corner and taken each other out.
Late in 1971 I decided to sell the 125 and bought a very rough 500 Suzuki to turn into a road racer, but about this time I also heard that Barry Smith was retiring from racing so visited Milledge Yamaha, the Victorian importer, and asked them for the ride and they said yes. The deal was that I would do the basic work on the bike and pay my own costs while they would do any major work and supply parts. It was a simple deal which cost them very little but it was amazing how political things got at times and how many people were desperate to get their hands on a bike which was now a couple of years old. Early in 1972 the close ratio gearbox became available to anyone else so the bike no longer had any advantage over the non-factory bikes.
Also in late 1971, something far more momentous happened to me. I met Sue Slattery. We were married less than a year after meeting and 46 years later, we are still together.
Sue took this photo of me in the pits at Mac Park. I won the race but wasn’t happy with the handling and think I opted for different tyres for later race meetings. This was the first race meeting she had gone to. We were camped in a borrowed tent in the Mount Gambier camping ground amongst fellow Sandringham club members. Apparently the word got out that “Anson’s got a bird in there”. In the morning someone moved a bike trailer that happened to be a tie-down point for a corner of the tent, collapsing it on us and when Sue emerged one of the guys reckoned I had been cradle snatching. For the record, Sue is exactly 364 days younger than me.
I don’t remember 1972 as being a particularly good racing year. I always placed well in races but only won the odd one. The age of the bike was starting to show as well with odd mechanical problems. I even won a race against top competition only to have the result annulled because they had run the race one lap short. In the re-run I crashed trying to hold off Len Atlee on the Clem Daniels Special, a very fast modified 125 Yamaha. I was also trying to run 2 bikes, the Yamaha and the 500 Suzuki which I was struggling to come to grips with. I can only find one fairly poor photo of the 500. Later I modified it heavily by building a lightweight space frame knocking about 25 pounds off the weight but incredibly I can’t find a single photo of it.
Here’s me at Mac Park with friends Jon Slykerman and Con Whitlock. Con had bought my original 125 and we kicked around together for a while. Sue and I are still in contact with Jon and Allison Slykerman . Jon still has his racer from that time, a highly modified Suzuki A100 known in the club as the “flying frame”. Note that I have hair.
I had a bit more success in 1973. The photo was taken at the Hume Weir track in January where I won the 125 race as well as being treasurer of the meeting and secreting thousands of dollars from ticket sales in my van and hoping that nobody suspected there was easy money around. We wrote cheques for prize money which were presented to riders on the day which was almost unheard of. Most times you were lucky to get your money within a month and I once waited nearly a year. Incredibly, one rider came to me to cash his cheque because he needed the money for petrol to get home to Sydney. How’s that for confidence in your ability.
This at Symmonds Plains in March 1973 where Sue and I went for the two weekends of racing. On the first weekend I had the gearbox fail. It was still ride-able but I had no first gear on a fairly long track with a couple of very slow corners. We had the parts flown over from Melbourne and I rebuilt the whole thing for the next weekend. The next failure was a cracked steel liner in the front brake drum so that as the brake heated it expanded and faded really badly. There was nothing I could do about it so just lived with it, but it meant that the brakes were almost useless by the end of a race. I came second in my main race to Ron Toombs. I was trailing him by about 30 metres with no hope of catching him and cursing the brake drum when I noticed that the gap was closing. I assumed he had engine trouble and sure enough, I caught up and passed him easily and went on my merry way. On the last lap he went sailing past under brakes and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. Ron was a very hard and skilled rider and I have no doubt he could have beaten me even without my braking problems, but the thing that surprised me was that he was so confident in his ability that he waited around and let me pass, something I could never have done. I had a good time that weekend and rode well despite the failing brakes. I eventually had a fairly low-speed crash in a supporting race because my speed into a tight corner was just too high. The manager at Milledge Yamaha later suggested that I shouldn’t be riding the bike in larger capacity classes but I distinctly remember that as I was wheeling the bike out for a race the announcer saying something like “and here comes Peter Anson with that very fast little Yamaha”. It was good advertising for Yamaha. People just loved seeing the little guy beating the big guys.
Sue took this photo at Symmonds Plains of three riders from New South Wales; Bryan Hindle, Ron Toombs and Len Atlee. They were all fast riders but Bryan and Ron were exceptional. About this time, Giacomo Agostini won a series of 350cc and 500cc World Championships riding MV Augustas. Ago was a great rider but the MV Augustas were clearly the best bikes. At the end of the 1971 season a promoter brought Ago to Australia to race at Calder and Oran Park near Sydney. His competition in Australia consisted entirely of Yamaha TR 350s, probably not as good as the bikes he had seen off in Europe. His first race at Calder was on the 350 and he dawdled around in about 6th place for a while to make it look like a race before blasting through to take the lead. I was amazed to see an Italian guy in the crowd crying because he thought Ago was getting beaten and then cheering wildly and waving his flag when the great man came through. When the circus moved to Sydney Ago put on the same show, but Oran Park is not Calder. Calder was a very simple circuit, just two straights and four corners but Oran Park is much more challenging, so while Ago was tooling around making it look like a race, Bryan Hindle was out the front going bananas and really making a race of it. Ago was never able to catch him making Hindle one of a very select few to beat Agostini that year. Bryan retired from racing a few years later after a very successful career but was killed some years later in an accident flying a powered hang glider.
I don’t know how old Ron Toombs was at the time. To me he looked like an old man. He was certainly an unlikely looking racer but he was fearsome on the track. He was also a bit like the character “Pig Pen” from the Peanuts comic strip. He always looked a bit grubby and his bikes always looked grubby, but about a year later, when Kawasaki wanted a top rider to put on their factory-built 750 racer, Toombs was the guy. A very smart tuner named Neville Doyle worked on the bike and for the first time ever Toombs had a shiny bike. I can’t remember when Ron retired from racing but he obviously got bored and made a comeback on a TZ350 Yamaha but was killed at Bathurst.
Len Atlee, the third rider in the photo, was really too big for riding 125s but the extra power of his bike, the “Clem Daniels Special” made him very competitive. As far as I know, Len is still alive and kicking.
At the next round of the championship, held at Bathurst , all the A-grade riders from NSW refused to ride unless they got start money which effectively handed the meeting to the interstate A-graders and the NSW B-graders. Unfortunately for me, Clem Daniels got Ken Blake to ride his bike. Ken was a South Australian who had come to Victoria to pursue his racing and joined the Sandringham club. He was a really nice guy and totally unassuming but to the rest of us he was a celebrity as well as a fantastic rider. I was almost dumfounded when Ken came to me for advice on riding a 125. “It’s a little 250” was about the best I could do. I finished second to Ken in the race but he was so far ahead that I couldn’t have shot him with a cannon. Ken was a truly great rider who actually made a (probably meager) living as a professional racer for a while, unheard of in what was really an amateur sport, and eventually went to Europe but was killed at the Isle of Man.
On the way back from Bathurst I raced at Hume Weir where I could only manage a 3rd against some very stiff competition in the 125 race but easily won the 250 B-grade race.
I raced the factory 125 for the remainder of 1973 with varied degrees of success and also teamed up with Barry Smith, who had come out of retirement, to ride a Yamaha TX500 production bike. For the record, Barry was always faster than me. My last race on the 125 was at Winton in October. I won the 125 but crashed heavily in the 250 B-grade race severely damaging both myself and the bike. When I got out of hospital I dropped the bike at Milledge Yamaha. I was pretty disenchanted with their lack of interest; they saw dirt racing as the place where the money was. I thought that was the end of it but a few months later received a very terse grumble from one of the salesmen about the poor condition of the bike when I returned it. Good grief, did he think it was a rental?
During 1974 and 1975 I raced my 500 as well as my RD350 Yamaha road bike. I only had one really bad crash with the 500 but it was a doozy. I locked the front brake at Calder at about 185 km/h, slid for 150 metres and then had to walk another 100-odd metres to pick up my bike. As I was limping back to the pits wheeling the bike, Neville Doyle was wheeling Ron Toombs 750 Kawasaki back after he had done a plug chop and I overheard him saying to Ron “Jeeez, you should have seen the guy that came off at the end of the straight.”
By the end of 1975 I knew I didn’t have what it takes to be a world champion and just wanted something that was fun to ride so sold my 500 and bought a fairly tatty 125 Yamaha from a friend. I raced it a couple of times until an odd misfire sorted itself out when the crankshaft broke. I rebuilt the engine and spent the early part of 1976 building a beautiful light-weight space frame for it. The entire frame and swing arm weighed just 15 pounds and the swing arm was so rigid that I was able to fit just a single Koni shocker on one side which really freaked people out. The bike weighed just 165 pounds (75 kg) and for a time it was almost unbeatable at Calder and Mac Park and very competitive everywhere else.
Mac Park 1976 – leading the 125 race
About the only mistake I made on this bike was to run it on methanol which gave a little more power but reduced reliability. When fuel was finally restricted to 100 octane I finished more races which improved the win ratio. A sort of backhanded compliment came from a couple of guys who were looking at my bike in the pits one time. They were laughing at some of its features: only one shocker, the boxy home-made fuel tank with a cap off an oil bottle, the general odd appearance. I was getting a bit offended but the final comment was “But jeez, doesn’t it GO”. The bike was competitive until the first Yamaha TZ 125 appeared in 1980 so I bought a TZ engine and fitted it making the bike even lighter, and raced it until 1984.
Here’s the TZ powered bike, minus lower fairing during a club day at Calder in about 1983
I can recall one race meeting at Mac Park in about 1981 when I won the 125 race and came 4th in the 250 A-grade race with this bike. I was catching Vaughn Coburn and just needed one more lap to pinch third, but to put things into perspective, I was talking later to Mike Pettifer who was a real hard charger on a Suzuki 250 road bike who reckoned he was doing exactly the same to me. “I just needed one more lap to get you”. That one more lap would have made things really interesting.
In 1984 I started building a more radical chassis but the construction was beyond me and never completed. For a time I occasionally raced a Yamaha RZ350 road bike and later a Suzuki RG500 road bike. I did my final race meeting, a club day at Calder in 1987, a little after my 40th birthday, and true to form, finished with a crash on the 500.