Just a few more reflections on the 22nd Island Classic.
Firstly, while it is about motorcycle racing, and very SERIOUS motorcycle racing at that, the vast majority of people involved in the IC are there to have fun. And the spirit of fun and participation also extends to both sides of the fence as well. The thing that distinguishes it from any other motorcycle racing event is its accessibility. Buy your ticket at the gate and you can go anywhere you like. You can stay in the spectator stands or you can take the bridge over to the business side of the track and walk around the pits. Not only can you do that, but you can do the trade displays, ogle the lovely bikes that spectators and competitors always bring along to the event or go to the pit garages and watch the race preparations taking place. As well you can, and are indeed are welcome, to go INTO the pit garages and watch the engine room of the meeting in operation. Then you can also take the birds-eye view of the racing by going up onto the roof of the pit garages and bake in the sun as the races unfold.
To anyone used to their local mechanic’s shop that has a chain across the workshop area and a sign saying that entry is not permitted due to Work Health and Safety regulations, this sounds like a recipe for total chaos. Indeed, during one of my conversations with Peter Mitchell, the Track Manager, he pointed this out. Accessibility to the pit area for spectators has only been achieved and allowed by the track’s insurers after long and detailed discussions with them wherein PI Operations were able to assure them that they could juggle public access and workplace safety and make the two exist side by side successfully. It is not immediately apparent until it is pointed out but, the pit enclosures ARE designated work areas. It IS a fine balancing act that they do and, despite not wanting to think it, there WILL come a day when an accident involving a member of the public in a pit garage WILL bring this most pleasing aspect of the meeting to a close. Until that time, being able to get “up close and personal” with the riders, support crew, pit staff and celebrities remains one of the standout aspects of the Island Classic.
Until that time, the IC remains the only major meeting where the average punter has this freedom. WSBK allows you to purchase, at extra cost, a “Pit Walk” ticket and, at various times of each racing day, those who have done so are taken on a guided your of the pit enclosure where they are able to observe, at a distance, the workings of the mechanics and the bikes themselves. MotoGp allows no such access and the only time that I have been able to get into the pits at all was when one of the officials who I knew very well, lent me (on pain of death or worse) his pass for half an hour so that I could get in and chat with an American friend of mine who was working for one of the teams. During that time I was able to talk to two riders, neither of whom were the “stars” Access to them is heavily restricted by DORNA to the extent that they do not even allow one-on-one interviews but only group interviews at restricted times.
And spotting and getting to talk to the characters in the “main game” is nearly as much fun as the racing itself at the Classic, especially for rubber jawed people like me. It was great to have an extended conversation with Jeremy Burgess who I have known since his days as a racer in 1976 where he successfully punted an RG500 Suzuki out of his home town of Adelaide.
Jeremy has been keeping a low profile since his sacking by Valentino Rossi at the end of 2013 but was at the Classic as the Guest of Honour. True professional that he is, he didn’t just restrict his presence to the expensive Banquet held on the Saturday night, but spent the whole weekend roaming the pits, renewing old acquaintances and chatting affably to anyone who cared to shirtfront him. He also posed willingly for photos all weekend and, though I have never understood the mentality of those who delight in having their pictures taken with celebrities, he was happy to oblige whenever asked. Since the banquet is an expensive affair I have always avoided it, the idea of an intimate dinner with the Guest of Honour when there are 400 other people in the room seems more than just a little absurd, but, in most cases, and again this year, I have been able to have long conversations with them away from the dinner and for free as well.
As noted in my summary of the meeting, don’t be surprised to see JB becoming active in the historic bike scene; something about his demeanour on the weekend suggested that he was very much liking the vibe.
As usual, I was there as a reporter for MotoPodcast and was able to bag 16 solid interviews, the first three of which were uploaded in this week’s episode.
I also got to chat again with the First Lady of Australian road racing, Peggy Hyde. Enticed out of retirement (she must be in her 70’s) to ride an SR400 Yamaha and a fearsome Kawasaki H1 500, Peggy was in her element, soaking up the atmosphere and the belated adulation for her achievements in road racing 40 odd years ago, Following her racing career, Peggy set sail from the Heads in Sydney on an ocean-going yacht and followed her dream. She made a cameo appearance at last year’s Historics at Lakeside, riding a little bike in the demo laps at lunch time, but this was a far more serious hit-out. Charming and erudite, it was a huge privilege to not only talk to her but also secure an interview as well.
And sometimes the story is just hidden a little. Back in the 70’s I took a number of photos of a Victorian road racer called Craig Hemsworth. While scanning my photos a few years ago I noted them and was a bit surprised to receive a request from him, by way of a mutual friend, for some shots from back in the day, which I was happy to provide. Last year I noted his name cropping up in the programme riding a vintage Harley and, though I found the bike in the pits, I never got to talk to him. Well, this year I rectified that and it was great to chat with him.
Does the name ring a bell, by the way? Yes, he is the father of THOSE Hemsworth boys! Grateful that anybody even remembers his racing career, he is quiet and self-effacing. A charming man.
The, of course, there was The Croz. Captain of Team NZ and all-round ambassador for fun and a good time, Croz was taking it a little more seriously looking after an XR69 for Kevin Dalton, a fellow Kiwi who also owns the RG500 that Croz rode at the Sheene in 2012 along with Dave Quinn on the Shadowfax. Despite his serious duties, Croz seemed to be everywhere and is truly everyone’s mate. Larger than life in every respect but as down to earth as they come, Croz is..well, he’s just Croz.
And finally, the Ottis Lance story that seemed to permeate so much of the meeting. Otter made so many friends on his two visits to the Classic that he is interwoven in the story of the event. Otter’s best mates, Paul Schaeffer, brought Otter’s leathers from Texas and hung them on the wall in the Team USA garage and, while some of the team have never even met him and were riding their own races with their own concerns, there was a sense in the background that the goal to get on the podium of the International Challenge was somewhat driven by the, “Let’s do it for Otter.” mentality. Rob Murdoch, a local photographer, made a huge banner that flew over the Team US garage and it sort of told the story.
It was, as always, a memorable meeting for dozens of reasons. I am still a little bemused by the number of times total strangers stop me in the pits and say, “Hey, you’re Phil Hall, aren’t you? I love reading your blog and your column in mcnews.” I never thought the day would come when as many people at the meeting know me as I know them.
Once again, hats off to the staff at PI. Peter Mitchell, Leanne Duthie, who manages to juggle 17 responsibilities at the same time, get them all taken care of AND do it with a smile, astonishing, and the staff of the track who treat the racers and the spectators as PEOPLE and not a commodity. As I said last time, if you’ve never been, you owe it to yourself to go. Do it, I promise you you won’t be sorry.