If you are a motorcycle/motorcycle racing enthusiast in these days of the Internet, you must have been hiding under a rock to have missed seeing the many times that this famous photograph has been posted. It is, of course, Graeme Crosby, but the story is a lot more fascinating than just a “normal” Crosby wheelie.
It is October 1978. The location is Macarthur, a suburb layout in the then bottom end of Canberra’s Tuggeranong Valley. The meeting is the inaugural Canberra Road Closure, run by Canberra Road Racing Club around a series of closed-off public streets where now a forest of houses has grown. Back then it was just the streets, that’s all. The 2.8 km layout around the suburb made a perfect race track and it included this steep uphill section that had pretty much all riders performing holeshots like this one.
Along with Crosby, this photo features Stu Avant (Hunter Suzuki RG500), Murray Sayle (Milledge Team Yamaha TZ750), Robbie Phillis (TZ350) and John Pace (TZ350)
But, back to the story. The first meeting for the club that had been formed for just one year was a Restricted 5-Way Club Meeting. And, since Bankstown Wiley Park Club was one of the clubs involved, Graeme Crosby, (after whom my wife and I named our son, by the way) submitted an entry. Now had the Croz been able to run his preferred bike he would have undoubtedly given the fellow Kiwi ace, Stu Avant, a run for his money for overall honours. BUT, the Ross Hannan superbike was stranded on the docks in Sydney on its way back from duties at the famous Bol d ‘Or in France. In fact, right up to the weekend, it was hoped that it would be released from bond to enable Croz to ride, but it just didn’t happen. So Graeme rode down from Sydney on a Honda CBX that he was going to ride later that month in the Castrol Six Hour and settled in to enjoy spectating the meeting.
Since, however, it seemed absurd to have a superstar like him spectating, people began scurrying to try and find a bike for him to ride. At the last minute, there simply wasn’t a racing bike that would do the trick. The only bike that WAS available was, in extremis, a stock standard Z1R Kawasaki. It was owned by the Service Manager at the local Kawasaki dealership, a man called John Fitzgerald. Aware of the honour (and the risk) of having his own road bike raced by Croz at the inaugural road closure, Fitzy stepped up to the plate and offered his precious bike. The offer was accepted and thus we have these famous images of Croz racing a road bike complete with a front number plate (tucked up behind the front forks, attached to the frame downtubes)
Of course the bike was totally uncompetitive against the “pucka” race bikes so Croz, and fellow Kiwi, Terry Turner, turned all their races into wheelie demonstrations, running around the back of the pack and trying to outdo each other in height and length of wheelstands.
But that really isn’t the point of my blog entry today, though I hope the story of how the famous photo came about is interesting.
My point today is to highlight the extraordinary talents of the photographer who took that iconic photo all those (38) years) ago. His name is John Small (hence my somewhat obscure Biblical title for today’s entry). John was a founding member of Canberra Road Racing Club and one of a gang of fellow Uni students who took the raucous side of motorcycle racing and refined it into an art form. Young, wild and enthusiastic, John and his mates enjoyed life to the fullest. But John also had a serious side and he applied that to his photography. Remembering that it was all 35mm film stuff back then, manual wind, manual settings of shutter speed, aperture and focus and wait a week while your work is processed before you find out how well or how badly you went on the day. Primitive, but satisfying. And John instantly (relatively) made it very clear that he was an extraordinary talent behind a camera. John chronicled a lot of the early life of CRRC before taking his camera and himself O/S, following the Continental Circus, parlaying his way into meetings as a freelance photographer and doing his bit to capture on film a golden era of motorcycle racing.
Returning to Oz a year or so later (really, who cares about time?), John stayed in Canberra for a bit longer before he left the rush and bustle and headed to the bucolic solitude of Tilba Tilba, a little town clinging to the edge of the Great Dividing Range in between Narooma and Bega on the south coast of NSW. Along with his sister and her husband, CRRC stalwarts all of them, he showed his creative side again by becoming a member of the raucous group of young people who made the local hotel their second home and enlivened many dances and parties in the sleepy little town.
One looked upon it at the time as a bit of a tree change (long before the term had been coined). We thought John was just going through a “hippie” stage and that he’d enjoy it for a bit then get back into the swing. How wrong we were. John still lives in Tilba, a respected member of the local community with the bragging rights of being an “original” Tilba-ite having moved there LONG before it became the trendy, yuppie little town it is now (damn you, Hugh Fearnley-Whittinsgstall)
It would be wrong to think, however, that John left his camera at home and forgot all about his art. To the contrary, John moved his focus (sorry ’bout that, chief) to all sorts of non-racing ventures and some of his work has been uploaded to his Flickr page which I encourage you to go and explore.
Go to the local store and ask if he’s around, like I did a few months ago and you’ll be told that, “He’ll be up here soon for his morning coffee.” And so he was, and we sat in the sunshine and shot the breeze, talked bikes, cameras and life in general and it was as if the intervening 30 years or so had just melted away. Mellow, quiet and reflective, John has the true artist’s spirit and it shows in his body of work, in his conversation and his commitment to causes that still stir his soul.
I count it a privilege to call him my friend and I respect his decision to “drop out” and forge a new life away from the mainstream. I thank him for his epic images and I hope that I have been able to share with you his work and enable it to get the respect and admiration that it deserves.
John Small, I salute you and I thank you. Live long and well.