You’d have to have been living under a rock for the last 20 years to have missed this famous video clip from the WSBK event at Phillip Island in 1992. (25 years, actually). It all began innocently enough with the Belgian Ducati rider, Stephane Mertens, running just a tad wide on the exit to T12, the infamous flat out corner that leads onto the front straight. What followed was anything but innocent. The tyres hit a small patch of water on the edge of the track and Mertens was dumped on his head, back and body before the bike made another attempt to run over him. As his momentum began to slow, the bike kept going, slamming up against the wall and catching fire. In the next few seconds the bike hits the wall, then the armco at the end of pit lane 5 more times, each time venting more fuel from the ruptured tank which stokes the fire that had started at the first hit. In the mean time, Mertens hits the unprotected concrete wall several times before finally rolling to a stop. With nothing more to hit when the armco finally runs out, the bike leans left and lays down on the grass, still burning furiously.
Of course, I have told the Mertens story before; it is, after all, part of WSBK folklore, but the story is worth telling again, and again. Big props too, to the cameraman who had the presence of mind to capture the event. There is one instant there where he seems unable to decide whether he will follow the rider or the bike but that is being picky, really. As noted before, the incident did not deter the rider any and he continued riding for some years, until 1994, in fact. After his WSBK stint he switched to riding in the WEC where he won the title twice, 1995 and 2002. He also won the Le Mans 24 hour motorcycle race in 1990. Amazingly, now well into his 50’s, Stephane still races in his native Belgium and is a feared competitor in the Superbike class.
It’s a story worth telling and, like most motorcycle stories, it gets better with the telling. With the aid of social media and digital methods of storage and dissemination, we are better able now to retrieve wonderful yarns like this one than we have ever been.
Which is a good thing but some of the stories that I remember and which deserve re-telling have no written, digital or any other kind of record except for the memories of the people who were involved. For example, how many people will know of the motorcycle race that had to be stopped when kangaroos invaded the track?
It was 1979, and the second road closure meeting in Canberra around the suburb that was named Macarthur. Unsurprisingly, the circuit immediately became known as Macarthur Park and is still named that today by those who have long memories. The feature race was the blue riband event and it featured a stellar cast. Run in two parts, it had an entry list that included Wayne Gardner, Ron Boulden, Lee Roebuck, Stephen Hardwick, Wayne Clarke, Steve Fisher, Dave King et all. It was a who’s who of the 350cc class “guns” of the day.
At the drop of the green, pole man, Gardner, on the Karl Praml M/C TZ, took off like a scalded cat with local favourite, Murray Ogilvie, hot on his heels. It had all the makings of a classic. Gardner, the rising star, Ogilvie with the hopes of CRRC and the Canberra crowd riding with him. They quickly cleared out leaving Goulburn’s Lee Roebuck trying to fend off the fire-breathing Kawasaki 1000 of Emanuel Blanco. And the 10 laps should have gone according to script, except that it didn’t.
Two laps in a flock of local kangaroos decided that they wanted to graze on the infield and they emerged from the tall grass where they had been hiding and hopped straight across the track in front of the leading pack. Amazingly, the riders were all able to miss the errant marsupials and to slow down, hands waving furiously in the air to warn the following riders. CRRC was well ahead of the game in most things organisational so, while most promoters relied on the tried and true methods of flags at every corner, we also had the local CB radio club on board and they provided an operator in a car, radio equipped, at each corner. This network was monitored by the Clerk of the Course at the S/F line and notification of the danger was almost instant.
We also had a brilliant networking arrangement with the other local motorcycle clubs, most of whose members were already onsite assisting with the running of the meeting. Members of the Motorcycle Sportsmen of the ACT (the local observed trials club), swung quickly into gear and soon a posse of trials bike mounted riders were rounding up the ‘roos and herding them over the top of the hill behind the spectator area and down into the empty suburb next door.
And all of this was accomplished without any accident or injury (well, almost). Travelling marshal, the late Warren Weldon, himself a racer of note, was the only casualty. Riding a brand new Honda 750, on loan from Bennett Honda, the NSW distributors, he performed a hasty “U” turn to get to the scene of the action, clipped the back wheel of the other travelling marshal’s bike and dumped the model right in front of the crowd. The bike was damaged and Warren suffered a broken elbow.
Lunch was taken while the ‘roos were chased away and MCS club members were able to report back to Ian Martin that the coast was clear. The race was re-run later in the programme and was just as thrilling as the first two laps of it had been before the interruption. Gardner won (narrowly) from Ogilvie who got a hero’s reception when he returned on the slow-down lap. Roebuck filled the final spot on the podium and Blanco got the Iron Man award for wrestling the big Kawaka around the 10 laps of the 2.8km track.
That happened nearly 40 years ago and it is still as fresh in my memory as if it happened yesterday. See, who said us old guys lose our memory?
By the way, I must again apologise for the irregularity of updates. I’ve been having a few health issues of late that have kept me tied down a bit but it’s all on the up and up now so I promise I’ll be better.