celebrating 40+ years of motorcycling

From the commentary box

Like most of the involvenent that I have had with motorycle sport over the years, my career a a part-time road racing announcer was less a matter of contrivance and more a matter of being in the right place at the right time and a good dose of blind idiot luck.

I must say, however, that almost as soon as I started going to the races I became convinced that I could do a better job of calling the races than the incumbents to whom I listened from the trackside. Subsequent events have proven that, in some cases, I was right.

When I first started attending the races in NSW, the incumbent caller was the venerable Ross Pentecost, a lovely guy and a man with an encyclopedic memory of the days gone by. Unfortunately, it seemed to me that his commentary was rooted in the days gone by and wasn’t keeping up with the times and the current developments. Spectators aren’t especially interested in listening about what USED to be, they want to be informed of what is happening now. The other problem was that Ross’s eyesight was failing as he aged and he started to make some terrible blunders as it became harder and harder for him to distinguish the bikes on the track.

That balance was achieved when Dave Curtis came along to assist him. Dave was much younger, and as someone who was actively involved in his club as well, he had the finger on what was happening now. So, between them they made a pretty good team.

I should add that commentary at Oran Park was done from the “eagles nest”, that precarious-looking tower on the infield just near the Start/Finish line. Climbing up the ladder to the top level with binoculars, case and other paraphenalia was quite a challenge. Amaroo Park had a dedicated commentary booth as part of the control tower just above the S/F line and Bathurst had 2 boxes, one just after Murray’s Corner on the outside of the entrance to the main straight and one at the top of the mountain, overlooking the track where it dropped into “The Dipper”.

After climbing up into the “eagles nest” several times to say hello and, hopefully get a gig on the microphone, I was asked by the Oran Park management if I’d like to do the job for all the meetings there, assisting David Curtis. Ross had apparently only being continuing in the job because there was no-one to take his place and now that this young bloke had come along who WANTED to do it, it was his opportunity to ease out from behind the microphone and enjoy a well-earned retirement. I should say that Ross continued calling the Historic Races for several years after this, his heart clearly belonging to the sound of singles and the smell of burnt castor oil.

At the very outset I determined that I would do my job professionally. Not for me the arrival at the track 10 minutes before the first race was due to start and an hurried ascension to the box without any knowledge of what was happening on the ground, oh no.

I would arrive at the meeting at least two hours before the racing ws due to start (and, I might add, I STILL do). I would get a programme and a pen and start trolling the pits, talking to the riders, the mechanics, the sponsors and the hangers-on. Gossip gleaned by this process became an integral part of my commentary and my style. By this process I was able to inform spectators about who had new bikes, new sponsors, different mechanics, etc, etc, etc. I was able to bring them as up-to-date as it was possible to be and, in the process, help them feel that they were part of the scene in a very intimate way.

A myriad of small details makes up road racing, the majority of which are not evident to the punter in the grandstand. My research before the meeting brought that minute detail to the forefront and made the spectator feel that they were really involved in the action. I became friends with the riders, not just someone who was there to bug them but someone in whom they confided, sometimes quite personal details about themselves and their teams.

And, because I used the information they shared with me in a careful and even-handed way, they trusted me with more and more insight into how they went racing. Greats like Gregg Hansford, Graeme Crosby, John Woodley, Stu Avant, Wayne Gardner, etc were people with whom I was on first name terms and from whom I gained an exceptionally valuable insight into the world of road racing.

And so began an amazingly rewarding part-time career. I was privileged in my time in the box to commentate at very high profile meetings. I called the 1979 Castrol Six Hour Production Bike Race, working the pit microphone and sharing the commentary box with the legendary Will Hagon and his regular race-calling partner, Noel Christensen. I commentated the Canberra Road Closure meetings, doing all of them solo, except for the March 1980 meeting when the club flew Ray Quincey up from Melbourne to do the “colour” comments. Ray, a former multiple Australian Champion, had been severely injured in a racing accident in Belgium and was in a wheelchair. Getting him and his chair up into the flimsy, “make-do” scaffolding commentary tower was quite a feat.

During this period, (1977-1981) I called all the National Open meetings at Oran Park and Amaroo as well as all the “C” Grade meetings and many of the 5-way restricted Club Days for clubs like Bankstown Wiley Park, St George, Northern Districts and MCRC. I commentated the Coca Cola 800 Endurance Race at a soggy Oran Park in 1980 and achieved what I regard as the pinnacle of my early days of commentary by accompanying Will Hagon and Noel Christensen in the “anchor” commentary box for the Easter Bike Carnival at Bathurst in 1980.

Concurrently I was also working as commentator for the ACT Mini Bike Club at the Lester Edminster Short Circuit at Fairbairn Park and called races in which people like Stuart Bennet (current Aussie Supermotard champion), Rod Colquohon (speedway star and now motorcycling journalist) and a young kid from Wollongong named Trevor Jordan, were competing. The highlight there was anchoring the commmentary (and in fact doing the whole gig solo) of the 1980 ACT Mini Bike Championships, 93 races in two days.

In 1981 my personal career took a different turn and while I maintained an interest in road racing, I took a break from active involvement. Instead I became a speedway commentator, and I’ll cover this fascinating aspect of the trade when I look at speedway in more detail in an up-coming chapter.

Fast-forward to 1994. I was living back in Canberra again, and getting involved in the life of the club again. And getting involved in the life of the club meant following the CRRC riders’ efforts on the track. Many of our riders were competing in the RB Imports series, a series that became a very prestigious one. And I immediately started getting the “itch” to commentate again. And again, through fortuitous circumstances i happened to be in the right place at the right time when BWP was looking for someone to do the job. The incumbent was a rider who was still active in the sport and who was trying (unsuccessfully) to balance both disciplines. My offer of a “test run” so that they could see if they’d like to employ me instead was taken up and, shortly after, the job was mine.

I called the RB Series until its demise just a few years ago. I also did a couple of Formula Xtreme meetings and a round of the ASC at Sydney’s Eastern Creek Raceway. But the politics and the “bitchiness” of the bigger meetings turned me off them and I was more than happy to support the club-level racing and play the “spot the upcoming talent” game, a game that I have always played exceptionally well.

I was privileged to call two Six Hour races promoted by Motorcycle Concepts at Eastern Creek, one of them won by current WSS Points leader, Andrew Pitt, but the highlight was being asked to head the commentary team for the Bathurst Bike Race Carnival in Easter 2000. The event, promoted by Greg Eaton, should have been a triumph. It marked the return of bikes to he mountain after a break of 15 years and the cream of Australia’s and New Zealand’s riders were there. The racing was champagne, with Kevin Curtain scooping the pool in the FX races and huge fields (including our own “Zippa” in the 400’s) being the order of the day in every class.

But a last-minute withdrawl of vital sponsorship and Channel 10’s refusal to do live TV coverage despite having previously promised to do so, scuttled the meeting. The promoter went broke and creditors only ever received a fraction of the investments that they had made. Such a tragedy considering what a superb meeting it was.

On a personal level, it was a privilege to be named as the head of the commentary team and to work with Bathurst’s Brian Nightingale and to renew my association with the always-professional Noel Christensen.

There is also another highlight as well. I was privilieged to call the RB Imports meeting at Wakefield Park in mid-1997 which was the first time in NSW when the Moriwaki 80cc bikes had competed. This series, founded by former Honda international, Tony Hatton, saw 13-16 year old teen-agers competing on specially-built true racing bikes. And it was at this meeting that I saw the first road race meeting of Chris Vermeulen, Anthony West, Joshua Forster and Broc Parkes, as well around 12 other riders, most of whom have gone on to achieve notable success in the field of motorcycle road racing. I count myself to have been honoured to have called this meeting and to have played “spot the new talent” yet again.

I have continued to work as race commentator for the St George Honda/Michelin Series and also to carry the load of commentary for Mark Avard Promotions and the Supermotard races that he has run at Sydney’s Oran Park.

Commentating is still the same art as it always has been, despite the passage of time. It consists of equal measures of information, entertainment and humour. What HAS changed is the tools with which we do the job. For most of my commentating life, I’ve made do with a pair of binoculars, an almost anal attention to detail and an encyclopedic memory. I pride myself that I can, without assistance, call a race down to 10th place with considerable accuracy.

Now, of course, I have electronic timing, and a TV screen in the box that gives me race positions down to 33rd place, fastest laps, best last lap, split times, gaps between riders, leaders in each class and a whole lot more. Now you may be inclined to think that this makes the job easier, and, in terms of mere detail, of course it does. But it actually makes the job harder too. It is tempting to start to do one’s commentary solely from the screen; it’s an insidious temptation. I’m sure that you’ve all sat in front of the MotoGp broadcast and shouted at the commentators because they have missed something that you can see. They have missed it because they are not watching the race on the TRACK, they are watching the live TV feed and the timing screen. I am a continual frustration to my family when I am watching TV race broadcasts for exactly this reason.

Since the DETAILS of the race are so easily accessible, the commentator then has to make his commentary more interesting, and bring in technical and personal sidelights to which the spectators are not privy so that he makes the race “happen.”

Having said that,  wouldn’t go back to doing commentary without electronic timing. it’s fantastic.

Oh, and just so you know. The commentary position at Eastern Creek is the worst one of any in which I have ever worked.

So, race commentary. It’s been a big part of my life and my involvement in the game and I still get a buzz every time I pick up that microphone. And people still collar me in the pits and say, “Hey Phil, I really enjoy the way you call the races.”

You can’t get better job satisfaction than that.

See also my more detailed comments on the dos and don’ts of race commentary.