celebrating 40+ years of motorcycling

“King of the Weir” 1978.

When I look back on some of the boneheaded things that I did when I was a novice rider, I get the shivers. One such example of naivety and outright stupidity was the road trip to Albury to watch the “King of the Weir”, the premier motorcycle racing event held each year at the Hume Weir circuit (long since closed)

It was the January Long Weekend, 1978. The Canberra Road Racing club was only a few months old and, in the first flush of enthusiasm and zeal, half a dozen of our riders had entered to run at this prestigious meeting. And Paul and I decided that we’d go down and spectate, take some photos and generally rally the troops. What a great idea!

Unable to afford a proper leather jacket at the time, I had prevailed upon my long-suffering wife to make me one, so we borrowed a Brando-style leather jacket and, from it, she made pattern pieces that were then transferred to a very heavy duty denim material and I ended up with a very smart, and very warm, Brando-style denim jacket. For added weather protection I had bought a Line 7 suit, a one-piece plastic overall that was supposed to be the ducks guts at the time.

So, early on the Saturday, very early if I recall, we headed off. Paul on his Yamaha XS650 twin and me on the 400/4. Right from the get-go it should have been obvious to us that the trip was doomed. Our departure happened on the coldest January morning in living memory and our respective wives were to spend (although we didn’t know this until we returned) the whole weekend  huddled over our oil heater trying to stay warm. But, being young and stupid and filled with the enthusiasm of setting out on a new adventure, we pressed on.

We arrived at the track mid-morning and spent the day helping the boys and soaking up the atmosphere. What a great day it was…NOT. Hume Weir circuit, for those who don’t remember, was built substantially in the floor of the quarry from which the spoil to construct the dam wall was taken. And it trapped heat fiercely. Saturday’s temperatures were well into the 40’s and riders were doing 3 or 4 minutes of 15 minute practice sessions and pulling into the pits suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Nevertheless, we survived the day by clinging to the few bits of shade that the trees around the track offerd us and then we helped the guys pack up for the evening.

We were CRRC and we were there to make a statement, so we brought a big tent and a huge banner, proclaiming our presence. And, like the young and stupid enthusiasts that we were, Paul and I said to the guys, “Look, rather than pack up all your bikes and gear, why don’t you just leave them in the tent and we’ll stay the night here in the pits and look after all our stuff.”

Sounds good, yes? The guys certainly thought so and they drove off, down to the Spillway Caravan Park where they had tents erected and comfortable beds to sleep in for the night. You will note that no mention was made of such luxuries for us. No, we hadn’t thought of that when we made the offer. But now it was too late. Everyone had gone home, the circuit gates were securely locked and we were locked in.

But necessity is the mother of, etc, and we found that we would be able to sleep in the control tower on the main straight and that one of the guys had left behind two camp stretchers; no pillows, no bedding and no Aerogard, but at least we wouldn’t have to sleep on the wooden floor. Well, it was a summer night, wasn’t it and the mozzies put paid to getting to sleep quickly. But exhaustion finally prevailed and would have maintained its grip on us except for the fact that, at about 0130 in the morning, the mother of all thunderstorms rolled in.

We awoke to shrieking winds, rain and vivid lightning. Through the flashes of lightning we could see our tent being steadily torn down, so it was into the pits quickly to secure it. We steadied the ship 3 times before finally admitting defeat and pulling the tent down and bundling it away. Plainly there wouldn’t be any more sleep unless we could arrange an alternative. But how? The circuit gates were locked and we couldn’t get the bikes out onto the road to ride into town and find somewhere else to sleep.

So, we climbed through the fence and walked down to the caravan park. Down there it was bedlam. There was hardly a tent standing and even the people in caravans were worried. We told the guys that we wouldn’t be able to stay in the pits because of safety concerns and they agreed that we should make alternative arrangements and that anyone who was stupid enough to be abroad in that storm would be downright crazy. So, we borrowed Johnny Morgan’s Ford Escort van and drove into Wodonga, hopeful of finding beds for the night. No chance. All the motels and hotels were closed. OK, on to Albury then. Same story. We tried this twice and both times ended up back at the circuit gate no closer to securing accommodation.

So it was that we ended up staying at the track anyway, attempting, with very little success, to sleep, sitting up in the tiny little bucket seats of a 1974 Ford Escort van.

As tends to happen, a bad night seems to last forever and, even though we probably arrived back at the track to stay at 0230, the morning took ages to arrive. When it finally did arrive, we got out of the van, bone weary and exhausted and went back to the pits to put up the tent. But, as Saturday had been hellishly hot, Sunday was freezing cold and it was belting down rain. The sky was leaden and it was obviously going to be a miserable day…AND we had a three and a half hour ride home at the end of it.

I don’t remember much of the racing I have to confess. Wet race meetings are penitential at any time, but add in terminal tiredness and the whole thing very quickly lost its gloss. However, we did decide to stay to watch the banner event, the “King of the Weir”. Now I have mentioned elsewhere that Hume Weir was a tight and twisty layout, best suited to the small, nimble bikes, like 350’s. Add water and it became doubly so. So, what a revelation it was to see the likeable Victorian rider, Bob Rosenthal, win the race at a canter on a big, bruising and totally unsuitable Yamaha TZ750 Grand prix bike!! We were gobsmacked. Finding traction where the best riders in Australia were unable to find any, Bob toyed with the field, balancing the ferocious power band of the 110bhp monster, and making it all look ridiculously easy.

It was a MAGIC performance, and quite the best piece of wet-weather riding I have ever seen (eclipsing even the amazing ride of Andrew Johnson and Wayne Gardner in the rain-lashed Castrol Six Hour in 1980). It later transpired that Bob claimed his success was due to a pair of hand-cut rain Dunlops that Warren Willing had brought back from his Daytona trip the year before. Yeah, Bob, whatever you say. I’d rather believe that it was just one of those inspired rides where a rider rides right out of himself.

At the conclusion of the race, around lunch time, as the organisers, fearing more foul weather, had moved the Feature Race up in the programme, we decided to head for home. Gear on and away we go. About 10 kms into the trip two things became obvious. 1. Line 7 suits didn’t keep out the water. 2. Honda 400/4’s don’t like working in the rain.

The 400/4 had two coils, each serving two of the cylinders. These were mounted on each side of the spine frame, just behind the steering head and under the fuel tank. Once out onto the Hume, the bike suddenly cut onto two cylinders and nothing would persuade it to run on four again. Water had made its way into the HT leads from the right hand coil, wetted it out, and the engine was now only running on cylinders three and four. Despite dropping down the gears and trying to rev the bike, it finally settled down to a steady speed of 65km/h in second gear.

And so, freezing cold, soaked right through and crawling along at a snail’s pace, we pushed on towards home and warmth. The rain persisted until well north of Gundagai when it began to ease. By Yass the rain had ceased and the 400 suddenly chimed in onto four pots again, hooray.

By now both Paul and I were suffering the early onset of hypothermia and, had we had any sense at all, we’d have pulled over, found a motel, got a hot shower and stayed the night. But, no, we were pioneers, we were going to make it home.

And then, to add the final vicious irony, by the time we got to Murranbateman, less than 50kms from home, the heavens opened again, the bike staggered back onto two cylinders and our riding gear, that had at least started to dry a BIT, got drenched again.

We limped into home, saturated, frozen and barely coherent.

Was it a great weekend? Of course it was. Seeing Rosenthal at his imperious best made it all worthwhile.