celebrating 40+ years of motorcycling

Chapter 14 – Onwards and slideways

Moving on, upwards and slideways:

In August 1976 we left Wollongong and bought a new house in one of the new housing estates in the Tuggeranong Valley of Canberra, ACT. I continued to ride the RD, including doing trips up the Hunter valley to visit Paul and also numerous rides to Sydney to attend bike race meetings.

But still the lack of performance bugged me, and, when Paul told me that his wife was getting her bike licence and was looking for a bike to buy, I offered the RD and the deal was done.

My next bike was a delicious little Honda 400/4, which was everything the 350/4 should have been. It handled, had power, a 6 speed gearbox and a wonderful four-into-one exhaust system.

Canberra was a bit of a motorsports backwater if you wanted to do anything on tar. While being well serviced with a huge dirt bike complex at Fairbairn Park, near the airport, if you weren’t into mini bikes, motorcross, short circuit or trials, your choices dropped to almost zero.

Not long after I arrived I hooked up with Allen Harding, who had built himself a 500cc Suzuki road racing bike by boring out the engine of a GT380 triple. It was a beautiful piece of engineering and was as fast as, but, unfortunately, I only ever saw it run once in anger as the expansion chambers were so noisy that Al could never get it past the noise meter at Scrutineering. The only time that he was able to race it was at a Club Day at Oran Park when the organisers took pity on him and turned a blind eye to the raucous din that emanated from the 3 exhausts.

Allen was a true motorsports devotee, a single man who could come and go as he pleased, and he did. If it was motorsports-connected in any way, Allen would probably be there, so it came as no surprise when he rang me up one night, late in 1976 and asked, “Would you like to go to the speedway?”

Now, I knew about Tralee Speedway as it was regularly advertised on television and  already knew a fair bit about it through following Jack Brabham and through watching the regular telecasts that used to be shown by Channel 7 during the 1960’s. One Sunday afternoon, they would do a direct telecast from Westmead Speedway (the Westmead Hospital is built right on the site of where the speedway used to be) and the alternate Sunday afternoon, they would show a delayed telecast of the night races from the Saturday night before at the famous Sydney Showground.

Watching Steve Brazier and Gary Rush as very young men at Westmead is a very precious memory. But it was the speedcars, the “midgets” as they were called back then, that were the stars of the show. Locals like Johnny Stewart, Andy McGavin, Ronnie McKay and the marvellous Lew Marshall would regularly do battle with 30 or so other drivers from overseas and interstate. Americans like Bob “Two Gun” Tattersall used to “summer” here, avoiding the ferocious American winters. The fastest drivers traditionally started from the REAR of the field, not pole position and it was a battle of skill, wits and raw courage to try and work their way to the front of the race before the chequer fell.

Unsurprisingly given the total lack of any safety gear, injuries and deaths were commonplace as these tiny, light open-wheel cars would often ride up over a wheel of a car in front or of one passing on the inside and be launched high into the air.

So, I said I’d come along for a look. What a night he had chosen to invite me along, because what I wasn’t aware of was that Tralee was a TAR speedway. And so, instead of dirt and gravel flying everywhere, the cars remained shiny and glinted in the lights from the trackside stanchions. And they were so FAST!!! The feature event was a 100 lap race for speedcars, featuring all of NSW’s best drivers as well as the American legend, Ron “Sleepy” Tripp.

Tripp was awesome. He would haul ass down the back “straight”, jam on the front brake, with a big puff of smoke as the outside front tyre gripped (no brake on the left front at all) and then carry the inside front wheel about half a metre in the air all the way around Turns 3&4 before putting it back down on the front straight in time to brake for T1. I was mesmerised.

But the race was won by the legendary Gary Rush, in a borrowed car. Rush would go on to win 10 Australian Sprintcar Championships as well as numerous speedcar races, mostly in the Gavin Leer #73 VW that he drove that night. Suffice it to say that Saturday nights became speedway nights for me and stayed that way until I moved out of the ACT years later.

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