celebrating 40+ years of motorcycling

Chapter 21 – Racing on the streets. Part 4

Funnily enough, recovering from the organising of the 1979 event seemed even harder than it had been the year before. You’d think it would have been easier, but it wasn’t.

There wasn’t any question this time as to whether we would run another meeting. If we’d have suggested that we weren’t going to, half of the road racing fans in NSW would have lynched us. The only question was, “When?”

This became quite an issue as many on the Committee felt that the late-in-the-year date was a disadvantage to us in terms of its proximity to both the Castrol Six Hour on one side of it and the Swann International Series on the other. But there was another factor at work as well. Some influential members of the Road Race Committee thought that the time had come to raise the profile of the race and make it a banner event. Good thinking.

And the way that they figured we could do this was to run the next Road Closure as part of, and in collaboration with the Canberra Festival. The Canberra Festival is a huge arts/tourism event that takes place every March, with events and “happenings” spread right throughout the ACT.

The rational sounded good on paper. Canberra would be filled with tourists, people would be out and about and we should score the benefit of all these extra people wanting to find things to do and things on which to spend their money.

However, some of us counselled that the exact opposite result could occur. That is, that people would be so busy with the Festival activities that our event would simply sink without a trace amongst the welter of other events striving for the tourists’ attentions.

And so, unfortunately it happened. This planning disaster was the cause of many recriminations afterwards and it took a while before the rift between some of the Commmitte members was healed (as it turned out it HAD to be, and very quickly, but that’s another story).

As well as finding that, instead of having a “stand-alone” event that could attract its own publicity and its own sponsorship, we had just one event amongst a plethora of others, the race meeting was hit by the most unexpected of occurences, the sudden death of Canberra’s Senator, John Knight. Knight, a hard-working and much-loved politician, passed away just before our race weekend and his death cast a real pall over the ACT community. Activities at the Festival, which he had done much to encourage and support, were subdued, and ACT Tourism reported that visitor numbers were well down that weekend on what they were expecting.

Which was a real shame because the racing at the March 1981 Road Closure was probably the best of any of the ones we ran. The event was now a National Open event with riders from all over Australia being eligible  to enter. And results were divvied up between Sydney’s Dennis Neill on the”works” Honda Australia CB1100R superbike and Victoria’s Paul, “The Angry Ant” Lewis on Ray Petrie’s Yamaha TZ250. Lewis, who went to GB to race soon afterwards and is still racing there as far as I know, was a freakish talent, for, as well as being a very good rider, he only weighed about 40kgs, making for an instant power-to-weight ratio advantage every time he slung his leg into the saddle.

Paul won all the “A” Grade events for the racing bikes and didn’t make any friends amongst the Committee when he and Petrie fronted the Clerk of Course, the unflappable Ray Le Nevez, and DEMANDED to be allowed to run Lewis in the Feature Race on his 250cc Yamaha.

Now the Supplementary Regulations said that the Feature Race was open to riders on machines measuring  290cc and upwards, a strange figure, but one designed to ensure that, even an over-bored 250 bike would be ineligible. So Petrie and Lewis were asking the CoC to break the rules of his own meeting and plainly that was never going to happen. Regardless of the fact that Lewis had lapped the course faster than any other rider on any size bike, the request for inclusion in the Feature was a lost cause from the moment it was suggested.

Petrie and Lewis stormed off in a huff and mounted a campaign in the media, especially the Victorian-based AMCN magazine against CRRC claiming that we had discriminated against Lewis and favoured the NSW riders. The fact that Petrie was employed by AMCN and was their chief photographer was not lost on those who followed the progress of this little drama.

For the rest, Dennis Neill was absolutely awesome, wrestling the big Honda around like it was a 250 and dominating all the big bike races. Nobody could have known that, in just a week’s time he would suffer an horrendous accident on this very same bike that would effectively end his career at the Easter Carnival at Bathurst. A mechanic, while changing the front wheel, omitted to bolt in the front axle clamp, which was a “quick-action” pivoting one rather than the normal road bike one that is secured by two bolts.

Dennis wheeled the bike out onto the grid and headed out on his warm-up lap. Unfortunatelty, he only got as far as the first hump in Mountain Straight. Crossing the hump, the bike wheelied and the front wheel, unsecured by the axle clamps, simply fell out. The bike came down from the wheelie and the forks dug into the road spitting Dennis off into the wall on the side of the track.

Dennis was horrifically injured. His pelvis was smashed, he broke a leg and suffered massive internal injuries. One of my CRRC clubmates who had crashed earlier in the day at McPhillamy Park, was in the bed next to Dennis in Casualty that night and he says that the memory of Dennis screaming in pain will live with him for the rest of his days.

But the memory of the great racing that day  than compensates for the fact that, from a publicity and a crowd point of view, the meeting must be regarded as a great disappointment. What a shame so few people were there to see such champagne racing.

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