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31st January 2005


Classic Endurance Racing From The 1980s

Ray Johnston went from spectator to racer at Le Mans nearly 20 years ago. He starts this short series by reelin' in the years, and almost inevitably explains how old gits end up racing once again...

I really thought I'd got it out of my system years ago...

In the 1980s I'd raced for four or five seasons; mostly big production based bikes (Katana, GPZ900, GSX-R75s0 and 1100s etc). I was never going to be Freddie Spencer but I did OK, managing to get an International licence and realising a huge ambition to race in the Le Mans 24 hour race. So how did it all come about?

I'd been to Le Mans as a punter many times and was totally blown away by the whole spectacle; mad drunken French bikers partying around bonfires fuelled by old tyres, as Ducatis, Guzzis, Beemers and all manner of trick-framed fours thundered and wailed through the night. The next morning would see a few sore heads and a few less bikes circulating - many of these bearing the battle scars of one or more 'chutes', or misfiring and trailing oil smoke as the teams tried to limp to the finish, still several hours away.

Brian Goodall, MotoMartin CBX, Brans Hatch, 1983. Comstar wheels, bendy forks, and a probably essential fork-brace.

Some of my proddy-racing chums had also been drawn to endurance racing. Graham Dove and Brian Goodall of BGC Engineering, had built and tuned some very rapid Suzukis - GS1000s and then the GSX and Katana 1100. Also involved in their little gang was one Roland Brown (then of Bike magazine - now approaching sainthood in the world of motorcycle journalism and regular contributor to the RealClassic magazine), who rode (and crashed) the bikes to great effect. He took the 1984 BMCRC open class championship on a production GSX1100 from under the noses of the Harris and Spondon brigade.

In 1985 the GSX-R750 burst onto the scene and turned racing on its head; here was a standard machine that could be taken from box to track and blow away bikes that had hundreds of hours of preparation, and bundles of dosh lavished on them.

By now the boys had formed themselves into the Saluki (Eastern racing dogs; geddit?) Racing Partnership, and with the help of London Suzuki specialist and ex-racer Derek Loan had managed to get their oily mitts on one of the first Gixxers air freighted to the UK. They picked up the crate and built the bike on Wednesday, ran it in on Thursday and on Good Friday at Donington raced (and crashed) in the Superstock race. Roland made up for this with a superb fifth place behind three factory riders in the Formula 1 race (which was similar to today's superbike spec).

Graham Dove, Suzuki GS1000, Druids, 1984. Nice Boots.

Their next outing was at Le Mans in less than three weeks - their first big endurance race. Co-riding with Roland were journalist Peter Clifford (more recently manager of the Yamaha and WCM Moto GP teams) and the mad Geordie Ian Wilson (more recently still a mad Geordie). The team did very well, finishing second in the production class, despite losing Roland after he dislocated a shoulder in a 2am crash. He had pushed the bike back to the pits from two kilometres away but could not carry on riding. With little in the way of spares - as the bike was so new - Brian just ripped all the damaged bodywork off, straightened everything else with a scaffold pole and sent the bike out naked, Peter and Ian alternating with little rest between stints. Despite spending the last hour stuck in fourth gear they held on to second place by less than two seconds at the finish - a great debut.

Graham and Brian were at the cutting edge of GSX-R development in the UK, finding ways to squeeze more power from the motor, ironing out niggles and improving the quick-handling but nervy chassis. Roland was scoring consistently in the domestic races and a trip to the rain soaked Dutch TT at Assen netted another fifth place in the European F1 race ahead of a bunch of big names.

Development continued during the 1986 season although the endurance races were disappointing; a very sick motor at Le Mans and a blow up after 21 hours from twelfth place overall at the Bol D'Or.

During the winter the boys turned their attention to the Gixxer's big brother, the 1100, which had been launched earlier in the year. The extra cubes gave a hefty increase in stomp over the little'un, much of it in the midrange; the 1100 would pull almost from idle whereas as the 750 didn't want to know below 7500rpm. A stronger and longer chassis gave more stability at the expense of a slower turn-in.

Brian, GSX1100, Brands, 1984; Note the pack of CB900s, CB1100Rs, Katana 1100s, GPZ1100s, etc.

When they were offered a crashed, low miles GSX-R1100, they snapped it up and it became a Bike magazine project. Previous projects had usually petered out after an initial rush of energy - doomed to a lingering, forgotten death in someone's shed.

To avoid this Graham entered it for the '87 Le Mans race whose production class would this year be open to unlimited capacity, with the F1-spec bikes running at their usual 750 limit. Roland and Ian were riders No 1 and No 2, and... somehow... my name got put forward for the third slot. And the day was rapidly approaching!

With an immoveable deadline in place work began. Everything that had to stay put was lockwired and Loctited in place, everything that was vulnerable to crash damage was either strengthened or made easily replaceable.

Wheels and brake pads were given the QD treatment and Brian crafted an ingenious pump action filler that would force oil through a valve on the crankcases (you don't want to be messing about with funnels during a race!).

Big Zed Stuff on eBay.co.uk

Try pushing a bent motorbike for over a mile. Then try doing it with a dislocated shoulder...The motor underwent a freshen-up; new shells, new rings on the standard pistons and valve seats re-cut.

Compression was bumped up to around 11:1 with a head skim and the ports cleaned up a little. Standard cams stayed, but a set of Keihin smoothbores, a 'Brian special' exhaust system and more advance on the ignition gave a little more go.

The motor went on the dyno and gave 138bhp at the gearbox sprocket; not bad even by modern standards.

Astralite wheels (18-inch in those days) with Michelin slicks and wets, Lockheed calipers wearing Ferodo pads and an Ohlins shock and steering damper completed the chassis mods.

It was around this time in the eighties that Mike Tyson was flattening all-comers in the world of heavyweight boxing. People in the UK would set their alarms for 3am to watch the fight, go and put the kettle on and then find that when they returned to the armchair it was all over; Iron Mike having knocked out his opponent in about thirty seconds of the first round. Just looking at him was scary; no neck, no socks, black boots, black shorts.

His exploits were so epic that news of them even filtered through to Graham and Brian, who at that time saw little of the world (or even daylight) outside the workshop. So the new bike was christened Tyson; Dream Machine were instructed to paint the bodywork all black and off we went to Le Mans hoping that it wouldn't be us on the canvas this time...

*****

Next episode: the race, the highside, the rain and... 'Ou est la chaise Monsieur?'

*****

Photos by kind permission of Graham Dove

Feel Roland's pain, and then understand why he's always grimacing when photographed on a bike.

The World Endurance Championship website keeps RealMart off the streets in the summer, while the Le Mans 24 Hour race is no longer part of the FIM championship but is still going strong.


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