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14th February 2005

Classic Racing: When The Old Gits Meet The Modern World

After some notable successes in the world of endurance racing in the 1980s, Ray Johnston and his team went into retirement. So how did they end up racing again at the start of a new century?

With their racing activities curtailed in 1990, the Saluki boys settled down to a reasonably quiet life with pipes and slippers. Roland left Bike magazine and went freelance; testing the most exotic road and race bikes around the world. He also wrote some beautiful reference books on motorcycles. Brian carried on the BGC banner, but moved away from tuning and engineering towards supplying motorsport components like oil coolers and brake lines. Graham imported bike accessories from the States.

I continued in the courier and transport field and, apart from a brief stab at racing kit cars, became a spectator again. We kept in touch loosely with each other, and also our old friend from the endurance racing days Roger Bennett, who had carried on racing; becoming Scottish Champion several times and getting on the podium at the Macau Grand Prix.

One Friday evening in 1997 Brian got a phone call; Roger had got a late entry for a six hour race at Snetterton and was already on the way down from Jockland with his co-rider Joe Toner, but had no pit crew. Brian made a few calls and he and Graham were in the pit lane next morning.

Once qualifying was out of the way, Brian insisted that they practice some pit stops; spending a good hour changing wheels and pads until the old magic had returned. It was time well spent - Roger and Joe finished second, just 15 seconds behind the winners, and the boys were chuffed to win the best crew award!

They were called upon for the same fixture in '98, but this time dragged a few more of the old pit crew out of the woodwork. Although our race ended with a crash on the first lap with the bike too damaged to continue, it was great to have a few beers with our old chums and swap stories of Le Mans and the Bol d'Or.

Nothing much happened in '99 until it was almost over. During that dead week between Christmas and New Year we got the 'Blues Brothers' call from Brian; he was putting the old band back together! Apparently one of the Scots boys' sponsors wanted to go world endurance racing, and had asked Brian to prepare the two Kawasaki ZX-9Rs he had entered for Le Mans the following April. Graham assumed his old 'chef d'equipe' role and we all squeezed into Brian's tiny workshop to get on with the fibreglass cutting, lockwiring and millions of other tasks that are required to make a bike hold together for 24 hours of abuse.

The bikes were run in during February on the fenland lanes around Brian's base near Wisbech, and a shakedown test arranged at Snetterton in early March. One of the bikes still needed a few miles on it so Steve 'Toolbox' Talbot offered to ride it there via a roundabout route. It was ffreeezzzing; when he rolled up into the paddock he had to be lifted off the bike, given a gallon of tea and wrapped in hot tyre warmers before he could do anything.

Brian then had to reconnect the Kwaks' carb warming circuits before they could go out. All went well - Roger and fellow test pilot Peter Graves making a few adjustments and then having a good old dice together.

As usual it was a mad rush to get everything done; apart from the bikes themselves, we had to fabricate a box for our lap scorers to sit in, set up an illuminated signal board, build a refuelling rig and a stand that would lift the bike centrally from one side to change wheels (Brian made this from an old set of forks). Somehow it all got finished and we loaded it all into a hired transit and packed it off to Le Mans with Milky and Toolbox, while the rest of the team made their separate ways to the circuit.

When we all arrived we were surprised to find that the long wheelbase transit was now a short wheelbase one and had no glass in the rear windows! The rear doors bore the legend 'Transit 0 / Scania 1'. In a horrifying incident, it had been rear-ended on the autoroute by a Dutch artic complete with slumbering pilot; his clog buried on the gas pedal. Somehow Milky, his 10 year old son Jack and Toolbox escaped with just a fright - especially as a jerry can had split and the whole plot was bathed in super unleaded! More amazingly the tranny could still move under its own power, although the shell had deformed and the front doors were a bugger to open and close.

The rear doors were now concave and would not open. In the end we slung a chain round them, put the other end round a steel girder holding the grandstand up and drove off till they burst open. We surveyed the mess inside; the scorer's box was knackered and the compressor had taken a big whack and died, meaning no air tools. Best of all was the spare subframes bought sale or return; still in their sealed Kawasaki bags and twisted like spaghetti - explain that to Mr Parts Counter!

The bikes had been chucked about but had survived reasonably well, so we got on with getting them sorted for practice. We had a couple of very experienced American riders; Shawn Higbee and Joe Prussiano. Roger had intended to ride too but was committed to the Scottish championship round on the same weekend. Replacing him was 19 year old Londoner Kelvin Reilly. All were riding in their first 24 hour race and none of them had ever seen the circuit before.

Despite this we managed to get the bikes set up pretty well; Shawn was a professional test rider for Buell in the States, and was excellent at giving us feedback on how the bike felt and how it could be improved. For most of night practice he was the fastest rider on the track! Joe was able to adjust his style easily to different setups and Kelvo was more interested in looking at the brolly dollies...

Joe started the race at 3pm in perfect weather, and we clicked easily into the old routine; fuel stop and rider change about every hour, new rear tyre every second stop, new front every third or fourth depending on wear. We were racing in the stocksport class which meant that our usual modifications to make wheels qd were not allowed -- we did struggle a bit here.

My favourite time at 24 hour races is dusk. It's incredibly atmospheric when the bikes start running with lights as darkness falls, and the chill in the air has everybody looking for fleeces and woolly hats. There's the smell of woodsmoke and merguez wafting around, and the distant sound of the funfair and live bands vying with the unflappable French commentators who sound so chilled out; they must have a glass of Armagnac and a Gauloise alongside the mike! I spent a good half hour on the pit wall alongside our scorers just drinking in the whole scene.

As night fell the temperature dropped alarmingly to around +1c. I went back to our place in the paddock to find ice on the vehicles. I was a bit worried about Joe; he's from Texas and had got on the plane in 35-degree heat and I thought he'd be feeling the cold. He was due to go out at around 2am, and I whispered to Graham 'For chrissakes don't tell him how cold it is!' I'd forgotten that there's a gantry over the main straight which has a digital readout of both time and temperature. Fortunately the Yanks have never quite understood the celsius scale and when he came back in, all he had to say was that it was getting a 'little chilly'.

Most people's body rhythms hit a big low at around 4am; especially if you are just sitting around a concrete garage with not much to do between routine stops. You can't go anywhere in case there's an emergency and it's difficult to get any proper sleep with the bikes howling past a few yards away. You have to keep one eye on the scorers (now sitting on a pallett with a tarpaulin over them - that's the best we could do at short notice!) as they are the first to notice if the bike is missing and likely to come in with crash damage or a mechanical problem. Everybody feels better when it starts to get light, but then you realise that you're only a little past the halfway mark.

We'd kept the bike out on intermediate tyres during the night, and as they were wearing well in the cool conditions we left them alone, stopping only for fuel and rider changes. We pulled our way steadily up the scoreboard and settled down for the run to the finish. Sunday passed without incident and by the time Kelvo did a wheelie the length of the main straight to celebrate being the youngest ever finisher at Le Mans, we had finished 19th overall and 11th in class on a bike that was essentially standard apart from shock and exhaust.

We dragged the bike into the garage, pulled down the shutter to keep out the crazy fans who invade the track and pits, and broke out the beers. We were all knackered; staying up all night is difficult enough at our age, without all the excitement to deal with as well. But we were all on a high, and realised that we still got a big kick from this racing lark, and needed another dose of it soon...

Photos: Graham Dove / Le Mans organisation

Ray, with hair, on Tyson.
Stuff on
what happens next...

Photos mostly from Real Mart's It'll-Come-In-Handy-One-Day archive of twenty year old endurance racing photos. The World Endurance Championship still keeps him off the streets in the summer, and while the Le Mans 24 Hour race is no longer part of the FIM championship it's still going strong.


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