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7th April 2005

Classic Racing: When The Old Gits Meet The Modern World

So Ray Johnston raced in the 80s, went into retirement, got dragged back into action, and then had to find a classic racing category which would suit his forty-something style...

Our team had made it back to Le Mans to race once again with modern bikes but, unfortunately, the team owner's sponsorship plans went awry and Le Mans was to be his one and only endurance adventure. During the race we had got chatting to an old courier chum who now ran a bike repair shop. He was helping out some guys who wanted to have a crack at world endurance racing but hadn't been able to get an entry for Le Mans.

The riders' egos had grown to world championship level, but sadly their ability had not advanced at the same paceGraham and I pitched up to help at Estoril and Spa but found the experience a little frustrating; the riders' egos had grown to world championship level, but sadly their ability had not advanced at the same pace. The highlight for me was driving the hired minibus around Estoril with RealMart (of this parish but then wearing his endurance reporter's hat) sat behind me trying not to spill his beer as we slewed through the corkscrew on the wheel rims!

We finished the 2000 season on a high -- putting together a scratch team for a six hour race at Oulton Park with Roger Bennett and fellow BSB privateer Brett Sampson in the saddle. With Roger in Edinburgh and Brett in Plymouth there wasn't much chance of any testing before the race, so Brian built and set up the R1 to Roger's instructions by email. In qualifying, Roger came in for one slight adjustment and then got pole position on his third flying lap - not bad for a bike he'd never sat on before!

In the race we had a great fight with the FireBlade of the Dynotech team until they retired with electrical problems after four hours. We had a little scare when Roger almost collapsed with dehydration after his second stint. Brett had to do a double shift while Roger recovered, but we managed to win the race by four laps and take the fastest lap on the way.

Over the next two or three years I carried on helping out Roger who was racing in the National Superstocks, and took in a couple of big events like the Macau Grand Prix and the World Superbikes at Laguna Seca in California. Somewhere along the line I started to get the hankering to have another bash myself, but pushed the idea to one side. Last winter I realised that at 46 years of age I would need to do something about it soon, or forget about it forever.

The idea of racing a modern bike was a bit too scary - the big ones were far too fast for an old git, and the smaller ones were usually ridden by 19 year old mad axe murderers. I fancied something a little more sedate with sensible riders aboard. I looked at the Classic Racing Club with the idea of getting old friend and top Guzzi bod Roger Powell to put together a Seventies stylie Le Mans Mk1. But, aside from the humble pie I would have to eat (I've spent twenty five years rubbishing Guzzis as tractors and ditch pumps!) I wasn't convinced that a Lemon would be competitive or cost effective - this also ruled out the more older or exotic stuff as well.

An uncompetitive Guzzi. Click for more...

Roger suggested a more modern twin overhead cam Guzzi - he had almost a rolling chassis already, and would just need to hunt down a suitable motor that could be breathed on to give around 140 horses. This would be ideal for the Sound of Thunder championship run by the New Era Club, and a cheapish alternative to racing a modern Duke or Aprilia. Frustratingly there was a motor sitting idly under the bench; it had seized solid after another Guzzi shop had butchered the oil lines, and the owner had got Roger to replace the whole thing rather than fixing all the separate bits. The barrels and pistons were scrap but would be replaced with a big bore kit anyway - some new shells and a crank grind and we would be laughing.

The only fly in the ointment was that the owner was sueing the other bunch of monkeys, and although an engineer had examined the lump and submitted a report, the engine could not be sold or repaired until the case was settled. The weeks ticked by, and despite our attempts to hurry things along, the legal wheels moved ever so slowly. I realised that we were fast running out of time - Roger explored every avenue to find a motor with no success, so I began to look around for another way to get on the track.

Malcolm Bate on ex-Kenny Irons FZ Yamaha at CadwellI had another look at the rules for the sound of thunder races; basically you could run a single, twin or triple of any age or capacity, but no modern four bangers were allowed. Then I spied 'classic superstock' in the next line - closer investigation revealed a separate championship run within the SOT races by the Open Superstock club. A quick look at their website and I was away down memory pit lane; Honda RC30s, Yam FZs and OW01, Suzuki GSXRs et al - all we needed was a mullet (again!) and a dust off our Wham records!

There was a cut off date of December 1989, but sensible mods were allowed - 17-inch wheels could be fitted to take advantage of sticky modern tyres (slicks and wets allowed too); modern forks were OK but no upside downs; likewise modern brakes but only up to four-pot calipers. Engine tuning was free but outer covers had to look original as did all bodywork.

Steve Spencer on ex Team MCN Endurance Harris FZ at Snetterton

Not only was there a genuine ex-Kenny Irons Loctite Yamaha FZ750 out there (now grown to 911cc) but also the Harris framed FZ that used to be our mortal enemy in the 80s world endurance races. It was campaigned then by the MCN team but was bought by Club secretary Steve Spencer when they disbanded. Now it displaces 888 cubes, Steve also races it to good affect against modern kit at the Manx Grand Prix every year.

Random FZ750 Stuff on

I called Graham straight away; 'How about we build a Son of Tyson?' I asked, fondly remembering the big black Suzuki GSX-R1100 that had taken us to second in class at Le Mans in '87. The next call to Brian was met with a resigned sigh at the other end of the phone.

I was a bit disappointed that he didn't seem too enthusiastic, but it was only temporary - the next day there were about ten emails waiting for me with all sorts of ideas, and contact details for the various bits and pieces we would need.

We made an attempt to track down Tyson himself with no success, but through an old friend I had heard about an '88 1100J that might still be for sale. The owner jumped at the chance to unload this old pile of poo, and I gingerly rode it home in the wet from Watford. It was painted in the old Lucky Strike colours but was now very tatty, the tyres were the baldest I'd ever seen aside from slicks, and about seven of the eight front brake pistons were seized solid!

I tried to keep a low profile on the M25 but the silencer innards had rotted away, so it sounded like a Sopwith Camel even at 3000 rpm. I threw it into my garage and looked at the calendar; it was March 15th and we had pencilled in Snetterton on 8th May as our debut.

Not too much work to be done then...

Photos by Andrea Spencer of the Open Superstock club

The World Endurance Championship still keeps RealMart off the streets in the summer, and there's a 24 hour race at Snetterton this June, organised by KRC Endurance.


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