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7th July 2005
Classic Racing: When Old Gits Go Racing Again, Again
Finally, Ray Johnston was ready to race in the Classic Superstock series with team-mates from yesteryear, all enjoying mild forms of mid-life crises. When the flag finally drops, the talking stops...
Our GSX-R1100J (nicknamed 'Son of Tyson' after a similar Suzuki we'd taken endurance racing some 15 years ago), was ready for its first outing. Brian and I pitched up bright and early at a damp, blustery Snetterton for our debut meeting. First job was to assemble the new awning still in its box. Maybe we should have done a dummy run, but to be honest it would have been way down the list of things to do. So we struggled with 'insert pole A into bracket D' for about an hour or so and eventually managed a roof with no sides, which we immediately had to tether down to stop it flying back home on its own!
We then turned our attention to 'Son of Tyson' - refitting the now painted bodywork, taking a guess at some base settings for suspension and gearing, and just double checking that everything was tight, such was the haste of the build. By the time we had done all this everybody else had been through scrutineering, so we got the full attention of all four examiners. Nevertheless, it was thumbs up all round and we hurried back to get the tyre warmers on in readiness for practice.
Having to have all this kit (awning, generator, warmers, three sets of wheels etc, etc) was all new to me. When I last raced in the Eighties, you had a bike, a few tools and spares in an old transit van and that was about it. Looking around the paddock at some serious machines and transporters, it was clear that even at club racing level, people were not shy of spending money.
By now another of the old endurance crew, Phil Gregory had arrived and immediately got to work - but even with his help we only just made it for our practice session. Although stressful, all the rushing about had meant that I'd had no time to feel anxious - before I had time to think I was rolling out onto a (wet) racetrack for the first time in 17 years!
I must have been around Snetterton several hundred times in my previous life, and after a couple of laps I relaxed and started to get the feel for it all again. The bike felt very stable and surefooted even in the wet conditions and I began to enjoy myself - even managing some gentle 'hanging off'! All too soon the session came to an end and I returned to the awning for an athlete's breakfast of tea and bacon rolls. We made the most of the breathing space to change a couple of things, and then it was time to take to the track again for our first race.
As our old style bikes and even older riders number about 12 for most meetings, we usually race within the 'Sound of Thunder' class, alongside modern Ducatis and Aprilias. Our boys were very happy that on this occasion the club had given us the first three rows of the grid instead of being thrown in randomly, or worse still occupying the back end. The top three or four guys in our class are quite capable of running with the best of the twins so they deserve to be there. However for me on my first race back, sitting on the front row with thirty snarling twins behind was a truly worrying experience!
Anyway, out went the lights and we all roared off towards 'Riches', the first corner. I braked at what felt like the last moment - and about six bikes whistled pass on either side! This happened again on the next few corners, but once the hooligans had all cleared off I settled down and caught up a couple of our boys - Kieron Hayes and Pete Young (GSX-R750 and FZ 923). I managed to pass Kieron down the straight and a lap later, Peter into the chicane at Russells. The chequered flag could not come soon enough - I'd started on full wets, but the rapidly drying track was starting to tear them up. Amazingly I'd finished fourth in class - mainly due to a couple of mechanical failures and crashes ahead - but still not bad for an old git on his first day back at school!
By the time of the second race the track was totally dry, so on went the slicks. Again we were on the front row, and again I got swallowed up by a few twins on the first couple of corners. After a couple of laps I'd got into the groove, and was soon following a Ducati through the fast sweeper 'Corams', well cranked over with the bellypan and my right knee on the deck. Suddenly the Duke highsided, spitting the rider straight into my path. I couldn't turn any tighter to miss him, so straightened up to brake and be ready to take to the grass if I had to.
At the last moment he slid off the track and I was able to stay on the tarmac. Just as I took a deep breath, another Ducati flew past onto the grass (the rider had followed me to the outside instead of staying on line), dug in and then cartwheeled into the tyres spitting expensive bits in all directions.
The race was stopped while they cleared up the mess, and I was beginning to think that maybe this was all a bit much for a person of my vintage… Before I could change my mind and run away, we lined up for the re-start and were away again. On about the second lap I started to turn into the esses at the end of the straight when I caught a glimpse of something red at the edge of my vision.
I picked the bike up automatically as a novice-piloted Ducati 996 weaved past my left shoulder with the rear wheel in the air, the rider's fluorescent jacket flapping in the breeze! He was going about 40mph faster, barely in control and sensibly decided to take to the escape road rather than attempt the corner - phew, that was close!
I managed the rest of the race with no more frights, again passing Kieron and Pete to finish 5th in class this time. We had a cup of tea to celebrate still being in one piece and looked forward to having another crack on the Sunday. We returned home (I live quite close to the circuit) where we had a barbeque while neighbour Mark set about lengthening the rear shock adjuster by cutting it and welding in an extra section. The bike had looked a little low at the back, and as the adjuster was already screwed out fully this was the best way to raise the rear ride height and make the steering a little quicker. We'd all agreed that the piece was made of steel and could be welded easily, so we were horrified when a glum-faced Mark returned with two pieces. He reported that as soon as the welding rod had touched it, the metal had spat back at him and started to disintegrate. We concluded that the material must be a particularly heavy grade of aluminium - Doh!
The next morning at the circuit, we bolted in the new adjuster and found that it raised the ride height perfectly, and in fact was a better (and safer) solution than welding. We intended to get a new eye from Penske, but in the end Brian's modified piece stayed in the bike all season and worked perfectly.
The Sunday races went OK, and I sent in entries for the next rounds of the championship. As the season progressed it took a while to get my proper racing head on, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The biggest problem was trying to keep up with the superstock boys in the bar. I'm too old to drink that much, and riding a noisy racebike is probably not the best way to deal with the hangover the next morning. The bike ran pretty well all year (some handling and carburation problems were helped with some stiffer fork springs and richer needles), and I managed to not breakdown or fall off and finish 5th in the championship.
Best performance was probably at Oulton Park in July, where Brian twice ignored my pleas to change the intermediates to slicks and was twice proved right as the heavens opened ten minutes before our races. In both I'd got up to an honest 3rd spot on pace, before being pipped on the last lap each time as the track dried.
Although I'd had some good battles with the guys it was clear that 'Son of Tyson' was a bit of a handful. Back in the eighties the 1100's grunt would see off the nimbler FZs, but all the Yams now sported big bore engines, so we had no power advantage either. The 1100 always felt like it wanted to run wide or understeer, so it was difficult to feel confident when pushing hard or attempting to pass - especially at nadgery places like the woodland section at Cadwell. At season's end we decided that the later 750 slingshot chassis would handle better, and would accept the 1052cc engine, or better still the later 1127 version with even more power and torque.
I'd just started looking on eBay for suitable bits, when I remembered a bike that had done a couple of rounds earlier in the season. Owned by Rob Eley it was a GSX 'RR' 750 chassis with a monster 1216cc lump and big carbs squeezed in. The 'RR' was essentially a homologation special to enable Suzuki to go World Superbike racing in 1989/90. Only 500 were made, the frame being considerably stiffer than the standard items, and a braced swinging arm thrown in as well. The engine had blown a head gasket, and had not been run since a bike shop had 'repaired' it.
A call to Rob found that he was interested in selling it. Better still, Derek Loan - owner of Suzuki parts supplier Spares Direct had decided it would be a good idea to sponsor us, as we would probably spend all the money in his shop anyway! So, one cold November Sunday I collected the machine from Rob's home in the Yorkshire dales, and took it straight to Wisbech where Doctor Goodall was waiting.
So an inkling to 'get back on the track for a few races' has turned into two bikes, a large van and a garage full of equipment. On the bright side - other people are helping to pay for it, fix things, and people who know a lot more than me (Brian and Graham!) have been dragged away from the couch to help my mid-life crisis, as old gits go racing again!
How are we getting on? See www.reflexmotorsport.com for the up to date news.
Ray's team, Reflex Motorsport, are supported by SPARES DIRECT, the independent Suzuki Spares Specialist. Find them at:
Photos by Phil Gregory and Graham Dove
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