Tales of Mediocrity #1
In the beginning, God created the Yamaha 350 LC, the launch of many a great racing career. And for the rest of us, a never-ending series of crashes
When I first got into motorcycles in the mid-seventies, racing one on a proper track was not something that ever crossed my mind. Around our neck of the woods, down in the South-West of England, competition on bikes usually meant MX, Enduro or Trials riding. However, in 1980 I somehow wound up in Cape Town, South Africa where I was lucky enough to get hold of one of the newly introduced Yamaha LC350s. I was more than happy thrashing it around the surrounding mountain passes and revelling in the warm weather. Any thoughts of me racing motorcycles had still not surfaced when I went to watch an international superbike race meeting held at the Killarney race circuit near Cape Town. I had never even been to a race track before but it wasn’t long before I became intoxicated by the thunderous sounds, distinctive smells, and outright lunatic speed. Sensations that just can’t be conveyed by TV but which make the real life experience so addictive.
I noticed that there were a few Yamaha LC350s like my own bike competing in the smaller classes but presumed that these would be highly modified racing specials and thought no more about it. A short time later whilst boring my colleagues at work with my latest biking exploits, my then boss told me there was an all-comers “run-what-you-brung” race due to be held at the same track in the next couple of weeks. As an aside, he added that perhaps I might want to have a go at that or “stop talking bollocks about my self-purported fast and skilled riding’’. Seemed fair, I supposed and I did actually quite fancy having a go.
First time on track
If I thought watching a motorcycle race was exciting, taking part was instantly addictive. A bit like smoking crack in many ways I suppose. Both will take all your money, endanger your health and when you’re not doing it, you will be wishing you were. The all.-comers race was billed as a “Breakfast Run GP”. There would be classes for small, mid-size and larger bikes and entry numbers were pretty good. There was to be a practice session the weekend before with instruction on and off track. Bike preparation consisted of taping up headlights and removing the main and side-stands. I'm pretty sure that gloves, jackets and helmets mandatory and I don't think shorts were allowed. Apart from that, it was pretty much up to the individual. The days before Health and Safety ruled our lives were so much more fun! My bike was only a few months old and still on the original tires but none of this mattered as we lined up to take to the track for the first time.
There was a short hiatus when one of our number decided to ride the wrong way out of pit lane and across the track at right angles. After he was suitably admonished, we followed our allotted instructor out on track. Although the guy showing us the lines appeared to be cruising and looking back all the time to make sure we were still there, it was still pretty difficult to keep him in sight. As the sessions went on and we got some idea of where to go and what to do, some of the guys who obviously fancied themselves as a bit quick got right up close to the instructor trying to get him to go a bit faster. It was pretty demoralising how quickly we got left behind when he sped up for half a lap and showed us how shit we really were!
Anyway, I got on OK, didn't make a complete ass of myself and the LC actually felt like it belonged on the track. I didn't get overtaken by many of the other newbie during our sessions but this didn't really give me much to gage my relative speed by as we might have all been dog slow for all I knew. Nevertheless, I was quite encouraged when a couple of the regular racers came over and told me to make sure that I came back the following week for the actual race. They probably said the same thing to most of the others but it was good of them to make the effort and anyway, I was always going to come back. I absolutely loved it!
As it was summer in Cape Town, I'd hazard a guess that race day dawned bright and warm. What I do clearly remember though is the feeling of fear, anticipation and excitement at what was to come. Riding to the track, I was actually trembling on the bike. I can also recall proudly handing over my “competitors” ticket at the gate. There wasn't much in the way of bike prep required which was a good job as I've never been up to much with the spanners. I was number 3 for my race so I made the number by sticking some black tape on a sheet of white paper and taping it to the headlight. It looked crap but I wasn't bothered, I just wanted to get out on track. The Centre and side stands also had to come off but that was pretty much it. However, the guy at scrutineering told me that I needed to wire the sump plug which threw me completely as I had no idea what a sump plug was, let alone how to go about wiring it up. Wiring up a sump plug would normally be done with a type of thin locking wire and usually inserted through a hole specially drilled in the actual plug but all I had to hand was a bit of thicker wire which I cut off a nearby fence. I then spent the best part of an hour trying to wind the wire around the sump plug but of course this was never going to work and I was getting into a right panic as the time for the practice session got closer. With less than five minutes to go, I jammed the wire on as best I could and wheeled the bike back for inspection. Only to find the original guy gone and the bloke there now just waved me through without much more than a cursory glance. This was just as well as the wire had dropped off again. I was rushing about like mad now trying to get ready to go out as the session had already started. They let me out but said that there was only one lap left. In my rush, I promptly ran on at the very first corner and only managed to complete part of a lap which just about reminded me which way some of the corners went.
Race-prep at it's most basic!
Feeling somewhat deflated, my ego was boosted by attending the riders briefing. Just standing there with all the “proper racers” listening to the instructions gave me a real feeling of being a part of the “show” rather than just watching from the outside. I'm not sure how many spectators there were on that day but motorcycle racing was big in South Africa back then and I would think that there might have been around a thousand or so people attending. Seeing my name in the programme was another big thing for me. I could just imagine fans avidly reading it and maybe asking each other “who’s this Tim Moore”? Obviously, they weren't. Just as they likely wouldn't really be paying that much attention to our beginner’s race later on. None of this could dampen my excitement though. Some of the experienced racers took the time to come round and give us novices bits of advice about riding the track and tips on making sure our bikes were ready. This was just as well as I hadn't even thought about tyre pressures! As the nerves kicked in, frequent visits to the loo were the order of the day and this was another memorable experience as the toilet was basically a small wooden shed with hole over a long drop.
We were one of the first races of the day so it wasn't that long before we were called to the pre-race paddock and it was off on the sighting lap. I was so busy drinking in the sights all around me that I almost got rear-ended by one of the bigger bikes as most others set off like it was the actual race. The grid was staggered by bike engine size with us small bikes at the front. We would set off first with the other classes starting after at 10 second intervals. There was one other 350 LC in the race and this was being ridden by about the only guy on the grid wearing actual race leathers. Most of us were in our normal riding gear of jacket and jeans.
That's me in the red nylon jacket!
What was supposed to be the warm up lap turned into a race of sorts and two bikes ended up bouncing around in the dirt even before we got halfway round. By now, I was itching to start racing for real. When it did, it was obvious that the rider of the other 350 had done a bit of this before and promptly shot off never to be seen by me again. Nevertheless, I managed to get going pretty well and no one else was in front of me. I still didn't know the track that well and just rode round as fast as I could, taking each corner as if it was the first time, much like a fast road ride I suppose. As I was going around, I was very aware of the spectators and could even smell the smoke from the barbecues. To my mind, they were all watching me and commenting on my obvious speed and dashing style. In reality, I suspect it was more a case of them being slightly amused at the antics of all these wannabe racers who were actually loads slower than the real thing. After a few laps of going around without anyone coming past and not being able to see the other 350 anymore, I started to think that maybe the race was already over and I had missed the flag. Perhaps all these people were laughing at me whilst the commentator was taking the piss over the tannoy? I took a hasty look back and almost shit myself as I saw two of the larger bikes coming right up behind me at a rate of knots. One swept past pretty quickly and was followed shortly after by the other fast moving bike, probably too fast as we were headed into a quick right hand sweep and he managed to hit the exhaust and foot pegs very hard on the ground. The force of the impact lifted his back wheel off the ground and he must have caught his foot because I saw his training shoe come off. I suspect it was embarrassment or shock that kept him from slowing down or maybe he was better at counting the laps than me as one corner later, we took the chequered flag.
Tea and Medals
It was all over and I was both elated and a little annoyed about losing the two places right at the end. As we went round on the slow down lap, I saw the spectators waving and clapping. I doubted they were applauding me but I waved back anyway, I presumed this would be my one and only time on track so I was milking every second of it. I did think about popping a wheelie but maybe that would have been taking the piss. According to the result sheet, I was fourth overall. I didn't know if there were awards for the different bike sizes but I knew that only one other small bike had beaten me. I wasn't that bothered as I was basking in some kind of post-race euphoria. I spent the rest of the day watching the other races and had a chat with a few of the real racers. I was surprised how friendly and helpful these guys could be considering they were in the middle of their own serious race meeting. Several of them suggested that I come back when the new season started and have a proper go. I already had the right bike and hadn't made a complete ass of myself but I was doubtful. I didn't know the first thing about what was required or how much it would all cost. However, I did know that I really, really wanted to have another go.