Reliving the Past

Story by Michelle Duff// Photos by Michelle Duff
November 1 2007

TO appreciate the present, one must understand the past. To appreciate what we have now, we must understand from where it all came. Is it possible to go back and relive that past? Most would suggest it is not, but I did, in the summer of 2007. I relived the past in all its glory; I even relived many events that were not so glorious.

Shortly into the New Year an email arrived in my in-box from Ferry Brouwer. Ferry is the managing director of Arai Helmets, Europe, and the driving force and owner of the Yamaha Classic Racing Team (YCRT) out of The Netherlands. He asked me to join his team for the 2007 season. I would ride alongside Chas Mortimer, Rodney Gould, Dieter Braun, Jos Schurgers, Svend Andersson, and select others periodically invited to ride Ferry’s bikes. The first event would be the Isle of Man TT Races. For personal reasons, I wasn’t planning on going to the 2007 Centenary TT. I thought about Ferry’s invitation, but before writing back to say thanks, but no thanks, Ferry sent me another email that changed my mind.

Because of Yamaha’s past involvement in the TT, the Japanese factory wanted to participate in the historical aspects of the Centenary, and agreed to send over two bikes from its museum. One bike to be run during the popular Lap of Honour on the Monday of race week, and the other in a new event called The Parade of Champions on the Friday. Yamaha wanted me to ride both of these bikes. I could not refuse the offer and immediately replied to Ferry saying yes.

Scotland Yamaha Racing Event The two bikes were to be the 1968 RD05 four-cylinder 250 two-stroke that had won numerous world titles in the late 60’s, and the 1965 RA97 twin-cylinder 125 two stroke, raced to numerous GP victories in 1965 and 1966. My anxiety at riding these two bikes grew proportionate to my excitement. I am no longer 26 years old; the passage of time has been kind to me, but there are limits. I began an extensive exercise programme. Rider vanity too added more driving force. I didn’t want my performance on the bikes to be a pale representation of what used to be, and wanted to at least look like I was comfortable on the bikes. With a lap of 61 km, the Isle of Man TT is not a racecourse to take lightly.

As the TT approached, another email from Ferry mentioned that the team was also contracted to ride at the Belgium Biker’s Classic at Spa Francorchamps the first of July, and the Classic Sachsenring a week later. The two bikes from Yamaha, unfortunately were for the TT only, but a TR2 350 Yamaha twin production racer from Ferry’s arsenal of machines was available to me for both Spa and Sachsenring.

“Going to be an interesting summer,” I said to myself. But no sooner had I said it, another email from Ferry arrived saying he’s just finalized arrangements for the team to ride at the Salzburgring in Austria two weeks after Sachsenring and Schotten in Germany, three weeks after Salzburgring.

Any more events and I’ll be as busy as we were in the 60’s, I thought. A month later came another email from Ferry saying he had procured Oschersleben, a racetrack not far from Hannover in Germany, for a 4-hour test period the middle of May. Ferry wanted me there.

And so began a hectic summer of travel and more fun than an aging grandmother deserves. It was like old times, arranging travel expenses with race organizers, making flight arrangements and developing an itinerary. New team leathers were being made, Arai Helmets prepared a new helmet to be painted with my own personal design, I acquired a new set of riding boots, thanks to Ducati and I doubled up on my exercise programme. Progress with physical fitness came slowly, but there was progress nonetheless.

“What do you have to worry about,” responded Ferry in a reply to an email I sent him expressing my concerns. “They’re only parades. You’re suppose to wave and have fun.”

“We’re out there because we’re competitive,” I replied. “Wear racing leathers, on a proper racing bike, paint a white line on the road in front, then drop a flag? We’re racing; it’s in our nature, like trying to stop a cat hunting birds. As for waving at people, no bloody way. Not on late 60’s and early 70’s Yamaha two-stokes. Piston seizures and crankshaft failures are too common to dare take my fingers off the clutch.”

I flew over to Oschersleben where I tested three bikes, the 350 TR2 Yamaha air-cooled twin, which ran great, a slightly over-bored 350 Yamaha twin, which seized a piston starting my second lap, and a 350 four-cylinder Yamaha Special fitted with an Italian Morbidelli two-stroke liquid-cooled engine. Unfortunately, the Morbidelli gearbox kept jumping out of fourth gear. It was, however, a fruitful test session for the team.

Yamaha Classic Racing Team Suzuki RacerI flew home following Oschersleben, but returned for the Isle of Man TT three weeks later. As expected, both bikes were beautifully prepared, but, “It’s so small,” I commented when I saw the little 125.

The Lap of Honour rekindled a new respect for the 250-4 RD05. I ended the lap with a high I had not felt since winning the Belgian GP in 1964. However, the little 125 during the Parade of Champions on Friday expired 2 km into the lap and I pulled off the road, disappointed but elated by my overall performance during the 2007 Isle of Man TT. It was indeed an honour to be so entrusted with such rare and valuable motorcycles, and to share the limelight with champions from the past, like Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read, Frank Perris, Kel Carruthers, Sammy Miller, Phillip McCallum, Neil Hodgson, Heinz Rosner, John Surtees and Tommy Robb. Even Nori Haga of World Superbike fame was there cautiously riding an R7 Yamaha.

I flew home following the TT, but returned to Amsterdam three weeks later for the Biker’s Classic at Spa Francorchamps. Spa had been one of my favourite racetracks in the 60’s, but in 2007 the old road course was no longer used. Like many road courses in the 60’s, Spa had fallen to new demands for safety. The new course is now a totally closed racing complex; it still incorporates the same start/finish area and retains much of the old flavour of a great racing circuit. Much to my elation, the new course still includes the most famous corner in all motor racing – Eau Rouge. Repaved and widened with a large gravel run-off area, the thrill of Eau Rouge is enhanced, allowing a rider to take greater liberties since the wall that lined the outside of the corner has been removed. Rushing down the start/finish straight notching fourth gear for an instant, pull back one, lean hard left over the bridge then immediately right, up a steep hill while aiming for an unseen apex, swing left at the top and exit at full acceleration; the marvellous corner comes with a total sense of achievement.

Like most Classic events in Europe to which the Yamaha Team was invited, we were, supposedly, not racing. We’d line up on the start/finish line and sometimes be waved off en masse, sometimes row by row, and other times follow a pace car for a lap then let loose to ride as slow or as fast as we pleased. Whatever method was used, when we had open roads we were racing, not necessarily for first place, but just to beat the guy immediately in front. At Spa that guy in front was special guest, Steve Baker on a TZ750 Yamaha, and Sammy Miller on a 500 four-cylinder Gilera.

I rode the TR2 again, and it went really well, except that it kept jumping out of first gear on the overrun into corners, and Spa had eight first gear corners. It made for some very awkward yet exciting moments, perhaps more so for Sammy Miller on the Gilera. He and I had been together for much of the session.

On day two of the “parade” laps, on a high speed run down to a double left corner, my little 350 TR2 Yamaha seized a crankshaft. “That’s three times now,” I said to myself. “Oschersleben, the Island with the little 125, and now here.”

Sachsenring in the old eastern zone of Germany was the following weekend. I stayed over and spent three days helping repair my TR2, inserting a new crankshaft and fixing first gear.

Cool temperatures and rain greeted us at Sachsenring, but like at Spa, on race days the clouds cleared and the sun shone with a brilliance reminiscent of Canada. The bike and the racecourse were terrific and after fitting a smaller gearbox sprocket I began putting in some respectable lap times. However, during Saturday’s second session, just as I was beginning to feel comfortable, the crankshaft seized again. Not noted for being a machine wrecker in my past racing life, I was beginning to develop a complex. “Was I jinxed?” I asked myself.

On Sunday, I was given the 350 Morbidelli/Yamaha Special to ride and what a sweetheart bike to ride around the tight little Sachsenring. I ended the day elated with my performance, although my new Ducati boots suffered greatly, so much so my toes hung out through the front. Keeping your toes tucked in isn’t so easy at my age.

Notable guests at Sachsenring were Pauline Hailwood and her son David, and grandson Mike Hailwood, age two. Part of the joy of this summer’s journeys was renewing acquaintances with many friends.

Sachsenring is also noted for its fanatical race fans. Over 75,000 attended the two-day event and I think I signed an autograph for every one. Quite a thrill.

After Sachsenring, I again returned home, this time for eight days and then flew back to Vienna, Austria, and took a three-hour train ride to Salzburg.

Salzburgring like Sachsenring, was a new racecourse for me. It was a simple racetrack but demanding, with a good number of high speed sweeping corners. On lap two of my first parade session on Saturday the TR2 again seized, this time the right piston. With no spare parts, the bike was parked. Ignition problems with the Morbidelli/Yamaha Special sidelined it too, and I was given a rare 3-cylinder Yamaha 350 to ride. Perhaps because of all my problems during the season, Ferry cautioned me to ride easy. “This bike is very rare,” he said. “Absolutely no parts are available for it.” As instructed, I rode with due diligence and finished the next two sessions without incident.

Sunday evening, I returned by train to Vienna, and flew home mid-morning on Monday. Three weeks later, for the fifth time this summer, I flew back to Europe for the Schotten Classic Grand Prix. Schotten is a quaint little hamlet not far from Frankfurt, Germany.

I met up with the team in the paddock area and asked where’s the circuit, expecting another super closed racing complex not unlike Sachsenring.

“This is it,” the mechanic said, pointing to the narrow side road in front of the tents and workshop area. “Just follow the straw-bales.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.

The racetrack, for want of a better word, all 1.2 km of it, reminded me so much of many of the silly little racetracks we rode in the sixties. Road traffic had been diverted left through town and about half a kilometre of the main highway past the town of Schotten had been closed for the main straight of the racetrack. A sharp right turn at the end of the highway strip, doubled back on itself down a slight hill to another first gear right corner over a bridge, then an immediate left accelerating hard past the Yamaha workshop area along a fast bumpy section lined with private homes, a community centre and three small factories to another double right corner, up a slight hill and back onto the highway. It was a fun course, but busy, concentration being the key word. Immediately out of one corner and into the next, always thinking ahead with no place to relax, a dozen 55-second laps was exhausting.

Parade laps began at 8:00 a.m. and save an hour lunch break, ran continuously until 7:00 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. At least 400 riders took part in the event attended by over 60,000 people for the two day total.

The Ferry Brouwer Team, as the organizers called us, was given two twelve-minute sessions each day with precise times of 10:24 a.m. and 4:36 p.m. and true to rumoured German precision, at 10:24, not 10:25, we were ushered out onto the race track and escorted around to the start/finish line.

For the first session, I was given a very unique four-cylinder 250 four-stroke Yamaha Special to ride that was redlined at 19,000 rpm. Based on a 250 FZR Yamaha four-cylinder road bike, the engine had seen extensive development. It had even been converted to air-cooling. To say it rattled the local windows would be an understatement. Modern racing motorcycles, by regulation, need to be muffled; not so with Classic racers. Those four open megaphones at 19,000 rpm emitted music so melodious to motorcycle aficionados that every one of Saturday’s spectators eagerly awaited my arrival at their vantage point. What a phenomenal motorcycle, but after ten laps the engine overheated. I stopped before adding another engine failure to my dismal season’s tally.

For the remainder of the sessions, I again rode the 350 four-cylinder Morbidelli/Yamaha Special. It still insisted on jumping out of fourth gear but it was only at one spot of the racecourse, so I just lived with it and had fun.

After the last session on Sunday, I sat on the end of one of the workbenches and looked over at the team packing gear away for the trip home. I glanced at all the bikes neatly lined up waiting to be loaded into the trucks, then glanced down at myself still clad in my racing leathers and wondered if this would be my last time? Would I ever again be able to relive my past, racing around quaint little racetracks in front of thousands of enthusiastic fans all waving and cheering? As we age, time has a way of creeping up and in a matter of months can deliver crippling blows that a youngster shrugs off with nary a concern.

I’ve been invited back next year and rumours abound that Ferry is negotiating with one or two MotoGP organizers for his team to put on demonstration “parade” laps at a few MotoGP race meetings in 2008. What a high that would be, and what a delight to show the modern riders and fans where their racing roots came from and just how glorious racing had been in the sixties.


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