Club Racing Customer
In 1972 I was the proud owner of a Norton Commando Interstate – that's the one with the 'Combat' engine and the big tank - mine was blue. I actually bought the bike new from Pride & Clark because they were the only dealer I thought would part-exchange my rather dodgy Triton for such a beauty, but I got my riding gear from Gussie's (a full Belstaff XL500 suit – thanks Mick) and had her serviced there. Late in the following year I decided, rather rashly at the advanced age of twenty-one, to try my hand at road-racing. I duly traded my immaculate Interstate for an ex-Dave Potter, 1972 Mellano Trophy-winning GK Norton Production Racer.
My first outing on the bike was a Wednesday practice at Brands Hatch. In those days, anyone with a race licence could go along and put in as many laps they wanted. Not having a van, but the bike having a number plate, I rode it from my home in Surrey, took off my water-proofs and went to try my luck. I already knew the Gus Kuhn team would be there and Dave Potter kindly offered to show me the way around. I tucked in behind Potter's Kuhn Seeley for Paddock Bend and that was the last I saw of him for a couple of laps until he came past me again – I had a lot to learn. That Saturday I was entered in a Production race. It turned out to be the final of the season-long BMCRC Production Championship. It was very cold when I rode into the paddock early that Saturday morning in October and found myself next to another production racer. He had his bike on a trailer towed behind his Morris Minor Traveller and I asked if I could leave my water-proofs and paddock stand (carried in a small rucksack) in his car for the day while I went racing. The rider was Fred Curry, also with a Norton, a man who quickly became a good friend in the years to follow. For the race, I got a reasonable start from the middle of the grid (places were decided by ballot) but then spent most of the time using my hard-earned road techniques of not getting too close to other riders in order to avoid an accident – did I mention I had a lot to learn. I was lapped on the final exit from Clearways and that was the end of my first racing season. On the ride home the bike died at Redhill and I had to leave it in the front garden of someone's house while my dad came to collect me and the battery to be charged so I could return next day and ride home. It turned out that GK had shaved the rotor stator so much in an effort to reduce friction that the battery hardly charged at all – it was virtually a constant-loss system.
I campaigned the bike around the country all the following season with mixed results, as most club racers do. I entered the bike as a 'Gus Kuhn Commando' in an effort to raise my profile a little despite not actually getting any official help from the shop, although I should mention that there was a great deal of unofficial help from various members of staff, and even the boss on odd occasions.
The following year was going to be more of the same. Over the winter I 'tuned' the bike by stripping and rebuilding it countless times to reduce weight, and in the process managed to damage the fibre-glass tank just days before my first race of 1975 - that was replaced by a rather slick looking aluminium version. I had already 'customised' the top fairing by cutting most of the sides off and extending the size of the numbers area. All purely cosmetic of course, it made no difference whatsoever to the bike's performance. Then came the 'Stars of Tomorrow' event at Brands.
The previous year I had won a couple of trophies in the Production class but for 1975 that class was omitted. I'd done enough unlimited races to know that my old proddie bike wouldn't get very far so I asked Vincent Davey if I could borrow one of his Seeley Nortons for the event. The fact that I'd ridden particularly well the previous weekend at Brands in front of the boss's wife meant that he finally agreed, and so after a quick practice with the team on Wednesday, I went out. The first race was wet and it took me a couple of laps to realise just how good the Seeley was to ride. By that time the two leaders had gone but I soon started to overtake everyone else I could reach – too easy. The second race was dry and I only came fifth but that experience meant going back to my 'road' bike was out of the question. I traded up to a GK Seeley Norton (also ex-Dave Potter) of my own. I rode that bike to more mixed results for the rest of the year and, as the team had mostly moved on to endurance events with the BMW, was (I think) the only GK Norton rider, although still very unofficially, for the rest of the year. For those that don't remember, the club scene had moved on from Nortons and Triumph/BSA triples, in various frames, to big Hondas, Suzukis and Kawasakis, and even TZ700s, leaving the British bikes at a severe power disadvantage. A Seeley Norton could out-brake and out-corner almost anyone but the straights were a problem.
In a fit of pique I sold the Seeley privately at the end of the year, a decision I bitterly regret to this day as it was the nicest bike I've ever ridden, and bought a 980 BMW (an over-bored 90S) from GK to race back in the Production class – the first privateer to try such a stupid thing. The first race was at Snetterton, in the open class. Practice showed that the bike got into a high-speed weave down the back straight and no efforts of mine nor the GK Team (there to race their own BMW, with a special frame) failed to cure it. In retrospect I think it may have been the big front tyre fitted in an effort to keep the cylinder heads off the track. The bike also proved impossible to bump-start, even with two pushers, so I simply pushed off the line until I heard another engine fire and pushed the button. We got off in mid-field and were making steady progress through the pack until I tried to ride around a Kawasaki at Coram's. The Kwak started drifting and pushed me out towards the grass where I promptly went over the front. The bike slid right across the grass and back onto the track, closely followed by myself but fortunately missing the following bikes. Damage appeared to be restricted to the right-hand rocker cover, pretty incredible after such a high-speed accident. I had one more ride on the BMW, at Brands the following weekend, but I had no confidence in the thing and sold it back to the shop. I moved on to race a TZ350 Yamaha and my 'career' as a rider with Gus Kuhn was over.