Well, I did wake up early, but too late to join the fun
Hemeyla has correctly identified André Kaci , the most difficult one I guess since , unlike the others, he stopped racing shortly after this picture was taken ( I believe it's in 1973 ) . He was very quick tough, and he still is actually, I saw him hurling a 750 TZ around the old Montlhéry banking 4 or 5 years ago and he was the best at it, only Jean-Paul Boinet managed to stay with him.
The post above was a long time ago, however I suppose one of the forums great assets is the retention of history, and regardless of what random whim may give rise to searching the threads, eventually something is going to crop up and rekindle the memory banks......Jean Paul Boinet...now there's a name that featured in the closing of my 1977 Boys Own adventure into the continental circus.
Being French it was good odds that my man, Vic Soussan would probably know him. Perhaps it was Vic's sudden rise to WGP fame that year, but whatever it was I can still see him striding into the pit garage at Silverstone,.It was the last GP of the year, with his trade mark moustache almost a straight line, grinning from ear to ear, like a kid who's just been given Disneyland passes for the first time, and announcing a start at the Bol d'Or 24 hours in September. he asked me if I wanted to stick around for a few more weeks and offered me a job for the Le Mans race. I recall something about getting fresh overalls and possibly an extra 20 quid. And so the adventure continued. First we had to tackle Northern Ireland and the Ulster GP.
You have to think about Northern Ireland within the context of 1977. After scenes of political suppression in Spain and Czechoslovakia with grand displays of antique weaponry and nationalist costumes, (the lacquered black "flat hats" of the Guardia Civil are a real hoot), I thought Northern Ireland would be tame when hearing tales of the "troubles" as they were colloquially known. How wrong I was. Driving off the ferry at Belfast I really had to remind myself that NI was a war zone. I may well as have been driving off the Mullberry Harbour in Normandy 1944. I remember being confronted with armoured cars, sandbagged guard posts with tripod mounted automatic weapons, enough coiled razor wire to give the Iron curtain a good run for it's money, and "squaddies" covering every angle like spread out fielders in a cricket game. The only pieces missing were the barrage balloons. We had directions to drive down to Lisburn where our host would meet us. It may have been the distractions but somehow we got lost in Belfast, Vic insisting he knew where he was driving, and Jenny howling directions knowing full well what we were getting into. Meanwhile I was immersed in the adventure of it all, awestruck at the devastation in the surrounding neighbourhoods. Charred vehicle carcasses, burnt out buildings and barricaded shop fronts provided the backdrop to this dire city and it's sad and harrowing history. We weren't exactly driving incognito with our racing van livery and I suppose we were all quietly thinking to ourselves, wondering from where the first salvo of incoming would present itself.
As in all cities you get lost in, drive around enough and eventually the roads become busier and directions become less aimless. We found Lisburn, or probably more accurately Lisburn found us before dark. One thing that no one will argue is the enthusiasm and overwhelming kindness and cordiality that Irish hospitality offers around the Ulster GP time. In fact I would say that the folk of Northern Ireland would rank as the most hospitable I had ever encountered in all my years on the WGP scene.
We were hosted by Dougie Mckeown and his wife Roberta who put up Vic and Jenny. I was farmed out to one of Dougie's mates a lovely couple who were just nuts about bike racing. The few days I spent in Ulster were memorable. I guess it was the camaraderie that stuck with me. Not to be lost amongst all of this was the memory of the wave of euphoria that washed over after being on the road for weeks, probably months, sometimes in next to third world living conditions. To sleep between crisp cotton sheets, shower in unlimited hot water,sit in warm lounge and watch TV on a 34inch Phillips, sipping hot tea, left you with an intoxicating feeling of elation.
The racing I don't recall much of. Like Brno the track was a high speed death trap if one was willing to take risks. The weather was patchy, I remember that, because we didn't have the luxury of the Michelin tyre truck. I was getting exasperated changing wheels and god forbid, bloody tyres as well and trying to balance them. We were running on the British GP engines trying to squeeze the last kms out of the cranks. Vic was riding well but couldn't match the bravado of the local lads who has to ride on borrowed time or risk the tormenting in the pubs for the next 12 months for riding like a pussy.
With the racing over, Dougie, forever dishing out lavish servings of Irish hospitality, thought I should find myself dark eyed Molly to complete my Ulster experience. I drained the hot water cylinder in the shower, donned freshly washed and pressed kit and had Dougie drop me off at one of Belfast's established watering holes. The Wellington Park, or Wellie Boot as it is affectionately known. The Wellie Boot is a Belfast institution that exists until this day as a hangout for the city's smart set. Im not sure if a smart set existed in the 1970's because life was more about survival than trying to be cool and hip. The Wellie had survived a few bombings but nothing like its competitor up the road. The Europa Hotel achieved distinction of being Europe's most bombed hotel. The IRA had a crack at it 33 times and the last bomb reduced it's value to 4 million quid, for which it sold. Probably land value only. Nevertheless walking up to the front entrance of the Wellington was a sight to behold. I the patron, was probably the only one without a bomb proof vest. The barbed wire was out in abundance and the front was sandbagged to the top of the first floor windows. One had to dance between girder barricades, miniature versions of the cross hatch type that made Omaha beach so picturesque. Eventually you arrived at the front door. Well the first one any way. It was a sliding contraption of armour plate glass. You stepped inside and immediately you are confronted by a mirror image of the first door. After waiting for the door behind to close there was a 30 second or so pause. I imagine the CCTV cameras were giving you a good patting down. then the second door slid open and you were free to approach the bar. Once inside it was probably like any international hotel of the era. Quite naturally I was scanning for dark eyed Molly.
Now you really have to put my situation here into context. You have a relatively naive adventurous kiwi lad who is living his dream. A dream that fermented from many Friday evenings after picking up a somewhat belated Motorcycle News (they came surface mail from England to NZ ) from the newsagents. Phil Read, Bill Ivy, Tepi Lansouvori, Jarno Sarrinen, Barry Sheene, the list is endless. These were latter day pop idols and their stages were exotic names like, Le Mans, Assen, Spa, Nurburgring, Silverstone. Stir into this a good lashing of Marlboro Series down under and your lad's on a springboard off to Europe. So after landing on my feet fair and squarely in a privateers camp consistently scoring WGP points one tends to get this bulletproof feeling.
The bar at The Wellie Boot must be jam packed with people living for the moment. Or rather that was my simplistic view. I recall ordering a beer at what was a long U shaped bar with high stools. There was quite a vociferous row going on behind me. I didn't pay it much attention. It seemed your regular rowdy bar crowd getting well lubricated. After half a glass, I went off to see a man about a dog, and when I got back to my perch the one next to it was occupied. Dark eyed Molly. Except her name was Phobe. ( I guess that's Irish). Let's just say that Phobe was a very pleasant and charming lady who exemplified all the finer points that comprise the Irish feminine gene pool. Completely out of my league. But she had just had a row with her boyfriend on the table behind me and at that stage was more red eyed than dark eyed. She wanted to talk ,and of who better to listen to her sorrows than a bullet proof naive Kiwi having a quiet beer. The evening progressed. She couldn't have given a brass razoo about motorcycle racing, but was instead captivated about New Zealand.
I don't recall if we walked or took a cab , however she was very gracious about inviting me into her modest digs across the road from Queens University. I was doing my best to be cool here. I'd never smoked a cigarette or drunk red wine from a goblet before so the learning curve was steep. There was a record player in the lounge spinning a lump of vinyl with this smokey jazz cabaret vocalist singing, My Last Cigarette. My throat was burning and I recall thinking, baby you're right on the money there.
My exit from Phobe's digs was not quite as gracious as my entrance. There was a fierce rapping on the front door early in the morning. Phobe entered panic mode. Perhaps the boyfriend was on the doorstep with backup. At that time you just had no idea where people's allegiances lay, but I'm fairly certain that my presence couldn't be explained away with political motivations, particularly at seven o'clock in the morning. Phobe's bedroom had this enormous sash window which very fortuitously wasn't stuck.
Tomorrow morning try a little exercise. Before you go to bed leave all your kit in a random heap beside the bed. Then start the clock. Give yourself 20 seconds, start dressing and see how far you get. I was shoehorned out the window, socks in pockets, shoes on the wrong feet, jumper on backwards and the rest of my kit under my arm or following very close behind out the window.
So there you have it, my first Northern Ireland experience, dark eyed Molly and all, then out on the streets of Belfast, 7am Sunday morning, dressed like a tramp a few blocks from Europe's most bombed hotel and the only traffic in sight, an occasional armoured car and me in all likelihood in the crosshairs of a squaddie hidden in the dull grey morning shadows. I did however form some friendships with those very convivial people of Northern Ireland. I never returned for motorcycle racing but Douggie had a trailer home parked up on the shores of Loch Erne and I remember some good fishing tales from those days.
And so onto France. It was September and Paris epitomized everything you've ever read in those romanticized stories that dominate the travel shelves of bookstores these days. The weather was warm, the stifling heat and humidity replaced with a late summer dry and cooler air, the trees still full of foliage, the city alive and bustling with an energy, spirit and spontaneity unique to Parisians. Jean Paul Boinet lived in a wonderful old country home within the city confines. It was in Montlhery on the southern side of Paris, nearby the famous old airfield auto-drome of bygone days. It was a charming old part of the city, with it's narrow cobbled streets, high walled gardens covered in creeping ivy and buildings from every period of French history. Jean Paul lived in such a place along with most of the family from the last two generations. I only remember Grand-mere Boinet because of her remarkable culinary skills enabling her to turn out a royal feast from a simple basket load of produce. There was nothing I would look forward to more than lunch and dinner where she would have an enormous kitchen table loaded with food. Crusty loaves of bread, wonderful aromatic cheeses, cured meats of all descriptions, marinated vegetables, the list was endless. I mean, if Jamie Oliver ever stumbled over this place he could make an entire series around it!.
The plan in France was to run the Bol d'Or 24 hour race on an OW31, 750 Yamaha road racer. Like, one of these was going to run for 24 hours non stop?....most guys struggled to keep them running for 40 minute road races...well that's a bit of an exaggeration but you get the drift. As I reflect back on the time it is fairly clear to me what the strategy was, but being relatively unsophisticated in a business sense at the time, I couldn't have cared less what the motive was...I was doing the Bol D'Or at Le Mans and we had as good a chance as any of being in pole position.
The sponsorship came from Christian Dior...and what a party that was!.....the pre race PR exercise had Vic and I traipsing to and from Paris negotiating the city dodgems to Dior's headquarters which were on the Champs Ellyses of all places...In the back of the van was a mock up OW31 in all the finest Eau Savage livery that was to be draped by bikini clad Dior hostesses in never ending photo shoots...The bike was a mock up with a "hollow engine", an old set of crankcases and cylinders because the race engine was disassembled awaiting new crankshafts. So we fitted the streamlining each day, tank, seat silencers etc., and loaded it up in the evenings for the trip downtown.
In hindsight the sponsor would get their money's worth with a pole position and a lead for the first three hours. After that the TV audience diminished and even the winners, who are very rarely the early leaders, couldn't match the exposure value of the first few hours.
So, we practice, set a scorching lap time, secure pole position, lead the race then blow the engine after three hours, load the bike up and head back to Grand-mere Boinet for another royal feast !! Or something like that.......
JP's mechanic was the crew chief. I'm struggling to remember his name just now but maybe one of the readers will recognize him. He's English by the way. He did all the engine preparation. I remember fiddling around with the frame and running gear. We had to adapt a sprint road racer into an endurance bike with enough candlepower to turn light into day and to be able to refuel it in 12 seconds. Eventually we had it all together and headed out to Le Mans for some private testing and running in. That was a couple of days before official practice started. At that time endurance racing was at the height of popularity in France. the French were the current masters with their factory backed RBC Honda teams and the crowds that followed them were enormous. Thousands of fans would start to migrate towards Le Mans several days before the race and set up camp all around the circuit. If endurance racing was their religion then Le Mans was their Mecca. Our Christian Dior team was a novelty. I'm not sure if anyone took us as a serious threat but it didn't damped the media frenzy. From the moment we rolled the bike out of the van, shutters clicked and motor drives whirred away. There was fairly extensive coverage in the local press and there was even a pic in Le Parisien and L'Equipe so half the sponsorship ticket was already clipped and we hadn't even done a lap. By the last official practice session the bike was as sorted as we were going to get. both Vic and JP had posted lap times in the top 4 and 5 and JP was gunning for pole position. JP still felt the engine was flat in the top gear sections and wanted it leaner. Vic and I weren't too keen. Vic reckoned that the mixture was at the limit. He would roll the throttle back ever such a slight amount in top gear and the rpm would pick up a little. It was hard getting a reliable plug chop at Le Mans, but jetted down it went.
Around came the final timed practice. I cant find the results anywhere but my memory tells me we ended up in pole. What I do remember however was seizing the motor in the final practice. It had detonated itself to a standstill with the leaner main jet setting and finally gave up.
Now in a GP setting that would have meant a rebuild. Who knows what amount of aluminium had found its way down into the main bearings. But we didn't have spare cranks with usable Km on them and I have a feeling no one could really be bothered. Vic and I were prepared to do it, but if we found molten aluminum from the pistons anywhere "downstairs" then there was not much we could do. I seem to recall we were outvoted on that. So the barrels were lifted and a fair bit of meaningless poking around with a light and mirrors, and flushing out with fresh gas was attempted that probably gave the impression that we had fulfilled our duty of care. The engine was reassembled and we sat around going through all the pomp and ceremony that preceded the iconic Le Mans start right on 4pm as the second hand on the giant Swiss station clock arched over the start line counted off the last seconds.
For me I remember this as being a magical moment. Those memorable and classic scenes portrayed in Steve McQueens movie epic "Le Mans" had come to life. I could feel my own heartbeat thumping away just as in the movie, building to a crescendo until the partially furled French start flag was swept downwards. Strangely the first sounds are not of the engines firing up but the scuffing and scraping of riders boots as they sprinted across the track. JP got a cracking start....He's tall, had a long stride and the 750 2 stroke engine fired on the first bump. So another clip in the sponsors ticket. He had cleared out a decent lead in the first lap and had the fans on their feet coming into the start finish straight for the fist time. For once the dominating RCB Hondas we not in front. Third clip of the sponsors ticket. But it was also going to be the last clip because he didn't come around again.
JP's girlfriend was chief time keeper. Im not sure how long she intended to keep clicking the watch but nothing was going to deter her from the first three hours of glory and a head shot in Paris-Match. She was perched atop a ladder adorned in a well fitted Eau Savage race jacket, dark flowing locks gently moving in the breeze and clasping a red clipboard overloaded with chrome plated Heuer stopwatches. There was absolutely no way this prestigious grandeur was going to be limited to one click of the watch.
Now when your rider dosen't show there's that awkward silence accompanied with furtive glances at each other. I glanced up at our glamorous timekeeper and she was busily scratching down something on the clipboard, seemingly oblivious to the obvious. I was confused. perhaps I had missed something. Vic was upon the pit wall his neck craned in the direction of the esses coming into the start finish straight. I looked back to our timekeeper, made eye contact and she was clearly in denial. "Non non, Il va bien............."
Well this went on for a few minutes and by now I could detect the commentary repeating Boinet's name but I couldn't make out what the fuss was about. My next memory was of a very exhausted Boinet still with his helmet on pushing the Yamaha back to the pits. It was an Herculean effort because that mother with its full tank of gas must have weighed a ton.
Inevitably the crank bearings had performed just as predicted, but all in the first lap of the race. After popping the outside spark plugs the story was pretty clear as all sorts of lower end debris had sprayed itself throughout the engine. However the charade continued as we swapped ignitions, fiddled with carburettors, and generally fussed about so as not to diminish too much value from the sponsors well intentioned investment. The media were huddling around our pit garage anxious for a slice of the action and clamouring to find out more about this seemingly calamitous event. But of course it wasn't going to last and eventually everyone accepted that the race was over for the Christian Dior roadshow. I was able to enjoy at my leisure the rest of the spectacle that draws so many French fans to this hub of endurance racing. This was the final year the Bol D'Or was held at Le Mans. It shifted in 1978 to Le Castellet down in the South, but the passion of Le Mans and 24 hour racing was strong enough to ignite a revival and the new event became known as the 24 Heure's Du Mans.
My final memory of that historic event was of the overwhelming fear experienced in the middle of a crowd stampede. It was tradition at Le Mans for the crowd to storm the track on the final lap, especially within the vicinity of the start finish area. No amount of gendarmerie was going to hold them back and in fact it appeared to me as though they may have only been present for decoration, because what is more utterly French than an immaculate file of Gendarmes paraded in front of the Le Mans grandstand when a Frenchman comes into view atop his RBC Honda after 24 hours and gallantly holding aloft the French tricolour. I wanted to be brave and snap a photo of the winner from the center of the main straight. Little did I know that about 10,000 French fans had the same thing in mind.
I was immersed in things like shutter speed, focus, depth of field and other arcane trivia that photo buffs confuse themselves with. Going on around me was a gathering of the masses. Literally thousands of fans stampeding the track to try and touch their heros. I felt a bump and looked around to get out of the way and immediately became sandwiched on all sides by this unbelievable pressure of people. You feel absolutely helpless. You think, oh that's no problem I'll just elbow myself out of this, but you can't even mobilize your limbs. You have to really concentrate on not panicking. Its the worst thing you could do because you would loose your co ordination and balance and then the very grave risk of going down would arise. I could sense the pit wall in one direction so, really one has to just move with the forces to relieve any pressure and hope it heads in the right direction. In my case it did and as soon as I could place an arm on the pit wall, apart from the pressure behind I felt relatively safe. At least on one side I could brace myself without fear of the wall collapsing. I seem to remember clambering over the wall feeling very relieved.
So that was France 1977 for me, and in fact the end of Europe for that year. By the time I got home I was faced with the dilemma of what course my life should take from the on.........
Edited by Steve53, 17 June 2011 - 09:54.