Geoff's long and illustrious career was littered with stories which have never been told on TNF...
Like this one which followed in the wake of the development of the downdraught cylinder head for 105E-109E (etc) Ford engines:
(From Geoff's book)
During practice on the Saturday, things were looking good for the little jigger which broke the class record. In its first race the car was excitingly up there dicing with the bigger cars, but my excitement ended abruptly. The engine dropped a valve and, embarrassingly, came to a stop on the flying mile in a ball of smoke, so that was that.
But on the previous lap the little car had set a class speed record (timed on the flying mile) of 140mph/225kmh, which was remarkable for a car of 1100cc, and of course a record that can now never be broken, as the Longford track has been closed. Later back in Sydney we questioned the supplier about what valves may be required to ensure reliability, and I was told they had no idea of the engine revs we would be using.
It was difficult being a spectator at Longford, and Les Howard mentioned in passing that I should spend the rest of the week after the Longford race in Melbourne with them, to take in the huge fireworks display on the weekend following this annual Moomba Festival. This grand display marked the end of the week-long event.
To this day I have never experienced anything like it. Sited on the banks of the Yarra River, work began early on Saturday morning setting up for the display, and I had no idea of the work involved just to let off a few fireworks. The crew consisted of about ten people including Harry, the father, Sid the eldest son, then the workers who I didn’t ,now.
To me the star of the show was the grandfather of around 80 years, whose job was to drive the company Holden station wagon that was set up simply to carry their NSW beer – not just a little, but occupying the whole of its rear compartment, which comprised a built-in esky containing booze just for the workers’ consumption.
Grandpa Howard had managed to park in a convenient spot right on a grassy slope quite near to the river, and when I met him I was quite surprised how spritely he was for his age. I did notice he was missing an arm, and so too was his son Harry. Both had lost their limbs in fireworks gone wrong.
I sat and watched this remarkable event. Just watching the whole business of the preparations was perhaps more entertaining than the main show scheduled for later that evening. The work finished around 3pm, and then it was into the nearby pub to pass the time until firing time, some five hours away. But as I was staying at a motel fairly close by, rather than miss the forthcoming action I went to rest up and dwell on what I had just witnessed.
When telling me this story, Geoff explained that the blokes setting things up would come back to the truck for the fireworks they needed for their next job, simultaneously picking up a bottle of beer. He marvelled that they could do the intricate work involved while drinking so much.
Having been supplied with a special pass I returned around 7pm but I couldn’t see any of the crew. So I found a spot near where Grandpa had parked the booze wagon, as I figured they surely couldn’t miss me if I stayed at head office – the refreshment van.
I had been there for about 30 minutes when loud familiar voices came near, and although it was still daylight the light was beginning to fade. Surprisingly the lads looked OK and were preparing themselves for the job ahead. Back in 1966 there were no electronic controls like those used today, but each fuse had to be lit with perfect timing, all with hand-held fire-sticks.
When the time was right to start the show all the crew – armed with their flaming torches – moved to the rhythm of music which started blaring loudly, which I realised timed the ignition of the various flares in the intricate show patterns that were lighting up the sky. I’m now perfectly sure that if these clever operators had been sober the show could never have happened.
To see these guys running from point to point back and forth and past one another – with flaming sticks barely inches away from fireworks tapers – was truly the most amazing experience. But little did I know I was to witness one of the funniest episodes of my life.
At the end of the show, all was packed up on the company truck and ready to move, when suddenly there was a scraping noise and sounds of a car engine revving. We noticed old Grandpa had driven forward instead of reversing, with the nose of the car now firmly stuck in the Yarra River. Grandpa Howard was having a conversation with God but was now out of the car, and a couple of the boys had tried returning the car to dry land, but to no avail.
Now it was fortunate that, it being Moomba, directly opposite and across the road a circus was in full swing, and old Grandpa’s voice was heard saying “Wouldn’t that stuff ya Harry, I know what I’ll do, I’ll go get a bloody elephant!” and sure enough off he went followed by his eldest grandson, Sid, in the direction of the circus.
It must have been some 45 minutes later when across the road came one elephant, his trainer equipped with what looked like a boat-hook, followed by the other two struggling to keep up to the huge stride of the big animal. Sid behind was carrying what appeared to be some type of harness, with of course old Grandpa several paces behind.
With much ado the poor elephant was attached to the rear of the Holden, with the old man at the back checking that the light harness would not damage the wagon, when the old elephant decided to defecate on poor old Grandpa’s leg and boot. This didn’t go down at all well, and swinging around he gave the big animal a severe kick in the back leg followed by an angry “You dirty bastard”.
The old elephant took off dragging the stuck vehicle well clear of the water, accompanied by loud scraping sounds from the poor station wagon. By then I had had enough excitement for the night and decided to leave them all to it and go and get some sleep.
On the morrow was my long drive taking the race car back home to Sydney, but my day with the Howards at Moomba would be one of the most memorable times for me, though it was possibly just a normal day for them. The Howard boys could see no wrong in consuming a few cans of beer before a race until they received a total ban from Warwick Farm in Sydney, after someone obviously had a word in Mr Sykes, the Manager’s, ear, beginning the downfall of any motor racing career for the two boys.