The circa 1966 fans look calm cool and collected as they make their way to the stands in their non-Gortex riding jackets and fiberglass brain buckets. Compare that to the masses that jockey for position in the autograph lines for the likes of Val Rossi and the other modern MotoGP warriors.
Sometimes I look in the mirror in the morning and think how lucky I am. Okay, there’s some fat, bald, old wrinkly I don’t quite recognize staring back at me but I’m still fit enough to race, have more road bikes than commonsense indicates is sensible and, best of all, I remain a bike fan.
Let me clarify what I mean. As a motorcycling journalist and event organizer I get paid for my work – and I’m grateful for that too! But when I walk down the street, and see a gleaming new ‘Blade or customized R6, I still experience the same sort of tingle in the loins that I did as a 10 year old looking at a BSA Gold Star or Triumph T-Bird.
Best or worst of all, I remain a first class hard-core race-junkie of embarrassing proportions. Because of this I have followed the comments made by younger friends about this year’s MotoGP season with great interest. Is 2004 the greatest year in the history of motorcycle racing? Is Rossi the finest motorcycle racer ever to grace a saddle? Are race fans today more passionate than the classic era? I went along to Donington Park to watch MotoGP and compare it to my first Grand Prix – the 1966 Dutch TT at Assen which classic enthusiasts would put as one of the finest Grands Prix ever.
It’s worth explaining why, as a bike besotted 16 year old, I ended up in Assen rather than seeing a GP in Britain. The answer is extremely simple: in 1966 we didn’t have a GP. For us Brits, GP racing was the TT. Not that we didn’t have plenty of opportunity to see GP stars – and their exotic bikes – in action. There were a lot of big, international meetings scattered up and down the country but our nearest true Grand Prix was Assen and so it was there, much to my mother’s horror that I set off as a 16 year old.
That was the first big difference that I noticed. At Assen, there were a lot of teenagers present on their own. Entry was cheap and travel still very safe for innocents wandering around alone. At Donington, my impression was that the few young teenagers I did see were firmly under the wing of their parents. Maybe it was the Â£48 entry fee – or, more possibly, the moral climate pervading today. Certainly, there is no way my daughter would be allowed to amble across Europe navigating by means of a stolen school Atlas.
What was encouraging was the number of children with their dads – and in some cases, mums – riding pillion on immaculate bikes. These next generation race fans were beautifully kitted out in smart, dry, safe riding gear. I turned up at Assen in the Belstaff jacket I had swapped for a BSA rear wheel and second-hand fireman’s boots. I did however have a very nice pair of Mk. VIII, ex-RAF, flying goggles which would still be excellent today.
I have ridden at Donington a number of times but since no-one ever turns up to see classics perform it is difficult to judge just how far away the spectators really are from the action. One is conscious that either side of what seems to be a mile wide strip of racing tarmac there appears to be more grass than the African savannah but with no crowd it’s difficult to judge the immense distances between the racers and their fans. MotoGP brought home just how great that distance is in reality.
One of my strongest memories of Assen is being able to smell – very distinctly – the racing bikes. Giacomo Agostini’s 3-cylinder MV Agusta – running white hot – actually had an odor, not from the exhaust but of the engine cooking. As the big British singles accelerated away, they exhaled great wafts of Castrol “R” and poorly burnt 5-star fuel. Almost 40 years later, the intimacy of the experience remains overwhelmingly clear.
Former 500cc GP champion Kenny Roberts takes time to field a call on the grid at Donington. Do you think Giacomo would have had the time to take delivery from a messenger on the grid during the prime of his career? We doubt it.
The visual sights were just as powerful. I was so close to Mike Hailwood as he screamed the Honda 6 past me that I could see the chips and scratches on his well worn helmet and look at the wear and tear on his battered boots. I saw Renzo Pasolini push his visor up to re-align his spectacles as he straightened up the 350 Aermacchi. In every way, I felt part of the racing.
In 2004, there are very good reasons for having tracks like Donington. Where 200 mph is a mere trifle a lot of space is essential to deal with errors or problems. Ironically, that’s not the real reason for the huge run-off areas which are prevalent today. Remember, any of the best works bikes from the 1960s – 250s, 350s or 500s – would manage a solid 160mph and riders were then expected to stop these animals with drum brakes and tires with a 1,000 racing mile life. We have better tires on wheelbarrows today. It’s not the speed which has caused track design to change but a shift in moral values.
In 1966, barely twenty-years after the end of war, there was a hugely greater acceptance of death. This was a generation perfectly used to killing and seeing death at very close quarters. One moment, my Auntie Nellie was engaged to be married – then she was a war widow – her lover shot down over France. My Dad fired depth charges and then enjoyed the warmth of a mug of tea fortified with a celebratory tot of rum – without a thought for the German submariners who had just died in the icy blackness of the Atlantic winter.
Mike Hailwood, seen here on the Honda 6, won 76 times in Grand Prix and is easily one of the greatest riders of all time.
For riders – and to a lesser extent, spectators – getting killed was a part of normal life. Wives and lovers grieved, friends wept for an hour and then the circus rolled on. Death was an integral part of Grand Prix racing in a way which is quite unacceptable today. This is why we are at Donington watching the MotoGP warm-up from Craner Curves and seeing only tiny, fast moving dots far, far away.
There are many other differences too. As a cheeky teenager, I got into the paddock at Assen. After practice, I saw Billie Nelson pushing his Manx Norton down the pit lane back to his van and said boldly in English: “Mechanic” and trotted in through the paddock gate after him – and into heaven.
Share your thoughts on this article in the MCUSA Forum. Click Here