STM: Blowing Away the Cobwebs

April 12, 2011
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Easyrider - acid + motocross = our Memorable Motorcycles correspondent circa the 60s.
Easyrider – acid + motocross = our Memorable Motorcycles correspondent circa ‘the 60s.’

With the early Spring sun beating down it was so good to get into my riding gear again – but it was also a reminder of just how far things have come since the Middle Ages when I first ventured out on the road. In those far off days of the 1960s, we rode in wax cotton jackets and trousers and these had absolutely zero built-in protection or body armour. Only real racers wore one piece leathers and road jackets came complete with tassels, button down lapels – and 2000 badges from rallies the wearer had attended. The result was that if you came off the accident it was always, but always, serious. No ifs, buts or maybes: we got hurt.

At this point, I must confess to being a completely recidivist hippy. Drugs and alcohol abuse apart which, being a racer I skipped entirely, I really was a full-on flower child and one of the few major regrets in my life was that I never attended Woodstock nor did I visit San Francisco, “With a flower in my hair…”.

Being a true, hardcore hippy makes me a small government, liberal, anti-war and a self-determination person. In this vein, my then wife and I rode across Europe in the Saharan heat of the summer of 1976 with me wearing tennis shoes, swimming shorts, an open face helmet, goggles and a pair of motocross gloves and her equipped similarly – except for a bikini. The sun beat down on us and the hot wind was a sensuous, and sensual too if I remember the evenings correctly, blanket of pine resin incense, baking tarmac and biscuit brown dust so dry it sucked the moisture out of our bodies. Overall, an incredible experience and one of the greatest few days of my motorcycling life.


The Aerostich suits werent around back in the day... Riding gear was a make-do affair.
The Aerostich suits weren’t around back in the day… Riding gear was a make-do affair.

A French farm tractor round a blind bend; a Mum pushing a baby carriage across the road or just one error as I swung our BMW R75 hard through the mountains down towards the Mediterranean and neither of us would be here today. Coming off at 80 mph on a coarsely surfaced French minor road, wearing nothing but skin and beach gear, would have been a terminal experience.

So, I’m not going to be a hypocrite and put on my high visibility jacket, safety glasses, steel capped boots and tell you to wear full leathers and a back protector to ride three miles to the shopping mall. What I would say is that current riding gear is unbelievably good – super safe, comfortable and very affordable – and therefore worth considering every time you take out the bike. Being a hippy was truly wonderful. Being alive and in, more or less, one piece is even better. Here endeth the lesson.

We are pretty well flat out on this year’s Thundersprint because May 7-8 is very near. This means that time off is rare commodity. Carol (wife, best friend, business partner and race team manager) and I were fully determined that we simply did NOT have the time for Donington to see World Superbikes until, like all drug abusers – and racing is a hardcore drug – I began to hear siren voices.

We were tipped over the edge when some friends of ours in the bike trade said that they had two tickets, plus good viewing from a hospitality box, and we could have them for free. This was a very gracious gesture saving us not only $240 for tickets but more importantly – far, far, far more importantly – with the hospitality came access to the female restrooms for Carol. This is a huge issue for female customers at Donington and ladies have two simple choices: either exercise truly stoic bladder control or wait in line for a couple of hours. Blokes do what they do everywhere with no toilets, and make use of other alternatives, but females do face a real challenge.

The question has to be asked. If this were the NFL, or a Major League baseball game, would customers tolerate the treatment which was handed out at Donington? Certainly, the ticket prices are in the major event category so what about the level of service?

The actual racing was brilliant – not just good but nail bitingly exciting and very encouraging for the introduction of 1000cc production derived engines in next year’s MotoGP series. In fact, the racing was some of the best I have seen for years.

Wes Cooley  one of the greats  on his Suzuki. The American won the AMA Superbike Championship in 1979 and 1980.
Wes Cooley, one of the greats, on his Suzuki. The American won the AMA Superbike Championship in 1979 and 1980.

But racing was it. There were no aerobatic displays at lunchtime; no fireworks; a vendor area of extreme paucity and general feeling that this was club racing but simply on a hugely bigger scale. This feeling was accurately reflected in the audience: 99% were, like us, bike racing fans. Not even general members of the motorcycling community were present but dedicated, full on racing enthusiasts who really did know that the Althea team run factory Ducatis in disguise and that real-time telemetry is banned. With our knowledge, we had a great time.

The end result of all these factors was that attendance was dismal. The bike press reported that 70,000 spectators braved Donington. Expert opinion amongst those who really know, thought that a few over 20,000 was a more realistic figure.

Ironically, maybe Donington was a signpost for the future of World Superbike. For a number of years, the series has touted itself as an alternative to MotoGP – and has had budgets to reflect this. Perhaps a better model in the current economic climate is to sell WSBK as an international race series – but based on a national model with everything from team spending to rider salaries being predicated on the budgets of the British Superbike or AMA Superbike racing.

Interestingly, the Flammini brothers, who own World Superbike through their Infront Motor Sports company, also seem to be getting rather tense about the situation. They are currently looking for ways of differentiating their product from MotoGP and one of the less crazy ideas was to make bikes run with headlights switched on to stress that they are, supposedly, production based machines.

For me, this is pointless window dressing. The way to make Superbike an identifiably different offering is to take it right back to its roots with naked bikes, high bars and limited electronics. Believe me, if you ever wanted to see a real show you should have been there when Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Wes Cooley were at war – and war is a very apposite description for their all action style of racing. This would be a product with mass market appeal.

Steady Eddie on one of his hulking Kawasaki racebikes  the high bars cranked over and spinning the rear around the bend.
Steady Eddie on one of his hulking Kawasaki racebikes, the high bars cranked over and spinning the rear around the bend.

What is absolutely 100% certain is that with the current offering, the series will never break out of being an event purely for race fans – and there aren’t enough of them to support the current cost of racing in World Superbike.

I would like to conclude with perhaps the most important news of the year so far. Well perhaps the second most important after our G.50 making it back successfully to full race condition.

At the end of last year, Ken Hutchison – MCUSA’s Boss of All Bosses and the company’s suppository of all racing knowledge – and I, a mere carrier of literary water and hewer of classic racing stone, were discussing the chances of Cal Crutchlow in Major League racing. I have known Cal for many years and have great respect for his huge abilities in every aspect of motorcycle racing. More than anything else, Cal is titanium tough mentally and this is the key ingredient for success in MotoGP where every participant is a riding God. Hutchy adopted the standard line of, “World Superbike riders can’t hack it in MotoGP and Ben Spies was an aberration and blah di blah di blah.”

So, being the high rollers that we all are at MCUSA we had a side bet of $10. I said that Cal would run top 10 within the first three GPs and then even gave the Great One a greater chance of keeping his wallet closed by saying that Cal would be in the top 8 by Estoril. So, it was with immense pleasure that I was able to e-mail Hutch seeking payment directly after Jerez.

And lest anyone should put Cal’s peformance down to a chaotic race it is worth remembering three things: First, he has never raced on any of the circuits which MotoGP has visited so far. Second, when he fell at Jerez he was lapping just 0.9 seconds slower than Lorenzo. Finally, last year Cal was almost as fast on a Superbike at Silverstone as Lorenzo was on a MotoGP bike. There is still a lot more to come from the young Englishman. Wait until the GP circus reaches the tracks which Cal knows and likes…

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