STM: The Passing of Legends

September 17, 2011
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

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.

Gary Nixon passed away at the age of 70. Some of his racing accomplishments included back-to-back AMA Grand National titles in 1967 and 1968 and the U.S. National Road Racing Championship on a Kawasaki in 1973.
While Gary Nixon was extremely rough around the edges  our contributor had the pleasure of learning and working with the racing giant  who sadly passed away.
American racing legend Gary Nixon could be rough around the edges, but our man Melling saw the old salt’s kinder side over the years, including during the famed Match Races.

First, there is the double sadness of the death of two motorcycling greats: Claudio Castiglioni and Gary Nixon. I worked with both of them and, whilst they weren’t exactly sending me birthday cards, I did get to know them at a more intimate level than is normal for a journalist. They were both outstanding people for different reasons and it was a privilege to work, and play a little bit, with them.

First Nixon. Gary was a completely un-reconstituted hard case – and I don’t mean tough in the racer normal, “I’ll ride in a couple of weeks after my collar bone has been pinned.” No, Nixon had toughness at a different level and feared no man on the track or off it. Given a bare knuckle fight, preferably with a length of scaffolding pole to liven things up, I would have backed Nixon every time.

He was also amazingly, breathtakingly blunt, non-politically correct and many – most, actually – of his observations are simply unrepeatable on this website.

Yet he was also touchingly kind and gentle. As a very baby journalist, still at college, reporting on the 1971 Match Races Gary was helpful and, in a rather rough and ready Nixon way, courteous to me.

Many years later, when the interview was cleared of Nixon expletives, he was again more than helpful when I was writing a story about Doug Hele – the Triumph genius behind many of Nixon’s racing successes. Very much a hard man’s man and all the better for being so.

Claudio Castiglioni was also an amazingly kind and generous man. He was born into a very rich family and could have easily taken the gold-plated route to the standard Italian playboy lifestyle. But he was in love with bikes and devoted himself to rescuing two iconic Italian brands – Ducati and MV Agusta.

I once had an informal dinner with Claudio and his wife and was shocked with his enthusiasm for bikes. He made my life-long passion for everything two wheeled look like a mere passing fad.

Inside the enormous living area at his house was a Cagiva GP bike, standing high on two stands so that Claudio could walk round it. “That’s my proudest possession,” Claudio beamed. “We built that bike ourselves from a blank sheet of paper and went GP racing – and we nearly beat the Japanese.”

Frank Melling: He [Claudio Castiglioni] was a wealthy man but blessed with a touching modesty and humanity. In 2003  he rode a classic MV Agusta at our Thundersprint event and was as helpful  easy going and enthusiastic as the clubman riders arriving with their bikes on  100 trailers.
Frank Melling: “He [Claudio Castiglioni] was a wealthy man but blessed with a touching modesty and humanity. In 2003, he rode a classic MV Agusta at our Thundersprint event and was as helpful, easy going and enthusiastic as the clubman riders arriving with their bikes on $100 trailers.”

And that’s true. He did put the team together to build the bike and they did come within a breath of beating the vastly better resourced Japanese factories.

We had a lot of fun that night as the fine Italian wine flowed and things were said which were way out of the normal run of formal interviews. This is a lovely story which shows Castiglioni’s raw courage, determination – and just what a genius he was.

I didn’t take notes so please accept this as the gist of the wine-lubricated conversation. Here’s Claudio at his enthusiastic best.

“I went to see the head of Finmeccanica (the Italian industrial defense and aerospace company which owned the Ducati name in 1985) with a view to buying the Ducati factory and the brand. At the time, there were almost no Ducati motorcycles being made and the factory was mainly making diesel engines for Alfa Romeo cars.

“He said: ‘You want Ducati? You’re stupid and you’re going to waste your money but here, take it and go. I’m busy.

“I immediately wanted to re-build sales so I got on a plane to see the Australian Ducati importer. It was a 24-hour flight and I was already exhausted before I left Italy.

“When I met him, he said: ‘You look like shit. Ducatis are shit too but I feel sorry for you so I’ll take 12 bikes just to make you feel a bit better.’

“I slept like a baby on the way back because I knew that we were on the way to success.”

Six-time World champion Jim Redman with Claudio Castiglioni at Thundersprint in 2003.
Six-time World champion Jim Redman (right) with Claudio Castiglioni (left) at Thundersprint in 2003.

With courage, dedication and vision like that Castiglioni deserved all the success he got.

He was a wealthy man but blessed with a touching modesty and humanity. In 2003, he rode a classic MV Agusta at our Thundersprint event and was as helpful, easy going and enthusiastic as the clubman riders arriving with their bikes on $100 trailers.

The world – and not just the bike world either – will be a much poorer place for not having Claudio and Gary with us.

Does Jorge Lorenzo Really Only Have One Helmet?

And now for the STM Grand Prix Inside Information Section. What do fat, bald, wrinkly classic racers have in common with MotoGP superstars like Jorge Lorenzo and John Hopkins? The answer is that we all use lightly tinted visors for racing.

In fact, the reason I use a light tint visor is that I only have one Arai RX7GP for use on the road, and for racing, and therefore I need a general purpose visor which kills glare and yet still allows good vision in rain and gloom – in other words, normal British summer riding.

However, the word is that the MotoGP stars have been studying my riding and are looking for the edge which will bring them nearer to my galactically high levels of skill. So, they too are now copying my riding equipment.

Another alternative to the, “Let’s Get on the Melling Band Wagon” concept which was put to me by someone actually in the MotoGP garages – although clearly an idea which I dismiss as being inaccurate and irrelevant – is that MotoGP bikes are currently so near the edge of oblivion that the riders are seeking the most miniscule amount of extra information to stay right side up. The very light tint visors allow the tiniest imperfections in the track to be seen and thus enable riders to stay on the non-expensive side of crashing. Or it could be that Jorge, like me, only has a single helmet?

Jorge Lorenzo takes note of Frank Mellings lightly tinted visor in order to see tiny imperfections on the track.
Jorge Lorenzo tests Yamahas 1000cc project for the second time during a post-race test at Misano.
First it was Rossi’s elaborate celebration antics, now Jorge Lorenzo (below) seems to have copied Frank’s use of a lightly tinted visor.

Martial Arts Incompetents Need Brains:

And to conclude, a true story about the light speed intellect of fat, bald, wrinkly classic racers. On the way to the Belgian TT we stopped for a comfort break at the services, near Mons, on the A7 inter-country highway.

A middle-aged English tourist had also stopped for a rest and was reclining in his car seat. On the car’s dash was a bag of Euro coins to pay for the toll roads which are frequent in Europe.

As I was returning to our car, a young, very large and extremely muscular young man reached through the open door, and into the car, and stole the bag of coins.

More than anything else, I felt that this was dreadfully bad manners. After all, disturbing a chap’s afternoon nap with theft is the height of discourtesy.

Now, had this been America, the owner of the coins would have no doubt reached into his pocket, pulled out some huge cannon and shot the criminal – and I must say that I do have some sympathy with this approach. As I said, I abhor bad manners.

However, in Europe there ensued a very unseemly scramble whilst two ancient Brits wrestled, in the most amateur and incompetent manner imaginable, with the much fitter, stronger and markedly more skilled opponent.

As well as being fat, bald and wrinkly I am also a rabid coward with the martial arts competence of a five-year-old Girl Scout. But, I did have one ace card: the classic racer’s cunning.

Summoning all my very best race paddock French, I firmly gripped the felon’s right shoulder, looked him in the eyes and declared that I was in fact a Belgian Police Officer and I was arresting him. His eyes went wide with horror at the thought of spending the night in a Belgian slammer so he dropped the money and legged it over the perimeter fence.

So everything ended happily and the tourist was reunited with his money.

Being a good citizen, I reported the incident to the service area manager – again in French – and she was absolutely and utterly disinterested, commenting that illegal immigrants were carrying out similar style snatch and grab raids every day and there was nothing which could be done about the situation.

This shrug of the shoulder attitude is worrying and is, I predict, going to lead to trouble soon. Two middle aged incompetents wrestling with a fit, strong young man was almost bound to lead to tears. Someone slips, bangs his head and suddenly a relatively minor squabble is a major incident.

There is also a high possibility of these opportunist thieves carrying knives and again, when blades come out everything becomes very serious.

So beware. The days of idyllic travel, through Belgium at least, seem to be well and truly over. Lock your car whenever you stop and if you are touring on a bike, make sure that you take your comfort breaks in shifts with half the party staying next to your motorcycles. Either that or practise your French vocabulary for arresting criminals.