Backmarker: Passing of Racing Legends

August 9, 2012
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Valentino Rossi took second place at Le Mans.
Valentino Rossi is a motorcycle racing legend, but will his legacy be spoiled if he moves back to Yamaha and fails to ride as he did three years ago?

Decisions made with heads, or hearts. And endings, on high notes or otherwise.

If you’ll forgive a digression into another kind of racing, recent rumors put me in mind of Secretariat’s last race.

Yes, Secretariat, the horse.

Secretariat didn’t get his racing career off to a particularly auspicious start. He was never that great coming out of the gate, and in his first race (he was two years old) he started slow and finished fourth. Once he got the hang of it, he won his next five races (although race stewards demoted him one place in one race for bearing in.) It was rare for a two year-old horse to be named Horse of the Year, but he was, in 1972.

The next season, as a three year-old, he won two of the three races he was entered in, prior to the Kentucky Derby. That one loss led many to think a rival horse, Sham, was a favorite to win the first race of the Triple Crown. But Secretariat not only won the Kentucky Derby, he set a track record that still stands.

The next leg of the Triple Crown was the Preakness Stakes, where Secretariat again showed his poor start, leaving the gate dead last. He won, and according to hand-timers set the track record, although the official timing malfunctioned.

The final Triple Crown race, the Belmont Stakes, was held over the longest race distance yet. Secretariat won, setting a record for the largest winning margin, and another track record that’s still intact. He was such a dominant favorite that a two dollar bet paid only $2.20.

His owners were contractually forbidden from having him race past the age of three, because they’d already sold his stud rights and every race increased the risk that the investment in those rights would be wiped out in a fatal fall. Inexplicably though, they raced him a few more times. He won his next race easily, but was defeated the first time he raced against older horses. In the five races that followed his Triple Crown, he went three-and-two; hardly invulnerable.

That set up Secretariat’s final race, the Canadian International Stakes, in Toronto, on October 28, 1973. I couldn’t figure out was why he was racing at all. Although so far, Secretariat had run better and better every time the distance was increased, the 1 5/8ths mile course was his longest distance yet, and the outside turf track crossed main track for a tricky surface change that wasn’t even quite level. The organizers had amassed a quality field, including some older horses. The Canadian International Stakes certainly presented the opportunity to go out on a loss. To me, Secretariat had nowhere to go but down.

Valentino Rossi  #46  and Jorge Lorenzo  #99  had a brief battle in the beginning of the contest before Lorenzo made the pass.
Rossi (46) ahead of Jorge Lorenzo (99) in 2010 at Valencia. Rossi ended the season third overall while Lorenzo went on to take his first MotoGP Championship of his career.

I’ve got a personal backstory-connection to this particular race that I won’t go into. Suffice it to say that even now when I watch the race film and see Secretariat take the lead a mile into the race (at about the 3:40 mark of this YouTube video) and I hear the track announcer, forgetting himself and yelling, “There he goes! There he goes!” I always get a little weepy.

Secretariat went into a long and happy retirement where, basically, people looked after his every need and all he had to do was eat and screw, until he contracted laminitis and died in 1989. The veterinarian who performed Secretariat’s necropsy described seeing the great animal’s heart. “We stood there in stunned silence,” he said. It was over twice the size of an ordinary horse’s.

That’s the story that came back to me a few days ago, when we were all sucked in to rumors that Valentino Rossi had signed with Yamaha, and would be returning to team with Jorge Lorenzo next season. As I write this, it’s not a certainty that Rossi will leave Ducati, but it seems the smart money’s betting on a return to Yamaha after all.

Rossi’s equivalent of the Triple Crown might have been winning championships in 125, 250 and 500GP, or winning the last premier-class two-stroke title, the first of the four-stroke titles, and then switching manufacturers and winning again.

But like Secretariat, his next races didn’t go so well. His inability to match Stoner’s performance on the Ducati have shown his vulnerability. A return to Yamaha is the same kind of high-risk move that Penny Tweedy, Secretariat’s owner, made by entering that final race in Canada.

Most fans have short memories. It’s easy to blame Rossi’s poor results over the last couple of seasons on Ducati, but the fact is that in his last season with Yamaha – Rossi’s broken leg notwithstanding – Jorge Lorenzo had taken his measure. I’m sure that Rossi thinks that he can win on the Yamaha, but what will the impact be on his legacy if Lorenzo regularly beats him? He has nowhere to go but down.

If Rossi does, as expected, go back to Yamaha for 2013, it won’t be as a result of a calculation done in his head, it will be a decision made in the heart.

Speaking of ending on a high note, earlier this year, the AMA announced that Derek ‘Nobby’ Clark – he was Mike Hailwood’s mechanic, as well as Giacomo Agostini’s, and Kenny Roberts’ – would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Then last month, the AMA issued a terse press release rescinding Nobby’s induction. According to the AMA, Nobby had never received enough votes from the nominating committee, and his name shouldn’t even have been on the ballot.

By then, the damage was done. First Dave Despain, then Dick Mann and King Kenny told the Hall of Fame that if Nobby didn’t deserve being in the Hall, they didn’t either, and they resigned from it.

Kenny Roberts Motorcycle racing legend Kenny Roberts fared well at the AT T Pebble Beach National Pro Am finishing tied for sixth before weather cancelled the final day.
‘King’ Kenny Roberts resigned from the Motorcycle Hall of Fame when the AMA reversed it’s announcement that Derek ‘Nobby’ Clark would not be inducted in the Class of 2012.

It’s all a bit too complicated to go into, but if you’re curious what went on, I’ve created a special category tag on my personal blog,, devoted to ‘The Nobby Clark Affair.’ Suffice to say that at the end of the day, the AMA has come about as close as it ever does to admitting that it screwed up, and taken steps to correct the situation by putting Nobby’s induction to a special supplementary vote. It’s a heartening example of the organization ignoring the byzantine rules that are supposed to govern Hall of Fame nominations and instead, just doing the right thing. Now, I hope that everyone who gets to vote does the right thing too, and Nobby gets inducted with the Class of 2012.

While I was sitting at the keyboard writing this Backmarker, I got a message from my friend Steve Hodgson, who lives on the Isle of Man and managed the Padgett’s shop there for years. He told me that Vern Wallis, perhaps the top expert on post-war Velocette motorcycles, died last week.

Vern was one of the people who I wrote about in Riding Man. He was the central character in one of those serendipitous, almost magical things that happen to motorcyclists on the Isle of Man. This is what I wrote about meeting him…

A few minutes ago, there was the sound of an old single, thump-coughing to stop.

Andrew, Padgett’s apprentice mechanic, is prodding a bit of motorbike. He wanders up the oily concrete steps from the workshop into Steve’s office, then stops, as if he’s forgotten why he came up.

The whole “employees only” thing doesn’t happen here. A customer has followed him past the red stenciled caution sign that is the shop’s only concession to future liabilities. The guy is maybe 50, in a Cordura riding suit that’s seen some miles. Andrew hands the stranger his part–the float and bowl from an old Amal–saying, “It looks OK to me.” Without a word, the stranger walks back down through the service bay and outside.

A few minutes later, Andrew is back, handing Steve a £5 note.

“What’s that for?” asks Steve. “He just gave it to me,” replies Andrew. “What did you do?” “His carb was leaking. I just told him to pull off his float bowl and I’d look at it.” Andrew, who is only 16, adds “But I’ve never seen anything like it, so I don’t have clue what’s wrong.” “Who is he?”

“He’s rich, that’s all I know,” says Andrew. Which is funny, because he didn’t look rich.

On cue, the stranger returns. Evidently, just pulling and replacing the float bowl hasn’t fixed anything. Despite appearances, when he opens his mouth to speak I know what Andrew meant. It’s not what he says; a transcript of his conversation would betray no trace of snobbism – it’s the way he says it. I’m no expert on English accents, but I saw My Fair Lady, and this guy sounds like Professor Henry Higgins, not some Mr. Dolittle.

Vern Wallis  a Velocette expert who lives on the Isle of Man.
Vern Wallis, Velocette expert hard at work on the Isle of Man.

To rescue Andrew (as usual, the apprentice is the only one doing any real work) Steve and I go out to look at the guy’s bike. It’s a 1960 Velocette Venom Clubman. Original and unrestored but with an Amal now dribbling out fuel at a rate some prostate patients would call genuine progress. It’s quite pleasant standing there in the sun, speculating about what the problem could be, but none of us really has a clue. We decide to call someone.

In his office, Steve flips through a battered Rolodex. On the Isle of Man, you’re never more than a couple of calls – a friend of a friend – from an expert on any motorcycle subject. The Velocette owner, meanwhile, introduces himself.

His name is Iain Griffin. He rode a BSA B40 back in his college days, and has owned the Velo since the mid-’80s. “When I bought it, I was actually living in Australia,” he explained, “but I used to come back to England every year or so on trips. Whenever I came back, I’d ride it for a day or two.” Now with his kids grown, he’d recently been transferred back to England. For the first time in ages, he’d got four consecutive days vacation and he’d set off that morning from Birmingham on the Velo.

Meanwhile, Steve’s tracked down a Velocette expert named Vern Wallis. The next call is to Vern himself, who suggests that if the bike will make it, the owner should just ride it to him. “Turn right between Sulby Bridge and Ginger Hall.” A lot of addresses on the Isle of Man are home names, not numbers. So Wallis’s address is simply “Rider’s Retreat,” Sulby.

“Sulby,” says Griffin. “That’s on the TT course, isn’t it?” I start to explain how to get there, and he stops me. “Wait, I’ve got a map on the bike.”

He unfolds a faded, brittle topographical map of the Island. Each corner is peppered with pinholes. He tells us that he bought the map in 1973, and put it up on the wall of his room at Oxford. He wanted to come to the TT after graduating. Since then, despite a series of moves that took him farther and farther from the Island, he’d always had it on the wall.

In fact, the road we need to show him isn’t on the map. Although the housing development where Wallis lives is not new, it post-dates Griffin’s map. I offer to lead the way on the CBR, and keep an eye on the Velo. Out on the course we trundle along at about 40 miles an hour. The old Venom has a ribbed front tire that looks a little too original for my liking, but when I check him out in my rear-view mirrors, Griffin confirms himself as a smooth, composed rider.

Gary Johnson through Barregarrow - 2012 Isle of Man TT
Gary Johnson through Barregarrow in 2012, just one of the iconic segments on the Isle of Man TT road course.

It feels nice to be showing someone else the way ’round. I imagine him seeing the famous landmarks for the first time: the Highlander, Glen Helen, the bridge at Ballaugh, the front doors of the houses in Kirk Michael that open right onto the course. These places are now more familiar to me than the streets I grew up on, but leading him around, it’s as though I’m seeing them again for the first time, too. I see the scenery, see the flowing mix of fast and medium bends, the places where I’ve learned to compromise one bend, in order to be better positioned for the following one. And it hits me: this would be one of the world’s great riding roads, even if it weren’t famous.

Iain Griffin is grinning like a kid when we stop in front of the Velocette expert’s house. Vern’s wife comes out. We’re expected. She cocks an eyebrow at the gleaming CBR I’ve parked on the street, looks at me and says, “That’s a bit posh.” I shrug. Then she looks more warmly at the Venom. “Push it in here.” Vern’s already lowered one of the two bike lifts in his garage, and backed some project off it, to make space.

There’s a round of handshaking and introductions, and Sally goes in to make tea. This is not your ordinary garage. There’s a restored Harley Sprint on the other lift, a perfect Velocette KTT in race trim parked off to one side, and a Manx Norton engine on a workbench in the far corner. Another Venom, “built from bits” for a friend, awaits pickup in the driveway. The only reason I don’t describe it as “showroom” is that they never looked that good when they were new.

Griffin’s Velocette is placed on the vacant stand, and it’s Sally who uses the foot-actuated hydraulic pump to raise it to a convenient level. Vern says something about a bad knee or a hip replacement. Griffin has never seen a hydraulic lift, and says, “That’s fantastic!” with real enthusiasm. Later on, when Vern’s compressor kicks in, Griffin jumps and asks, “What’s that?”

Vern disassembles the Amal, handling it with a familiarity that other men reserve for their TV remotes. I can see that he doesn’t need to concentrate, so I ask him how long he’s been here. He looks up into the middle distance and counts something off with little nods of his head. “Let’s see,” he says. “This Manx, it’ll be 14 years.” The son of a machinist, Vern apprenticed at Collier’s, one of England’s biggest Veloce dealers, when he was 14. He saved up enough to come to the TT for the first time in ’51, finally racing in the Manx Grand Prix himself in the mid-’60s. When Veloce closed its doors, Vern continued working on the bikes, restoring them, effectively serving as the “help desk” for the Velocette Owner’s Club. Iain Griffin’s Venom has broken down on the Isle of Man. Purely by chance, he’s brought it to the man who is, quite possibly, the world’s greatest living expert on sick Velocettes.

In the time it takes to drink a mug of tea, the carb’s been fitted with a new needle, and the Venom’s been test fired. The subject of payment never comes up, but Griffin insists there must be some way he can repay them, and suggests that he’ll take them to dinner the following evening. The Sulby Glen, just down the road, has a good kitchen, and they agree to meet there. Griffin roots through his luggage, a gym bag bungeed to a carrier on the Velo’s back fender, to find a notebook and take down their phone number. To find it, he pulls out a long scarf, and Sally says,

“Ooh, somebody’s been to uni.” (It took me a while to put it together, but I later realized it was a scarf in Oxford colors.)

“What about you?” Vern and his wife want my story, too. “We’ve seen you practicing.” When I tell them what I’m doing here, Sally immediately says, “Well, stop in any time. There’s always tea on here, and a loo.” In fact, my friend Karolyn, who is coming from San Francisco for the TT, owns a Venom. I tell them I have a friend who I’d like to introduce. “I’ll be knocking on your door some time during TT week to bring her around.”

“Oh, no one bothers knocking during TT week,” they say. “The door’s always open. People just come and go.” (In fact, I won’t get around to visiting them during the races, but I see them standing out by the course, on the little straightaway between Sulby Bridge and Ginger Hall. They’re there every session, and wave at me every time I come past.