Rotorheads

Published: 21 October 2015

Spectators on the Isle of Man for this year’s Classic TT were treated to a feast of Norton rotary race bikes ridden by legendary racers – and it was all thanks to a superhuman effort by the National Motorcycle Museum 

aking a dozen factory racers from three decades ago out of a museum and giving them to fast riders to hammer round the TT course is a near-miraculous achievement. But that was the National Motorcycle Museum’s plan for this year’s Isle of Man Festival of Motorcycling – and not only that, the bikes they had to fettle to be thraped around the Mountain course were the idiosyncratic Wankel-engined Nortons, with their touchy 10,000rpm racing rotary engines. Spares are not exactly plentiful and not necessarily interchangeable between machines, while chassis components like hydraulic braking systems, fork seals and fuel systems have a way of ‘going off’ when a machine stands idle.

That didn’t seem to be bothering Michael Rutter, though, as he shot across the Glencrutchery Road finish line at full-race speed, head tucked under the screen, cheered on by a sold-out TT Grandstand. The seasoned Isle of Man racer was the first of 11 star riders to complete the one-lap Mountain course parade of ex-factory Norton rotaries, which tuned out to be a highlight of the whole festival. Norton was the late summer event’s featured marque and the historic free-revving, strange-sounding rotaries were presented by Team National Motorcycle Museum Racing, headed by museum director James Hewing.

Reigning King of the Mountain John McGuinness was aboard the ‘White Charger’, the NRS588 that Steve Hislop jumped on at the eleventh hour to take Norton’s last Senior TT victory in 1992. John entered into the spirit, wearing a helmet replicating Hizzy’s and dressing in white leathers like those the popular Scot wore when he beat Carl Fogarty’s Yamaha in that epic 120mph-plus ’92 race. Before setting out, John – who had previously ridden a rotary, although not for a full 37.73-mile TT lap – recalled how he had watched that breath-taking 1992 Senior at Rhencullen.

Northern Ireland’s current TT superstars Michael and William Dunlop paraded in remembrance of their father, Robert. When riding for the JPS team he took third place in the 1990 Formula 1 TT and double wins at the North West 200. Eleven-times TT victor Michael had previously paraded his father’s RCW588 here in 2014. His elder brother rode a QXR588 from the Duckhams Crighton Norton team’s glorious 1994 short circuits season. Wearing new paintwork designed for the NMM by Rachel Clegg, famous among TT fans for her imaginative calendars, it would be his mount in the Classic Formula 1 race run two days later.

Like a time-traveller in his JPS leathers and helmet, lanky Trevor Nation looked as though he had arrived straight from 1991, when he lapped at 120.09mph in the Formula 1 TT only to be disqualified for having a slightly oversize fuel tank. In 1990 Trevor had finished second in the Senior TT, despite nursing broken ribs. He paraded his 1991-type RCW, which he always preferred to the JPS team’s later NRS.

Steve Cull, a finisher in the 1989 Senior TT on a rotary and third in that year’s Ulster GP F1 race, was out on his old RCW, proving he has recovered from throat cancer.

Scot Ian Simpson, who never rode a rotary during his TT career, but won the 1994 HEAT Supercup, was in his Duckhams team leathers on a 1994 QXR. Manxland’s top TT rider Conor Cummins was having his first rotary experience on an ex-Nation RCW, as was Peter Hickman whose father Dave was a rotary team mechanic for six years. Fresh from narrowly beating Cummins to win an Ulster GP Superbike race, Hicky rode the earliest JPS RCW, originally raced by Steve Spray.

The ITV4 commentary team, all distinguished ex-TT riders, completed the line-up: 2009 Senior TT winner Steve Plater on an ex-Ray Stringer RCW, multiple British champion Jamie Whitham on Ron Haslam’s RCW, plus rider/entertainer Steve Parrish on a prototype twin-shock RCW raced by Spray. Parrish recalled how he hated to see the Duckhams team rotaries when the Yamaha UK team he managed in the 1990s raced against them.

Rutter had benefited from the misfortune of two-times TT winner Cameron Donald. A wrist injury forced the Australian to miss the festival, allowing the three-times Zero TT winner and son of 1970s/’80s star Tony Rutter to take over his allotted RCW. Michael enjoyed his 37.73-mile blast, unofficially timed as a 115mph lap. “I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d only ridden a rotary briefly at Mallory Park and not had a chance to get it wound up,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how strong and powerful it felt, even though the bike I had wasn’t to the highest spec. There was such a nice spread of power and I loved the way it came on to the throttle. I had to take it steady in a couple of places.”  

The other paraders were also enthusiastic and quick to thank the NMM team for their experience. Only hours later, the rotaries and their riders were thrilling a crowded Festival of Jurby.

The NMM had been fortunate in being able to count on the assistance of Brian Crighton, the doyen of Norton rotary racing, who was given the task of fettling the museum’s collection in 2004. He prepared the machines over the preceding months of this year’s festival and took time away from his day job to be present on the IoM. A former Honda racer, tuner and dealer, Crighton was an instigator of Norton’s racing activity in the mid-1980s and has unrivalled understanding of Wankel engines. He is currently busy on a new unit to supersede the shatteringly fast 200bhp gas-cooled Crighton Racing CR700P demonstrated at Mallory Park Festival of 1000 Bikes in 2013. He was backed up by NMM restoration staff, Wesley Wall and his son Kyle.

Sadly, entering William Dunlop in the Classic F1 TT on a 148bhp QXR, was not successful. Rain delayed the start of serious practice and when William did get out for a lap, his engine blew after 10 miles. Intensive spannering got him out again with a temporary replacement engine for a complete lap at 114mph, in a session where rivals were lapping at 120mph. Once full power was restored, he had that engine tighten in the final session. In the race, Dunlop pulled up at Ballacraine, only nine miles out. “We learned that the formula of the oil we used in the past had been changed and was no longer suitable for very high temperatures,” Crighton explained. “Another grade had to be sent over.

“Apart from new Brembo brake calipers and increased oil and fuel capacity, William’s bike is as it raced in 1994. The Duckhams bikes and their cooling systems were designed for short circuits, but over here heat builds up on the long straights. Once we’d set the bike up for William he liked the handling, so it was really frustrating not to have a real go at the race.”

The NMM’s ‘pop-up’ museum in the paddock, containing 32 bikes, including very early Nortons and 1970s JPS team machines, proved hugely popular. “We were delighted with the reaction from the thousands of visitors,” Hewing said. “Taking the museum out to people is an important part of our strategic aim. We couldn’t have staged a live event in a bigger way than running our rotaries on the Mountain course and at Jurby. Entering the F1 race was a huge challenge and we were disappointed not to finish. William Dunlop and the whole team worked tirelessly all week.”

Words: Mick Duckworth Photos: Pacemaker Press International