There’s a clapped-out cliché that’s been pinned to the noticeboard of many a place of employment over the years which reads as follows: " You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here – But It Helps! "
While many workplaces aren’t exactly the lunatic asylums they’d like to think they are, the bike racing industry can rest easy in the knowledge that, for them, this shop-soiled sentiment rings remarkably true. Both on and off the track, those involved in the sport can be a maverick breed. Which is a polite way of saying that some of them are completely unhinged.
Every workplace has its share of anecdotes, and bike racing is no different. But because of the nature of the people involved, the set of legendary stories in this field tends to be rather more colourful…
Take the one about Ron Haslam’s former team boss, the imposing Mal Carter. In the early 1980s, he was in Spain to see Ron ride in the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama. He had all the necessary accreditation, but couldn’t be bothered to display it.
Entering the paddock, he was asked for his pass, a plastic-coated ticket with a safety pin attached. Carter showed it and returned it discreetly to his pocket. He was then asked to display it on a permanent basis. He objected to this request and a heated discussion followed.
Things started getting a bit out of hand and the Guardia Civil began jostling people, even cocking their machine guns. Carter, fed up with the carry-on, but keen not to concede any ground to the agitated authorities, simply took the huge pin in one hand, his ear in the other, attached the credentials to his earlobe and walked where he chose, entirely unmolested, for the rest of the weekend.
Carter’s act simply proved that racing is all about adapting to situations, making split-second decisions to gain the advantage. But a popular racer who enjoyed a short and invariably colourful career in WSB, GPs and the U.S. Superbike series could not use the excuse that he acted on the spur of the moment. His tendency to urinate in other racers’ helmets before a race in order to put them off was entirely premeditated.
Another racer who we’ll call Jamie Whitham admits he was also at the receiving end of matter you’d usually expect to find in a toilet, but this was of his own making. Once, when lining up on the grid, he farted, relieving himself of what he believed to be a little pre-race wind, and was then both surprised and horrified to find something more substantial, but not quite solid, had made an appearance in his pants. He’d crapped himself. In the best racing tradition, he carried on with the extra baggage in his leathers as if nothing had happened.
It’s a little hard to pretend nothing has happened when your van has just exploded in the paddock. We’ll let Colin Edwards explain that one: " It was at a motocross meeting and one of the racers, Johnny O’ Mara, and his mechanic decided to see what would happen if they filled a plastic rubbish bag up with acetylene gas. But in the middle of filling it up, a spark of static electricity ignited the bag and the thing exploded.
" The racer was blown over and had his eyebrows and hair singed. The mechanic was blown, unhurt, clean out of the back of the van. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard happen during a race meeting. "
Another involved turbo nutter Randy Mamola in the 1970s. Randy and companions had arrived in the middle of the night outside their Austrian hotel prior to a race, too late to gain admittance. They slept in his new motorhome, struggling all night to get the gas heating system to work. Next morning they went to the hotel for breakfast. As they were tucking in, a panic-stricken local came in with news of a big explosion in the car park. Randy and friends rushed outside, to find his new Winnebago razed to hip height, the shattered contents spread around the hillside – the gas heating finally having worked rather too well. Less than an hour before, they’d been inside it.
Sometimes motorhome damage is self-inflicted. Once, when he was racing in Europe, former GP rider Mark Banks challenged journalists to a Hire Car Hill Race which involved seeing who could get their rented car highest up the hill. A succession of journalists tried and failed to reach the top, the problem being a ditch at the bottom of the hill which made a direct run up the hill an impossibility. Or so they thought.
Banks, however, wasn’t worried about the ditch and decided the best route was a direct one. He aimed the car straight at the bottom of the hill and flew over the ditch and up the hill at an alarming rate of knots. The people on top of the hill egged him on. " He’s going to make it, " they cried. " He’s going to make it. " At that point they realised that, yes, he was going to make it and they were in the direct line of fire. They scattered as Banks duly crested the top of the hill and flew straight into his £300,000 motorhome, which he had parked there.
Nothing is safe when racers are around, as colleagues of Steve Parrish discovered after he " accidentally " bombed a brothel following the Macau Grand Prix. A seemingly harmless stunt involving some firecrackers in a dustbin escalated into a major international incident when the bin – with lid shut firmly – exploded violently, blowing out all the windows. Parrish promptly did a runner to Hong Kong, an hour away by ferry, and only returned after the police had arrested his crew and impounded the bikes. They all ended up spending a week in chokey.
The Macau Grand Prix always seems to brings out the very worst in people. One rider tried to encourage a local cab driver to do a handbrake turn by demonstrating the move from the back seat, only to pull the handbrake clean out of its moorings. Joey Dunlop ended up driving to the airport in his underwear after his brother managed to pack all his clothes – every single item – and forward his luggage on to Thailand.
Many episodes involved arch practical joker Parrish. But he wasn’t the instigator of this particular tit-for-tat. When Team Bike, a motley collection of maverick benefactors, mechanics, racers, journalists and helpers, found themselves staying in a hotel room directly above Parrish’s, they had to do something. Swinging down from the balcony above on knotted sheets, they strolled in and removed every single item in the room, including all fixtures, fittings and the bed. The only thing they left were his leathers and lid – the poor man had to practice the next morning.
It didn’t take long for Parrish to work out who the pranksters were. His response was typically swift and vicious. Under cover of darkness the next night, he " fixed " his tormentors’ Mini Moke. As Team Bike were heading off the next morning, a red-faced hotel porter frantically ran towards them, blathering and pointing to the wheels. Inspection revealed every single wheel-nut had been undone to the very last thread.
In their heyday, Parrish and team-mate Barry Sheene were notorious for plenty of on and off-track mischief including trashed Rolls-Royces, major wind-ups and identity switches. Parrish once famously qualified on behalf of his hungover team-mate by wearing Sheene’s leathers. Parrish also managed to sleep with one grateful young lady by telling her his name was Barry Sheene.
They also devoted huge amounts of energy to teasing Suzuki team boss Rex White. One episode exploited their victim’s notorious appetite for the last sandwich. The pranksters put a special filling in this one – a condom, cunningly filled with a squirt of mayonnaise. You can imagine his dismay when he discovered what he had almost swallowed.
Parrish is still up to his pranks now. He’s famous for owning a selection of utility vehicles, including an ambulance and a fire engine – but putting out fires or running emergency cases to hospital are not among their functions. He uses the ambulance to park on double yellow lines with the doors open when he wants to pop to the bank, like an ambulance driver would in a real emergency, while the fire engine’s last job was to hose down the inside of a packed pub one Sunday afternoon. The landlord was a friend of his. He isn’t any more.
Someone else who got his hose out when he wasn’t supposed to was a very famous racer who was just starting out, racing in the 250 class. He nearly got caught test-riding the foxy wife of a less famous racer who was in the 500 class. With hubby out on the track for hour-long practice sessions while the glamorous young racer wasn’t, there were plenty of opportunities for those extra curricular getting-to-know-you moments. Until one day when the 500 suffered a terminal breakdown early in the session. Hubby came back and sat down outside the front door of his young rival’s motorhome for a consolatory game of cards. His wife, who was inside the trailer getting a few laps of her own, had to pile out of the back window in a hurry.
Multiple 250 and 350 world champion Kork Ballington was once caught in an embarrassing moment uncannily like that in the Robbie Williams music video – locked in his motorhome at a national event in England. But he did make it to the start… just. With his girlfriend pushing from the inside and mechanics catching from the outside, they managed to squeeze the leather-clad South African through a window.
And if you think motorhomes get a hard time at the hands of racers, spare a thought for hire cars. XXXXX XXXXXXXXXX was a fun-loving joker with a rather broad streak to his humour. Famous for hurling a Belgian bog-lady’s saucer of change into the urinal at Spa one year (they used to make you pay to pee, and pay even more for toilet paper), he was also not above XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.
XXXX seemed to have an obsession with wrecking rental cars. One year, the owner of the Daytona hotel used by the team was obliged to put a " No Parking " sign in the hotel swimming pool. A companion of the time recalls remarking once when they arrived back at the airport to drop the car off: " This must be the first time we’ve returned a car without damage. " " Bugger that, " said XX, scraping the side of the car down a pillar in the car park.
In the early ’80s, when Rob McElnea spent several seasons racing in the Swann series in Australia, there was a competition of another sort going on at the same time – to see how many hire cars they could wreck. His record was six in one year. One trick was to see how long he could go without using the brakes. McElnea claims he once managed three weeks without hitting the anchors. He recalls: " I had this big Commodore V8 automatic and I used to be doing around 70mph, snick it into neutral then rev the tits off it and hit it into reverse. The rear wheels would spin so much that by the time you stopped at the lights the trail of smoke would catch you up and envelop the car. I’d also been rammed by Wayne Gardner so you could see daylight through the boot and to top it all off Niall Mackenzie had jumped on the roof. In fact Niall had been a bit of a star on that trip and also managed to jump from my car into the open window of Mick Doohan’s hire car at speed - in his underpants!
" Once, I had a Ford Falcon V8 and did the usual reverse gear trick at the lights. The transmission exploded in a festering mess. The joke was I had only gone a couple of miles from the airport. I hadn’t even checked into my hotel. "
The joke was on David Jefferies at one practice session at Castle Combe, as eyewitness Nigel Bosworth fondly remembers: " David came in at the end of practice and I saw him line his Yamaha YZF750 up with a ramp that went up to a workbench. He dumped the clutch and rode straight up the ramp, but when he stopped he’d forgotten one basic fact – he had nowhere to put his foot down. I saw a look of terror on his face momentarily before he toppled over in a big heap. He was OK but the bike suffered some major damage. Me? I nearly missed my next practice session because I was laughing so much. "
Neil Hodgson certainly wasn’t laughing when he got shoved off the track by a fellow 125 racer called Kevin Mawdsley, whose nickname was " the angry gerbil " . Hodgson recalls: " He was worse than a gerbil, believe me. He’d go under you, over you or through you. He scared the sh*t out of me. But I got my own back at Donington once when I squeezed him on to the grass, gave him nowhere to go and when I looked back there he was on the grass, crying. "
If we’re talking about oddball behaviour, Freddie Spencer cannot go unmentioned. This enigmatic rider was famous at one stage of his career for no-shows. His team would go to the airport to meet his flight for the next test session (and once even an Italian GP), but Freddie wouldn’t be there. Perhaps the most frustrating time was when Michelin and the full Honda team flew to Brazil for special tests – but the rider didn’t show up. His boots did, however – flown specially from Italy, where they had been completed just in time for him not to wear them. Reports at the time said the boots had been flown to their destination first class.
Scott Russell, meanwhile, managed to miss a plane because of his mouth. He was checking in his luggage when he was asked by security what he had in his hand luggage. " A bomb, " replied Russell – just for a laugh – only to be arrested and detained at the airport long enough for him to miss both his plane and the GP the following day.
Arrests are but another speed bump in the smooth running of a racer’s career. Former 500 champion Marco Lucchinelli spent time inside after being busted at the Italian border with rather more white powder than could reasonably be thought for personal use. Back in the 1970s, bike racing had little of the drug testing that is now the norm in international sport, and a wilder atmosphere prevailed. One story involved some well-known riders who liked to draw a map of the various circuits with a trail of cocaine, then complete a lap, leading with the nose.
Not all riders manage to complete laps on their bikes, let alone with their noses. American John Kocinski was once so frustrated at crashing that he left the bike on the track, got straight into his hire car and headed for the exit. Unfortunately, there was a queue of traffic also trying to get out of the circuit. Finding his route blocked, a furious Kocinski mounted the grass verge, then hared along on the wrong side of the road to make his escape. He was spotted by a cop who, legend has it, scrambled a helicopter to give chase.
Kocinski was eventually stopped and sentenced to community service. He opted to do charity work and his fate was put into the hands of Riders For Health, who sent him to MCN for a day, where he ended up cleaning test bikes. Apparently, it drove him mad.