“I can’t believe I only won one”
Alan Carter was hailed as the next Barry Sheene in the early 1980s. But the young Brit never got the factory bikes he deserved and his career was a tale of unfulfilled promise.
He recently returned to the tracks, racing a Yamaha TZ350 in classic events, but packed it in again after a nasty tumble left him with a broken shoulder and ribs.
Alan Carter was a raw GP rookie when he turned up at Le Mans in April 1983, the second round of that year’s World Championships. Two weeks earlier he had made his GP debut at Kyalami, where he had qualified 18th. In other words, no one expected anything from the young Brit at Le Mans.
Except the Carter family – father Mal, Alan and older brother Kenny, who twice won the British Speedway title. Big Mal Carter poured a lot of money into racing and only allowed his boys to consider one outcome in any race or championship.
So, even though Carter was a GP apprentice, he had looked towards his rookie season from the summit of his own mountain of confidence. “I thought I’d win the title, for sure,” he says. “I didn’t even think it’d be hard.”
To be fair, there were reasons for his cockiness. The weekend after the 1982 GP season finished and a few weeks after his 18th birthday, Carter had won a Donington international, hammering several top GP riders.
That success followed a meteoric rise through the ranks of British racing, during which he won his first national at 16, at a time when you couldn’t start racing until you were 16.
For 1983 Carter was in a new team, run by UK Yamaha importers Mitsui. He had a couple of TZ250s and a few trick bits from the factory, and yet at Kyalami he was in for a rude awakening. “The top guys’ bikes were phenomenal – all kinds of bespoke gear – we couldn’t even slipstream half of them.”
Perhaps Le Mans would be better. The French track was tighter than Kyalami, a real scratcher’s paradise, right up Carter’s street. The weather was miserable all weekend – freezing cold, plenty of rain, even a few flurries of snow – but that didn’t bother someone who had learnt his trade thrashing round Oulton Park and Cadwell.
However, Carter had serious bike problems during practice and qualified 31st. Dead last. “We had some new ignition parts and the bike kept seizing up on both cylinders. It was only in last practice that we got a few good laps in.”
He wasn’t the only one in trouble. Conditions were so cold that everyone was struggling to get enough heat into their tyres. “There were loads of crashes because Dunlop had brought out new tyres for the year and they were all too hard for the conditions.”
Of course, Carter was in the same boat as all the other Dunlop runners. At least he was until his mechanic Howard Gregory – who went on to win three 500 world titles with Wayne Rainey – discovered a year-old unused front slick in the team truck.
“We had this super-soft front from the previous year. Dunlop got wind of it and wanted the tyre for one of their guys who had qualified on the front row, but my dad basically told them to fuck off.”
As they lined up for the start Carter couldn’t even see the front row, led by local hero Christian Sarron. “It must’ve been a hundred metres from the front row to where I was. I remember thinking, shit, I’ve got no chance.”
The race started and Carter began picking off his rivals one by one – nipping past some in the turns and slipstreaming past others as they accelerated past the pits on the fast, uphill main straight. By half-distance he was up to eighth, though he didn’t know it.
“I’d noticed that everyone was riding up the straight just to the right of the white line, which was a couple of feet from the Armco on the left of the track. I kept running over that line and going between the other riders and the Armco, so I couldn’t see my pit-board.
“There’s three things I can absolutely remember from the race: Sito Pons was leading and went straight on at one of the hairpins, then the reigning World Champion Jean-Louis Tournadre crashed right in front of me and I nearly ran him over. Then it started to rain or snow a tiny bit at the end. Thierry Rapicault was just ahead of me and he backed it off a bit, so I went past.”
Carter still had no real idea of where he was or how many laps he had done. “I didn’t have a clue what position I was in, but it got to a point where I knew I was on the rostrum. It was like, shit, I’m in the top three.”
Even on the slowdown lap he wasn’t sure of the result – perhaps the winner was already out of sight. “When I came into the pits the first guy I saw was [legendary MCN reporter] Norrie Whyte. He was jumping up and down. I asked him who had won and he looked at me dumbfounded and said, you did! I was like, what?!
“And that was it really. Your adrenaline is pumping and so I didn’t think about it, but it was an amazing experience. I won it from the back – it was a combination of amazing riding and the best preparation on the day, like all GP winners. I still have guys come up to me, look me in the eye and just say: I was there.”
Carter was in a victory daze after the race, so he can’t even remember the podium celebrations. “But I do remember Kenny Roberts coming round to my caravan to congratulate me. Then we had a big session at a local hotel and got completely paralytic.”
Disasters followed success
Carter’s win wasn’t only surprising, it was historic. At 18 years and 227 days old he had become the youngest winner of a 250 Grand Prix. The record stood for more than two decades, well into the new MotoGP era, by which time riders were allowed to start GP racing at 15.
Carter still ranks as the third youngest winner in the intermediate class behind Marc Marquez (18 years and 87 days) and Dani Pedrosa (18 years and 202 days), who both made their GP debuts at 15 and who were both coached all the way by experienced mentors. Marquez is looked after by former 125 World Champion Emilio Alzamora, Pedrosa by former 500 GP winner Alberto Puig.
Perhaps if Carter had had his own guiding guru his GP career would have amounted to more than a single GP win. Instead, the high of Le Mans was followed by a grim year of crashes, broken bones and bike problems.
On several occasions he was up with the leaders, only to throw it away, often in spectacular fashion. In fact he didn’t score a single point until the last race of the season.
Barry Sheene, by then nearing the end of his own career, was so worried about Carter wasting his talent that he asked that year’s 250 world champ Carlos Lavado to have a quiet word with the youngster.
And all the while, he had his overbearing father looking down on him, mostly offering stinging criticism and occasionally dubious performance bonuses. At Assen the deal was this: qualify on the front row, son, and we’ll go into town and you can have a free go in the red light district.
And all the while the injuries were mounting up. “I had a lot of big crashes, especially one massive one at Jarama that knocked me about quite badly. At Rijeka I broke both me ankles in practice and my dad still sent me out. He always put way too much pressure on me.”
By the time he got to Spa in July his confidence had taken such a battering that he didn’t even qualify.
Over the next few years Carter had several wins and podiums within his grasp, only for the bike to go sick, or if the bike didn’t go sick, then he fell off it.
His was a story of unfulfilled promise. He had his best year in 1985 when he finished seventh overall, riding a bog-stock Honda RS250 in a pack of factory bikes. He rode his last GP in 1990.
“You’ve got to remember that in 1983 I was 18 and very naïve. I had no chance when we got to the European tracks because all those guys were top operators, they had more track knowledge and they had all the trick kit: different carbs for different tracks, trick ignitions, the lot. If I’d had a set-up like Pons had then I think I would’ve got a few world titles.
"I’m not being funny but for me not to have become World Champion was unbelievable – I was miles better than anybody. It’s difficult to believe I only won one race, but that’s how it panned out and I’m not bitter. At least I gave it everything I had.”
In the court of King Kenny
Alan Carter’s rookie GP campaign told the world he had talent, even though he spent more time on his backside than he did on the podium. At the end of the season King Kenny Roberts retired and decided to establish his own team.
The three-time 500 world champ has always said that you can teach a fast crasher to slow down, but you can’t teach someone slow to go fast. Carter was therefore an obvious choice for the very first Marlboro Team Roberts line-up of 1984.
“When Kenny rang up and asked me to ride for him I wasn’t going to say no,” recalls Carter. “He said he wanted me to be in his team with some American kid.”
The American kid was a young Californian called Wayne Rainey, fresh from his first major roadracing success, the 1983 AMA Superbike title.
“People ask me, did I feel intimidated by Wayne, and I just laugh because I was the youngest GP winner and I’d never heard of the kid. No disrespect but in my mind I was going to win the 250 World Championship.”
The first Team Roberts setup was nothing like the American’s huge 500 squads of the 1990s when he had the biggest outfit in the paddock.
“Wayne and I slept in the same caravan, in bunk beds. He was a sweet kid, you couldn’t meet anyone nicer. But I never thought he’d achieve what he achieved – after ’84 he went back to the States.”
Inevitably, Roberts spent more time coaching Rainey, who he had helped since the youngster switched from dirt track to roadracing.
“Kenny knew his stuff, he was amazingly knowledgeable and still really quick. Wayne and I got a bit down at Circuit Paul Ricard because our bikes were so slow, so Kenny said, what’s wrong? We said the bikes are shit, so he said he better have a go and see what they’re like. He went out and went a second quicker than me and Wayne!
"That really got me going because my dad was always giving me negative motivation: saying you’re never going to do this and that. I ended up qualifying on the front row – we both needed a kick up the arse because we’d got into a bit of a downward spiral.”
Big Mal Carter
The Carters were the biggest racing family in Britain during the early 1980s. Halifax hard man Mal Carter was the man who sponsored the young Ron Haslam – through his Pharaoh car dealerships – and he spent a fortune on his sons’ careers, pushing Alan towards GP glory and older brother Kenny to speedway success.
He was also the scariest man on the British racing scene – handy with his fists and not to be crossed.
“When someone asked for my dad’s paddock pass he’d simply point to his face and say, that’s my fucking pass, don’t you know who I am?,” writes Carter in his brilliant warts-and-all autobiography Light in the Darkness. “Sometimes he’d threaten them. Occasionally he might even hit them.
“My dad was a rough diamond: farmer, fighter, car dealer. I was frightened to death of the guy. He was very, very verbally abusive and frightening. He never hit me, though I was scared that he might.”
Big Mal’s main motivation in racing was to “stuff the factories”, so he wasn’t best pleased when Haslam signed with Honda and neither was he impressed when Alan signed for Team Roberts Yamaha.
Tragedy overtook the family in 1986 when Kenny murdered his wife and then turned the gun on himself.
Alan Carter reveals all in his book Alan Carter 'Light in the Darkness: The truth about Mal, Kenny and me' which is available from the MCN Shop for £16 with free P&P.Feeling nostalgic? Watch the 1983 British Grand Prix over at MCN-TV.com.