It happened to me: The day I beat Slippery Sam
Tony Smith was a farmer when, in front of a huge crowd at Silverstone’s John Player Grand Prix in 1975, he performed an extraordinary feat against lap record holder Percy Tait aboard a legendary Triumph-powered racer.
uch was the popularity of Production class racing in the mid-1970s that a Daily Express-sponsored up-to-1000cc event was run on the main day of the 1975 Silverstone John Player Grand Prix. A huge crowd flocked to the Northamptonshire circuit for the two-day international, a glamorous event paving the way for the first world championship British Grand Prix of 1977, when the Isle of Man TT lost its GP status. Fans were there to see top Formula 750 and Grand Prix stars like Barry Sheene, Johnny Cecotto, Mick Grant, Patrick Pons, Paul Smart, Tepi Länsivuori and Victor Palomo, along with Britain’s best national riders, clash on England’s fastest circuit.
Sunday’s Proddy support race attracted top names in the class on the latest superbikes, including Dave Degens on an 800cc Honda four, Doug Lunn on a Ducati 900SS V-twin, Gordon Pantall on a Kawasaki Z900, Martin Sharpe and Gary Green on 900cc BMW flat twins, Pete Davies on a 1000cc Slater Bros Laverda Jota triple, plus Percy Tait aboard a 750cc Triumph Trident in NVT colours. Although by now it was five years old, Tait’s triple, which had become known as ‘Slippery Sam’, was holder of the class lap record and had taken its fifth consecutive Production TT victory only weeks earlier.
But extraordinarily, it was Oxfordshire farmer Tony Smith who was to come out on top, riding a twin-cylinder Norton Commando 850 prepared by Thruxton Motorcycle Services. Despite having fewer cylinders than the other top runners, Tony won the 12-lap, 35-mile race by 25 seconds with Tait second and Davies third. With a best lap at 100.83mph and a 99.58mph race average, Tony pocketed a £60 prize, equivalent to about £350 today.
“The man from the Daily Express was looking for me along the garages where the top teams were, so he could present me with the trophy,” Tony remembers. “He seemed a bit surprised that we only had a caravan with an awning, where my wife Maureen was sitting with our eldest son Mark, who was a baby at the time.
“Silverstone was a favourite for me,” he says. “My first track riding was there, at high speed trials in the 1960s.” Tony had started production racing on a Norton Atlas in 1967 and switched to a Commando when the first batch of Yellow Peril Production racers was released for 1971. Tony kept the receipt for that bike, bought from South London Norton racing dealer Gus Kuhn Motors for less than £750.
“The Grand Prix was over three days, with practice on the Friday and Saturday before Sunday’s race, so we had time to get everything sorted out. I took my own 850 along, but opted to ride one of the Thruxton bikes for the race.”
Thruxton Motorcycle Services was run by three former Norton test and rectification staff men – John Brenchley, Ron Maddocks and Tony Holland – made redundant when the company closed its Andover assembly plant. Based at Thruxton circuit, only yards from Norton’s official racing HQ, they ran a team of immaculately-prepared Commandos.
“Ron put a good engine together, but their bikes were pretty standard, with a bit of porting and Boyer ignition,” says Tony, who credits his Silverstone success to his bike’s excellent handling and his technique at Abbey Curve, a sweeping left-hander on the 2.927-mile circuit used in 1975.
“In practice I was following Percy Tait and realised that I was faster than him through there. Going into Abbey well behind him, I caught right up with him by Woodcote, the next corner. Percy was fancied to win, but that’s when I realised that I could do it. When Tony Holland showed me the times on his stopwatch, we knew it was on. Davies’ big Laverda was quick, but it didn’t handle as well as the British bikes.
“On the evening before the race, I happened to bump into Percy and we had a bit of a chat. He said that they were expecting trouble from a chap on a red bike. I had been out doing some practice laps on my own red bike – but I didn’t let on to Percy!
“The race had a Le Mans start. We ran across the track to start dead bikes. Mine fired first kick, and going into Copse there was only one rider – Ray Knight on a BMW – ahead of me. I passed him going down Hangar Straight and that was it, really. My timekeepers told me I pulled out a second a lap on Percy.
“I always say that, properly set up, the Commando handled every bit as well as my Featherbed, provided we were on TT100 tyres. We didn’t adjust the Isolastic up very tight. I was changing into fifth at about 6000rpm as I peeled into Abbey, going uphill on high Silverstone gearing. The handling was always better when the engine was pulling hard. Normally I’d mostly change up at 7000rpm, although I might have used 7500 a few times that day.
“After the race Martin Sharpe, whose BMW had stopped at Abbey, said he’d never seen anyone change into top on the approach and go through flat-out. I’d never been round there that quickly before until that meeting – I don’t know what brought than on!”
Davies ended up finishing 8.4 seconds behind Tait, who had lost time on the last lap due to a deflating rear tyre and was followed home by two more Commandos, ridden by Dave Cartwright and Bob Newby, with Degens coming in sixth, Lunn seventh and Hugh Evans eighth on a BMW R90S.
With the much-vaunted F750 Norton Cosworth twin failing to appear at Silverstone and being felled in a pile-up on its October Brands Hatch debut, Norton needed positive racing publicity at the 1975 Earls Court Show. A poster was printed trumpeting Tony’s Silverstone victory and he was invited to join Dave Croxford as a Cosworth development rider, which involved regular test days at Brands Hatch.
“When Brands regulars went flying past me, I realised I had a lot to learn about the lines,” Tony says. He was not impressed by the new 750cc dohc twin, but enjoyed morning track time followed by convivial pub lunches with the team. And he got to know the track well, as was proved at the 1976 King of Brands meeting. Tony smashed the Production lap record (set by that year’s King of Brands, Dave Potter) on a Thruxton Motorcycle Services 830cc Norton again. Due to changes in the Production formula from 1977, his record remains unbroken.
A promised Cosworth race ride did not materialise that day, or at the 1976 Silverstone GP.
“They pulled the plug on it, but I didn’t even get a phone call,” Tony says. Riding Yamahas for his chicken farmer neighbour Harold Coppock brought successes on a TZ350, but Tony did not enjoy riding the team’s TZ750, which, he says, “handled like a camel”. He retired from racing in 1977.
“I had never been able to put in much time, because I was needed on the farm,” he explains. “My brother Keith had been killed racing at Crystal Palace in 1968 and my father started having eyesight problems.”
Sometimes confused with 1960s BSA factory rider Tony Smith or Tony Smith the ex-125cc GP rider now based in France and active in historic racing, this Tony was never one of racing’s big names. But if he’d been able to get off the farm to devote more time to his full-out yet stylish riding, he’d surely be better known.