Interview: Mr Two-Stroke - Stan Stephens
1980, and Yamaha launch the RD250 and 350LC. More than anyone else, Stan Stephens was the man who could make them fly
or a generation of riders and fans, the early 1980s were about production racing LC Yamahas. Cheap, fast and competitive, the 250 and 350 two-stroke twins exploded onto the club race scene like punk rock. And one of the first people to see their potential was a 35 year-old ex-sidecar racer called Stan Stephens. For Stan, who had been tuning engines for years, the LC package (and the Power Valve that followed in 1983) was a chance to go racing all over again. Throughout the 1980s he reckons he sponsored or helped out 91 racers on their way up, among them Terry Rymer, Kenny Irons, Jeremy McWilliams, Ian Duffus, John Reynolds, Stu Melen, Gary Noel and Mat Oxley.
Now semi-retired, Stan still tunes and builds two-strokes, plays bass in a band, and follows racing closely from British Championships to MotoGP. He’s just published his life story.
How do you remember the advent of the LC Yamaha?
This new bike had been released and I could see it was going to take over. There’d been nothing like it before. Everything that could be light was light: instead of steel mudguards and sidepanels they were plastic; it had good handling; and the porting was still pretty basic, so there was a huge amount of tuning you could do. With a set of race tyres and everything tucked in it was a little missile.
You can always tell which are the best classes: everybody from the other classes comes out to watch. And that’s what happened. They rode in on their 350TZs or Katanas or whatever, and ran back out to watch the LCs.
What was it they were flocking to see?
The class attracted good riders who would normally be moving up the ladder, but couldn’t afford to. And because it was a cheap way to go racing, they could afford to crash. Throw it up the road a few times it wasn’t the end of the bloody world.
What was the biggest series for LCs?
The Marlboro Series [which ran from 1979-85]. Everyone came up through it. The year before LCs we put Kevin Phillips out on an old ex Barry Sheene TR500 Suzuki. He came third. Second was a bloke called Carl Fogarty, and Gary Padgett won it. And behind Kevin was Dave Leach! So it was good company.
At the time the British Championship was a shambles, then Marlboro stepped in with their publicity machine. It was organised so well. For the first time you could finish a race and the results would be ready for everybody, fastest laps and everything. There were girls coming round with the results sheets trying to give you cigarettes. And the prize money was £23,000. Each club hosted a round, so it attracted the best riders from around the UK. I set my mind on winning it, which we did, three times.
Who were the characters you remember?
In 1982 we sponsored two guys no one’s ever heard of since – Richard Dickinson and Bill Robinson, ex public school boys. Richard actually worked for me. His dad was governor of Hong Kong! He talked like an actor. I also sponsored two Doncaster miners, Curt Langan and Gordon Allott.
It was the televised Silverstone race in the second year of LCs. When I got there, a rider I helped who will remain nameless said, ‘Stan, my bike is slower than everyone else’s.’ I said, ‘Jerry, they haven’t got fairings and you’re six foot five. It’s not my fault.’ But he gave me his heads and barrels to take back and check over.
Then I bumped into Curt, who had just detonated a piston and wrecked a barrel. So I said I’d got these barrels off Jerry Melville’s bike which he reckoned was slow. “Well at least it’ll give me a ride,” Curt said, so I gave them to him.
On the last lap Curt was at the back of an eight-bike freight train. The corner before Woodcote he cut across the wet grass, took the lead and won. Murray Walker couldn’t believe it. “You went across the grass! I’ve never seen anything like that!”
“Oh, it was safe enough,” says Curt over the tannoy. “I went across so fast the tyres didn’t have time to slip.” He believed it too. Then he said, “Thanks to my sponsor Stan. He told me the barrels were slow but they seemed all right to me.” What an advert! A little later Jerry comes up: “Stan, what can I say?”
Then there was Curt’s pal, Gordon Allott. Gordon was one of those people who, if he was behind you, you’d worry. He didn’t know limits at all, so he was either blindingly quick or sliding up the track.
So he’s in the holding area, it’s pissing down with rain, and Nigel Bosworth [later British 250 champion] appears with these new fangled wet weather tyres. “What are those knobbly tyres you got there?” Godon asks. “These, Gordon, are wet weather racing tyres,” says Nigel. “Bloody silly idea,” Gordon replies. “When we get out there my tyres will be just as wet as yours.” And he cleared off in the race and won it with ease.
Who do you rate today?
The two who’d have made great LC racers: Casey Stoner and Marc Marquez. Proper racers. They won’t settle for second. A racer isn’t just someone who can go fast. It’s a head thing.
What do you make of Lorenzo? He’s clearly riding to the limit.
We used to go and watch him in 125s. I’d to say to Julie, “Watch that kid.” Metallic blue helmet with Chupa Chups across the front. He was brilliant, but he was a total nutcase. When he moved to 250s he was an even bigger nutcase – put people on the grass on purpose and got banned. Now he’s somehow managed to get the reputation of being clinical and precise. But I think there’s a nutter still in there. He’s good. But Marquez has that little bit extra. There’s no way that lad will follow someone out the last corner to the line. They’re both gonna go down!
Casey wasn’t like that.
No, Casey never got mixed up or dirty. And he complained if anyone did it to him. But no one was more fearless of riding over the limit, I think ever. Marquez is ruthless and quick; Casey was calculated and quick.
But they’re all superhuman, aren’t they? It always annoys me when people slag off a racer and say how slow they are. Tell you what, Jenny Tinmouth [currently lying 28th in BSB]. I saw her at quite a large club meeting, and she won all six races in a day.
Words Rupert Paul Pictures Bauer Archive