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Meet Horice: the road race stuck in a timewarp

Published: 01 May 2016

With unprotected trees and beer-swilling fans lining the course, the town of Horice in the Czech Republic hosts raw, dangerous, old-school road racing. In 2011 a dozen riders from England and Ireland took part – and couldn’t quite believe their eyes

 

t times I was pissing sweat, running on pure fear,” says Irish rider Mark Kelly with a laugh, after his first taste of the Horice road-racing circuit in the Czech Republic. “There definitely isn’t the pressure you get from racing at home, but I had no idea from the onboard clips I’d watched on YouTube just how dramatic this place was going to be.”

For Kelly, who grabbed the last spot on the 250cc podium this year, the course conditions at Horice were a real eye-opener. Without a Recticel safety barrier in sight to protect against walls and lampposts, and some of the corners lined only by the type of catch netting you find at downhill ski races, in many ways going to Horice is like stepping back in time to an Irish road race of the 1970s and 80s.

Perhaps the most obvious sign of the more relaxed attitude to safety is the way spectators can sit at their front doorways in the town enjoying a beer as the bikes pass within a few of feet of their noses. And in spite of the obvious dangers, it’s precisely this traditional, welcoming atmosphere, both inside the paddock and trackside, that is attracting a growing band of riders from the Irish road-racing scene to visit this long-standing but little-known race. Indeed for many of these riders, the Czech race has become a more traditional alternative to the hype, razzmatazz and increasing exclusivity of the North West 200 – also run in May.

In 2011, Kelly was one of a dozen riders from Ireland and England who attended the 75th running of the 300 Zatacek Gustav Havel races at Horice, run on the 3.2-mile course that winds its way through the streets of the small town before heading into the forests in the hills above. 

Imagine Donington Park’s Craner Curves followed by the Isle of Man’s Bray Hill, with a 90° right hand bend at the bottom, and you have some idea of the opening section’s terrifying plunge between the houses. This breathtaking beginning is followed by a quick blast past the sandstone houses, pubs and shops of the town square before a couple of uphill swoops takes you into the forest. The occasional bale tied to a few of the hundreds of trees that line the sweeping bends is the only buffer between the racers and the timber.

The ‘300 Zatacek’ in the event’s name translates as ‘300 Curves’, and in the 1960s the twisty circuit became a favourite of Jawa works rider Gustav Havel. Although it has always attracted top European riders over the years, such as Tepi Lansivouri and
Harold Eckl, British racers have rarely ventured to the Czech venue. The likes of Phil Reed and Barry Sheene - who would race at better-known circuits such as Chimay in Belgium - always stayed away. But in 2011 Kelly was joined by Michael Pearson, Davy Morgan, Wayne Hamilton, Darren Gilpin, Paddy Woodside, Corran Smyth, Paul Gartland, Des Butler, Dave Walsh, Chris Barton and 2010’s top TT privateer James McBride. All made the pilgrimage eastwards to take on the locals in what is now a round of the European Road Race championship. 

“Horice is a bit like Macau,” said Pearson, from Saintfield in Co Down, who won the 600 race here in 2010 and was runner-up in the Superbike event. “There is no run-off at all, but you have to put that out of your head and commit to the corners. On the superbike (a BMW S1000RR) you go through the town square flat out in third gear at about 130-140mph.” Davy Morgan, a former North West winner, was more concerned by the primitiveness of some of the safety features. “The track preparation was nowhere near as good as it would be at home and some of the things that could be removed were not. It was a lot more dangerous than home,” he said.

Horice is a two-hour drive north east from Prague and, notwithstanding the safety issues, provides a fascinating setting for a road race. A carnival atmosphere descends as thousands of people crowd into the little town – an unremarkable jumble of old-style Czech buildings and Communist-era concrete tower blocks. 

The paddock is set amongst holiday chalets on the edge of town and local opportunists erect makeshift bars and stalls in their gardens selling beer and sausages. The Irish contingent were highly amused to find that the local energy drink is called Semtex – the IRA’s explosive of choice during the Troubles.

The antics of often well-oiled spectators was also an eye-opener for visiting riders. The bar at the U Vodojemu hairpin in Horice is open 24 hours a day during the event, and on the slowing-down lap of each race the fans invade the track fans blowing vuvuzelas and thrusting pints of beer into the hands of the riders, many of whom get into the spirit of things and perform burnouts in return. 

Sadly, however, the dangers of the venue were writ large in Sunday’s 600cc race when local rider Robin Borke tangled with another bike and crashed into trees at Na Losance – with fatal consequences. That dreadful incident brought the 2011 meeting to a premature and sad end. 

Despite this all too obvious demonstration of the risks, riders like Michael Pearson have vowed to return to Horice next year. Pearson was leading the 600 race by five seconds on a borrowed 675cc Triumph when the red flags came out. He had already broken the outright lap record in practice on his BMW superbike, raising it to 84mph and setting up a bitter battle with local favourite Jiri Drazdak. Drazdak has been a regular competitor in WSB and has won the feature race at Horice for the last three seasons, but Pearson was fazed neither by the company nor the manifest dangers.

“When we came here last year we were greeted with open arms by everyone. Then we beat the locals and that changed things a bit this year,” he said. “But that has only made me more determined and I will be back next year to win.”

Words and photos Steven Davison

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