By Chris Swallow
It was the thrill of racing at the jump-laden, narrow, tree lined and historic Oliver’s Mount circuit in Scarborough, 2006, that first advanced my thoughts of racing on the Isle of Man TT circuit.
Grandad, Ken, raced in the first post-war Manx Grand Prix on his 350cc Norton, then returned to the Island every year until 1955, ‘graduating’ to the TT in 1952 on a Norton, 7R and later a Matchless G45.
Dad, Bill, and his brothers Richard and Alec were clearly seduced by the Castrol R rich Manx air they inhaled as awestruck youth, as they too have all made racing pilgrimages to Mona’s Isle. Between them Bill and Richard have fourteen Manx Grand Prix victories and numerous podiums to their names. I have great childhood memories of straining on tiptoes to see over the pit wall and witness these achievements before darting beneath security guards into the winner’s enclosure for big hugs amidst the heady heat and smells of cooling racing motorcycles.
I always figured I would race there; it was just a matter of when.
2006 was my fourth year of racing. Rookie errors seemed to have dwindled and some consistency found. My first win in the Lansdowne Cup came at Oliver’s Mount, Scarborough and after much celebration that night I proclaimed to Dad, ‘Next year I’m going to race at the Manx.’ He shuffled off to bed muttering something about ‘make sure you do your bloody homework then’.
And so I did. Securing my first teaching position after graduation took a while, so a period of unemployment coincided quite merrily with the purchase of ‘Manx TT Superbike’ and a Playstation 2 games console. Untold hours were spent on a ‘125 Honda, Expert setting’ with 6 speed manual gearbox, variable throttle and braking. Best lap 112mph. The crashes were hauntingly lifelike.
But the falsehood of such ‘realism’ was not lost on me, so in February 2007 and by now in a full time teaching position I spent my half-term holiday in the Isle of Man staying with good friend Robin Arnold. Four long days with notepad and pen, up before dawn and back after dark, resulted in one 37.73 mile lap completed – notes, drawings, observations and much walking and re-walking of technical sections. With notebook in hand I then diligently watched and re-watched a DVD I had sourced with onboard sidecar footage: the beauty being that the camera remained horizontal and it was thus easier to pick out landmarks. I would pause the footage and test myself on the coming sequences before pressing play to see if I was correct.
I recall Dad telling me about when he undertook his first course learning assignment back in 1973, the year before his debut at the Manx Grand Prix. Arriving in Douglas at 4am off the midnight ferry he rode along the circuit for about seven miles to the Glen Helen section, parked his AJS against a tree and walked the whole section to Sarah’s Cottage and back.
Glen Helen is a steep sided valley or ‘Glen’ as the Manx prefer. The narrow, undulating passage of the road is dictated by the river’s cut through the rock and the many turns and kinks negotiate their way between the cliffs and wooded hillsides on the left and the dry stone wall bordered river on the right. A forest canopy seals the Glen above you, making it smell green and of damp and moss, making it challenging for the road surface to dry after rainfall. The section is fast though. But it all looks similar, so you really need to know your way to sequence it all quickly. It is considered by some to be very dangerous and a place to take care. By others it’s a place to make progress on rivals. Whether an incident of fate or simply due to it being the nearest point of the course to Robin’s house, I too started my course learning at the Glen Helen section and like Dad, I don’t think I go too badly through here either.
For the 2007 Manx Grand Prix, sponsor and friend Andy Farrer put me in touch with Bob Millinship, a Manx Grand Prix competitor since 1985 and Ducati enthusiast since birth. Bob offered the loan of his spare bike - a 350cc wide case Ducati desmodromic single. Housed in a John Caffrey frame that echoes the lines of the later and well handling Saxon fabrications, I had a very enjoyable and trouble free practice week building speed and knowledge. My quickest lap by the end of the week was just over an average of 95mph.
The race was less successful. I finished last. A twenty minute stop in the Lieutenant Governor’s driveway fixing electrical problems is not conducive to good Manx Grand Prix finishes! My lap times of 96.5mph would have been good for 8th position, though.
In 2008 I teamed up with Bob and his Ducati again for the Manx, but this time with the offer of a 476cc engine to swap into the chassis for the Senior Classic race. It was an eventful fortnight! In practice a collapsed rear wheel hard on in 5th gear through the fast left of Cronk-ny-Mona necessitated an uncharacteristic cigarette from a nerve settling marshal and then a borrowed rear wheel from a fellow competitor.
The 500cc race was run on damp and patchy roads and I was progressing well when ‘youthful exuberance’ caught up with me as I peeled off for the Bungalow on the mountain. I re-mounted what turned out to be an undamaged, if very scuffed, bike and was subsequently black flagged at the pits and informed I wouldn’t be continuing. Apparently the live radio broadcast had to be cut as I outlined my thoughts on such a decision before storming off in a rage towards the beer tent. I was stopped en route by my brother who pointed at a lady I recognised running up the pit lane; it was Heika, the Swedish doctor I had chatted to at a party the previous Saturday night. Turns out she was the Chief Medical Officer for the course and after passing me fit I was allowed to continue on a lonely ride to 8th place.
The wheel bearing on the borrowed wheel collapsed on the first lap of the 350 race spoiling the opportunity for any more drama in 2008. I didn’t return to the Island until 2012 and this time I had a bit further to travel, having moved to New Zealand in the interim.
Dave Kenah took his 500cc Manx Norton from Whitianga for the Senior Classic race and fellow Yorkshireman Mike Fawcett offered a 350cc Aermacchi for the Junior Classic. Despite a broken piston in practice on the Norton, a borrowed engine for the race, and the tank strap breaking on the first lap, I rode to 2nd place in the damp and patchy Senior Classic and bagged my first 100mph average lap in the process. The Junior Classic went just as well, riding to 2nd place with a final lap of 99mph in similarly damp conditions. Very pleased!
And so back to New Zealand with a post Manx Grand Prix depression satiated only by thoughts of going back again next year.
And so I rang Neville.
Neville Wooderson is a BSA enthusiast through and through having made his Isle of Man debut on one in 1953. At 84 years young, he is still a passionate BSA Motorcycle Owners Club member and as committed to the marque now as he was back then (for the record he finished 20th on his debut, averaging 78.72mph for the 6 laps). He also owns a quite special 500cc Goldstar that I consider myself very fortunate to be the jockey of.
It was ridden for Neville initially by the late Paul Dobbs who lost his life in the 2010 Isle of Man TT. ‘Dobsy’ had ridden the Goldstar in the 2007 and 2008 Manx Grand Prix, achieving a very creditable 98.9mph lap in practice but suffering from the difficult to diagnose ‘Manx gremlins’ in the races.
Since 2008 the bike has undergone much development both in performance and reliability, attributable to Aeromachinists and Engineers of Hamilton who Neville entrusts with the upkeep of his bike. So when I rang Neville to ask if he fancied returning to the Island to race the BSA he said yes, but we’ll have to try to raise some dollars if we’re to do it properly.
The bike has won the NZCMRR Modified Championship the past 2 years, with a 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the NZ TTs. It has a replica BSA frame, Maxton forks and rear shocks, Fontana replica 4 leading shoe front brake, TT industries gearbox, Amal MKII carburettor, and 2 ABSAF replica BSA engines. The plan for the Manx Grand Prix would be to use one engine for practice week then put a ‘fresh’ motor in for the race.
We’re looking for assistance to make this ambitious project a reality. And time is running out!
For more information or if you have any enquiries check out