The last all-rounder

Many moons ago the Isle of Man TT was Britain’s round of the grand Prix world Championship. Nowadays grand Prix racing and TT racing are very different disciplines, contested by very different riders. But some time between then and now there was a period when a few riders managed to successfully combine racing on short circuits with racing on the Manx roads.

The last of the all-rounders – the last man who could win a TT one weekend and then score a Grand Prix podium the next – was a wild New Zealander called Graeme Crosby. In Australasian parlance Crosby was a bit of a hoon. He was a brave young bike nut who had grown up dreaming of racing on the Isle of Man. His dream came true in 1979.

“I’d always wanted to do the TT because it’s an icon,” says Crosby. “I didn’t feel it would be too dangerous because I’d always been street riding and racing back home. It was Mike Hailwood who helped us get a start. He was living in New Zealand at the time and had watched me in a few races. I was just a hairy-arsed kid, but we used to go to his place, talk about the TT and spill red wine all over the carpet, much to his wife’s dismay.”

Crosby turned up in Britain a few weeks before the TT to take in a Brands Hatch national. Dressed in tatty leathers and riding a ratty high-handlebar Kawasaki, he somehow managed to harass Ron Haslam’s factory-prepared Honda. The fans immediately fell in love with this rowdy, wise-cracking Kiwi.

Crosby was a TT natural – so fast so soon that old-timers were anxiously warning him of impending doom. But he already knew exactly what he was up against.

“I didn’t learn the track the traditional way – lining up those two lamp posts and so on. I got to know where everyone had killed themselves. It was macabre but it demanded I had a helluva lot more respect for the circuit.”

In 1980 Suzuki signed Crosby to contest both the TT and the 500 World Championship. He was the only factory rider employed to do both jobs. That year he won the Formula 1 and senior TTs and scored his first 500 Grand Prix podium. He followed that with another TT win in 1981 and several more GP top-three finishes, but ’81 turned out to be his last TT, following the death of his great friend Kenny Blake, a talented Australian privateer.

“I will always remember leaving the paddock with Kenny’s van still parked there, clothing hanging on the line. That had a huge impact. That’s why I decided not to go back – I’d won three races and that was enough.”

For 1982 Crosby devoted himself to Grands Prix, riding for Giacomo Agostini’s Marlboro Yamaha Team, and he finished the World Championship second overall, behind Italian Franco Uncini and immediately ahead of Freddie Spencer, Kenny Roberts and Barry Sheene. And then he retired, partly because he was fed up with paddock politics and partly because he had discovered a new love.

“All of a sudden racing lost its appeal. I’d taken up flying and that consumed me.”

Crosby was the last of a breed and very funny with it. He was famed for his rascally behaviour, which included drinking into the wee small hours, even on race days on the Isle of Man.

“I used to be the worst at partying, I don’t know how Suzuki put up with me. I used to be so bad, there’d be times when I was racing that I probably would’ve failed a breathalyser test.”

Few people got away without falling victim to Crosby’s mischief. One night at the Suzuka Eight Hours I’d been out drinking with my team. It was horribly hot and humid, so we broke into the circuit swimming pool for a skinny dip. When we climbed out of the pool we found that our clothing had disappeared into the night, leaving us with no option but to return to our hotel stark naked. We knew damn well who’d done it long before Crosby owned up.

Mat Oxley