The 1980s were an age of surplus that just happened to coincide with our MotoGP reporter’s own racing career. Those of a refined disposition should look away now…
For more ‘80s month content, pick up or download a copy of the March issue of Motor Sport
There is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that the 1980s were the high-water mark of excess, as well as of excessively bad fashion and excessively bad behaviour.
The decade neatly bracketed my racing career, which started in 1979 and ended in 1991. My racing years were probably like most others: too much fun, not much sleep, a fair amount of terror, plus plenty of nurses, morphine, sawing off plaster-casts and waking up in ambulances – sirens wailing – thinking, ‘oh dear, not again.’
It started off on a very second-hand Yamaha RD400, which I rode to work during the week and raced at weekends, and it concluded on an HRC-equipped Honda RC30. Those motorcycles echoed the curve of the decade: from the gizza-job recession of the early 1980s to the loadsamoney boom at the end of the 1980s.
My memories of that era are scorched into my consciousness because, when you go racing, you are firing on all cylinders and as wide awake as you’ll ever be. Some of the memories are funny, many are embarrassing. We were hooligans. I’m not proud of that, but it was the 1980s and that’s the way it was.
I blame it all kinds of things: too much youthful energy, too much testosterone, an inner rage ignited by vicious schooling that fed on risk, danger and chaos; most of all I blame it on Team Bike, Britain’s legendarily bacchanalian endurance team.
I joined Team Bike in 1983, mainly because I shared a house with the people who ran it. The house was in a quiet suburban street: Mulgrave Road, Ealing, West London, next to the gloriously named Hanger Lane gyratory system, which was like having a mini Brands Hatch (with traffic lights) on your doorstep. At least, Mulgrave Road used to be a quiet street. The locals raised a petition to evict us because of the noise, the mess and the middle-of-the-night wheelies: there were parties most nights and revving engines every day, as we prepared for the next weekend’s racing.
There were police raids, most memorably a slightly scary Interpol swoop, when they came at the house from all angles. One of my housemates had leant a bike to a friend for a European touring holiday. The friend had been arrested for smuggling heroin into Sweden. The registration plate led Interpol to our front door, hence the raid and subsequent interrogations.
“Do you take drugs, Mr Oxley?” asked the man from Interpol. “No,” I squeaked. “I don’t even smoke.”
We were always racing around the North Circular and getting chased by the police. I only got caught once, when I’d already parked my bike outside the house, oblivious to the fact that several police cars had been after me since I’d left a pub in the centre of town. Then… blazing sirens, revving engines, squealing tyres and half a dozen angry cops marching up the garden path.
Outside the house was any number of motorcycles, a couple of vans and a caravan, which was sometimes inhabited by impoverished racing friends, who needed a roof over their heads. Most famously, South African Grand Prix podium finisher Mario Rademeyer called the caravan home for a while. Rademeyer was so talented and so skint that it made you want to cry. When people asked him how privateers survived from one race to the next, he replied, “we eat the bread when it’s green and mouldy.”
A couple of years earlier I had embarked on my first Grand Prix adventure, as a gofer for British 500cc privateer Chris Guy. We lived like scoundrels: stowing away in his caravan toilet to save money on the ferry to France, nicking diesel, living on baked beans; all the standard racers’ survival techniques.
We did Salzburgring in Austria, where it snowed, then Nogaro in France, where the top riders went on strike. Practice got underway while workers were still painting the grid – they cordoned off half the track while they went to work with pots of paint and brushes, as TZ250s and RG500s screeched past a few feet away. A helicopter landed by the track to remove an injured rider, the wake from its rotors causing another rider to crash. The paddock was a repulsive slum. On race morning I watched as local fans broke down the circuit perimeter fence, because they’d heard that Bazza and King Kenny weren’t racing, so no way were they going to pay to get in. That’s when Motor Cycle Weekly reporter Nick Harris showed up.
“I just got here, Mat, what’s going on?” he asked.
“The riders are on strike,” I replied. “You better hurry up because I think that’s Kenny’s motorhome leaving the paddock…”
At the end of 1983, I qualified for the European final of Yamaha’s Pro-Am series, the most terrifying racing championship devised by man. I rode to Hockenheim with my girlfriend, while the rest of the British team – Niall Mackenzie, Kenny Irons, Steve Chambers and Graham Cannell – travelled separately. While I behaved decorously (ish) with my lady, the others went on the standard Brits-abroad rampage: crashing their hire car, doing runners from bars. All the usual stuff.
But it wasn’t all fun. They worked out that their main rival for victory was a young Frenchman, so during practice they chased this poor fellow through Hockenheim’s flat-out forest section and ran him onto the grass at top speed, leaving him a gibbering wreck. Next, it was Chambers’ turn. The other Brits thought he was taking things too seriously – early nights and all – so they booked a local lady of the night to visit him at 3 am on the morning of the race, which he duly lost to Cannell.
As the decade went along and the boom kicked in there was more money around. Instead of being impoverished London hooligans, Team Bike acquired enough sponsorship (and thus different names, according to our title sponsors) to become international hooligans; fooling around from Daytona to Le Mans and from the Bol d’Or to Suzuka. Many fine dinners were had and way too much alcohol was consumed. Riot cops were called in Spain, guns were pulled on us in France, hire cars were destroyed and hoteliers and restauranteurs wept.
Jailtime was experienced by various team staff in various corners of the world, all the way from Barcelona to Macau. I spent more time in hospital: Suzuka, Jerez, Le Mans and so on, plus, of course, St Mary’s Sidcup (Brands), the Norfolk and Norwich (Snetterton) and Queen’s, Nottingham (Donington Park).
Our fans were even worse. The maddest of them all was a gang of crazed young bikers from Macclesfield, who gloried in the name Team Oaf and usually showed up wherever we raced, telling tales of extraordinary madness: getting sprayed with CS gas and having their collarbones snapped by French truncheons.
We found all this hilarious. Nowadays the consequences of such actions would be grievous, but this was the 1980s, so we got away with it. However, I can’t help but think that our behaviour helped convince those in charge to create today’s more regimented, restricted society. In other words, blame the fun police on us.
The Bol d’Or 24 hours was always the highlight of the season, mostly because it was on the Cote d’Azur, so the team spent the following week kicking back in a beachside hotel in the town of Bandol. Other teams would join us for the party, only for our team founder Howard Lees to repay their friendliness by stealing their paddock bikes and riding down the pier at full throttle and into the Mediterranean.
Things were worse at the Macau Grand Prix, where Howard joined renowned ne’er-do-well Steve Parrish and Team Roberts team manager (later MotoGP race director) Paul Butler in some nefarious mischief involving several kilogrammes of firecrackers and the lobby of a house of ill repute. Howard, the junior member of this band of fools, took the rap, gave himself up to the police and spent a week in jail.
That was the culmination of a particularly badly-behaved week. On the eve of first practice, me and my team-mate Vesa Kultalahti shimmied up a hotel drainpipe to break into Parrish’s room. We stole everything, leaving only his leathers and helmet, so he could practice the next morning. The following day our team was about to drive from our hotel to the mainland, crossing one of the world’s tallest concrete bridges, built to allow junks to pass underneath. A hotel porter shouted at us: don’t go! Then he pointed at the wheels of our car. Parrish had undone every wheel nut to the end of its thread.
The Suzuka 8 Hours was a lot more serious than Macau, but daft young men will be daft young men wherever they go. There were two favourite nightspots: Mama’s bar, a short cab ride from the circuit hotel, and the Log Cabin at the circuit. Mama’s bar was raucous: Aussie Superbike ace Rob Phillis (or was it Wayne Gardner?) dancing on the bar, karaoke-singing Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’, with Mama’s panties on his head. These were professional riders, being paid well to race for the factories. At least we had an excuse, we were mere amateurs.
The Log Cabin was less raucous and kept stricter hours. I contested three Suzuka 8 Hours with the Honda R&D team, who built the trickest RC30s you’ve ever seen. As a thank you, I took Honda’s PR man for a drink at the Log Cabin. To my great surprise, behind the bar were several members of Team Bike, who had opened the bar out of hours, donned staff waistcoats and were mixing cocktails with great gusto. Not an easy one to explain.
On the Isle of Man, I inflicted worse suffering on a Yamaha PR man, my mechanic at the time, who later rose to loftier heights in the industry. It was the night after a race. We had been out for dinner and were riding back to the hotel to get dressed up to continue the night at some grotty nightclub. When you’ve survived a TT race, you think you can do anything, so I decided to ride along a tramline at the top of Douglas Prom. I was good at this, for at least ten yards. My mechanic ended up with a broken ankle.
Sharing Suzuka with the greats was something else: following John Kocinski riding through turn one, wisps of smoke rising from his knee-slider, Mick Doohan lighting up his rear tyre out of the hairpin, leaving a snaking trail of smoking rubber, King Kenny Roberts laying rubber all the way through the subsequent fourth-gear right-hander, Wayne Gardner pinching my bum on the back straight, Kevin Schwantz coming past, shaking his head mockingly.
Then I started my Grand Prix reporting job; racing one weekend, reporting the next. The GP paddock was a much, much smaller place than it is now. Teams were smaller, everyone knew everyone. And there was much more fun attached to the process of going Grand Prix racing, even if the racing itself was as hard and fast as it’s ever been.
I was writing stuff for Team Roberts at the time, which meant a big night out most Sunday nights. It wasn’t compulsory, but you’d never have known it. King Kenny was a crazy drunk back then: jumping out of first-floor windows onto hire-car roofs, that kind of thing. In Bandol after a French GP he climbed onto the roof of a beachside bar; then fell off the roof and onto a scooter that belonged to a local kid. The impact snapped off a mirror. The owner couldn’t have been happier; holding aloft the damage like it was a trophy.
Some races were always bigger than others for Sunday night piss-ups and trashing of motorhomes. The Salzburgring was a favourite, because the riders were overjoyed to have survived the race. That’s where Eddie Lawson drove a Porsche into a ditch with Kevin Schwantz’s coaching and where Wayne Rainey wiped the aircon unit off his motorhome roof driving through the circuit tunnel. The next morning it took him a while to work out what had happened to the aircon. Drinking and driving isn’t clever, but we weren’t clever enough to know that back then.
Cheating death became the main fun of being alive. Crashes were considered hilarious, unless the damage to bike or rider was considerable. And the list of friends we lost was indeed considerable: Team Bike founders Howard Lees and Dave Chisman, my brother Julian and endurance team-mates Kenny Irons, Phil Mellor, Mark Farmer and Rob Holden. Looking back at the 1980s, I chuckle at some of the things we did and feel shame about others, but it’s too late to do anything about that now. Except to say sorry.
More info: www.howardleesracing.co.uk