Rob McElnea: the last GP and TT star

Motorcycles

Rob McElnea was the last racer to run at the front at GPs and at the Isle of Man TT. Mat Oxley interviewed him a few years ago when he quit BSB, after winning five BSB titles as rider and team boss

Rob McElnea on a YZR500 in 1987

McElnea attacks Assen on a YZR500 in 1987, his second year with Marlboro Yamaha

Yamaha

It’s the editor on the phone. “I just spoke to Rob McElnea,” he says. “Rob’s packed in his racing team and he sounds like a kid who’s just heard the school has burned down.”

McElnea isn’t laughing when I arrive at his Lincolnshire home a few days later. The big man is lying on the sofa, where he’s been since the previous evening. He’s unable to move because he’s got two broken ribs. “Don’t make me laugh,” are his first words.

But Rob Mac quitting racing is no laughing matter. The burly Humbersider has been a towering presence – both literally and metaphorically – for more than three decades: as an Isle of Man TT winner, team-mate to Eddie Lawson and Kevin Schwantz in 500 GPs, British Superbike champion and finally BSB-winning team boss.

The 52-year-old is shutting down his Rob Mac Yamaha outfit and getting out of BSB because he’s finally had enough.

“It’s been crap for a while – in the last couple of seasons I’ve put £200,000 of my own money into my team,” he says with a wince, though it’s hard to say if it’s his wallet that’s hurting or the ribs. “If I was a businessman I would’ve binned it years ago, but because you’re a stupid motorbike person you don’t take rational decisions.”

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McElnea is alluding to the current BSB financial set-up that requires riders and teams to compete without receiving a penny in start money or prize money.

“To be honest, the BSB paddock is built by w**kers like me. The promoters survive on the back of people like me who’ll make it happen, somehow. It’s like ‘yeah, bring your team in, great, and we’ll rape you’. The series totally depends on people who are doing it because they love it. Most of them are on their arses, scraping around for money. There’s a lot of unrest in the paddock. Everyone’s pissed-off about how one-sided it is.”

McElnea isn’t a moaner by habit. He has always loved his racing, from both sides of the pit wall, and has an infectious enthusiasm for it.

“I’ve had a mega time – the best times were great. But the last few years – going along every weekend and fighting with people who had let you down, I just wasn’t enjoying it. Plus I’ve got a new young family, so now I wake up every morning and think of what we’re going to do on my first summer in 35 years with no race weekends.”

“You stop your bike on the front row next to Eddie and Freddie, then it all goes silent for the push start and you can hear your heart beating like crazy!”

McElnea first joined the top rank of British racing in 1982 when he was a wild-looking 22-year-old with bugger-all-money hair and wonky teeth. On the track he made his name wrestling TZ750s. By trade he was a steel erector. “Proper labouring – swinging hammers, black fingernails.”

In 1983 Suzuki GB hired him and he won his first TT. The following year he was Barry Sheene’s team-mate in the 500 world championship and still doing the Island, making him one of the last men to successfully combine GP racing with real roads stuff. “I just totally clicked with the TT straight away. I loved riding it.”

Most racers set on making it to the top spend their careers inside their own little bubbles, unable to appreciate what they’re doing, but McElnea always knew how lucky he was to do what he was doing. He raced 500s at a very special time: Lawson, Schwantz, Wayne Gardner, Freddie Spencer, Wayne Rainey and Mick Doohan.

“I realised how special it was when I was there. Some people don’t, until afterwards. I was always thinking – f**kin’ ell this is unbelievable! Just the fact that I’d managed to get that far. I really did enjoy every minute of it.

“I had a couple of periods that were like a dream, a purple patch. The first one was at the Salzburgring in 1984, my first GP season.”

Salzburgring ranks as one of the all-time greatest GP tracks – an insanely fast dash up and down an achingly beautiful Alpine valley, twixt Armco and mountainsides that swarm with 100,000 noisy fans.

“I qualified on the front row, next to Lawson and Spencer. I remember walking around the paddock and everyone’s going ‘who’s this big English guy?’. All my heroes were there, it was unbelievable. Then Sunday morning comes, the mountain full of people, oh my God! You stop your bike on the front row next to Eddie and Freddie, then it all goes silent for the push start and you can hear your heart beating like crazy!”

A week later it was the Nürburgring GP and he qualified on the front row once again, riding an ageing RG500 against the latest Hondas and Yamahas. Then he dashed to the Island where he won the Senior and Classic TTs, which turned out to be his last races on the Island. “I’d been shitting myself all year leading up to the TT. I didn’t want to do it any more: law of averages…”

His other wake-me-up-this-must-be-a-dream moment came a year later when he picked up the phone to hear the dulcet tones of Giacomo Agostini, the 15-time world champion who had moved into owning the biggest, most flashy team in GPs.

“Ago wanted me to do a deal to ride in his Marlboro Yamaha 500 team. I was thinking: do you know where I come from and do you know what I look like? Then I was flying to Paris to sign the contract. What?!”

Rob McElnea with Barry Nutley

After retirement McElnea (right, with TV commentator Barry Nutley) became a successful BSB team boss

Yamaha UK

McElnea had his best year in 500s with Ago’s team in 1986, finishing fifth overall, behind Lawson, Wayne Gardner, Randy Mamola and Mike Baldwin. But he never quite managed a race podium. The problem was his size – as Lawson once famously said, “Rob drafts like a truck”. His best race weight was 84 kilos, which is, to put it another way, 1.75 Dani Pedrosas.

“I was three stone heavier than most riders. F**kin hell, that’s a lot. I used to qualify pretty strong, on the front row nearly all the time for a couple of years. Then in the races I could hang on to them, but eventually I couldn’t cope, the tyres would go and then the brakes. I used to crash a lot because I had to take risks to hang on to people. There was no way I could get any lighter – I used to run my f**kin heart out to keep my weight down.”

“The lifestyle was pretty nerve-wracking, a big buzz, then Sunday nights were nutty-land – party time.”

McElnea scored eight fourth-place results on 500s, once missing the podium by less than a tenth of a second. “I was crying in the shower after races, but I got over it, it wasn’t that big a thing. What I really cared about was my time there, how awesome it was.”

These were the days when there was still a good time to be had in the GP paddock, when Lawson, Schwantz and the rest would cut loose on Sunday nights.

“The lifestyle was pretty nerve-wracking, a big buzz, then Sunday nights were nutty-land – party time. After every race we’d all be in someone’s motorhome. And then we’d all travel around Europe together, in a convoy of motorhomes. We’d plan our stops: the lake at Klagenfurt, Vienna, or we’d stop somewhere and get out the mountain bikes or the golf clubs. During race weekends no one dared speak about the weekend off coming up. But as soon as we all got through the race without getting injured, it was, ‘come on, weekend off!’. It was a really good crack.”

McElnea lost his Marlboro Yam ride at the end of 1987 and walked straight into a new job at Pepsi Suzuki, alongside GP rookie Schwantz.

“Suzuki wanted me to look after Kevin, show him around. I went to Daytona to meet him and his mum and dad and they’re filling the motorhome trailer with soft toilet tissue because they’ve heard you can only get that hard Izal stuff in Europe. I ended up having a fight with Kevin at Daytona that year, proper fisticuffs. Kevin could be so annoying. He’d live on the edge, flickin’ your balls and stuff like that. I proper leathered him. Niall [Mackenzie] had to pull me off of him. Then he won the first GP of the year at Suzuka and said it was all thanks to me for sorting him out!”

McElnea rode his last 500 season in 1989, did a year in World Superbikes, then came home to win the BSB crown in 1990, on a Loctite Yamaha OW01.

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“After 500s, anything else is just shopping bikes. Once you’ve done the 500 thing you’re so much sharper, everything is slowed down. In GPs I was sort of hangin’ on and out of my depth a bit, but when you come back to ride a superbike you’re still at such a high level that it’s a doddle.”

When he quit racing at the end of 1993 McElnea immediately went into team management and was soon guiding Mackenzie – another homecoming GP rider – to a hat-trick of BSB titles. He later worked with several other greats, most notably TT legend Steve Hislop and 2011 BSB champion Tommy Hill.

“Hizzy could’ve been outstanding if someone had got hold of him when he was younger. He was the most frustrating rider I worked with, just really fragile. Everything had to feel right for him – you never knew what you were going to get. If he’d had Niall’s mental strength he could’ve gone a long way.”

McElnea’s main focus in recent years has been developing young talent, which is why he helped establish the Yamaha R6 Cup. The first R6 champ was Hill, who just beat Cal Crutchlow to the title.

“Tommy’s prize for winning the R6 Cup was a BSB contract with us. He went straight from an R6 road bike to a superbike and he was f**kin” brave. He stayed with us for three years and it was great seeing him win the title. I get a lot of enjoyment seeing all the young guys come through.”

The BSB paddock will be a less colourful place without McElnea’s giant presence. From now on you are more likely to find him spending his weekends trials riding, which is how he came to break the two ribs that have him writhing in agony through most of this interview.

“Last weekend I was up in the Lake District, riding with [Terry] Rymer, [Jamie] Whitham and [Iain] Duffus. It was one of those days when you’re in heaven, riding around with a smile on your face all day. But I should’ve put the bike in the van half an earlier.”

He grins again, then winces once more. I leave just as the doctor arrives, carrying a pouch of high-grade painkillers. Happy flying, Mr McElnea…


Rob McElnea’s career: the bitesize version

One highlight of the current lockdown is Rob McElnea’s daily video of tales from his career. Hilarious, illuminating, and with a sprinkling of salty language, they are virtually guaranteed to raise a smile. Follow him at @robmcelnea1 and see below why the 1990 World Superbike season was the worst experience of his life.


Maty Oxley Zen

Find this and 130 other stories in the Kindle version of Mat Oxley’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Racing

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