The Immortals of Australian Motorcycle Racing by Darryl Flack

“… this book is a superb reference publication for any fans of Australian motorcycle racing,” said Graham Lawson.

RECENTLY, my neighbour Skol (Ozbike Publisher) asked me if I would like to review a book featuring Australia’s greatest motorcycle racers. He said that it wasn’t exactly his field of expertise, and having never reviewed a publication before, I was cautious about taking up his offer. However, upon seeing the cover featuring arguably our three greatest racers — Doohan, Stoner and Price — I felt extremely comfortable with the task.

My interest in all things motorcycles goes back to my teenage years in the late 1960’s, and even then, I was taking an interest in the history of bike racing going back to the early 1900’s. I have always been a dirt rider and took a lot of interest in MX racing from the 1970’s but, like many Aussies, took a huge interest in road racing when Wayne Gardner started to make an impression on the world scene in the mid 1980’s.

Back to this book… I must say the things that stand out are the author’s choice of subjects, his vast knowledge base and his style of writing. His nominated list of 12 riders starts in the 1950’s with our first road racing grand prix champion, Keith Campbell, and ends with two-time Dakar bike winner Toby Price. The fields of racing include road, dirt (enduro, MX and rally) and speedway; and in addition to the top 12 champions there is a comprehensive list of Honourable Mentions from the full range of bike racing fields. I’m sure that many followers of bike racing will be surprised at the list of high achievers who never won a World Championship.

I want to pay attention, in particular, to the histories of our two early champions, Keith Campbell and Tom Phillis. They were both trailblazers for Australian racers with Campbell being Australia’s first ever World Champion in the 1957, 350 class riding a Moto Guzzi. Tom Phillis was the 1961 World 125 Champion on a Honda and many people would be unaware that he was the first rider to win a World Championship race on a Japanese bike. Tragically, both were killed on the track: Campbell (aged 26) died at a track near Toulouse France; Phillis (aged 28) on the Isle of Man. Such was the gravity of the loss of Phillis that the then current world 500 cc champion, Gary Hocking, retired immediately. The sections in this book about these two racers were expertly written by Australia’s foremost motorcycle racing historian, Don Cox, and are superbly detailed with fascinating racing and family anecdotes.

I was particularly gratified to find the great Greg Hansford in the Top 12 list. I followed his racing career here, especially his rivalry with Warren Willing, and always felt his achievements in Europe were never publicised or celebrated here. He won 10 GPs and finished second and third in the 250 and 350 World Championship in 1978 and 1979. I was lucky enough to see him win the 750 race at the infamous 1976 Laverton TT races, where Agostini and other World Champions raced on the same day. Only Doohan, Stoner, and Gardner have won more GPs than Greg Hansford, who was tragically killed at Phillip Island in a car race in 1995.

In my favourite subject, namely dirt riding, the inclusion of Stefan Merriman was no surprise but his achievements, once again, have often been ignored. Originally from NZ, he was an accomplished trials rider there and in Europe but competed for Australia in the World Enduro Championships and won four World Titles, placing him just behind the great Mick Doohan’s five World Titles.

Jason Crump had to be in the top 12 with his three World Speedway Championships. He spent most of his life in Europe, living in the UK and competing in hundreds of races each year. As a teenager, I fondly recall watching his father, the great Phil Crump, racing at the Sydney Speedway at Moore Park and I still marvel at the way he would run his bike out to the fence.

Even though he won only one Championship, the 1969 World 250 Championship, the story of Kel Carruthers is fascinating due to his influence on American Road Racing, resulting in six World 500cc Championships with Kenny Roberts and Eddie Lawson. It’s clear that he completely changed the professionalism of the sport over there.

I won’t say anything here about the Big Four: Doohan, Stoner, Price and Gardner. I have followed their careers at the world level and seen Doohan, Gardner and Price race, including the famous 1989 Phillip Island GP and read biographies of Doohan and Gardner. It’s all been covered elsewhere but their careers are summarised very well in the book. I note that the book does include some fascinating and detailed statistics making comparisons between Stoner vs Rossi, Doohan vs Roberts vs Rossi, and Troy Bayliss vs Carl Fogerty. The Aussies come out trumps when the vital statistics are examined.

In my opinion, this book is a superb reference publication for any fans of Australian motorcycle racing. There is a huge amount of research into the careers of the various racers, from their early years and influence of family to many comments from fellow competitors, both riders and team managers. It is great to have accurate information and the chronology of their careers but the writer presents this material in a very compelling narrative that is easy to read and very entertaining.

This is a book that I will happily refer to in future years and would make an excellent gift to anyone with an interest in the history of Australia’s best motorcycle racers. 

Book review by Graham Lawson.

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