The perfect weekend away. For many, such a concept will bring up images of an island in the sun, with sandy beaches and beautiful views. Perhaps cocktails will be involved. Now imagine you could watch a huge array of classic motorbikes go racing on that island as part of that same weekend. Bikes ridden by some of the world’s best racers. And on one of the world’s best, prettiest race tracks. Pretty much your idea of paradise? Mine too.
That’s why last weekend I made my way down to Phillip Island to see the 2014 AMCN International Island Classic. An annual event that brings together some of the biggest names in racing, puts them on old-school machinery and sees them race harder than many would dare on new bikes.
It’s a stunning show, and the fact it was hosted by the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit made it all the better. You see, I may go on about this, but there is literally no circuit on earth like PI. Nothing else combines the mix of speed and beauty like it. In our interview posted earlier this week, TT legend John McGuinness stated that, “If you had a blank piece of paper now and you said, right, let’s build a track, you wouldn’t get within a million miles of here. I mean, we would, the old–school boys would, but you wouldn’t even be allowed these days.” He’s right. Phillip Island is an old-school track in the very best sense. And the fact it has undulating hills and spectacular ocean views is just icing on the cake.
It’s the attraction of this ‘bucket list’ track that draws many of the world’s best riders. McGuinness was just one of many champions and TT winners who made the trip downunder, stating that it’s always been on his list. He was joined by fellow TT riders Jeremy McWilliams, Gary Johnson, Cam Donald and Shawn Giles, as well as multiple national champions like Australian Steve Martin and Americans Rob Mesa and Ottis Lance. It’s this mix of street, circuit, drag and dirt riders that makes the International Challenge part of the weekend (where riders compete in national teams) so interesting. The best part? Despite the supposedly relaxed nature of the event, they ride their butts off.
Of course, this heady mix means spectators roll up in large numbers to witness the spectacle as well. And boy do they get their money’s worth. Not only do spectators get full pit access, allowing them to chat, and have photographs taken with their heroes, Phillip Island is unique in Victoria in that most events allow you to drive or ride around the whole circuit, switching your viewpoint in between races as often as you like. In fact, given all that stands between us photogs and the crowd is just a metre or so of grass and a fence, you basically get media-level access all the way around. How good’s that?
Thinking of pit access, Saturday morning was a great time to look around and see what people had brought before they thrashed them on the circuit.
A few personal favourites included this stunning 1972 Norton Seeley Commando…
This amazing Bultaco Metralla MKII…
A lonely 1956 BSA Goldstar at the entry to pit lane…
And possibly the best-looking bike at the meet, this 1969 Moretti Ducati MKIII, all candied up in tricolore livery and hiding away in the American team garage.
Of course, it wasn’t just European metal stealing the show. In the same garage, I saw this beautiful 1965 Honda CB175, ridden by Eirik Nielsen.
While in the southern half of the pits, away from all the big boys, sat this ex-Australian GP-winning Honda 250 in classic Rothmans livery. Sadly, for whatever reason, it didn’t race, but damn it was nice to see.
Back in the UK pit, I also caught my first glimpse of John McGuinness’s ride for the weekend, the 1982 Honda Harris F1. You can see what he had to say about the machine in our interview here, but I was more taken by the cute ‘tyre warmer’ his team was using. Given the rest of the bikes all used proper electric ones, I have no idea why this was used, but maybe it was some secret sauce they were saving just for John.
Climbing up on top of the pit building, I got my first real look at the bikes in action. And boy were they hammering along. Of course, given this is the fastest circuit on the Moto GP calendar, and the bikes below were in the ‘forgotten era unlimited’ class, which was mainly for 80’s bikes between 900 and 1100CC, these bikes bloody well should have been, but the speed always takes you by surprise, no matter how many times you’ve shot at the Island.
After a brief period here, I moved onto turn 4, or Honda hairpin, to see the arrival of the International Challenge riders. Given this was just quali, nobody was really pushing that hard, but it was great to see the main attraction regardless.
Before moving, I also got my first look at what quickly became the spectator favourite class of the weekend (International Challenge aside) – the chairs. It goes without saying that their spectacular nature will always make sidecars one of, if not the best classes to watch, but the mix of vintages (everything from 50’s Thunderbirds to 2006 Suzukis), combined with the different orientations of the older machines, meant you really got to see some brilliant action.
For example, the fairly large degree of camber at turn 6, or Siberia, as it’s affectionately known, due to the arctic winds that come across Bass Strait in winter, meant the swingers really needed to get as far out as possible to keep the machines upright.
And for those with older machines with a reverse orientation (or left-hand drive, as one commentator referred to them), things got even trickier. The lack of weight over the inside at turns six and 11 meant this 1975 BMW R75/5 above, ridden by US pair Bob Demetrius and Christina Divigard, was drifting through the entire curve. Admittedly, some of the later sliding was deliberate, as when Bob realised he was going to drift no matter what he or his partner did, he sometimes lifted mid-corner on purpose just to unweight the rear. Either way, Bob and Christina were easily the most popular team of the weekend as a result.
As for the fastest, that award went to another US pairing, that of Wade Boyd and Christine Blunck, whose wild 2006 machine was so much faster than the competition all weekend it wasn’t funny. Not even Wade’s purple mohawk, stuck to the top of his helmet, seemed to slow him down.
The rest of the Saturday was a blur of amazing bikes and great action, with true classics such as this CB72/77 Special a definite sight for sore eyes.
Meanwhile, other special Hondas, such as this RS125 WF4 above…
…and American John Munn’s gorgeous candy orange CB350 did battle in other classes.
Indeed, the day was only interrupted by a few disparate incidents. The first was brought on by these beautiful Cape Barren Geese, which inhabit the circuit and get very close (sadly, sometimes too close) to the action. Their roaming, and complete indifference to the bikes, meant soon after this was taken, a marshall had to move them on, lest they get turned into roadkill.
The second hold-up came from this 1972 CB750, which came to a smoking stop just at the entry to turn 11. It later turned out the bottom half of one of the conrods had punched through the block, leaving this rider’s weekend decidedly done.
The final interruption came from a rather less benign incident at the start of the first International Challenge race. Robbie Phillis, riding just behind John McGuinness, low-sided his Suzuki XR69 coming into turn eight and ploughed hard into the gravel trap, pretty much destroying his classic racer and leaving him lying in pain. Thankfully, no serious injuries occurred, and Robbie spent the rest of Sunday apparently whinging to the organisers about not being allowed to race.
After all the interruptions, racing did eventually resume, with local hero Cam Donald coming in second to Jeremy McWilliams in the first International Challenge race, setting the scene for a great UK versus Australia battle for the rest of the weekend.
Come Sunday, the perfect weather meant everyone was in a fine mood, and ready to resume racing. Cam Donald used one of the early Unlimited Classic races to stretch his legs, and those of the 1959 Trease Harley Special he was riding. This was especially useful as the Harley had packed up one lap into the first race on Saturday. Thankfully it gave no visible trouble for the rest of the day.
Neither did the gorgeous 1972 Ducati 750SS ridden by fellow Aussie Chris McRae in the Unlimited Post Classic class.
After the first few races, it was time for the third International Challenge event. While Saturday’s races had been relatively sedate affairs, in part due to the interruptions and some overseas visitors finding their feet, the Sunday races were another matter entirely. You could tell things were about to get serious because multiple Australian Superbike champion, Shawn Giles, was actually beating his chest prior to race start. He wasn’t trying to be funny, either. This was game on.
After a frantic start, the riders tussled for the lead, with frontrunners Giles and Donald eventually forming a group with Brendan Roberts and Jeremy McWilliams (who eventually shared the Phil Irving Trophy for most points accrued by a single rider with Giles – a first in Island Classic history) to battle it out.
Not far behind, all-round nice guy Gary Johnson ran his own race, but finished in a highly creditable fourth.
Meanwhile, further down the field, others, such as Aussies Jim Agombar and Trevor Taylor, had their own battles.
In the end, though, Cam Donald took the win, and while Shawn’s chest beating may have come to naught, his second place ensured the Aussies were in prime place to hold onto the Tahbilk International Challenge trophy for another year.
Following that madness, it was good to settle down to a certain degree and watch the smaller bikes do their thing. Among the standouts was David Roper’s amazing silver Honda 350 racer, looking perfect as it flashed by with the ocean in the background…
And Glenn Hindle’s 1979 Yamaha TZ350, one of several running the classic Yamaha livery of yesteryear. (That said, this one had a blue number, as opposed to the traditional green).
As I mentioned previously, moving around Phillip Island is easier than anywhere else I’ve shot, and shifting to turn two for both the smaller bikes and larger ones like these 500cc Post Classics was the work of but a couple of minutes in the car. It also gave a great view back down towards turn one and of the Island’s rolling hills.
Shifting once again to turn 3, you not only get some lovely golden-green backgrounds and armco, you also get a straight view up towards the start-finish line and the drop riders face as they approach the fearsome turn one – one of Australian motorsports’ fastest corners.
I know I’m probably biased, but there are precious few angles from which Phillip Island don’t look beautiful.
For the final few races of the day, I settled down around turn four, so I could get the riders as they came through with a bit of back lighting and some nice side lighting as they went through into six.
It’s great to see how hard the riders push these bikes, no matter how old they or the machinery are.
Thankfully, I also managed to catch the BSA I saw on Saturday out and about, too. While modern bikes have their attractions, and will in time be remembered as fondly as these old machines, I do have to say there is just something about older machines.
After a bit more sidecar action, it was eventually time for the final race of the meet; race four of the International Challenge.
Again, there were no holds barred, even among team members, with Beau Beaton pushing his very special Irving Vincent (more on that in a second) to the absolute limit to keep up with, and even challenge, compatriot Brendan Roberts on his Suzuki Katana.
While Roberts ended up ahead in second (Shawn Giles finally got his win after Cam Donald suffered a mechanical), Beaton still finished fourth, equalling his best result of the weekend and assisting the Aussies to take the team trophy with a comfortable margin.
Sticking with Beaton for a second, he rode what was probably the most interesting bike present – the aforementioned Irving Vincent. Constructed using a custom frame based on Phil Irving’s legendary 1946 Series-B Rapide design and running a new casting based on the same engine, this incredible machine now generates 165hp from its 1.5 litre OHV donk and runs fully modern brakes, wheels, suspension and tyres. It’s a moving sculpture, as far as I’m concerned, and testament to the engineering skills of Aussie outfit HRD Engineering. The fact they’re planning a four-valve head for it should tell you all need to know.
As for John McGuinness? Like he predicted in our interview, he didn’t win, and he didn’t even place, but given he wasn’t expecting such fierce competition, and it was his first time racing at the Island on a new bike, I think nobody holds that against him. Certainly not the fans who flocked to see the TT legend over the weekend and went away with happy memories of meeting their hero.
After all the racing had finished, it was time for the International Challenge riders to head back to the pits for the post-race gathering. There, they could mingle with the fans (yet another reason why this event is awesome), rest their weary machines…
Have a laugh…
Get some photos taken with their fellow racers…
And make some pretend victory poses on top of their bikes (even if they hadn’t won anything).
From there, it was just a case of packing everything away and heading to the pub. Like I said at the start of the article, can you imagine a better weekend away? Because I can’t.