The weekend’s festivities took place at a racing circuit outside of Leicester called Mallory Park, a track that I spent a lot of time at in my twenties. Back then, a friend and I thought it would be a lark to have a crack at motorcycle road-racing – I’ve always loved the sheer balls-out insanity of fast motorbikes, so hurling them around a racetrack seemed like a top idea.
We bought a couple of bikes, a van and all the gear, got our racing licences and started spending our weekends at the track. Only, the whole thing turned out to be a lot harder than we expected. We’d read some websites created by other racers and they always made it sound so easy – these guys had teams of mechanics keeping their bikes in top condition, sponsors to help with the bills, and nothing ever seemed to go wrong for them. “Entered my first race at Brands Hatch this weekend and finished in the top three – what a result!”
Wasn’t like that for us. We had no mechanics and no sponsors, we had to figure everything out ourselves and pay for everything out of our own wallets. Our bikes constantly went wrong, we fell off with alarming regularity, and even when we could get our shit together long enough to actually finish a race we usually crawled across the line in very low positions, if not last. And every fucking time we went anywhere near a race track it seemed to piss down with rain.
It was expensive, demoralising and hard work – but none of the people writing about the racing scene ever told you what it was really like down in the trenches, you only got to hear from the top-guns. So I cobbled together a simple online diary using one of those new “web-logging” tools that I’d heard about – we gave ourselves a team name (Team Incompetent Fools) and we started writing about what it was really like to pour your heart and soul and bank balance into competitive motorsport, only to constantly feel like you were making absolutely zero progress. Most of all, we were careful to take the piss out of ourselves and our constant failure as much as possible.
The site struck a chord with a lot of other racers and pretty soon we’d made a bit of a name for ourselves – the sport loves winners, but we made losing cool. It started to get a bit more fun – people knew who we were, we became minor celebrities in the paddock and started getting invited to parties thrown by the more serious teams. We were getting emails from newbie racers who took inspiration from our struggles, and from riders around the world in places like America and Australia who just enjoyed reading about our exploits.
At one stage, a bunch of bikers in Denmark set up a small fan-club for us, and started raising funds for us to ship our bikes over there and enter a local race – it never really reached fruition, but we were blown away that people would even consider trying to do that for us.
Mallory Park was a memorable circuit because if you have a racing licence you can buy cheap track time for practice and testing between races, so we spent a fair bit of time up there. Mallory Park is where it all came undone.
About two and a half years into this little adventure my friend had bought a new bike, and we took it up to Mallory Park one day for him to put the thing through its paces in a test session. A few laps in, he stacked it big-style. I didn’t see the crash, but I saw the wreckage that was left of his bike and my heart was filled with dread. The track marshal told me that he’d been ambulanced off to Leicester A&E, and it looked pretty serious, so I packed our gear up and made my way there as quickly as possible.
In the hour that it took me to get there I’d convinced myself of the worst and that I’d have to call his parents (who I’ve known since childhood) to give them some devastating news. All our clubhouse bravado about preferring death to paralysis was spinning around my head. That journey was the worst I have ever made.
When I arrived at the A&E ward, I found his caved-in crash helmet and ripped-up leathers piled on a trolley, and for a moment or two I became absolutely certain that something terrible had happened. But as I asked a nurse where my friend was, I heard him calling me from one of the curtained-off beds – apart from concussion and a permanently knackered ankle, he was fine.
We fixed his bike up and did a couple more races as a getting back on the horse exercise, but the thing about this sport is that unless you’ve got 100% confidence in yourself you shouldn’t be on the track. And his confidence was gone, so we called it a day.
We reminisced a lot about the racing this weekend. It cost us a small fortune, sucked up three years of our lives and we never really got good at it, but neither of us would trade those three years for anything because, well – this line from The World’s Fastest Indian says it all:
Tom: Aren’t you scared you’ll kill yourself if you crash?
Burt Munro: No… You live more in five minutes on a bike like this going flat out than some people live in a lifetime.