In these days when Abba’s Money, Money, Money would be a suitable anthem for MotoGP or any other championship series, the TT Riders lunch is a wonderful and, perhaps, timely reminder of how lucky, indeed pampered, many of today’s riders are.
The TTRA is a charity whose purpose it is to raise money for riders, ex-riders or their families who need help because of illness, injury or some other misfortune. The annual lunch is a delightfully quaint affair, supported by the more fortunate - several hundred of them - who wallow in nostalgia and express delight that the people they met last year are still here this year!.
Now it might be argued that those courageous enough to ride round the world’s most dangerous circuit deserve this sort of support. Well, as 90% of them do it at considerable financial cost to themselves, they certainly do. Since it’s formation in 1951 it has raised many thousands of pounds. Its volunteer helpers, such as secretary Frances Thorpe, are a prime example of those who believe fiercely in a worthy cause.
Tales over lunch are mostly of days when the TT really was a world championship event and attracted the greats. And 99 years old Lawrence Bowellyn Ranson, whose first TT was 60 years ago, gets a standing ovation. New President Alex George, arriving on Slippery Sam, recalls the year when he beat the returning Mike Hailwood, with a do-or-die dash over the Mountain. But all the tales and speeches starkly illustrate the contrast between then and now. Old boys recall the time when getting to the Island from Europe, a Thames van with two bikes and a bed was the normal mode of travelling - and sleeping - was an ordeal.
In those heady days, the TT attracted many riders from the so called Continental Circus. The Continental Circus? A bunch of motor cycle racing adventurers who travelled from circuit to circuit taking in both world championship meetings, like the TT or the Belgian Grand Prix, plus a number of non-championship races. Two such stout chaps on a table hosted by road racing legend Mick Chatterton were Ollie Howe and Chris Goosen. And as we come to the close of the 2016 racing season with millionaire champions crowned and competition renewed for who in the paddock has the biggest motorhome, it is interesting to hear how riders existed in those great days of the sixties.
Chris Goosen decided to become a professional racer when he was 21. He had competed in Irish races but it was a visit to Alicante with Bultaco dealer Harry Lindsay, accompanied by Ralph Bryans, which sealed it. A Thames van, bought for £45, was modified to accommodate two bikes, a bed and a tools (Ollie Howe had the luxury of a second-hand ambulance) and in January 1964, with his 196 Bultaco beside the bed in the back, our hero set off for Spain having scraped together enough money for the petrol.
His eagerness to get going meant he had to survive for two months before his first race on the streets of Alicante. His Bultaco contact got him a second hand125cc air-cooled machine, so he had two. But he needed to earn money and three quid a week in a workshop was not enough. Ever resourceful, he saw how people liked stickers and from vinyl he cut out and painted Mooneyes, aka John Cooper. They sold like hot cakes.
The Circus was populated by an eclectic mix of Commonwealth racers who could only be described as adventurers. Riders like Ginger Molloy and Hugh Anderson from New Zealand; Barry Smith, Jack Ahearn, Kel Carruthers, Jack Findlay from Australia; Paddy Driver from Rhodesia; Lewis Young, Billie Nelson and Maurice Hawthorne from the UK; And many others before and after. They were one big family of travellers in a cortège of vans or caravans driving hundreds of miles from one show to the next. And joined together by shared risk, every so often a rider would not return; comradeship; lack of money and hope - a dream they would pick up a works ride and be in the money.
But survival depended on start money. A lot of riders were on little more than £20 a race - for an ordinary worker about two weeks wages - but it was needed to get to the next meeting several hundred miles away. And feed the family. Fortunately tyres lasted several meetings, petrol and oil companies like Castrol, Shell and BP were reasonably generous with their product, and if you finished well up there was the odd bonus.
When the young Goosen was refused money by some East German organisers, they were confronted by Mike Hailwood and Jack Findlay with the message: ‘Pay up or we don’t ride'. They paid. That’s how it was in the family.
There were no barriers between the works riders and the privateers, other than they had bigger caravans towed by Mercs. Hailwood had his man with a van towing his caravan while he had fun with his Iso Grifo sports car and any piece of skirt who would join him. Everyone was together at the prize-giving. It was party time. Next day the circus left town.
Bar owners and one or two girls had tears on their eyes. Are we missing something?