All the people who say Barry Sheene was frightened of road racing don’t know what they’re talking about, says Mick grant, sitting on one of the memorial steps at Oliver’s Mount. We’re taking a breather after a couple of gentle (ish) laps of england’s only road racing circuit, where Mick won 16 International races in a glittering career involving seven TT wins and three Grand Prix victories.
Barry and I had some right ding-dongs round this place,’ he says, waving at some vast trees which act as a run-off for most of the Scarborough circuit. ‘And he held the lap record at Spa at about 137mph – I don’t think the bike would do a lot more than that. That was unbelievable. So people saying he was scared is nonsense. It’s just that Barry didn’t like the Isle of Man because he fell off the first time he went and for some reason he took against the place. Had he not had that fall, who knows what would have happened? History could have been different.’
Mick’s chatting about Sheene because of the corner we’re looking at, a tight left-hander just after the Memorial. ‘I remember in 1975 or ’76 I was on the 750 Kawasaki and Barry was on an RG. He was just in front and I was really trying. I went wide by a couple of foot and got onto the marbles and went down. look, I’ll show you. I’ll recreate my crash.’ And with that the 74-year-old is off, striding down the road in Suzuki leathers, a slight limp the result of a recent mishap on trials rather than 16 years at the sharp end of road racing. ‘The corner goes round a lot further than you think’ he says, now walking along the racing line of the exit. I’m nervously looking over my shoulder for traffic - the whole circuit is a public road not wide enough for two cars to pass - but Mick’s not bothered. ‘I got the power on about here, a fraction too early and it pushed me wide onto the marbles. That was enough.’ With that he trots over to the verge and lies on his back, waggling his legs about for the camera. ‘I was about here,’ he says, guffawing under a hedge. Despite the crash, Mick finished the race second because he was so far ahead of everyone else. It’s not just his success at Oliver’s Mount that makes it a special place for Mick. There’s a sentimental attachment too.
The very first race meeting I ever saw was here – I was still in short trousers. That’s what started me on racing. I saw Geoff Duke here and then later a young Mike Hailwood on a 250 works Mondial. Then I raced here with my Velocette in 1969 – it frightened the life out of me, but what a buzz.’ From then on he gradually went up the ranks, eventually realising he could become a professional racer. ‘My parents were horrified because they wanted me to have an academic career, but I’m anything but academic. During maths at school, they used to send me out to count the railings.’
It’s time to get on the bikes for another couple of laps. Mick’s riding a Triumph Speed Twin we’ve brought along for him and he seems to be bonding with it. He neatly dispatches Drury’s Hairpin, his tyres one inch from the grass at the apex, then tears down the hill under the bridge. Suddenly I’m ten bike lengths behind and stamp down a gear on the Honda CB1100RS to try and keep him in sight. This is probably pottering for him, but I still don’t know where I’m going and the tunnel of trees makes it feel like I’ve entered a Star Trek warp drive. I honestly can’t imagine what it feels like at race speeds.
After a couple more laps Mick pulls up at the start finish line. He’s impressed with the Triumph: ‘It’s amazing how much torque it has. That feels ever so quick,’ he says. This is no mean compliment from a man who was clocked at 191mph on a KR750 two-stroke at the TT in 1977. ‘Some people say that wasn’t a true speed, but I got the guy to put the speed trap exactly in the right place [between Creg-ny-Baa and Brandish]. And don’t forget that at Daytona at that time we were doing well over 180mph on the banking so I don’t doubt that speed for a minute.’ What did it feel like doing 191mph? ‘The road gets a lot narrower, let’s put it that way. There was no fear it was going to seize though – I was riding it week in and week out, don’t forget, and I got to know it. And anyway, if they go pop you just pull the clutch in.’ you either stay on or get off. When I was racing there the bike would be unstable for most of the way round, but it was all to do with what you could accept. So the riders who weren’t pushing as hard might consider their bike to be jumping around too much, where I wouldn’t mind that at all.’
After a stellar four years with Kawasaki, Mick got the feeling the company was prioritising the smaller bikes, such as the 250s and 350s that Kork Ballington would go on to win world championships on in 1978 and ’79. ‘Then I heard that Honda were doing a GP bike and in my excitement I imagined that they would pick up where they left off – the last time they had competed was 1968 with Hailwood and Jim Redman and they were the leading four-stroke development people at that time.’ So in 1978 he packed his bags and went to Honda to ride the radical oval-pistoned NR500 four-stroke in Grand Prix.
‘When I went out to Japan [to test the NR] it slowly dawned on me that they had done the right thing, but unfortunately at the wrong time. I think they underestimated the two-strokes – the RG500s were putting out 120bhp and the best I ever had out of my NR500 was 104bhp. Plus it was very, very difficult to ride, with a very narrow powerband and no flywheel. And of course, it wasn’t reliable.’ It certainly wasn’t – the best result it achieved in three years was 13th, though Freddie Spencer was running fifth at the British GP in 1981... before the inevitable happened and it broke down. ‘The conclusion I came to was that the Honda board, which was mostly made up of engineers who had worked with Hailwood in the ’60s, didn’t have their ears to the ground and didn’t realise how good two-strokes had become. So the poor sods on the workshop floor were given the order to win a world championship with a four-stroke and that was totally impossible at the time.’
So after a tumultuous couple of years on the NR, Mick went to Suzuki, won some more TTs and eventually called it a day in 1985. ‘I was building a nice house and suddenly for the first time in my life there was something other than racing. At the TT in 1985 I won the Production race in the morning, and then fell off the 500 in the afternoon when I was lying third. I was in fifth or sixth gear – quick – so I was lucky to come away with just a broken thumb. I sat at the side of the road and thought “there’s someone trying to tell me something here”. It was a defining moment, the beginning of the end.’ We stand there silently in the sunshine for a moment, me pondering how a mild-mannered, thoughtful gent like Mick could have been such a ferociously fast and aggressive racer, Mick pondering... what exactly? ‘I was thinking that I’ve always been quite lucky.
I remember when Barry had his crash in Daytona in 1975 – I was there at the circuit watching – and I had the same tyre failure at Ontario (in the United States, not over the border in Canada). And although I fell off at about the same speed on the banking, I was just bruised because the tarmac wasn’t as grippy at Ontario and didn’t fling me about like it did Barry. I was testing the following day. There’s a lot of luck involved in this business.’