Grab a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and a cold beverage. It is Australia Day weekend over here and the biggest classic bike event Down Under is on. Time to soak up the atmosphere and fumes of the largest historic motorcycle racing festival in the Southern Hemisphere.
Vintage, historic, classic or retro. We all come from different generations, but one thing that us motorcyclists have in common with each other is a soft spot for the machines that kept us awake at night or dreaming about back in the day. The bikes we sketched drawings of in our schoolbooks. The bikes we saw on the street, out of the window in the back seat of our parent’s car, or from the back of the school bus. Most of us have a motorcycling moment. A smell. A sound or a vision of something special from our youth that is forever ingrained into our minds.
As we grow up as much as we are ever going to as motorcyclists (say, 21-years-old mentally), we often want to revisit those moments or that special place within our memories to help take us out of the daily grind and responsibilities in life. Me? I like to head down to my garage after my kids are asleep and tinker with my 1985 Suzuki GSX-R750, 1995 Honda CBR900RR or 1985 Yamaha RZ.
I remember each time I first saw each of those bikes and I wanted them, badly, at different stages in life. Of course, money is never around for youth, but 25-years on I now have my own and spending time with them is bliss. Looking, remembering, admiring, drinking, admiring a bit more, drinking a lot more … a typical night in my shed.
So, think about these feelings, and the bikes that draw that raw motorcycling passion out in you. Is it the first pop-up headlight Katana you saw? The first Z1R or Eddie Lawson Replica? Maybe the first Kawasaki H2R that screamed by, or for the younger generation of the classic scene, it could be a 1991 RGV250M or Ducati 916? You get the picture.
Now multiply that by, oh, 525, and you will begin to understand the feeling you get walking out of the pit lane tunnel, into the action at Australia’s Phillip Island Raceway and entering the “open to the public” pits at the Phillip Island Classic. Yep, there were 525 bikes entered this year, and I’m pretty sure I lost my mind over every single one of them. It’s not only the race bikes that grab your attention, either. Most of the 14,000-strong-crowd on Sunday arrived on retro or classic bikes, so wandering around the parking area was amazing.
It took me four hours to walk from one end of pit lane to the other. There were legends everywhere. I bumped into Jeremy Burgess, John McGuinness, Cameron Donald, Graeme Crosby, Jeremy McWilliams, Conor Cummins, Paul Young, Shawn Giles, Steve Martin and no end of famous engineers, riders, team owners, and anyone who is anything in motorcycle racing history. There are no restrictions to anyone with a ticket to get in, and all garage doors are open for all to see.
Where do I start with the bikes? RG500s, RZ500s, Katanas, early GSX-Rs, Zeds, GSs, GSXs, CBs, RDLCs, TZs, RGVs, NSRs, KH500s & 750s, GPzs, ELRs, ZXRs, ZX-7s, 750/4s, CBX6s, RC30s, OWO1s, FZR1000s, FZ750s, YZFs, GSX-R1100s, FJs, TRs, KRs, XR69s, TZ700 & 750s, Nortons, AJSs, Vincents, Egli Vincents, Patons, Harris Hondas, Harris Yamahas, Harris Suzukis and literally hundreds more. Walking around is like drowning in a sea of your favorite beer!
The sights and smells and sounds are overwhelming and, for me personally, the annual visit to this event is a spiritual one for me as an obsessed 24/7 lifetime motorcycle fanatic. The racing? Better than MotoGP or WSBK to watch. Better than most domestic series too.
I’ve been racing modern bikes for 20 years and I’ve not seen such passionate, enthusiastic fans, competitors or officials at any event globally. Firstly, the outside boundary of the track is open, meaning spectators can drive or ride anywhere they like around the public side of the fencing. There are spectators in vans set up with barbecues and beer camping out, riders with tents pitched off their bikes, and people just enjoying the sunshine and atmosphere without the hassles of parking, passes or tough, unfriendly security.
The racing is fierce and close and exciting, and I can’t think of any event where so many International heroes from such a wide range of road racing disciplines come together for a weekend of balls-out riding and lap records. Make no mistake. These are fast, old bikes. The front-runners are lapping in the 1:37s and 1:38s on 35-year-old bikes. To put that into perspective, the current Phillip Island World Superbike lap record is a 1:31.168, and belongs to Eugene Laverty on the Aprilia factory machine.
Australia has, until now, dominated the International Challenge, with a 10-year winning streak that was stopped by the Brits this year, despite Australian riders winning three of the four six-lap races. New Zealand and U.S.A. have a battle among themselves each year also.
U.K. legend Jeremy McWilliams set a blistering qualifying time of 1:37.644 on his Harris Yamaha ahead of five Aussie riders, a full second ahead of second qualifier Cameron Donald (1:38.717), who was followed by Brendan Roberts (1:38.722), Steve Martin (1:38.759), Jed Metcher (1:38.823) and Shawn Giles (1:39.157).
Multiple Australian Superbike Champion, Giles took his popular TBR D&D Katana to victory in a wild Race One, narrowly beating Jeremy McWilliams who took second place, the Harris Yamaha with a clear disadvantage off the line but a top speed advantage (174 mph v 168 mph) once wound up. TT hero Cam Donald came in third on the XR69. Watching McWilliams carve through the field over the weekend was something else.
McWilliams went one better in Race Two on Saturday, with Jed Metcher barking at his back Dunlop on his Katana, and Brendan Roberts third. By the end of Saturday there were black lines absolutely everywhere as the top 10 riders spun up off the ultra-fast Phillip Island corners. It was a sight to remember and reminded me of old school 500cc GP or World Superbike racing. Amazing stuff!
Sadly, for the Aussie team, Giles had a bike misfire at the start of Race Two and had to roll into the pits, while Steve Martin had a DNS and a DNF, and Cam Donald crashed in Race Two – so as the beers were being opened by the teams and staff on Saturday night in Cowes (the main town of Phillip Island – thousands of bikes and riders and loads of restaurants and bars), the U.K. team slept restless with a tiny nine-point lead in the Challenge.
Sunday was sunny and glorious – with many more stunning bikes rolling into the lush green outfield of the picturesque coastal circuit. Again, it was pure bike overload – too many gorgeous examples to take in at once. So much history. So many stories. All in one place … I had to go get a beer to cope.
Race Three was an all-Aussie performance with Shawn Giles, Brendan Roberts, Paul Young and Cameron Donald crossing the line flat out in fifth gear ahead of Conor Cummins, Ryan Farquhar and crowd favorite of the weekend, the ultra famous, John McGuinness. Brian Filo was the fastest U.S. rider in 14th.
By all means, it looked like Australia Day was going to be extra special for us Aussies, but it was not meant to be. The sun, amber fluids and methanol fumes were having an affect on the crowd, and the cheering was deafening as the top riders blasted down the chute for the first flying lap of the final race.
Jed Metcher was determined to win – after a DNF due to a loose front sprocket nut ended his race three lead – and he soon passed leader Cam Donald. Jed was followed through by Shawn Giles and Paul Young and the quartet crossed the line in that order – all lapping in the 1:38s on old tires. It was thrilling and terrifying to watch at the same time.
Ryan Farquhar crossed the line in fifth place and it wasn’t long until we all did the math and worked out that the Poms (Aussie speak for Brits) had won. And a well-deserved win it was. The celebrations in the pits, and later in town will go down as legendary. The relief and emotion on UK team boss, Roger Winfield’s face will go down in history, and the gut wrenching disappointment on the faces of Steve Martin, Shawn Giles and the other Aussie riders will be remembered. The Kiwis and Americans party whether they win or lose and there were some pale faces packing up in the pits on Monday. There were also plenty of campers crawling out of tents and facing the sunshine. It was a big one.
The Phillip Island Classic is a must-do meeting for any motorcycle enthusiast. You don’t need to be a racing fan or even a classic fan – if you like bikes, you will love this event. Philips Island is one of the best tourist spots in Australia, so make the Island Classic part of your next big vacation. Bring the family. Bring the BBQ. Bring the picnic rug, and take home the memories…