The Barry Sheene Festival Of Speed is one of the most exciting weekends of racing for any petrol-head motorcyclist. For anyone who enjoyed following Grands Prix in it’s two-stroke heyday and the heady days of air-cooled AMA Superbike, 1980s and 1990s GP bikes and F1 TT racing, this is the event you need to get yourself to one day!
Now in its 13th year and held at Australia’s Eastern Creek circuit, the Barry Sheene Festival of Speed has evolved into one of the biggest classic motorcycle events in the Southern Hemisphere.
Originally just a small race meeting including a round of the Post Classic Racing Association Club Championship, from 2009 the event became an open historic race meeting, with top national competitors and Kiwis joining the competition, and a bigger crowd gathering to check out the action.
Over the next few years hard work by the PCRA grew the Festival into what it is now, an event that attracts more than 230 entries and 520 classic race bikes each year, along with motorcycle racing royalty from all over the world.
This year, March 18-20, had the biggest lineup of stars and rare machinery seen yet, and what a treat it was. From the U.S.A. we had our childhood heroes and superstars Fast Freddie Spencer and Kevin Schwantz, both crowd favorites. Freddie was riding a 1984 Honda RS500R owned by Paul Galles in the GP Legends Clash, while Kevin Schwantz was taking more of a competitive line, racing in P3 500cc on a 1962 McIntosh Norton Manx 500, which he won, and the top class, P5 1300, riding a 1980 Suzuki XR69 1170 owned by Steve Wheatman’s Team Classic Suzuki.
Other International stars at the event included four-times world champion (250 and 350, 1978, 1979) Kork Ballington, riding the ex-Gregg Hansford H2R Team Kawasaki owned by Gary Middleton, and superstar Kiwi Graeme Crosby also riding an ex-Hansford bike, a 1976 KR750. Barry Sheene’s ex-teammate, superbike and GP legend now commentator Steve Parrish was riding a DMR Motorsport RGB500, and U.K. superstar Jeremy McWilliams rode a 1975 XR14 also from Team Classic Suzuki.
Aussie legends Chris Vermeulen (Suzuki XR35), Kevin Magee (1993 Yamaha YZR500), Murray Sayle (Hansford KR350) and Cameron Donald (1982 XR69) all wowed the crowd for three thrilling days. Also on the grid was Maria Costello MBE, the fastest woman to lap the Isle Of Man TT course, riding a Beugger 1968 Paton 500, and Kiwi legend John Boote piloted a Yamaha TZ700A. It was pure heaven, and with 530 bikes entered, impossible to take it all in. What a weekend!
Thursday was low key, being practice and venue set-up. I spent the day there testing bikes, and it really was surreal to be in the pit garages with legends I grew up watching on TV. Freddie, the Kevins, Parrish, Ballington and company going about their business setting bikes up – just like they were back on the grand prix circus. These guys are so professional.
When I was a kid, my dream was to be a racer or a factory team mechanic, so I did my apprenticeship as a motorcycle mechanic while I was also racing. For me, some of the heroes are the ones I admired twirling spanners. Walking around and seeing people like Dave ‘Radar’ Cullen (ex-Doohan, Magee, many others mechanic), engineer Peter Molloy, Ken McIntosh, Stu Avant, Dudley Lister and many more working on vintage bikes was thrilling. I felt like I had stepped back in time. It was one of those days I will never forget and can’t completely share, as it was such a personal experience. It just made me realize how lucky I am and that motorcycles bring me so much happiness, I should always be grateful that I discovered them.
Come Friday and things got serious. Practice in the morning followed by qualifying and some afternoon racing. There were dozens of classes there supporting the GP Legends Clash events, but what everybody wanted to see were the legends out on the exotic GP bikes.
With open pits including garages, plus pit lane for those accredited, it truly was a hands-on amazing experience for not only the fans but also the legends. With the bikes being rolled out and warmed up, the crowd gathered with hundreds of cameras going like a scene out of an early 1980s European Grand Prix. The look on the legends faces said it all to me as I stood back with my camera and enjoyed the moment myself.
I could see Kork Ballington looking serious and focused as he warmed up his KR250. Murray Sayle was sitting back on his KR350 taking in the dozens of photographers surrounding him, just like the old days, while Kevin Schwantz sat on a bench in his pit garage, helmet on, only walking out when it was time to take off down pit lane. Kevin Magee was all smiles as he climbed aboard his Yamaha YZR500, and Freddie Spencer was virtually mobbed as he waited for his 500 to be warmed up; of course he then happily posed for some photos before riding away.
The legends appeared to be enjoying it all as much as the crowd, which was refreshing and proved they are, like us, pure enthusiasts. They just happen to be able to ride like very few in the world can, and somehow maintain that in their retirement years! They hung out a lot and there were plenty of laughs, with a few of them looking a little dusty on the Saturday and Sunday mornings – you can only imagine the catch-ups over a few beverages among these guys!
The so called ‘Clashes’ were supposed to be parade-style laps, but I can tell you they were nothing of the sort! As cool as the riders were in playing it all down, these guys are ultra competitive people and they care about beating the next guy – a lot! Throw in the fact that the ‘next guy’ is one of their all-time rivals, and they are not going to let it go easily. There were sideways glances and grins being exchanged between these guys all weekend, and I watched it closely. They’d talk before a session, planning passes for the crowd and discussing who will lead, then the flag would drop and it would all go straight out of the exhaust pipe! It was on and there was some serious slipstreaming going on.
Jeremy McWilliams was the man who finished the weekend with the most points. However, he had swapped bikes with Schwantz a few times to try the modern RGV while Kevin sampled the old RGB. So with that in mind, it was Kevin Magee that was the GP Legends winner on his YZR500 followed by Fast Freddie Spencer with three-second places and a fourth, then Steve Parish, Graeme Crosby, Murray Sayle, Kork Ballington, Maria Costello and Kevin Schwantz.
Schwantz was up there but, as mentioned, swapping bikes, coming in early and a few things like that, which were needed to accommodate real racing commitments, and this negatively affected his points tally.
Speaking of his real racing commitments, it is clear that Revvin’ Kevin hasn’t lost any of his magic, cleaning up in the P3 500cc class on a Ken McIntosh-prepared Manx Norton, with four wins from four starts netting him 100 points, as well as finishing fourth overall behind Chaz Hern (T-Rex Bimota), Paul Byrne (McIntosh Suzuki), Dean Ouhtred (GSX-R1100) in premier class, the Barry Sheene Top 50. This achievement meant many back-to-back events for Kevin, including jumping off the RGV500 straight onto the XR69 without even a quick drink.
The races were long and hard, too, so it helped that Schwantz is still super fit. It just shows how much Kevin loves bikes. He was beaming all weekend and stayed on in Australia the week after to spend Easter at Round 2 of the Australian Superbike Championships, where he caught up with old mates such as Peter Doyle and Mat Mladin, and enjoyed the local racing including watching Anthony West make his Australian Superbike debut.
Like Schwantz, Jeremy McWilliams is still fiercely competitive and takes racing very seriously. He is a familiar face at these big classic events and competes each year in the Island Classic at Phillip Island. This was his first year at the Barry Sheene Festival of Speed, and he had mixed memories of the circuit. Unfortunately bike issues ruined Jeremy’s attempt at winning the Premier Class, but that didn’t stop him from finishing in front of both Sunday’s GP legends Clash events and getting into the 1:45s along with Spencer and Magee. That’s moving on these old bikes!
Overall it was a stunning weekend with legends, amazing bikes, thousands of like-minded classic racing enthusiasts providing an authentic style step back in time to the glory days of grand prix motorcycle racing. Having Freddie Spencer and Kevin Schwantz here in Australia truly was an amazing thing, an event we’ll remember for years to come.
I suggest that if you are planning on a holiday Down Under from the U.S.A., that you convince the powers that be that Easter is the best time to travel here!
For a full list of all results and races, click on this link: racing.natsoft.com.au.