Dick Greasley sidecar……the racing years

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In 1971, I started racing. I had always been keen on road bikes and owned a wide variety of machinery. A local sidecar competitor, John Brandon built and raced his own machinery. He had some success and the press that he got in our home town of Market Drayton fired my imagination. With my brother-in-law, Stewart Atkinson, we purchased one of John’s old bikes which housed a Triumph motor. We got through our first season of racing with steady progress and felt that we had earned a better outfit for the following season.

The Europeans, particularly the Germans and Swiss had dominated during the 60’s and, although frame building in England had become sparse, there were some racers though who built chassis’ for their own use, and some specialists who built for supply only. Mike Fiddaman was a builder / racer at that time and we decided to purchase a chassis from him to take a BSA A65 motor. New at that time in concept, the 650cc engine was construction built, without separate gearbox and magneto, and was the first big motor to save weight by this method. We took delivery of the Fiddaman, but after trying it out decided to alter the steering geometry to suit me better and built the BSA motor with an A10 crank and 830cc top end. Twin spark coils had just been brought out at that time and we fitted some to better the ignition. In club races that year, no-one beat us off the line and we were soon winning races.

Stafford motorcycle dealer Cyril Chell had spent some years sponsoring local racers on Norton’s. His passion for road racing had helped local competitors to prominence for some time and, having taken on a dealership for Honda, Cyril kindly offered me sponsorship with a CB 750 four cylinder engine. We had been advised by John Brandon that the engines would be quicker than the BSA, so we were pleased to accept Cyril’s help and, in consequence had more success at club level and finished runners-up spot in the Clubman’s championship.

In 1974, we branched out into National meetings. We changed to a Woodhouse chassis which proved to be better handling of the Honda power particularly as the engines were delivering extra horses by way of on-going tuning bits. Unfortunately though, with the additional power came unreliability. There were many hours of tedious work simply because of the blow-ups and it became extremely frustrating to be denied the races we were desperate to be part of because of machine failure. Stewart became totally disillusioned and decided to finish passengering for me. I was fed up with the situation and working for Cyril at that time in his motorcycle workshops, it would have been obvious to him that the disappointment of our setback was bugging me.

Cyril turned out to be a master of surprises. It would be impossible to explain how I felt when he told me that he had bought a Dugdale’s of Chester ex Charlie Williams’ Yamaha700cc racing bike complete. At that time, we only read about such exotic machinery. There were only a handful of them in the world! We had seen Saarinen and Agostini race one. Kenny Robert’s had one, but in the main they were works Grand Prix tackle at that time, and very rare. Only a few weeks before though, sidecar racer Mac Hobson had fitted such a motor into his outfit and the results from the change had been prolific. Could the motor from Charlie William’s bike do the same for me?

As soon as I could, I shoehorned the Yamaha motor in to the Woodhouse chassis and fortunately for me, Cliff Holland agreed to passenger me. Cliff had been around for a while and his experience, both on and of the track were to help me to another level. I couldn’t wait to get my new rocketship to Cadwell Park a week later. I know that everyone around me had high expectations of me at Cadwell. I too, thought that anything would be possible with this hy-bred motor on a track that I truly loved and had success, but unfortunately it turned out to be a miserable day. The engine turned out to be something that I had never experienced before. With such power, there was a need to get used to it, and I had only just taken delivery of it! The power came in with a bang and the chassis just couldn’t handle it, so we spent more time on the grass than the tarmac!

Their was need for change, so the Woodhouse chassis was replaced with a Terry Windle outfit. He was enjoying a lot of success at that time building purpose made rolling frames and we decided to go with the bike that he advised would suit best with only 4” of front tyre width. It didn’t put much rubber on to the ground, but it handled beautifully. We now had a fantastic powerhouse and with the chassis to equal it, it didn’t take long for Cliff and myself to adapt. We were soon into winning ways and climbing the ranks at national level.

We made good progress through 1976, learning our new bike and preparing the Yamaha engine and we took a lot of time in preparing for the 1976 TT. In practise, our first Isle of Man on the Yamaha brought frustration, yet success in equal amounts. We were given a starting position low down, our race number was 39 which of course reflected on previous performances, but this bike was so fast that we were fired up and passing other outfits like nothing. The 700 motor was fantastically quick but considerably reasonable to ride in comparison to the 250 barrelled 500. Cyril had purchased bits for us to convert the 700 for the GP race and without trial before the Island we gave it our best shot. That motor was so short stroked though; the power band of 1500 revs made it difficult to keep on the boil and I struggled a bit in practising.

The 500 race was our first of the week. It took a lap to get into some kind of rhythm and then at number 39 we were hitting traffic that hurt our times. (Competitors setting off in front of us were unaware of our speed differentials and, in consequence, we were often held up through the twisty bits). We soon got onto the leaderboard, but we previously had no reason to have signals so none were organised in that way and we were unaware of our true position! On the final lap, it became obvious by the crowds enthusiasm that we were on the verge of something unusual, and fathomed that we were close to someone. With a final push, we were able to haul in Sigi Shauzu, a German hero, and on corrected time take his 2nd position behind Rolf Steinhausen. I know to this day that, given the information, I could have gone quicker and, perhaps beaten Rolf. As it was however, that single race had raised my profile, earned us 9th position overall in the World championships and launched our status as sidecar racers. In the 1000cc race later in the week, the 700 motor took us to 3rd position behind Mac Hobson and Sigi Shauzu. To cap it all, some successes in the home championships that year took us to overall 2nd.

Along with Cyril Chell’s devotion as sponsor, I was now getting help from Shell, a massive investor in racing in those days, and it all aided my desire to get into, and achieve, in the Grands Prix. Our first full season brought about a top ten ?? position which under the circumstances was pleasing. Just to learn the routines of it all, the discipline required and the essential preparation took time, but we needed to learn and learn fast for the next years World campaign.

In 1977, unfortunately, Cliff and I split before the start of Grands Prix. I had kicked off the season with a new Windle outfit with wider wheels for more rubber on the road (or grass… delete accordingly!) and Mick Skeels took on the roll of ballast. Although the chassis didn’t handle as well as the previous sidecar, Mick and I got on well and immediately gelled putting in some solid performances. In our first TT together, there was great pressure as our main rivals had now also gone the 2 stroke route with Yamaha’s , Barton’s or Konig adapted marine engines. I had also been given number 2 which meant I was the hare being hounded by those in my wake! From the onset, I gave all I could. Throughout practising I had been getting close to the 100mph lap, but I was surprised to achieve the first official ton sidecar lap on the mountain circuit and, certainly, from the standing start. George o’ Dell has often been given the credit for it, but as he was following me, he wasn’t the first over the line. But George was also flying that week and I have to say, he was exceptional in that race. His strength in some areas of the course were outstanding and he overtook me on the second lap and went on to win and completing the first ever 100mph average sidecar race. Another good year, that year, brought me a second position in the British Championships and 7th in the World. A steady progress and overall, not a bad season.

Whilst campaigning in Europe, I was flattered on occasions to hear that Dieter Busch was interested in building me an outfit. For decades, he had been the backbone of Germans’ successes in the World Championships. Although brilliant riders, it was apparent that the equipment that Enders, Shauzu, Steinhausen and the like had helped bring about their challenges. They (German riders) were able to get Rennsport BMW engine bits that no-one else could obtain and, with aero technology chassis’ built by Dieter, their campaigns were made invincible. (Austrian farmer Helmut Fath in the late 60’s ,having become frustrated by BMW’s ‘closed shop’ for race components, brilliantly designed and made himself a 4 cylinder, 4 stroke engine, his own chassis, and with it, the URS, promptly won the championship! (Fairy tales are still possible). That though was in a different era, with different engines all producing far less horse power that those of the 70’s! I digress……. I met with Dieter Busch and he agreed to build me, an Englishman, one of his outfits. I was so excited at this milestone for I believe that Dieter had picked me out, not only for my racing, but for my personality. I think that he had seen me as a quiet, get on with it and none-complaining type chap who just did his best and deserved a break!!!

I collected the outfit from him in Germany in January 1978 and returned later to collect fairings from Herman Schmidt based in Switzerland. I will never forget the journey across the Swiss alps in winter in a mini pickup. Very interesting………. Come the start of the season, I was ready. I now had a great sponsor in Cyril Chell, worthy backing by Shell, a very quick motor and a bike which made me proud every time I sat astride it. It was a pleasure to look at it and admire. The Busch sidecar was light and purposeful in every detail. Small things like needle roller bearings that would allow the wheels to spin for ages; lightweight components that had taken weeks to handcraft and fabricate; hollow spindles and bolts and fasteners that fitted perfectly; aircraft steels finished in electro-plated coatings were all encompassed on the machine…….there were no needs for hammers in our toolboxes anymore! So light was the finished bike that, even full of liquids, our mechanic, often the one in the bowler, was able to push the bike to scrutineering and around the paddock on his own!! (extra sleep for the riders then on race day!!) Unfortunately however, none of these positives could make up for my disappointment at the news of Mick Skeels not joining me. I was unaware that through the winter, Mick had been deliberating on his future and, strangely I thought, concluded that he did not wish to pursue the Grands Prix. This was a big shock, but I eventually decided on his replacement, a former Mac Hobson’s passenger, Gordon Russell. As with previous passengers, his CV was comparable to mine, he had been around for a while and was experienced, so we campaigned together for that year. I had my first TT win and came 5th in the World championships.

1979 was undoubtedly my best year and really should have springboarded me into my greatest years. I was able to take on John Parkins as passenger. He was a brilliant ballast and being small and light I was able to get the best out of him and the bike in a straight line. Cyril had managed to get me some tuned components for the Yamaha and with some special cranks made for the 500 motor, the bike was flying. We had also prepared the bike for new reversal of passengers where hanging out from the rear of the wheel arch became fashionable (up until then, passengers had always exited the chair from the front of the third wheel). This alteration made for quicker flicks through S bends and helped John to get more weight beyond “his” wheel and consequently we could push more through the lefthanders . This took some of our competitors by surprise and gave us a little advantage in some areas for a while.

Salzburg, Austria played host to the first Grand Prix that year of 1979. A fantastically fast track, but being a normal road away from the racing, it was unfortunately mostly lined with crash barriers and has since been dropped in favour of man made circuits. In the race, we suffered a poor start but were able to come through to take the lead halfway through the race. There was no doubt that, we were “coasting” to, what should have been an easy win and we could have broken the lap record. As it turned out, we had a rare (for that motor) engine mechanical failure. I had not experienced up until that time, nor since, a broken piston, but that breakdown was to spoil our day and eventually was to rue our season. (The points lost on that one occasion would cost us, in the end, the World championship that I was striving for). Following that disappointment in Saltzburg, I rebuilt the motor in the paddock and prepared the bike for the following week’s Grand prix at Hockenheim in Germany. (In the 70’s was it was normal for our tyres to last a few races, particularly on the sidecar wheel which could last half a season, so it was a surprise to find that we had now reached new parameters with regard to tyre endurance. With ultra quick engines came advanced wear of components and there was a need for a new way of thinking with regard to preparation). Our blast at Saltzburg had rendered the rear tyre useless, but on arrival at Hockenheim in Germany we found that Dunlop had no suitable tyre with them. Thank goodness that in those days, sidecar competitors (in general) had an unusual camaraderie and Rolf Biland gave me a tyre (but as it turned out, did he know what he was doing?). It was a Michelin tyre, a brand that I had not used before, but we had no option to go with it and hope. In practise, it felt good, but unfortunately in the race it did not hold out for long. Sigi Shauzu has stormed off in the lead and I followed for him for a while. When I eventually went to overtake him on a right hander I thought that the manoeuvre was a comfortable one, but the bike spun and soon I realised that the back tyre was overheating! I rejoined the race, got back and took the lead, but the tyre let me down again and I had to settle in the end for a 3rd position behind Sigi and Rolf Steinhausen.

For the rest of the season (we were able to get the right tyres thereafter) we were regular podium finishers, but always avoided the top step!!

My best chance came at the final round in, what was then, Czechoslovakia at their open road circuit, Brno. It was a fantastic place to be in. The crowds (these were the times of a communist block, all part of the Soviet empire and the cultural differences were phenomenal). The race fans there were great though, loved their racing and the celebrities invading their country for the week and, being the only international bike race beyond the iron curtain, it was normal for 300,000 fans to turn up. They arrived from all parts of the eastern block, from all of Russia, East Germany, Rumania, Hungary etc etc, some travelling thousands of miles on their JAWA’s, CZ’s and MZ’s just to be part of the spectacle. I adored the circuit. Just like the Isle of Man, I loved the open roads. The thrill and excitement of the ultimate risk was a drug and the extreme speeds encountered at Brno were only matched on similar circuits like Francanchamps (Spa) in Belgium and, as previously mentioned, Hockenheim.

So, after a personal 3rd finish position at Silverstone, and watching Sheene and Roberts have that fantastic 500cc race, we had now arrived to the farthest part of Europe to contest the last race of the season. The points tally after a season long battle would come down to our final hour on track. Either myself, Rolf Biland or Rolf Steinhausen could win the ultimate goal. Both Rolfy’s had been World Champions and I really felt that it could possibly be my turn this year. It had been a hard season, closely fought, and the championship contenders ebbed and flowed through various failures which kept the title chase a close thing throughout. George had been World Sidecar champion in 1977, and I wanted to follow Rolf Biland who had added another crown to his tally in 1978. Brits were gaining on the Europeans in dominance and Jock Taylor, Steve Webster and Steve Abbott were to soon to show that in the eighties, I wanted so desperately to pave the way for those Brits in the future. There were a few of the Brit sidecar contingency at that final round in Czecko. Derek Jones, was amongst us with Bill Hodgkins, Mick Boddice, Jock Taylor and paraplegic Aussie campaigner Peter Campbell. It made for a great party atmosphere off the track. However, there was serious business on it, and the little Busch outfit, with me and John Parkins on board, was flying. Practising hadn’t always been a strong thing for me and I have to say myself, that in qualifying there were occasions when I did disappoint. However, in Brno this year it was different. We had good practising, soon on the pace, and with perfect conditions, was on the top, or close to it, throughout qualifying. For all of the contenders for the championship, the two Rolf’s and I held the front row of the grid. From the off, Biland, with fellow Brit Kenny Williams in the chair, took the lead with me in tow. Steinhausen, in an attempt to make amends for a poor start, was soon to take to the scenery at high speed and unfortunately hospitalized his Brit passenger, Kenny Aurthur (it turned out that he had suffered a broken shoulder and returned home with the whole of his upper body in plaster). Back to the action…..Biland and I were so close and we swopped the lead many times throughout the race. In front, and out of the hairpin on one occasions, I felt a juddering sensation. Thinking something was wrong, I turned around and to my amazement found Biland’s sidecar nose touching John Parkins’ outstretched legs. Using his clutch in and out repeatedly creating the juddering sensation that I was feeling and pushing us along so to speak!!! We were side by side along some of the straights, probably doing in excess of 150mph looking at one another, laughing under our helmets, loving every minute of it and, on many occasions alternating the lead position. Often tackling bends side by side, Rolf hit the straw bales one time and, of course, I was hoping that he would overcook it but he managed to hold it and keep it straight. I have to say, he was the greatest of competitors, a pleasure to be around, and on his day by far the finest sidecar racer of all time and there I was with him every step of the way. The annoying thing for me was, I had to win to be world champion. He could have settled for second and still come out world champion, but on that day he was on the very edge of loosing it all. Just for the sake of racing me, he was prepared to stick it out and be honest for the win. As we took to the final bend of the final lap, we were side by side. Unfortunately for me, he had the best line at the last, the greatest drive out of the corner, and was able to pip me for the win by 1000th of a second. That race will be with me for as long as I have memory. I think that it will stay with Rolf Biland as well. The crowds were ecstatic and we didn’t half enjoy the garlanding ceremony, but my world championship dream had gone and it is hard to explain the disappointment. But my second position in the race had placed me equal second in the championship With only three medals to hand out though, Rolf Steinhausen secured the silver on his GP wins and I had the bronze. I am still proud of the achievement though and have that medal in safekeeping.

Although seriously contending the Grand prix, in those days, home national meetings and internationals were vastly important to us all. Most of us relied on winnings to keep competitive and, like most sports, it’s important to keep in practise.

1979 had been a fantastic year for John and myself, but at the end of it I had to take a long hard look at the scene for 1980. There were to be major changes with regard to Grand Prix. Rule changes were to allow, what I considered as 3wheel racing cars, the centre hub steering outfits. Commonly known as ‘longuns or worms’ (simply because they wobbled down the straights and often were half as long again as the conventional sidecars) there was a technology with them that I knew would bring unnecessary costs, they were accident prone and caused some deaths during development, obviously seemed to be less fun, and I really felt that it would not necessarily be my style. After all said and done, it was still basically a hobby for me and, although Cyril Chell was extremely good to me, the times that he would allow me off work as a mechanic in his business for my racing was limited. I was trying to hold down a full-time job, I was spending my own money, preparing my bikes and competing against riders from Europe who were full time professionals with the support to match. My small van and tent could not be compared against the buses and marquees that the German and Swiss turned out in the paddocks. Talk about hospitality and home from home?? In fairness, most Brits suffered the same though. I therefore took the decision (one that I probably would not have in hindsight) to compete at the home circuits only for 1980. We did well though, had many wins, left many circuits with lap and race records and, in particular, a Scarborough Oliver’s Mount record that has not been surpassed even with the modern outfits of today still competing there. The Busch was phenomenal on that twisty little track and I understand that I have been timed at speeds in excess of those of Barry Sheene’s on the straight (it’s not a straight really but a long curve with bumps and jumps along it’s length) of which I am proud. After 1980, the Busch was showing signs of getting tired. It would have by then competed in many more races than other chassis’ at that level and it was obvious that with tyre technology, the little bike was loosing out on traction. Alterations to conventional outfits had progressed their cornering options and my little bike was suffering at the hands of these changes. I needed to move with the times and decided to try an ex-campaigned Jock Taylor outfit. I was to find out though that this was not necessarily a good idea and we went backwards. John Parkins had how now retired and my first passenger, brother in law Stewart Atkinson had returned. The Taylor outfit was, by my standards, a disaster. Going back to the Busch after widening it was a little better so I continued competing but less seriously and, certainly without the results that I had become accustomed to.

In 1986, I decided to have a real good go again after this time in my self governed wilderness and bought a new chassis from Trevor Ireson. Trev had been a competitor and friend since our early days and had build good chassis throughout his race years. Over the more recent years, his own chassis had brought him success particularly in the Isle of Man where the TT’s still meant a lot to me. I was on my own by now and without support, but I was prepared to spend a lot of money to have a real crack at the TT again. I felt sure of another win if I had the correct tackle. I took delivery of Trev’s bike in the spring, put it together and went to Donington to check it out. It felt lovely first time and within a few laps was equalling my previous best times at the circuit. A few adjustments and giving my all soon exceeded my expectations and I realised how the Busch, my trusty lovely Busch, had turned from the best thing on the planet to the worst in a matter of a few years. Racing had developed so quickly and I hadn’t seen it coming. So, of we went to the Isle of Man. Unfortunately though, as with other leading competitors, we were finding that the Yamaha engines, without a particularly high state of tune, were starting to show signs of stress and failing. For me, it became extremely difficult. I was not competing during lead up to the TT which meant that we were arriving at the island on untried equipment and the test to some components became too much for some engine parts. After many years of competing and finishing races, in particular during a successful 70’s, I thought that it was time to pack up and call it a day. The sad thing is that regardless of the expense that competitors put into the 80’s and 90’s with the sophistication and technology, regardless of the spectacle that sidecar racing provided, the GP circus got too big and sidecars lost GP status. There are now no international meetings for them (there were often meetings in Britain and Europe that, like the solos, encouraged massive support from GP riders) and spectators miss out. Unfortunately, newcomers to our sport may be unaware of the excitement generated by sidecar racing and the passion that it brought to the national and international race programmes up until the late 90’s. It is great though, at least, that the TT still provides for the sidecar formula 2 class and it still is popular and going strong.

This year is the centenary year of TT’s in the Isle of Man. I hope for confirmation of my entry to the celebrations. At present I am spending all of my spare hours in preparing a sidecar, complete with a Yamaha across the chassis 4 cylinder 2 stroke motor exactly as we campaigned in the 70’s and 80’s and I would love to be sat on it doing a lap of the best course in the world. For all who read this, I hope to see you there on a lap.

Best wishes, Dick Greasley