GP racing in 1964 was a very different place to the high-tech, professional set up of today.
Tommy Robb was a multiple GP winner and a factory rider for both Honda and the Spanish Bultaco factory.
During his illustrious career Tommy came second in the 1962 350cc World Championship and third in the 125 class. His story is one of a rider who actually made a living from full time racing – at a time when a lot of GP racers fitted Grands Prix in between working in more mainstream occupations.
Robb rode any motorcycle for anyone, anywhere – as long as he was paid! He competed on everything from 50cc single cylinder machines to 1000cc fours – and everything in between. It didn’t matter whether the bike was two-stroke or four-stroke, big or small, a professional rider in the 1960s was expected to get on it and go fast immediately. This is in stark contrast to the infinite amount of testing done today.
The great thing about talking to Tommy is that he doesn’t look back on his time as a professional motorcycle racer through rose tinted goggles. He acknowledges the problems, not to say horrendous danger, of racing in the 1960s but equally rejoices in the pleasure of being a professional rider in the sport he loved.
Here are a few of Tommy’s memories from this Golden Age of GP racing:
“The one thing which strikes me every time I watch MotoGP on TV is how riders can walk away from crashes. Most of the circuits we raced on were public roads and if you crashed then there was a high risk of serious injury – and a fair chance of dying. Racing was dangerous.
“We also expected to look after ourselves. Except when I rode for Honda I worked on my own bikes, booked my own hotels and drove my own van to meetings. I’ll give you an example.
“I always liked the Easter meetings in England because I could make good money but it was tough. I would leave Belfast (in Northern Ireland) on Thursday and catch the overnight ferry to Liverpool. I didn’t bother with sleep and I would get straight off the ferry and drive directly to Brands Hatch. Liverpool to Brands was 250 miles and in the early days there were no motorways (four lane highways).
“I would race all day at Brands – and every race was tough with a lot of works bikes and top riders. Throughout the meeting, I would be working on my own bikes and snatching what food I could throughout the day. There was no team catering and no-one to help me!
“Immediately after my last race I would be packing the van and then hopefully collecting my prize money. Even whilst the racing was continuing at Brands, I would be leaving the circuit and then driving the 100 miles to Snetterton.
“Snetterton was a faster track so I had to change the gearing and carburation first thing in the morning and then race all day – again, hard races against hard men. Again, it was just me, so riders had to be really handy with the spanners and able to work under pressure.
“The moment I could, the bikes were loaded up and I drove overnight to Oulton – another 220 miles but this time without any motorways at all.
“I would arrive at Oulton at maybe 4am or 5am, snatch an hour’s sleep and then another day of hard racing.
“If everything had gone well, I would have earned a decent wage from the three events but if it didn’t then I wouldn’t. You either made your money on your performance – or didn’t and there was no safety net.
“If the GPs fell wrongly then the going was really tough too. I drove from Barcelona in Spain to Imatra in Finland in one go. That was nearly 2,300 miles and the only sleep I got was on the two ferry crossings.
“You need to remember that I didn’t feel special or treated badly. This is what we all did. It was hard for me but it was hard for everyone. It was just life as a professional racer and that’s what I was.
“If it was a good trip, with a bit of spare time, I would call in and see friends in different countries on the way to and from GPs. This was great.
“The big breakthrough in travelling was the arrival of the new Ford Transit van in 1965. This was really luxurious compared with the older Ford Thames and I had a bigger engine fitted in mine and it drove very well. There were no Motorhomes though!
“I didn’t train, like modern riders do, because the life-style kept me fit but I wasn’t a party animal either.
“We didn’t know much about diets, and what we should eat, but we knew what was bad for us and so I tried to eat good food – steak was a favorite.
“GPs followed a fairly standard pattern. If I had the caravan with me, I would have cornflakes or Rice Krispies for breakfast and then either get my bikes ready myself or go down to the Honda garage and speak to Aika San, the team manager.
“Even with Honda, there was very little you could do to the bikes unless something was actually broken. You could help the mechanics by telling them that the bike was over geared or it wasn’t pulling well out of a particular corner but that was it. You were the rider and your job was to ride the bike and get on with it.
“This is why Mike Hailwood was so good. He didn’t have a clue about anything mechanical or how to set a bike up. He was just a genius at riding so he won on whatever anyone gave him. The mechanics loved him!
“I was a factory Bultaco rider, and a personal friend of Senor Bulto who owned the factory, but this didn’t mean what it does today.
“Bultaco couldn’t afford to send mechanics anywhere, except the GPs near to Spain, so I worked on the bikes myself. They were good machines but seized in a flash. As I have said, you don’t want to be sliding down the road at 100mph towards a stone wall!
“I had to be very, very careful with the carburation on the Bultacos so that they didn’t seize.
“There was no corporate hospitality so in between races, when I wasn’t working on the bikes, I would grab a burger.
“I would also chat to journalists many of whom were my friends. There was no PR or Press Officers. Journalists asked questions about racing and we told them the truth.
“At a GP where I had done well, I would earn anything between £80 ($120) and £100 ($150). The payment came in two parts. First, was the prize money. This was the easy bit because it was all above board.
“We also got paid start money – money for being at the meeting – paid out when we completed at least one lap. This was much more difficult.
“I used to feel intensely, blazingly furious at standing in line like a naughty schoolboy and then having to argue with some organizer when I had risked my life to bring his paying crowds into the race. There was a real sense of injustice.
“Eventually, we would get paid in cash, in an envelope, and it was off to the next GP or international.
“As a means of making a living it was terrible but as a way of life I wouldn’t have swapped places with anyone in the world.”