Jessie Meek attends her first Mike Pero Southern Classic to experience first hand the nostalgia and adrenalin of some of the best classic motorcycle racing New Zealand has to offer.
Words by Jessie Meek | Photos by Jessie Meek and Shot by Skinny
This was my first Southern Classic. It was the first time I’d seen machines from Pre-WWII to the mid-nineties all in one place – and many about to go racing. It was a petri-dish for classic motorcycle racing: from beautiful 2 Stroke Grand Prix bikes, classic sidecars, F1, F2, F3 bikes and Superbikes, as well as a huge combined field of F4 and Development (Supersport 150) bikes. The latter of which made for some exciting racing with competitors constantly dusting each other up and this was also a great chance for the younger generation and less classic-oriented riders to become involved at a Classic event. The Southern Classic is fast securing itself as a not-to-be-missed event on the Kiwi family calendar, and a delectable visual, auditory and olfactory smorgasbord for lovers of vintage, classic, post-classic, Superbikes and Grand Prix machines.
Brent Cotton and I were to race the 1989 Mo Haley built FZR1000 “Agip”, offered to us by mutual friend and owner, Warwick Demmocks. We had a collection of all things Agip (now known as ENI) including display material careful put together by the dedicated previous owner, Warren Wilson. We managed to secure an Agip sign written vehicle and some product for the weekend, too, all thanks to Brent’s workplace, Transdiesel, suppliers of ENI oils and lubricants.
Both of us had passengered on sidecars previously but we were both relatively inexperienced, and neither of us had seriously ridden one. We had had one practice afternoon at Ruapuna a week prior and with only minor “teething” issues, we considered ourselves to be as ready as we were ever going to be. We arrived at Levels Raceway on Thursday afternoon and already there were around 50-60 people setting up their pits, and staking claim to their new home for the next three days. Food vendors were setting up and there was a rally-like atmosphere building.
With over 200 riders and 330 class entries, this year’s Southern Classic has nearly doubled in size since its inception in 2014. It was then that CAMS (Classic Action Motorcycle Sport) initiated the first Southern Classic event – always held at Levels International Raceway – to celebrate the club’s 25th Anniversary. It wasn’t until 2016, when Mike Pero came on board as naming rights sponsor, that the event began to pull more big names such as Stu Avant and Graeme Crosby. Because of the organisational efficiency and professionalism from the CAMS committee, along with repeat sponsors and support from Mike Pero, racing legends and people of significance return year after year. This year included names such as Aaron Slight, Jock and John Woodley, John Boote, Kevin Magee, Robbie Phyllis, Graeme Crosby, Dennis Charlett and Paul Treacy.
It was overcast with a mild breeze – ideal for racing even though there would be none today. There was already a small stream of people taking their machines through scrutineering, but we felt no rush and instead set up our very yellow-themed pit area. That ate away the rest of the afternoon and it was now evening. We went to explore, two-up, on the one pushbike we had. Our travels around the pits was a lot of fun, I was perched on the handlebars and occasionally I broke out my B-grade rendition of The Titanic's “I’m flying” scene.
We stopped for lots of conversations with people we knew, before heading back to our pit. We had it well-decked out with a “full kitchen” set up, all tucked up against the trees. This hideaway was where we had our dinner, any romanticism, however, was severely subdued by a nearby generator and so we retired to our “elite-trailer-caravan-Airbnb” (mattress in the back of the trailer).
Friday morning was a beauty, I woke up early enough to enjoy near-silence in the pits – unheard of, surely! After a walk around the track, some neighbourhood pit talks and breakfast, we headed through to sign on and have our gear checked. All riders, including sidecar riders, received a goodie bag (these still excite me even as an adult) which included a free mug. I, as mere sidecar passenger, received only a named plaque, though I was truthfully chuffed with my participation award having yet to win any actual road race. Plus, Brent said I could have the mug – score!
It’s now 8.30am engines are revving, the sun is beaming. After a no-nonsense rider’s briefing, practice after practice rolled out. CAMS run a tight ship, a well-oiled machine with call-ups and timing handled expertly. The work of the CAMS club, their president, Dave Reesby, and event coordinator Sue van den Heuvel, has not gone unnoticed by Mike Pero, and he is forthcoming with praise of whole CAMS team and deeply admires the essence of the event ever since seeing the “good bones” it had, just over three years ago. His relationship with CAMS for this event is simple, he says, they will meet shortly before the next Southern Classic followed by a 30 min debrief over coffee.
Every time I saw Mike Pero he was smiling, and I saw him a lot, as we had to go past him to get anywhere – scrutineering, the kitchen, the bathroom, the commentary box. Mike’s interest in motorcycles began at age 15, shortly after he pursued an apprenticeship when he turned 17. He continued to be involved with motorcycles until 1985 when family and business matters took priority and it wasn’t until 2013 that he returned to motorcycles. Mike explains that this will be his last season racing, and even though it’s only social, “there comes a time to hang up your helmet”. He emphasised his pleasure at having the Australian contingent attend and intends for the event to grow and improve each year, “Long may it last” he says, smiling again.
Practice was a mixed bag for us, on the on hand it was glorious fun, and on the other, we were twice cursed with fuel pump issues that lost us a lot of track time. A quick trip into Timaru to grab a replacement pump had us going again, but by this time, and after a very rough qualifying lap, my tailbone (broken a few weeks earlier doing wheelies) was most unhappy – but I had pushed myself to get through qualifying. I wasn’t feeling particularly stable on the bike either as I didn’t feel my weight was having much effect, we had tried a few position changes at various points during practice but it was hard to tell if it made much of a difference with the constant fuel problem hindering any consistency. The Agip weighs around 350kg and with Brent piloting with the engine underneath him there was a weight bias to the right. I’m 56kgs and it’s just me and the chair wheel on the left. At one point I had managed to get my left knee jammed between the passenger tray grip and the sidewheel fairing during a changeover as we were coming into the right-hand hairpin. That wasn’t especially pleasant and the adrenalin that pumping through my body trying to recover from that meant I’d used up much more energy than I needed to and we only managed to qualify 4th.
It wasn’t all bad however, it’s a great view behind the classic chairs. I have a huge amount of respect for them now that I know a little more about them and having now been passed by, and followed, by a few. The braking capacity of some of the older model chairs differs quite a bit to the – relatively modern by comparison – Agip, and while we were quick down the straight, they tended to be faster through the corners and so we instigated the ol’ “slow down, to go fast” technique. Which in reality meant, we didn’t fancy being t-boned at 170 km per hour because we weren’t yet carrying decent corner speed.
The classic boys and girls throw their machines into the corners and just sledge it round – tyres squealing, smoke everywhere – it’s pretty badass. Passengers on some classic chairs are lying superman prone down the straight, leaping into position out to the left at the end of the straight, and laying half their body over the track just inches below, then they’d acrobat over to the right for the hairpin. It was almost worth being behind them, watching them was incredible and I felt suitably lazy by comparison. Back at the pits I had a breather and began to write some notes but then who should walk by but Stephen Maynard-Smith, Technical Steward and on my list of people to talk to.
Stephen started with CAMs two years after the club had been formed, riding a BSA Goldstar CB34GS 500 and a 1976 Yamaha 125GP bike. He raced Sydenham street circuit and the dirt road track at Cust. Stephen also rode the Goldstar many times round Wigram and was at the very last Wigram meeting, riding the oldest motorcycle and he told me ‘those were the days now long gone to history’. Stephen rode a TZ250, TZ350 and a Moriwaki KR600 prior to CAMS when he was a member of the then Canterbury Autocycle Union. Stephen was also one of a very small handful that created the famous ‘dipper’ at Ruapuna and has photos of the construction. In the 1985-86 season, he took second place in the NZGP in Sydenham, Christchurch on a 50cc Yamaha. The circuit consisted of Carlyle Street as the main straight. I am currently in possession of a photo album of some of his racing back then, and I can tell you Stephen looks quite dashing in his eighties leathers and helmet. We had a good laugh when he showed me the photos! It was a big deal, he said when he upgraded to an AGV helmet with clear and tinted visor options.
He eventually stepped away from CAMS as other things in his life took priority but returned about four years ago when CAMS asked him to examine some machines. Having done technical duties at a GP held at Ruapuna, Motorcycling New Zealand (MNZ) then approached Stephen about becoming a Technical Steward for both motocross and road racing, a job which involves ensuring bikes meet technical requirements as laid out in MNZ’s Manual of Motorcycle Sport. At that point, they had been without a Technical Steward for several years!
He takes his role as Technical Steward seriously and carries out inspections thoroughly, and with a calm and thoughtful demeanour, he is well suited for the role. For Stephen, coming to the Southern Classic, and seeing Jock Woodley, with whom he used to race some 20 years ago, was simple nostalgia; “It’s how racing was when I was on TZs, the comradery, the bikes – the atmosphere”. When Kevin Magee, Graham ‘Croz’ Crosby, John Woodley and Jock Woodley arrived at the event it was ‘Gidday mate! Great to see you again!’ all round. At the end of the weekend, Stephen thanked several people for attending, including Kiwi Croz and the Australian former Grand Prix motorcycle road racer, Kevin Magee. Kevin shook his hand and told him “Steve mate, this is what motorcycle racing is all about!”
Saturday at 8.50am was rider’s briefing. I was solemn after yesterday and feeling a bit sorry for myself. I had just made the premature decision to offer passengering to the only other person we knew that was available and had passengered before, even if only once. It was a premature decision because, had I known how much smoother and faster the bike would be running after resolving the fuel issue, I’m sure my broken tailbone would have coped. The new passenger was Brent’s eldest son, Jack. I offered a little passengering advice, and after only one practice and the bike finally running well, things were looking up for Team Agip.
Brent and Jack continued to improve, it probably helped that Jack was significantly heavier than me, though still relatively slow, they managed to win race two. The win was due to the two quickest bikes missing the call-up, however, they still managed to post the fastest lap time. Unfortunately, mid-afternoon on Saturday they managed to crack the front brake rotor and there was no replacement available at short notice, the rotor we did manage to get would require engineering overnight. We didn’t want to ask anyone to stay up all night, so sadly it was the end of the weekend for the Agip. Everyone suddenly became very busy trying to offer solutions to Brent, but knowing all was lost, I left him to fend for himself and I went to find my friend Av.
If there is one great female ambassador for motorcycle racing in NZ it is without any doubt, Avalon Biddle. Not only is she diplomatic and friendly with people, but she is a demon on a motorcycle, and this season she will be riding her Kawasaki Ninja 600 in the NZSBK Championship.
I caught up with Avalon only briefly this time, standing back to let her chat with other riders and members of the public requesting signatures and photos from her. She dealt with being socially bombarded with practised ease and still managed to keep me included in the conversations and tell me about the RGB she had just ridden. The 1987 RGB 500 was offered to her, by owner Paul Edwards, who unfortunately could not attend the event. Stu Avant (ex chch racer) bought the bike over from Australia, and Avalon was their first choice of rider to ride it here at the Southern Classic.
When she received the offer she immediately responded in the affirmative. It was an amazing offer, she said, and although she still can’t believe she said yes, she also acknowledged that, “…and you’d know this too Jess, sometimes you have to put yourself out there”, and she is glad she did. Having had 4-5 years’ experience riding 125s she was very prepared for a bike like this and having just been out on track she said she had “no time to be nervous” before jumping on the RGB for the first time. At the end of the weekend, the only injury she received was sore cheeks from smiling too much!
By late afternoon, my introvert shell was beginning to crack so I went and hermitted in our “elite-trailer-caravan-Airbnb”. I emerged about an hour later fully charged and ready for our BBQ dinner, courtesy of our new classic sidecar family. We had a great evening socialising, but unfortunately missed the Q&A sessions with the legends as we had started to reassemble the Agip in order to have it on display and ready for transportation home. I did hear though, that the talks were fantastic, and everyone seemed to have a great night.
Sunday bought morning rain and soggy sneakers, but the sky soon cleared, and track declared dry. There were a few delays in racing, with a couple of crashes and bike pick-ups, but this was well covered by commentary from Phil Dark and Graeme “Spyda” Staples. They held several interviews including talks with Graeme Crosby, Robbie Phyllis, Kevin Magee and Paul Treacy. I managed to make it to the commentary box and get a few words in commentary during the Development/Supersport 150 class. Afterwards, I had a quick chat with Phil Dark.
I asked him if there was an art to commentary, he doesn’t think so, his approach is to simply to “wing it”. He did tell me about a common saying amongst those in the TV/Radio industry, and that is that when commentating, it is important to cater to a specific audience and this was “the mother of five from Papakura”. Phil will be doing the TV commentary and producing for the Cemetery Circuit street race on boxing day, as he has done for the last 19 years. Phil loves what he does and thinks commentating is “the best job in the world”.
Not having the Agip to run on Sunday, did relax the day for Brent and I significantly, giving us more of an opportunity to enjoy the event and socialise. The Agip garnered a steady stream of interested members of the public and fellow riders throughout the weekend, and I met a lot of folks who wanted to talk about their own projects and experiences. I collated a list of people who I think have some interesting stories I want to tell and some beautiful motorcycles that deserve public appreciation.
We all got to experience a special treat on Sunday. Gary Cotterill not only raced a ’62 Manx Norton 500, a ’72 Triumph Trident 750 and ’95 GRC Supermono 720 during the weekend, but he then managed to sneak away and bring back his replica Spitfire. In an - unexpected to me because I failed to read the whole program – aerial display, he flew low over the track several times at various angles, much to everyone’s delight. It was an awesome touch for the last day of an epic weekend. The younger generations got to experience a little old school racing the way it used to be, those old enough got to relive their youth, and everyone got to admire the machines.
The Southern Classic allows us to be taken back to when cigarette and alcohol sponsors, and camping at the racetrack, was the norm. At one point, as I stood chatting with Av, she motioned to the men standing around outside the scrutineering bay. They were wearing old-school leathers, leaning up against the shed, smoking, with white-coated scrutineers working away behind them – anyone could have taken a photo and believed it to be 1980. The Southern Classic brings back the past and makes it present, and it’s a beautiful nostalgia.