That Man Duke is A Wizard
by Bill Young
The old travel stained Willys poked her ugly snout around the corner on the gravel track which served as a road from Gingin to Mooliabeenie. It bumped and groaned as it gained enough speed to ride on the tops of the corrugations instead of going up and down each hole and gully. At any other time it’s occupants would have bumped and groaned also, but today it was different; the air of anticipation was much too strong to allow physical discomfort to override it. For today was the day “D” Day standing for “Duke” -the greatest road racing man of the time.
I doubt if any Kings Morton Member can imagine the feelings of enthusiasts here when they knew that “His Highness” as I have heard him called, was riding on our local course, practically on our doorstep. We read of these master men, study their pictures, records, performances and eagerly devour any information we may get, but to actually see such a man in the flesh, to say nothing of a brace of Gileras, is almost beyond our most ambitious hopes and wildest dreams.
Of course I had met Geoff before, when we were both at Norton’s, but the memory made me even keener to see him in action again.
You see the last time I saw him was a certain Friday morning in June, two hours prior to the start of an event called the Senior T.T. I was well positioned at the foot of Bray Hill passing the time away by watching the various vehicles trundling down that famous slope. Eventually even those two hours passed, the roads were closed, zero hour, a hush went through the crowd, the maroon shot skywards, necks craned, and then.... Bear in mind, I knew Geoff reasonably well. I helped him build his last Trials Norton, and then helped him christen it, often as a matter of fact, chatted with him every day that he was at the factory, and he always struck me as a thorough gentleman and a motorcyclist, a combination, which to me, at the time, was rare, later on I was to find many more of that type in England, but I was new then.
There was a terrific roar, a confused impression of a rider-less projectile so low was its rider crouched, a streak of red from a number on his back and I stood petrified, I was certain I was about to witness a terrible smash, nothing could negotiate the corner at that frightful speed. I don’t remember seeing him go round either, I may have closed my eyes, but the roar of sound receded to rise again momentarily as the wheels lifted off the rise of the road on the way to Quarter Bridge. I sat down and trembled.
Yes, the Isle of Man, Mecca of a million memories, the lush green and wooded slopes, little fairy glens which are said to contain elfs and pixies and probably do, the wheeling gulls soaring on a chill moist wind off the Irish sea
How much different is the scene today. The rough track winding up and down through the bare brown foothills, scorched sunburnt slopes, dusty sheep foraging for feed in the parched paddocks, the fitful east wind sending fingers of dust reaching for a cloudless sky, over all the unwinking sun and the shimmering heat of another midsummer day.
Musing as I drove along, quite a step from the Isle of Man to Mooliabeenie, from mist of mountain to mirage on the main straight, as it were.
Crash!, an unexpected dry watercourse across the track jolted my wandering thoughts back to the job in hand, simultaneously a lively tune overwhelms the creaking of the Willy’s timbers, the jolt had started our portable wireless, hidden in the rear under the piles of miscellaneous merchandise that good wives consider necessary for the day’s outing.
The tune grows louder and a hillbilly crooner yodels the song of Mandrake the outlaw horse that nobody could ride. “Mandrake is a wizard, that’s how he got his name” How well that applies to the present occasion, I thought; substitute “Duke” for “Drake” and the words are very appropriate.
With the tune still in our ears the turn off to the airstrip is in sight and our early start pays when we drive straight in and up to that magnetic spot, the pits. Although practice is not for an hour the pits are crowded, a jumble of rakish machines, trucks, trailers, tins, tools, perspiring officials trying to keep the curious out, said curious even more keen on the idea of staying in, and because of the growing heat plus unfair advantage of numbers, largely succeeding. Riders are yarning or making some last minute adjustment, good sports all, well knowing they stood no chance today, but proud of the opportunity of riding in such company.
The Gileras and Geoff, had not yet arrived, we had tried to save him from as much heat as possible so rather than have him out in the sun his arrival was timed for a little later. Like that two hours at Bray, the waiting time now seemed long, but no, here he is punctually on the stroke of ten for the start of practice. The Gilera with him was reverently unloaded and as the public had not seen it before, it became a centre of interest immediately, fortunately I had preview a week earlier- but that’s another story. Giovanni Fumagalli (Johnny to you) the Italian mechanic, attired in a multi-coloured straw hat, shorts, sandals and a wide grin, was guarding it like a mother hen with her chickens. Johnny had been with us for a week prior to Geoff’s arrival and had been shown our beaches in no uncertain manner, as a result his skin was fast becoming a close second to that of Australia’s original inhabitants. That he spoke no English and we no Italian didn’t mean a thing, we got on fine. Geoff, however was not enjoying the sunshine so greatly, we had managed to persuade him to buy a hat on the previous day, have you ever seen him with a straw hat and skin tight leathers on? He looks like a cross between a hula girl and a spaceman. Sorry Geoff but if we had let you melt what trouble we’d have been in with the F.I.M. wouldn’t we?
However, that straw hat was changed for one of more practical uses, that is if you were seated on a Gilera. Many hands helped push and our eager ears were at last proving that they were there for other purposes than for storing stray lead pencils.
Never has the Australian bush echoed to a more soul stirring snarl, a tearing rasping snarl and the acceleration was something I thought was only in the sphere of jet aircraft. A few laps and he was in, Johnny had the plugs out, new hard ones in, the rear wheel out, resprocketed and in again almost before you could swot three flies. Geoff swopped hats, sweated, swotted flies and signed autographs. Another hat change, more melodious music and he was back again not very happy with the “slippy” bits here and there. Lunch time, a forest of brooms, and an army of pushers, me too, and the “slippy” top surface was put where it wouldn’t worry anyone bar the ants, and Geoff, was made reasonably happy again, except for the heat.
Around at our very select clump of gum trees he was given one to sit against, his lunch, a few words of cheer and his straw hat, his lunch was returned, a block of ice for soothing the brow took it’s place and Geoff spent lunch time in his own words “feeling very second-hand”. Did I mention it was hot? You don’t know what heat is. He does now. Skin-tight leathers are not seen in the men’s stores amongst “suitable summer suits”. It was at least 100 degrees in the shade, our shade was filtered stuff where the gum leaves were in the right places, where they were in the wrong places it just wasn’t shade.
Zero hour drew near, one of our party, Geoff’s host by the way, was never been noted for tact, to illustrate my point, picture the scene as I have drawn it, imagine yourself, Geoffrey Duke,O.B.E., five times World Champion, then imagine a toe in those “second-hand” ribs and a loud voice say “Righto Maestro, get up and earn your dough, you’re on”. That Geoff could still smile just made me even more sure of what I thought some years ago in Birmingham, he is a motorcyclist and a gentleman.
The place where we had lunch is called the esses, it is, as the name applies, a wiggly bit,taken by men with urgent business at the right hander following at 90 per , it is the best part or the 2.6 mile circuit but had one disadvantage, you can’t be there and see the start also.
We heard the start, the sudden thunder of two dozen racing machines rolled across the dividing bush, a minute of breathless suspense a red machine in the distance sweeping off the right hander, yes it’s Geoff Duke alright, that snarl again , a beautiful swoop right, flick left ( not too much flick , remember the slippy bits ) and he was gone leaving me with that trembling knee trouble again.
Behind him 100 yards to the bad, George Scott ’53 I.O.M.T.T.Rep. hurled his screaming Grand Prix Triumph, the pack in frenzied pursuit, so closely bunched it was difficult to distinguish identities. Fancied local champ Peter Nicol lay about forth on his G45, a machine which had gone well in practice but now unfortunately “had gone off the boil”.
Geoff kept trying, for concentration he said, as a result the distance widened and the lap record became a little “second-hand” also, furious battles waged in his wake. George Scott after holding the runner-up position for most of the race had to be content with third place, the tenacious boy from the bush being surprise of the day, Jack Rowe, on his alcohol eating double-knocker Norton. We found out later the Triumph gearbox was stuck in third.
Geoff was brought back from the start, to his shady spot at the esses, feeling a little better, he was offered his gum tree back, he hat was exchanged and a 125 c.c race was held in the meantime, also the sea breeze came in ,nearly forgot that,and that’s important because the temperature was then on the way down.
No doubt impressed by the Champion’s performance his host did not actually kick him into life again for his second and last race, as a matter of fact he suggested that Geoff had given the crowd enough for that day considering the conditions, To Geoff’s eternal credit he insisted on riding again, hoping the 12 laps might be reduced, it wasn’t, but the old “second-hand” record was. With the cooler conditions, Geoff really rode as no one has ridden before, that he would win was certain but to lap all but George Scott, who was this time stayed second, was a remarkable performance of the artist he undoubtedly is. A fine ride for the other place was put up by Dave Fletcher on the 7R brought back from the I.O.M. last year by Scott.
The record suffered breakages four laps in succession.Originally at around the 80 mark, Johnny had forecast a 5 mph improvement. Geoff evidently thought 6.6 mph was a nice round figure and that is where it finished.
The race over , he was driven back when the crowd released him, and in the doubtful privacy of a sedan parked under the gum trees, those sweat soaked leathers were peeled off, and Geoff for the first time that day was comfortably attired in a pair of blue shorts and nothing much else, His googgles were smashed by a flying stone,and his sunburnt face showed a streak of blood from that encounter, but I think he was a lot happier then, than he had been all day.
He had established new race and lap records, thrilled a crowd of 12,000 with his masterly riding, impressed all with his fine sportsmanship, proved himself in a class of his own and lapped all but one of his rivals, There he stood, drinking a well earned cup of tea and under those old gum trees as the shadows lengthened I could see in the hazy distance that other unconquered thoroughbred and hear again those haunting words of that hill-billy song.....
.”They’re all the same to Mandrake, Champions all”
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