Moto Road Racing Mixes With Vintage Metal At The Barry Sheene Festival
Photography by Will Broadhead
It’s late July in England, so of course it’s raining. A lot. The deluge against the roof and window’s kept me awake for most of the night, and at 4am when my alarm goes off it only rings once. I’m already wide awake and excited, because today is for motorcycle road racing.
“Oh, England, the Isle of Man?” Actually, no. Sure the TT is the most famous road race of them all, and I (don’t really) dare say it, the greatest competition on the planet. Everyone who likes racing knows of the TT, but that’s just a piece, as almost every weekend during the summer months, the bravest of the brave clamber aboard their motorcycles and race each other and the clock simultaneously, on closed public roads, through villages and on country lanes barely a car-width wide in some places.
On this particular weekend, I am making the five-hour drive up to Scarborough, not for any kind of fair, but for the Barry Sheene Festival of Motorcycling at the Oliver’s Mount circuit. “The Mount,” as they call it, is probably one of road racing’s best-kept secrets. Situated on an area of high ground above the town, the circuit winds its way up and down the parkland on narrow lanes, passing all too close to the lining of trees and fences. Thought to have been a site for the guns of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War, it now plays host to the big guns of racing, and is steeped in its own history as a racing circuit. Currently it holds four race meetings each year, including the Barry Sheene Festival, a celebration of all things classic. On the namesake, Sheene won here in the ’70s and ’80s when the circuit enjoyed more time in the spotlight than it does now.
Many of the fans arriving trackside for this year’s event came to treat their senses to the barrage of sensory inputs given off of Barry’s original Suzuki XR14 500cc grand prix machine. The 1976 world championship-winning motorcycle has been meticulously restored by the Suzuki vintage parts program under the curatorship of former Team Suzuki mechanics Martyn Orgborne and Nigel Everett. The famous #7 was featured in a number of parade laps during the weekend, with Sheene’s son, Freddie, onboard. As well as an array of other classic Suzuki machinery—including old TLs, RGs, and TRs of various capacities—there were also appearances from Steve Parish on the XR’s sister bike, and David Hailwood on his father’s 500cc Honda Four.
It was an indulgence for the senses indeed, as reflected by the crowd of fans that gathered around the Suzuki truck awning trying to get a view of the bikes starting up. There are no airs of exclusivity in road racing, and it’s a long way from the glitz and privacy of series like MotoGP. Here the public can get up close and personal with their heroes and their machinery, with open paddocks and a distinct lack of security barriers. This is why, as the starter motor is placed under the back wheel of the Suzi’ #7, there’s barely room for the mechanics to work with the crowd tucked in around them. Steve Parish, teammate to the dearly missed Sheene, chats amiably with people in the crowd, and, why shouldn’t he? We are all just classic bike fans at the end of the day! It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve achieved, there’s a unity amongst the racers and fans at a road race that is refreshing in this, the age of the celebrity.
It isn’t all about the parades though, there’s some serious racing to be done. As the clouds of two-stroke and the smells of Castrol R eventually dissipate, the grid begins to fill and the excitement builds amongst the crowd that’s pressed up tight against the wooden fences, the only thing between them and the circuit. You can feel the buzz in the atmosphere as ears strain waiting for the sound of engines.
Many I spoke to were here for their first ever road race; the first dose often becomes a life-long addiction. You can’t escape it, you’re stood up so close to it that you really can feel the force of the riders passing by in blurs. Liter Superbikes, flat out, so close you can hear the riders thinking. Or at least you could if the bikes weren’t so loud. It’s an assault on your nerves just to be in the crowd, barely comprehensible, almost unexplainable. But you always, always want more.
After the riders scream out of the blocks, it’s a short drag to the first corner; the exceptionally tight Mere Hairpin. Hard on the brakes, fighting for space, banging fairings through the curve’s entire sweep before the long and steep ascent up Sheene’s Rise. These names are reflective of the illustrious roster of competitors who have taken on “The Mount.” Hurtling onward, the narrow lanes continue past the café on the right and the war memorial looking out over the town and the North Sea before the steep descent begins. The pilots plunge towards Mountainside Hairpin before the terrifying challenge of Jefferies Jump, named after the late and very great David Jefferies. The fastest through here will at times have two wheels off the ground with the machine still angled over, mid-turn. Then as the bikes reach terminal velocity, they careen out of the trees, darkness switching to daylight in less than a second during the final assault on the start-finish line.
As always, the racing this weekend didn’t disappoint, with a mix of old and new machinery going head to head. Unlike the TT, which is a time trial, at the Mount the racers go off in a pack. They’re racing harrowingly close to each other, and during the first lap as the pack take off over Jefferies Jump, they’re airborne and just inches apart. The racing is hard, but they trust each other. The have to. The thought of something going wrong is, well, it’s just not talked about. It would be cataclysmic at such speed, so close to trees. To fences. Lamp posts. Spectators.
So, why do it? Is it too unsafe to support? If you’ve been to a road race like this, I think you will understand. If you haven’t, you might want to add it to the list, and Scarborough wouldn’t be a bad place to start. An incredible mix of machinery both old and new, and practically unrivaled access to it all. Normal people racing on an extraordinary circuit, doing extraordinary things. Most will leave to go back to work on Monday in a wholly different occupation than hauling ass on a motorcycle. Spectators will return to their work week too. Both though, will be itching to return. To feel the excitement and the rush. To get the next hit, if you will, of Oliver’s Mount. Possibly the best kept secret in road racing, and one I urge you to discover!