Saying Goodbye To Goodwood With A Look At Its Vintage Racing Motorcycles
Photography by Will Broadhead
A whistle sounds and the board indicating five minutes to go is displayed. All of a sudden, they appear. The racers, some stretching in preparation for the hunched racing that is soon to take place on the Goodwood Motor Circuit. They are clad head to toe in leather, some with helmets already on, some clutching them at their sides. Almost in unison with their arrival, bikes start to spark into life around the holding area, the atmosphere filling with the smells and sounds of two-strokes and reflected sunlight shaking on the polished fairings of a few as their heartbeats vibrate their shells. In these last pre-race moments the place is chaos; people are everywhere and nobody really knows where to look or go it seems. Star riders are mixed in amongst more ordinary club racers. Names like Parish, Spencer, Dunlop, and Grant. These guys know a thing or two about racing a motorcycle, but what do they know about the classic machines they are about to straddle, I wonder?
Another whistle and “two minutes” is displayed, and the marshal trades the board for another: one minute to go. Then 30 seconds, then, noise. There is nothing that gets as close to my heart as the growl of a mid-20th century motorcycle engine. Sure, modern bikes howl and scream to infinity and that’s impressive from an engineering perspective surely, but where’s the character and soul? I’ll even admit that the noise of a two-stroke GP bike makes me feel slightly nostalgic for my youth, days of watching Rainey and Schwantz battle it out, but is it the noise or the smell of those 500 strokers that really does it? No, I’m standing my ground and saying that the ’50s and ’60s produced some of the best sounding, most diverse, and most beautiful bikes there have ever been, so it was to my absolute delight to learn that the Goodwood Revival Barry Sheene Memorial Trophy is now an annual thing, a piece of the weekend’s lauded roster that’s going to be enjoyed alongside the other staples.
Thinking about this, it’s strange to note that Goodwood never regularly hosted motorcycle racing back in its heyday. What is true though, is that its popularity as part of the Revival weekend grows and grows with each version of the moto racing event held here, as evidenced by the fans that line the tracks and pour onto the roofs of the pits for this two-rider per bike competition.
It’s an enthusiasm that’s also measurable by the sheer number of star names wanting to be involved in this event. Even the retiring and usually shy Guy Martin is here, relaxed and happy to be out on an old thumper. TT stars, short circuit experts, clubmen, and ex-Grand Prix heroes are all mixed in amongst the Nortons, MV Agustas, and Matchless machines to name a few.
Looking around at the different marques, it quickly became clear that no two bikes are the same at this stage in their lives. Even the Manx Nortons, of which there are many, have their own idiosyncrasies. That’s one of the great things about classic racing, of any discipline: machines are easily picked out for the individual engineering solutions applied to them. Different engines, different amounts of cylinders, footrests mounted in different places, tanks made entirely independently for the bike. These are hallmarks of classic car racing as well and give me reasons to stare at these fabulous beasts in their garages for much longer than the sunlight or event marshals will allow. For me though, there are two bikes here that I covet far more than the others. The fabulous single-cylinder Manx Nortons are one, with their 500cc of muscular piston, spinning for all it’s worth. They are works of art with polished and sculpted alloy tanks—copied by many a café racer, but never bettered. If you’ve never experienced the chest smashing rumble that comes out of the open megaphone exhaust of one of these, you need to find a chance to get close enough, it’s positively interactive.
Then you have the MV Agustas. I love British bikes, I really do, but the Italian machinery, well, it’s just special. There were no less than three MV 500/3 Grand Prix machines here to spoil the crowd with their instantly recognizable howl. They are just as stunning to look at as to listen to of course, all that red and silver and just a hint of yellow with the long slender tank and pokey and pert little seat. It’s a shame that Giacomo Agostini wasn’t there to race one of these in front of crowds again. It’s not all bad news though, as Michael and William Dunlop are were on the entry list to race the same Agusta that Michael piloted at the Classic TT just a few weeks ago. Sons of the great Robert Dunlop and nephews of the godlike Joey, there was a lot of excitement stirred up around their presence this weekend. Sadly though, despite a phenomenal performance in a rain soaked qualifying, the three-cylinder machine didn’t make it through the first race of the weekend, succumbing to a holed piston, or perhaps it was just Michael’s less than gentle wrist. The Dunlops being the Dunlops though, would have another ride sorted for the second race.
So, to the racing at large. It’s frenetic and close, to summarize. Machine reliability is always an unknown variable, as is the weather, so you never really know who’s going to win, and when any of the riders have a chance it can make the event even more fun to watch than the highest levels of MotoGP and the like. Throw in the forced variable of a pit lane rider change halfway through the race, and you’ve got a recipe for some interesting competition. It’s exciting, probably the most excited I’d been during a race all weekend, and it’s a pretty good weekend I must say.
It’s noisy and has a smell all of its own. Whether down in the guts of the action, in the pit lane and garages, or further around the track, one thing is for certain, this ain’t no parade. Banging bars, rubbing fairings and pushing each other wide are part and parcel of gaining an advantage on the track. It can be hard to separate the bikes and riders from each other when they’re hauling around this close together, but what is clear is that classic motorcycle racing should very much be here to stay, and judging by the crowds gathered around the circuit and scrambling for space in the paddock, I’m not the only one who thinks so.