A concept that promised the world, ended up delivering much less, particularly to investors. What the crowd got however, had never been seen before in Australia. It was history in the making…
When something seems too good to be true, it often is. In the lead up to the 1976 Australian TT, the news broadcast by the promoters, a mysterious company called Besa Pty Ltd, just got bigger and bigger. Trading as TT promotions, the company announced in October 1975 that it had signed contracts confirming the appearance of eight top line GP riders, including Giacomo Agostini who had clinched his 15th World title only one month before. The others included World 350cc champion Johnny Cecotto, World 125cc Champion Paolo Pileri, and 250cc title holder Walter Villa. Hartwell MCC president Murray Nankervis, who was also a director of Besa, told the media that TT promotions would be running the Australian Tourist Trophy, a title that had been dormant for some years, at the ramshackle Phillip Island circuit on February 7-8, 1976. Hartwell MCC were named as organisers of the meeting, with the backing of Rotary International, of which Mr Nankervis was also a member. Rotary District 280, which comprised 54 Rotary clubs in the Melbourne area, funded a trip to Italy by a representative of the promotion, in order to negotiate with riders and managers. “Obviously, Rotary will be getting a percentage of the gross gate receipts, but one of our ambitions is to show the FIM that Australia can host a major international meeting” said Nankervis. “Ultimately, we want to see the Australian Grand Prix revert to a one-meeting affair instead of a six-round series so that meeting can become a round of the world championships.”
The announcement coincided with two major events in the GP arena – Yamaha’s threatened withdrawal from entering official teams in the world road racing and moto cross championships, and the release of the new square-four RG500 Suzuki. Agostini announced that he was off with his number one plate, returning to his spiritual home at MV Agusta. The exciting RG500 meanwhile made its debut at the Indonesian Grand Prix in November, with Australian Bill Horsman and Kiwis Stuart Avant and John Boote, and local Bambang Soedarsono the four riders chosen to ride the exciting newcomer.
Meanwhile, back home, things were a’changing. Phillip Island was quietly dumped as the venue, to be replaced by an as-yet unseen 5.3 kilometre circuit at Laverton Air Base, 22 km west of the city. This was supposedly a strategic move to tap into Melbourne’s large Italian population, much of which was concentrated in this region. Victorian champion Bob Rosenthal inspected the proposed lap with his new TZ750 Yamaha, declaring the machine under-geared despite reaching 290 km/h. However the surface, which had been sealed with hot-mix bitumen less than a year before, was described by the promoter as “like a billiard table”. The layout incorporated the main east-west runway of the air base, with a roughly square section of mainly right hand corners at the western end.
Over the Christmas period, Cecotto pulled out due to problems with the ankle he had fractured in the final round of the world championships, and was replaced by Aermacchi Harley-Davidson rider Gianfranco Bonera. Adding to the international line-up was the Dieme-Yamaha squad of Giovanni Proni, Otello Busherini and Attilio Riondato, Pierpaolo Bianchi on a 125 Morbidelli, Japanese stars Sadeo Asami and Yamachan Yamasaki, American Pat Hennen and Giacomo’s younger brother Felice Agostini on a 250 Yamaha. New Zealanders Stuart Avant, John Boote and John Woodley all had the latest RG500 Suzukis. As well as the international brigade, it seemed like every top rider in Australia was entered.
It was certainly going to be by far the biggest influx of world talent to Australia, but little by little, organisational issues crept into the equation. The security organization contracted for the event was sacked, their fee of $3,000 being deemed excessive, and was replaced by private individuals, whose task it was to collect gate receipts. There were sceptics who maintained that the TT would not happen, and this did little to help the nerves of those who recalled the previous large-scale international invasion, the ill-fated Moto Crosse (sic) series of 1972, when the promoter went bankrupt the day after the last race.
Christmas came and went, and preparations proceeded apace, and with a week to go even the sceptics had gone quiet. The Rotary connection worked well in the right places. No less a chap than the prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, would be there as guest of honour along with his Employment Minister, former rider and sponsor Tony Street. Special Melbourne-Geelong trains were deployed to handle the anticipated massive crowd, stopping at a station within the air base.
And massive the crowd was, although just how massive would remain a key question in the events that followed the meeting. But there is no disputing that what the spectators saw that weekend was a feast of brilliant sport with one performance in particular that has gone down in local racing legend. There is also no disputing that the circuit itself was a major factor in the success of the race meeting itself. Fast and fairly smooth, the track permitted speeds usually only associated with Con Rod Straight at Bathurst, while the sectioning linking the airfield with its twin straights also proved to be a testing and spectacular section. By and large, the internationals praised the track.
The meeting began with the 125 cc TT, and the works Morbidellis were clearly going to make mince meat of the field. During a test session at Calder, the two little blue and white twins equalled the existing 250 cc record! From the start, Ray Quincey, on Clem Daniel’s home brewed CSD, made the running, but on the first run down the straight, Pileri steamed past, followed soon after by his team mate Bianchi. The locals were finding the switch from the normal diet of alcohol fuel to the petrol required (the fuel for the meeting was supplied by the RAAF) under the FIM permit to be a disaster, and reigning Australian champion Geoff Sim and quick qualifier Dave Burgess (Kawasaki) both falling victim to motor gremlins. At the flag it was Pileri, 38 seconds ahead of Bianchi with Quincey, best of the locals, almost a minute further back.
The following Junior Sidecar was another drawn out affair, with South Australian Alex Campbell, partnered by Jim Pearson, winning with ease. The pair had finished an excellent seventh in the Isle of Man 500 cc Sidecar TT, the experience clearly polishing an already sharp act. Veterans Bob Salter/Trevor Luck filled second, comfortably ahead of another NSW pairing, John Macklin/John Lloyd.
Although the 500 cc Senior TT was being touted as the day’s main event, the 15-lap Unlimited (750 cc) TT held big interest for the crowd, being another episode in the brilliant Hansford/Willing contests that had been going on since the memorable 1974 TT at Bathurst. But it was American Pat Hennen and his Daytona-spec Suzuki who took the fight to the blonde Queenslander, despite giving away around 20 km/h in top speed to the new water-cooled Kawasaki. The lead changed on every one of the 15 laps, the pair crossing the line constantly shoulder to shoulder, but just when a photo finish looked on the cards, the Suzuki’s clutch began to slip, forcing Hennen to settle for second. A long way bcame came a rather subdued Willing, who admitted that he just didn’t feel on form with his new mono-shock TZ750. Queenslander Stephen Klein got the better of Kenny Blake for fourth place.
During the lunch break, Minister Tony Street hopped aboard the 250 cc Honda-4 that had been ridden to many victories by Kel Carruthers, and did a lap of the track. Kel himself had been flown in from his base in USA, to act in an advisory role on the design of the circuit. Course Marshal Kevin Donnellan was happy to oblige Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s request for a few laps in his Porsche Turbo, although the PM’s minder, a large man, insisted on squeezing sideways into the miniscule rear seat. After a circuit at moderate pace, Mr Fraser requested a few more revs, and was reported delighted as the Porsche slithered through the bends. It wore out a new set of tyres during the course of the weekend.
The lunch break over, it was time for the blue ribbon class, the Senior, which had also attracted the smallest field. Nevertheless, on the grid were no fewer than eight Suzuki RG500s, Agostini’s MV (a well-used 1974 model), Bonera’s vicious H-D twin, and a host of Suzuki 500 and Yamaha twins. The MV fired instantly from the push start and Agostini was away while the two-strokes struggled into life, the lone four-stroke wailing its way around the flat circuit to the delight of the crowd. Behind, Woodley and Boote were early retirements with engine failures, but fellow Kiwi Avant was really in his stride, and on the second lap passed the Italian on the outside through the section called Carousel. Behind came the remaining Suzuki fours of Blake, Greg Johnson, Laurie Barnett Peter Jones and Bill Horsman, the latter clearly off colour after a big fall at Mount Gambier two weeks before. As Avant cruised away in front, Agostini soon had another aggressor to contend with, and on lap eight Blake passed the Italian on the Western Straight. It looked like this would be the finishing order as the gaps between the leading three stabilized, but then came heartbreak for Avant as his Suzuki seized at the hairpin, casting him unceremoniously down the road. Blake accepted the gift and to thunderous applause from the crowd, blasted home on the Jack Walters Suzuki to claim the most important win of his career. Behind Agostini came the Suzukis of Greg Johnson and Peter Jones. As the placegetters were driven around the circuit on the back of a truck, the crowd swamped the vehicle which had to take a detour across the infied to make it back to the finish.
It took some time to restore order to allow the 250 cc TT to get under way, and when it did reigning world champion Walter Villa took charge, to head home Buscherini and Proni, with Felice Agostini fourth and ray Quincey piping Steve Trinder on the line to again claim the best performance by a local. The Senior Sidecar began with chaos when Dennis Skinner lost his passenger Adrian Hanson, and was won at a canter by Alex Campbell from Geoff Taylor/Barry Frazer and Gavin Porteous/Barry Jones. The meeting concluded with the 350 cc TT, and by the end of the first lap Villa was in front, while his team mate Bonera was flying through after a bad start. After Quincey retired, Blake took over third until displaced by Bonera.
It had been a day of high drama, but the real excitement was just beginning. The day after the meeting Besa Pty Ltd went into receivership, with reputed debts of $80,000 incurred at the TT. In the Italian camp, there was pandemonium, with riders and mechanics missing their scheduled flights and their machinery impounded pending the overdue payment of air freight charges from Italy to Melbourne. Despite unofficial estimates of the crowd of between 30-50,000, officials claimed only 13,600 paying spectators. Prize money had been lodged with the ACCA and was not in dispute, but the appearance fees promised to the Italian riders was either not paid or partially paid. Understandably, the Italian press went ballistic, labelling the meeting “Il Scandolo Grande” (The giant scandal).
Damien Cook, of the BMW Club of Victoria has clear memories of the aftermath. “My late father, John Cook, was a Senior Solicitor with the Victorian Government. Although not a motorcycle enthusiast, he came to the (Laverton) meeting with us and after the races we had a drink in the Tarmac Hotel. We got home late and about 11 pm dad received a phone call which sounded quite urgent and important. He made a call to my uncle in Canberra then dashed out, and the next day was very busy trying to sort out a problem with customs and the returning of the bikes to Italy. It was late on the Monday night before he finally said that he thought he had it under control.”
As the bills rolled in, the extent of the company’s demise became clearer. Pandair, the air freight firm contracted to bring the freight to and from Italy, was owed $29,000. With the European season looming, an agreement was struck whereby the machinery was returned, then held at Milan’s Malpensa Airport until the freight bill was met by the owners. As the creditors argued their individual cases, the Federal Minister of Defence, Mr Killen announced that there would be a government inquiry into the TT. This came about after the Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam, questioned the running of the meeting on a defence establishment and with “exalted patronage” – referring to the presence of the Prime Minister. Killen replied that “it would not be the first occasion when defence establishments were used to raise money for charity”, as it had been stated from the outset that Rotary International would receive proceeds for a Community Village for the Aged project.
Hartwell MCC Honorary secretary Wes Brown issued a statement on behalf of the club, stating that the club’s only involvement had been the conduct of the practice and races, and had no involvement in the collection of entry fees or the payment of prizemoney, and was itself a creditor the collapsed TT Promotions. The statement also said that Mr Murray Nankervis was no longer the president, or on the committee of the Hartwell club. “Murray didn’t set out to rob anyone,” Wes recalls, “but he was a loaded gun, full of big ideas but didn’t think anything through. He was like a bull at a gate. When he first got the idea (of running the Laverton meeting) he pleaded with me to be on the board of Besa, but I declined – it was unthinkable that the president and secretary of Hartwell clubs should be involved like that. We had meetings with the authorities out at Laverton – police, council people and son on – and they kept asking him questions like, where are all these people going to stay, what about toilet facilities. His answer was ‘They can camp in that paddock and there are toilets at the pub and the railway station!’. The day after the meeting my wife Joyce and I were at Laverton, stacking up straw bales and fencing and cleaning up, and the Italians were driving around the place in a rented van, looking for Murray, they were furious. But he was nowhere to be seen, he knew he was in big trouble.”
Despite the excellent racing, there were numerous complaints from spectators, from the $5 admission charge plus $2 for a program, to the restricted viewing due to the flat nature of the circuit, poor toilet facilities and lack of a proper public address system. The latter problem was partially due to the RAAF radar interfering with the radio-linked PA system. Skirmishes broke out in the temporary grandstands when people who had paid an extra $7.50 at the gate found their seats already occupied, because there was nobody on duty at the stands to check tickets. Compounding this problem was that of the three ‘Reserved Grandstands’, only one had been built!
And so the meeting that had promised to put Australia on the world map merely succeeded in branding the country (at least in the eyes of the FIM) as a bunch of colonial bandits. The projected world championship Australian Grand Prix would have to wait another 13 years before it eventuated.
Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: John Ford