Garry Thomas – One fierce competitor

Rider Profile

Garry Thomas – Norton mounted at Oran Park, 1968.

Garry Thomas will be 68 this year. And 68 is the riding number with which he will always be associated in a career that encompassed virtually every form of motorcycling racing bar speedway, as well as being a keen road rider for a goodly proportion of his life.

Raised in the Ryde area of Sydney, with the Parramatta River running through it, Garry’s first love was sailing, as he recalls. “I had a little sailing boat, a VJ, which I paid for by selling newspapers. My uncle lived near the water on Morrison Bay so I used to keep the boat in his yard, but just up the road there was an old tip, which is now a magnificent park, and a bunch of young blokes I knew, Max Robinson, Karl Phillips and John McClure, used to tear around in the tip on old motor bikes. I went to the tip a few times and rode some of the bikes and I realised I liked that better than sailing so I sold the boat and bought a BSA and rode that round the tip, then I got a Royal Enfield. By that stage I was old enough for a road licence so I bought a BSA to ride on the road. Next came a Triumph and then a Norton twin. I went to the first meeting at Oran Park (in 1963) and a bloke on a Norton twin came about second last in the Production Race and I thought ‘I must be able to do better than that’, so I entered the next meeting and I don’t think I missed one for about the next five years. Max Robbo was riding then too – he’d come from the tip with me – and his elder brother was friendly with Kel and Jack Carruthers and we got to know them and went riding together.”

In those days, it was cheap and easy to go racing, due to the abundance of used bikes that were worth practically nothing on the open market. Garry again: “The older generation, the Manx Norton set, that’s all they rode, but we still rode on the road as well as racing our road bikes, and they didn’t like that – road bikes getting amongst the racing stuff.” The competition was intense, with hundreds of entries in the C Grade classes, requiring heats to decide the finals. Garry thrashed his Norton Dominator around, the bike soon getting to the stage of tune where it was unsuitable for the road any more. His mates included Bob Gault, who later became a sponsor as well, and Brian Crane who ran Homebush Fibreglass, purveyors of fairings and other components to the racing set as well as being a handy rider himself. There were plenty of meetings with Catalina Park, Oran Park, Amaroo Park and the once-a-year Bathurst, but Garry was keen to explore every avenue when it came to motorcycling. Another Ryde clubman, Wally Hambly, had a Norton scrambles outfit, and one day his passenger failed to show up for a Moorebank scramble. “Wal said to me, what are you doing Thommo? I said I’m just standing here watching, and he said, here put this helmet on and come and have a ride. That led to a regular arrangement and that year we won the NSW Sidecar Championships.”

Moorebank was also a hotbed of activity, and Garry soon found himself the owner of a Montesa Capra motocross bike, as well as riding a Montesa in the popular reliability trials of the time. But road racing was still his first love, and when the Castrol Six Hour Race came into being in 1970, Garry was on the grid, teamed with Paul Giles on a Honda CB450 twin. It was very nearly the end of not just his racing career but his life. In the Le Mans start there was mild chaos as Rob Hinton and a few others tangled and went down, but Garry avoided the melee and was in the leading group at the completion of the first few laps, when all hell broke loose.  Ross King’s H1 Kawasaki smote the rock wall lining Bitupave Hill a mighty blow, leaving the wrecked bike in the middle of the track, leaking fuel, while King dragged himself and his shattered leg off the racing line. In the confusion, John Vile crashed his Triumph after hitting the fuel split from the Kawasaki, ending up in the fence on the inside of the circuit which was now strewn with wreckage. From pit lane on the outside of the track, the ambulance entered the circuit just as Thomas and Gordon Doble reached that point. “I couldn’t go left around it (the ambulance) so I aimed right, but it just pulled across the track to get to where John Vile was laying. I remember I stood up because I knew I was going to hit it, and when the bike went into the back of the ambulance I went over the top, my knees hit the handlebars and I caught the tops of my feet and that flicked me upside down.” Garry somersaulted over the fence and down the steep drop to the inside of the track, smashing saplings as he went. “I landed on my back and half got to my feet, but I had broken three bones in one foot. I ended up in the ambulance with Ross King and Vile and we were being driven around the circuit to get to the pit land entrance when a bloke came rushing around the ambulance on the fast right hander (Mazda House) and crashed into the bank. The ambulance just stopped dead with all these bikes tearing down towards us and I thought they were all going to plough straight into the back of the ambulance! John yelled, ‘Don’t stop for Christ’s sake!’ And the driver got going again just in time.”

Garry Thomas showing the dirt track stars the way home on his Hagon JAP at Amaroo Park, 1971.

As the seventies dawned Garry began a relationship with Kawasaki that had its share of ups and downs. Although many regarded pre-war star Don Bain, who ran the workshop for NSW Kawasaki distributor Tom Byrne, as a hero, Garry certainly did not share the adoration. “Bainie tried to kill me three or four times but I kept coming back!” Garry says with sincerity. “I had a H1 Kawasaki for the second Six Hour Race (1971) but it jammed the throttle open twice. I had two pit stops but they couldn’t fix it, so that was the first time. The H1R I rode at Bathurst that year (owned by Hugh Grimes) was worn out. Jack Ahearn rode it the previous year and I think Ron Toombs had one ride. I won the Unlimited B Grade and broke the lap record from a push start – a 160 mph bike in a B Grade race, easy! But after that race the back tyre was shreaded. It was a Metzeler road tyre that was rated for about 110 mph, and it was swelling up so much that it was hitting the frame under the seat – and my times were somewhere near the money so I fancied my chances to win the Unlimited GP. But Bainie just put another tyre of the same type on and I told him that if it was buggered after five or six laps in the B Grade there’s no way it was going to last twice that in the GP, but he wouldn’t listen. In the race, I was chasing Keith Turner’s Suzuki twin. The H1R accelerated a bit better but the Suzuki was faster down the straight. After about 6 laps I shot off the end of Conrod Straight, I just couldn’t turn it, and almost hit a police car parked on the escape road. I jumped off and tried to turn it around but I couldn’t move it – the back axle had come loose after they’d left a wheel nut off and it jammed sideways in the swinging arm. So that was the second time Bainie had almost killed me. The next year at Bathurst I rode a 250 triple Kawasaki production bike in one of the Friday practice sessions, just for fun, and then came in and jumped on the 750 H2 for the last ten minutes of the session. But I came into Reid Park about 20 mph too fast, thinking I was still on the 250, and hit the wall and wrecked the bike. I was pretty sore but overnight they bought another H2 off a customer, took the engine out of the wrecked one, and we were back in the race again. I was up the front with Hansford for the first part of the (Unlimited Production) race, but it started to jump out of top gear. I tried to hold it into gear with my foot but then it started to jump out of second. Coming out of The Cutting it went through second into third and seized. I woke up in the ambulance with concussion and a broken collarbone. When they bought the bike back there was no oil in the gearbox – they’d rebuilt it overnight and not put any oil in. So that was the end of it. I told Hugh I was never riding for Byrne’s again. ”

In between the road racing, Garry got more involved in the Short Circuit (Dirt Track) scene, racing at the Sydney tracks Amaroo Park and Nepean, as well as county tracks in Orange and up north at Taree, Salty Creek and Heddon Greta. His mount was a Hagon Sandtracker, bought back as a rolling chassis from England by his mate Max Robinson, and fitted with a 500 cc JAP engine bought from Barry Ryan’s shop at Parramatta. Garry found, as others had, that the A-grade Short Circuit ranks were somewhat of a closed shop. “We were never really made welcome there,” says Garry’s wife Yvonne, a lady who’s seen more sides of motorcycling than most. “The dirt trackers didn’t like the road racers coming in, so that took the fun out of it”. Garry raced the Hagon for a year and more than once trounced the establishment, notably at one major meeting at Amaroo Park, but at the end of the season sold the bike and returned to the tar.

By this stage Garry and Yvonne had moved from Sydney, where Garry worked as a bathroom tiler, to Canberra to open a Yamaha dealership, but this didn’t work out as planned so they were back in Sydney where Garry found employment at the Liverpool Yamaha dealership Ace Motorcycles, owned by former sidecar racer Max Woodruff. It was here he struck up what was to be a long-time friendship with Leo Pretty. “Leo drove a concrete truck and would often finish early in the day so he would just come into the shop. Max had bought an air-cooled 250 TD2 Yamaha for me to race – although I ended up paying for it – but Ace paid for entry fees, fuel and tyres. Bill Dillow was working in the shop and he had one too. The first meeting I rode the Yamaha at Amaroo I won the 250 race and Leo said ‘You need a 350’ so he went and bought one. I rode for Leo for ten years and we never, ever discussed money. We just ran the bikes out of a sort of joint account. Then the water-cooled TZs came out and I got the very first one – there was only one in the first shipment that (NSW Yamaha distributors) McCullochs received.”

Garry Thomas surrounded by lovelies after another Chesterfield 5000 win in 1974.

On that TZ350 Garry hit a purple patch, scoring the first win for the new machine anywhere in the world, at Amaroo Park. The association with Leo Pretty really bore fruit with the introduction of the Chesterfield Superbike Series (covered in a two-part story in OBA issues 22/23) in 1973. “We bought a H2 Kawasaki for $1400 in 1974 and won $4,000 in one year – the only money I ever put in my pocket in 15 years of racing but it was a fortune back then.” As the end of the decade loomed Garry and Yvonne decided that buying a house was a better idea than having everything tied up in a shed full of bikes, and Garry and Leo sold everything (except the Chesterfied 500-winning H2) and split the money. “I sort of retired (from racing) but decided I would only ride if someone else put up the bike and entered it.”

That someone was former speedway and road racing sidecar star Bob Levy. “I’d met Bob from camping in the pits at Bathurst each year. Bob usually had a keg in the tent and me being partial to a beer we got on really well. Bob was a bit of an organiser and he got some sponsorship from Stallions Stable (men’s hairdressers) and he got bikes from Kawasaki when Myles Stivano was running it.” Perhaps the most memorable outing for the team was the 1979 Unlimited Production Race at Bathurst when Garry’s mount was the mammoth 6-cylinder Kawasaki Z1300 – a race that is still talked about today. For the first few laps Thomas, Tony Hatton (Honda CB900) and Alan Hales (Suzuki GS 1000) made the running, dropping other fancied contenders like Dennis Neill’s CBX Honda and the Team Avon Kawasaki 900s far behind. The spectators on the mountain roared every time the Z1300 came through, sliding and using every inch of the track and then some. “Hatton wasn’t on my radar for that race,” Garry says. “The 1300 could easily match the Honda for speed, but on the last lap he was 8 km/h faster (on Conrod Straight) than any other lap – don’t ask me where that came from!” In a blanket finish Hatton’s Honda just got the nod, but it was Garry who won the crowd after a lion-hearted ride on what could hardly be classed as a sports bike.

1980 was to be Garry’s last at Bathurst, at least as a competitor. “Myles Stivano had moved to Suzuki, and he organised a GSX1100 for Bathurst. In the Arai 500 I raced with Alan Hales (on another Suzuki Australia GSX1100) for an hour. I just stayed with him, I had no doubt whatsoever that I could beat him on identical bikes, and after the first fuel stop I just went away from him to win the production class. For the Unlimited Production the next day I was on the front row and I really thought that this was the year I was finally going to win that race. In ten starts I had scored places and crashed a few times but never won. Even though the scrutineers demanded that all the worn out footpegs and levers (from the Arai 500) had to be replaced with new stuff for this race, Hales’ bike came to the line with the ground-off footrests still fitted. I still reckoned I could beat him, but when we turned the first corner and headed up Mountain Straight, he just rode away from me, pulled about 20 lengths. He hadn’t done that the day before in three hours of racing! I caught him and passed him over the mountain for the first few laps but each time he would just blast past on the straight and in four laps he had vanished. I finished second and came in after the race and thought, ‘You bastard!’ I don’t know what he’d done to it overnight because the bikes were identical the day before and now they weren’t.”

And that was the end of racing for Garry. He hung up his helmet and was never tempted to return as a rider, but he also stayed close to the sport in a different role – as an official, as did his former sponsor and friend Bob Levy. Both Garry and Bob became familiar figures in official roles at major race meetings, and since Garry and Yvonne moved to Coffs Harbour to live, they have been hard workers for the local scene, particularly in the role of assisting junior riders. Garry never mentioned his career as a rider, and the modern generation didn’t ask, but recently his anonymity came to an end.

“I’ve been working in the pit lane at Phillip Island for the GPs and World Superbikes for 20 years and nobody knows who I am – I’m just the grey-bearded old bastard with the pit lane speed gun. But then Graeme Crosby’s book comes out and he said I was his greatest rival and all of a sudden I get people coming up to me and saying ‘I didn’t know you were a racer!’ I licence dirt tracks all over NSW for Motorcycling NSW- from Taree to Murwillumbah – about 20 venues and clubs, run seminars for officials, but none of them knew I could ride a motorbike. Well Croz’s book ended all that!”

Recently, Garry Thomas was elected to the board of Motorcycling NSW, and he relishes the challenge of his new role. “I’ve had a great response from the (member) clubs since the election. I’ve got a lot of ideas on how the sport should be going in the future and now I have the opportunity to have a say in how that works.” In his racing days, Garry was renowned as being a rider who would give as good as he got and muscle his way through any situation. If he applies the same attitude to his new role it can only be for the good of the sport in New South Wales.

Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Garry Thomas, Dick Darby, Michael Andrews, Jeff Nield.

OBA Issue 27
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 27.