Ray Curtis: A born showman

Rider Profile

Ray Curtis flat out on 'Nuge' Smith’s New Imperial at Oran Park.

Spectacular and successful throughout his long and varied career, Ray Curtis never had top machinery, but that didn’t stop him always putting on a show for the paying public.

Story: Jim Scaysbrook •  Photos: Dick Darby, Ray Curtis archives.

80-year-old Ray Curtis reckons his first race was at nine years of age, outrunning the cops! “Getting my road licence had the added advantage of my getting to know 50% of the Motor Cycle Policemen in NSW by their first name.” Ray had learned to ride chasing rabbits through the bush on his uncle’s GTP Velocette, and he borrowed his mate Dodger’ Hill’s 350 Panther to do his licence test. However a string of bookings for speeding, noisy muffler and other “trumped-up charges” meant he was always under the watchful eye of the law around the Liverpool area of southern Sydney. “The cops were really tough, particularly Sergeant Rutledge from Parramatta, who even arrested his own wife for jay-walking. Bill Rutledge (no relation), who was a terrific rider, actually changed his name to Bill Larue so he people wouldn’t associate him with the sergeant, who was eventually run over and killed by someone.”

Around 1945, Ray swapped his tennis racquet for a 1929 Big Port AJS that had resided for years in a chook yard and was covered in droppings. It was a non-runner but was eventually brought back to life. With his mates Roy Crouch, who had an in-line Douglas, and Tommy Cowan, Ray and his AJS would lurk in the scrub that surrounded the scrambles track at Lansdowne where Southern Districts Motor Cycle Club held race meetings. “We would hide in the bush and when they would start a race and the riders would come round past us we would come out of the bush and join in the race, which had to be stopped! This is when Les Grimson and Leon Ives nominated me for Junior membership of the club. Many, many years later, after my wife Fran and I moved to Bateman’s Bay, there was a pie shop next to the Bayview Hotel, and one day I walked in and there was the owner, the same Les Grimson. He’s still a good friend at around 88 years of age.”

Ray’s 500 BSA in the pits at Bathurst around 1955.

Ray became apprenticed as a carpenter to his father, and on a solemn promise that he would pay him back over time, purchased a 1947 3T Triumph from another uncle (Ted) for one hundred and forty seven pounds. “It was a small fortune in those days, but you know I never paid him back a zack of that money, but he and mum followed my racing from Day One. I challenged Paddy Lees, who was then the proprietor of Knox Street Motorcycles in Belmore to a race on the 3T, but he flogged me on his B31 BSA so I got rid of the Triumph, bought a B31 and joined Bankstown Wiley Park MCC around 1952. I am convinced that I could not have achieved anything like the success I did without Paddy’s brilliant cam grinding and tuning. ”

BWP, as it has always been known, was full of ace dirt track riders, among them Eric Debenham, with whom Ray is still great mates. Ray raced at Vineyards (near Windsor), Bungaribee, near Blacktown, Wallacia and the string of dirt tracks in the Newcastle region in the early 1950s. “We had a 1932 Ford truck with 12 bikes on the back and blokes sleeping between the bikes.” In 1953 he took second place in the 350 cc Junior NSW title at Wallacia, and went one better at the same track the following year to collect the first of his many championship wins. When the Australian Short Circuit Championships were first run at Junee in 1957, Ray collared the Junior title and was a narrowly beaten for both the Lightweight and Senior titles by local star John Shields. The following year the national championships were held again at the Talbingo circuit at Junee, and Ray once again had to settle for second in the Senior, this time to Eric Debenham. 

Towards the end of the Short Circuit days, Ray slides his BSA at Amaroo Park.

“Pound for pound, Ray Curtis is probably the best rider I have ever seen.” Tony Hatton

As well as the dirt racing, Ray got a taste for the tar and did several meetings at Mount Druitt before entering for Bathurst in 1957. On the trusty B31 with little more than a change of tyres and gearing, Ray had a race-long dice with Queenslander Kevin Murphy on a Gold Star but was just edged out of third place in the run to the line. The 1959 Bathurst GP bought an even bigger disappointment. “I broke a crank pin in practice, but the regulations stated that you could, up to 20 minutes before an event, change rider or bike but not both. The regulations for the Clubmen’s classes also stated that an A-grader could ride a C-grader’s bike, but not the other way around. So Kevin Brighton, a C-Grader, allowed me to ride his Goldie, on which I won the race (Junior Non Expert Division A).” However protests were entered and Ray was stripped of his win. An appeal was held and several months after the meeting, he was rightly re-instated as winner, but to his disappointment, never received the winner’s trophy or sash. 

The 1959 season had begun in tragic circumstances for the Curtis clan when young Brian Curtis, son of Ray’s uncle Ted from whom he had acquired his 3T Triumph many moons before, was killed in a racing accident at the Taree Short Circuit in January. 

With the opening of Oran Park in February 1963, road racing took off in Sydney and Ray basically abandoned the Short Circuit scene which had been his stamping ground for nearly 15 years. You needed to be tough to make it in that field of the sport, and although small in stature, Ray had demonstrated countless times that he had the heart of a lion. He deliberately developed a spectacular and aggressive style, which had the effect of demoralising some of the opposition, but more importantly to him, “gave the spectators their money’s worth”. But while he slipped away from Short Circuits, there was another form of dirt racing that he wanted to try – speedway. Both Ray and brother Geoff, 10 years his junior, took up speedway on the same night at the Sydney Showground in early 1965. Both showed immediate promise, but Ray made the decision to quit speedway after just a season and a half after some success and more than a few prangs. “The last time I rode at the (Sydney) Showground I fell at the Bullpens corner and while I lay on the track looking up at the lights I made the decision not to ride there again. “I said to little brother Geoffrey that there was a bad omen here and we should race on that track anymore. So Geoff says, ‘all right old man’ and we packed him off to ride for Crewe in England where he became world class.”

The New Imperial with dustbin fairing at Oran Park.

The decision to abandon speedway allowed Ray to concentrate on road racing, where he had attracted some decent backing at long last. Colourful Sydney tuner Stan ‘Nuge’ Smith put Ray on his highly developed New Imperial, joking that both rider and bike were 1932 models. The New Imp engine certainly had its origins in that year, but was housed in one of Smith’s own frames and carefully developed over a number of years to be quite a weapon in Ray’s hands. “One year at Bathurst it (the New Imperial) broke a drive side crankshaft in practice. Nuge had a 1927 Essex car that he had built his own supercharger into – there was a two-inch round button on the Mother-of-Pearl dashboard that he also made. When he pulled the button out the car would all of a sudden get another 20 horsepower from somewhere and it would just sit on its backside and go! We jumped into the Essex and drove back to Sydney where he turned up a new shaft, heat-treated it and put the motor back together, then drove back to Bathurst in time for the racing on Saturday. With no practice I finished ninth.” 

Ray (inside) dicing with Bob Sharp at the Sydney Showground Speedway in 1965.

Another colourful character, Liverpool (NSW) motorcycle dealer Jack Adams, offered Ray his rapid but wayward 650 Triumph – a machine that had taken several scalps in the past. In typical fashion, Ray refused to be intimidated by the beast, and as a B-Grader set the outright lap record at Oran Park at 53.6 seconds in 1965 – quicker than the established stars Kel Carruthers, Len Atlee, Ron Toombs and Jack Ahearn. “The Triumph didn’t handle too well, “ Ray says with more than a touch of understatement, “ but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. In fact, coming over the hill at Oran Park, heading down into Energol Corner, I used to give it a bit of a wrench to make it wobble because I knew the fans loved it. Bill McDonald said to me, ‘There’s 5000 people standing on that hill waiting for you to go into the dam!’ It just had a ribbed tyre on the front – I must have been mad to get round Oran Park in that time on that bike, because it had thrown every good rider down the road before me. When I agreed to ride it I told Jack he would have to remove the clip-on handlebars and fit ordinary road bars so the rider became the boss and not the other way around. On the slower corners, where I made up most of the time, I had to push the thing into the ground and turn the wick up. I believe it used to smoke the rear tyre at times, and Terry Dennehy followed me once and confirmed this. “

Ray and Ian McKenzie and Ian’s 500 Manx at Bathurst.

As well as the evil-handling Triumph, Ray was also riding his own 350 cc Manx Norton, purchased from Victorian Dick Reid, always giving a good account of himself in some pretty impressive company. Another mate, Ian McKenzie, provided Ray with a mount for the Senior class – a long-stroke 500 cc Manx engine in a later chassis. Apart from a trip to Lakeside in Queensland, the perennially empty coffers limited Ray’s appearances to NSW, and primarily Oran Park and Bathurst, then Amaroo Park when it opened briefly in 1967. By that stage, two strokes had well and truly taken over, and Ray took up an offer from Bankstown dealer Norm Askew to ride his modified Suzuki T20 in the Australian Grand Prix at Bathurst in 1968. The field for the Lightweight GP was probably the strongest for any race on the program, with the likes of Ron Toombs, Peter Richards and Allan Osborne on TD1C Yamahas, Jack Ahearn, Dick Reid and Keo Madden on A1R Kawasakis, and Bill Horsman on a Bultaco, but Ray brought the road-based Suzuki home in a brilliant third place behind Toombs and Horsman. “That Suzuki was a favourite, with the exception of McPhillamy Park (the fast left hander on the top of the mountain at Bathurst) where the front wheel kept washing away on me, which was quite unnerving.” Unnerving or not, Ray pushed the Suzuki hard enough over the mountain to be able to slip-stream the leaders on several occasions, keeping him just out of reach of the pursuing pack in a ride that earned a well-deserved ovation from the big crowd. Later in the meeting he made the decision to ride the 250 Suzuki in the Senior Grand Prix, despite having a choice of three other machines including the Adams Triumph and Norm Askew’s 500 cc Triumph fitted with a Quaife 5-speed gearbox. “From lap one it was obvious to me that the Suzuki had the legs on everything in the race. With the 6 speed box I had them up the hill and down Conrod Straight it was just unbelievable. On Lap three in front of me was only Jack Ahern and I was gathering in his Manx at the end of Conrod by 10 mph.  Then as I had done for the other races I hooked everything on flung myself in the air but it just kept accelerating,  I still remember Jack taking a quick look over his left shoulder, but rather than see as he would have expected Toomsie or Horsman, he saw a Hustler sideways, so he stood it up and I went through and hit the fence.” It later transpired that the Suzuki’s throttle slides had stuck open, but for years ray had no idea what caused the crash and is adamant that he could have won the race. 

Manhandling the Adams Triumph around Oran Park. “After about five meetings, a group of the A graders I was beating wanted to put a restriction on the width of handlebars!”

Ray realised that if he were to continue at the top level he needed better equipment, and eventually joined the ranks of Yamaha riders on a TZ350, thanks to keen sponsor Leo Pretti. Pretti had two of the 350 Yamahas, with Garry Thomas on the other one. “Garry’s TZ had twin discs whereas my bike had the Yamaha twin leading shoe drum brake. After practice Leo said that Thommo was feeling crook so he suggested that I ride his bike. “I was on the second row, got away well and monowheeled for 50 yards and got to the end of the straight first, however blokes picked me off around the right hander, I held my own for the next lap then I left braking a bit late, hooked it on and the front wheel locked. I flung my foot to the ground at 120-plus mph and let the brake off and proceeded to go through two paddocks, one wire fence a couple of ditches but didn’t fall off, I rode back to the pits and never rode it again.” 

Handlebar to handlebar with Stan Ogden at Oran Park.

While Ray’s long career was tapering off, brother Geoff’s was going great guns. He had become one of the top riders on the British speedway scene, riding for Division One clubs Newcastle and Reading, and representing Australia in the popular test matches back home. At the peak of his form, he had high hopes of lifting the NSW Championship at the Sydney Showground. Heat 11 took no fewer than five attempts to get under way, and when the tapes finally went up cleanly Geoff took the lead and held it for most of the three-lap race. On the final lap and with Phil Herne vigorously attempting to get past, Herne’s clipped the rear of Geoff’s Jawa, flinging him head-first against the concrete safety wall. The night will be forever etched in Ray’s memory. “On the 15th of December 1973 we, BWP and five other Clubs had a Twilight Meeting at Oran Park with a Giant Christmas tree after the meet to give the presents to the kids of the club members. At about 8.30 pm, Campbelltown Police searched me out to tell me that my brother had been in an accident at the Showground. I rushed there (to St Vincent’s Hospital) but by the time I arrived he was gone. Geoff died not six feet from where I had laid on the track and made the decision not to ride there any more.” Geoff Curtis was the last of 25 riders, drivers and sidecar passengers to lose his life at the Sydney Showground Speedway during its seventy years of operation.

Ray on one of Leo Pretti’s TZ350 Yamahas at Oran Park in 1972.

Geoff’s death finished Ray with racing, but not with motorcycles. “It wasn’t just Geoff’s death that made me stop racing. I had four racing motorbikes and four kids, and the kids were eating basked beans. That wasn’t right.” He’s stayed connected with the sport and is a regular at the annual Old Timers Dinner in Sydney where yarns are swapped long into the evening. Recently, a near neighbour on the NSW South Coast, motel owner and former racer Derek Long presented Ray with a Kawasaki Z1000, although Ray has confessed some apprehension about riding it due to his short statute and the bike’s weight. “I was frightened of it even looking at it! I may have to trade it on something a bit smaller”, he says with typical enthusiasm. With his 80th birthday celebrated on 9th December, Ray says he still has plenty of living to do, and adds, “I hope there’s another life in the sky as I’ll be a starter!”

Great mates and great rivals on the track, Ray with Eric Debenham 2012.
OBA Issue 36 Cover
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 36.