Despite a near-death experience on the Isle of Man, Ross Hannan never lost his love for motorcycle racing, and along the way has guided several newcomers to stardom.
Lying in Nobles Hospital in Douglas on the Isle of Man in 1970, Ross Hannan was in a less than average state. He’d been there for months, thoroughly black and blue after one of the most horrific accidents ever seen at the TT. “That year was the only year the TT organisers did a mass start, let everyone out in groups of 10 rather than two; just to liven things up a little…” Hannan begins. “I was riding a 382 cc Aermacchi, which was actually a 350 bored out to 382 to race in the 500cc world championship to try and knock off some of the Manx Nortons and Matchlesses, because no one was going to beat Ago (Giacomo Agostini) on the MV. Anyway, the 382 kit put a lot of stress on the crankpins – they actually broke. That’s what happened. Flat out at Snugborough, just near Union Mills, the crankpin broke and down I went, and it was the biggest crash you’ve ever seen in your life. Needless to say, they abandoned mass starts after that one. It was a big part of the TT losing British GP status.”
Two broken femurs, a busted shoulder and head injuries meant Hannan, from Newtown in Sydney, would be out of racing for good as a rider. His career to this point reads like many Aussie racers of the time; racing annually at Bathurst at Easter as well doing umpteen trips to Victoria and back to race at Winton and the old Phillip Island in the mid-60s, but Hannan wanted more. He wanted to head to Europe, so after an exploratory run in 1965, he gave it a proper shot in 1969. He would eventually finish 49th overall in the standings, two places behind fellow Aussie Kel Carruthers. “That year I made a big effort,” Hannan remembers. “I had a Manx Norton that was pretty modified, and I planned on doing all the rounds of the 500cc world championship that I could get a start in. I had a couple of good rides, too. I finished the TT, got 11th at the Sachsenring and ninth at the Yugoslavian round, which got me some points. I was making enough to have a decent living, because back then we were doing so many races that weren’t GPs. You made good cash off start money, and I did all the races like Hockenheim and the Nürburgring, all the big ones.”
A factory-supported, not full factory-backed, ride for Aermacchi beckoned for 1970 in a deal brokered by Italian journalist Roberto Patriani. “The first race I did on the Aermacchi was at Brands Hatch on Boxing Day and it was snowing!” Hannan says. “The Aermacchi was a little short-stroke thing, and if it didn’t fire off the push start straight away it would kick back, whereas the Manx would just chug along until it fired. I got a shocking start and clawed my way back to sixth, so I was pleased and pretty optimistic about the season ahead. Plus I had the UK Aermacchi importer, Sid Lawton, giving me a hand, so that made it a little easier.
We did another non-championship race in France, not sure of the name but I got in the top five, then off to Hockenheim, where it did a big-end.”
It was at Hockenheim where Hannan was informed he would be riding for the Australian team at the TT at the behest of team captain Carruthers. “I didn’t want to do it,” Hannan says. “The TT is hard on bikes, it’s expensive to get to, but on the other hand you could earn quite good money if you went, so I agreed, and that was the end of it.” The extent of his injuries suffered at the TT meant Hannan was in hospital for nearly 12 months, first in Douglas and finally at Broadgreen Hospital in Liverpool. Stuck in traction, with weights hanging off to line up the busted bones in his legs, it wasn’t looking good. But a chance encounter with a visiting Queens Surgeon not only got him off the Isle of Man, but saved his legs from almost certain amputation. “The bloke lying next to me had this Queens Surgeon visiting, and I thought ‘I may as well have a go,’ so I called out to him ‘How ya goin’!?’ and he came over, all polite British and all and enquired ‘Are you an Aussie? I used to fight with Aussies in the war, what are you doing here?’ I knew I was in with a shot so I told him I crashed at the TT. He said ‘That was last year!’ and no less than a week later I was on the boat to Liverpool. Lucky I met him; otherwise I probably would have rotted there.”
Ironically, it was Jan and Kel Caruthers who would help keen the whole Hannan show rolling while Ross was in hospital. “My wife, Carmen and I, were married in 1969 and of course she was there for the accident,” Ross says. “I was in a coma for a few days and she had to handle all the drama. She stayed in the Isle of Man and worked at a stock brokers and kept supporting me for the period, visiting every day. After the crash Jan Carruthers was a great support for Carmen. Carmen had not yet been paid by the Auto Cycle Union for racing at the TT, so Jan and Nanou (Jack Findlay’s wife) sorted it out so well that not only did we get paid, the ACU paid for our flights back to Australia!”
After getting himself set straight by the Queens Surgeon in the UK, Hannan returned to Australia and began the search for what he’d do now his racing days were over. Being the entrepreneur he is, he identified an area that was lacking in the motorcycle industry and pounced on it – brakes.
“I knew what I wanted but I couldn’t get anyone to do it, so I started bonding Ferodo material onto brake linings here and selling them,” Hannan says. “Most people in Australia went down to Better Brakes, and I’d earlier became friends with a bloke called Joe Dunphy, who was the Ferodo man in the UK and had his own brake shop. So I started to buy all the materials off Joe, which worked quite well and were much better than the brakes available at the time.”
Hannan and his Roskos line of brakes had hit the nail on the head right as disc brakes were coming into play. Originally he’d bond the linings to original brake backing plates, then he tooled-up and started producing everything needed to sell the complete set.
“We had sets for Yamahas, Kawasakis, Hondas and Suzukis, and things were going good. I even started selling back to Joe in the UK, because he didn’t want to tool up to do the job himself. I was buying all the material from James Hardie – which is Ferodo in Australia – but then they figured out I was buying a lot of this brake material, and they went into making brake pads – completely took over the market and put me out of business overnight.” But even though the brake market was now presenting slim pickings, Ross still had an ace up his sleeve to present to the Aussie motorcycle market. He became the first-ever importer of Yoshimura products anywhere in the world.
“Back in the early 70s Yoshimura was only a small shop in Japan, and they were looking at getting into the American market, but they bit off more than they could chew,” Hannan quips. “Pops (Yoshimura) went into business with this character called Dale Alexander from America, and he ripped them off big-time. But Dale registered the Yoshimura name, and after he kicked Pops and his son Fujio out he changed the name to Dale Star Engineering! With the Yoshimuras stuck in America, I got a phone call from Pops asking for help, and I mortgaged the house and bought a heap of Yoshimura parts without seeing the finished product first. But it was beautiful stuff – hand-made camshafts, pistons and so on So I became the Yoshimura importer, and I built a Honda CB750 for Ron Toombs to race when the Superbike series first started out in Australia. Ron hated it, so I eventually stuck it in the shed in Newtown and left it there for ages.”
Ross eventually bought the first bike he’d owned since he stopped racing not long after he retired the CB750, a new Kawasaki Z900 organised by good friend Myles Stivano. But a call from Aussie race legend tony Hatton put a fast end to that. “I really loved that bike and was enjoying riding again, then I get a call from Hatto who was entered for the Adelaide 3 Hour. He told me he had lost his ride and ‘You know that Kawasaki you’ve got…’ So, can’t help myself, I said ‘Yeah come get it.’ Anyway, long story short, Hatto put it in the wall and shortened it by about three inches. Soon enough that was back in the shop, and that’s where it stayed for a long time.”
Hannan and his Yoshimura importing business were doing quite well in the motorcycle boom of the 1970s. He had a superior product and business was good. But the racing bug hadn’t left his system, and through a chance phone call from his brother, Ralph, who was working as mechanic for Kiwi GP legend Ginger Molloy in Europe, Ross got hooked up with a young upstart who would go on to become a New Zealand motorcycling hero. “Ralph had returned from Europe and was working with Ginger in Hamilton, NZ, when he rang me and said, ‘There’s this you guy called (Graeme) Crosby coming over. He’s the best rider I’ve ever seen.’ Now, Ralph didn’t like many riders, particularly after spending so many years in Europe. So Croz shows up, Yoshimura release a bunch of parts for the Z900, and I started to get a bit of an itch as Superbikes were taking off in Australia – so I thought, why not?”
Graeme Crosby was one of those talents that only come along once or twice in a generation. A rare mix of charisma, talent and sheer bravado that made for an instant fan favourite. Hannan knew he was onto a good thing.
“I contacted (old racing mate) Ian Cork and he agreed to rebuild the old Z900 bike for Croz. They went to Lakeside with all the guns like Hansford and Willing. We were the only roadbike in the field against all the real race bikes, and by the time the first corner rolled around, guess who was leading? Croz went on to finish fourth; people were just stunned. After that we went to Winton and won it – Corky and Croz were having a right time!”
“After Calder Park Corky left and Ralph had also returned from NZ at this point and joined me in the business, also taking over from Cork in running the Kawasaki for Crosby. I approached Myles Stivano and Neville Doyle from Kawasaki Australia, who were very supportive, even giving us the first Z1R in the country. Ralph and I converted this bike for Croz using Yoshimura parts and this is the one on which Crosby made a name for himself in Australia.” The Z1R morphed into simply a silhouette of the roadbike, with everything that could be made by Yoshimura fitted, as well as a welded crank and various frame modifications like different swinging arms, chopped and changed steering head-angle, all running on beautiful Dymag wheels from England. “People were saying the bike was illegal, it was a monster. But it was only ever 1000cc. Its advantage was it had so much torque. At Bathurst it recorded a top speed of 178 mph – not a bad effort without a fairing! Revs Magazine put it in the magazine with the headline ‘The fastest roadbike in Australia!’
“Crosby would come over Skyline, lap after lap, and wheelie the bike into the esses and down to the dipper. He did it with such force he bent the handlebars. Ralph would be changing the bars between races – they were bending at the clamps!” It wasn’t long before Crosby would go overseas and end up as part of the Suzuki GB team, but as luck would have it, another business opportunity would appear before Hannan.
“Croz and I were overseas doing the Bol d’Or 24 Hour in 1977 with Tony Hatton, and I stopped by Japan on the way home to have a look at the new Moriwaki concern. Mamoru Moriwaki had married Pop’s (Yoshimura) daughter and they started their own shop. Pops rang me and asked me to give them a hand with parts, so I went to their factory and saw this gorgeous 125 racer they built. It was based off a Honda CB125 roadbike engine, with a six-speed gearbox, dry clutch and a water-cooled barrel. Plus it revved to 17,000rpm – you can imagine the sound it made! I had to have one, so I picked it up and took it to Bathurst for 1978 and Ralph rode it. The Moriwaki family came out too to have a ride, with Mamoru riding one 125 and Kenzi Sato riding the other. That started my relationship with Moriwaki.
“Much later in the piece when Moriwaki wanted to go MotoGP racing with the V5 RC211V Honda engine, they called me to see if I could get them on the grid. We had an agreement in place with Peter Clifford to use his WCM spot, but that all fell through, which was a real shame as it could have been a really good machine.”
Hannan remembers a funny encounter with Crosby at the FIM awards in Japan. Crosby was due to receive his medal for winning the TTF1 championship and was one of the hottest properties in racing, with everyone wanting the young Kiwi’s signature for 1982 after he’d blitzed the field at Daytona on Pop’s beautiful Superbike. “Honda really wanted him, but there was also Suzuki to consider. Croz asked me on the night ‘Do you want to manage me?’ and I told him I’d no rather manage you than fly to the moon!’ But I was happy to help him out here. So there we were, with the Suzuki head honchos in one room and the Honda crew in the other, and we were running between the two. Honda wanted him for the US Superbike series, but Graeme wanted to go GP racing. Suzuki GB had Randy Mamola, and he and Croz famously didn’t get along. Pops was in Suzuki’s ear telling them they must sign Croz so he would race his Superbike at Daytona, and eventually a deal was struck to run Suzukis out of Japan, rather than Great Britain as per the norm. So we all went out and got drunk in celebration…But then Graeme got home, and the bean counters at Suzuki in Japan vetoed the deal, and Ago rang and offered him a contract for factory bikes in the Marlboro Yamaha team, so that’s where he went.”
Hannan also had a hand in the career of a young Wayne Gardner, the rider who would go on to win Australia’s first 500cc championship. “I actually bought Wayne’s first sponsored bike – a Honda XR75 – back when he was a kid in Wollongong. Over the years he would race my F1 bike and he used that to win the Swann Series in the early 80s. It was through my connection that Wayne got the ride to race for Moriwaki in Europe. But when Wayne won the 1989 Australian 500cc Grand Prix, the motorcycle industry really took off again. The industry at that point was in tatters. Wayne got people excited about riding and racing. He did a lot more than just win the race that year!”
Over the years, Hannan kept himself busy with running the Sydney and Melbourne Automotive Trade Shows and learning a bit of web design. He still gets down to the MotoGP at Phillip Island every year (he’s been good mates with IRTA president Mike Trimby for over 30 years), and even dabbled in a bit of horse show jumping and endurance events. “I always said ‘being in a horse stable is the same as being in the pits, you just have to watch where you put your feet!’ But it’s something that my daughters have been able to enjoy, and we still have two Arabs, which keeps us busy.”
Ross Hannan’s is a story that would seem almost impossible were it not for the era in which it was played out. Indeed, it probably would be impossible in this day of ‘bring your sponsor dollars’ racing. He’s a make-your-own-luck kind of guy, whose tales could fill these pages five times over.
Story: Rennie Scaysbrook • Photos: Ross Hannan archives