Terry McDonald – Born to race

Rider Profile

A pensive Terry McDonald on the grid prior to the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Forty years ago, a young life was snuffed out in an obscure race on the Greek island of Corfu. Terry McDonald’s short existence had come to an end, doing what he loved most, racing a motorcycle.

Born in East Camberwell, Melbourne on 1st June, 1947, Terrence James McDonald was from a family of five children, four boys and a girl, Cassie. When Terry was only four years old, Colin and Joan McDonald moved with their young family, initially to a house in Dalton Street, Wagga Wagga, NSW, and later to a small property at Rowan, about 10 km out of town, and Terry revelled in the country life.

His younger sister Cassie recalls that Terry was always on the go, and could run almost as soon as he could walk. “It’s as if he knew he had a short time to live and was going to cram in as much as he could. Terry was always off somewhere exploring the world. I remember him pulling his tricycle apart to see how it worked, then turning it into a billycart. It didn’t matter what it was – his insatiable curiosity would not rest until he knew how everything worked. Clocks, toys, and later engines, would end up in pieces. Terry would take long candle-lit explorations down stormwater drains, often ending up on the other side of town. With (brothers) Nick or Greg, he would sneak out on midnight journeys to the tip on the old garbageman’s horse and cart.”

Given his inquisitive nature, Terry had little patience for school, he would rather be tinkering, running or building. Cassie says, “Terry was the best cubbyhouse builder, the best bonfire maker, and the biggest dare-devil in town. Two huge poplars stood in our backyard in Dalton Street. High up between these trees Terry would secure a strong plank of wood. From this he would build his tree house, sometimes two stories high. Terry would run for miles in his quest for useful junk to make his grand cubbies in which he stored caches of treats shared between ‘we boys’ who were always coming and going at our house. The excitement each year when the caravans returned for the Wagga Show was electric. Jimmy Sharman’s booming drum outside his boxing tent, the sight of the clowns’ heads moving side to side, fairy floss, dollies on sticks, dodgem cars and the Ferris Wheel delighted us. Fearless Terry would slip under the tent sides to see the shows and he would squirrel away and old useful bits he found for his cubbies when the show left town.”

“Although small and slight (hence his nickname ‘Skin’), Terry was strong and could defend himself against the town bullies. He saved my life twice – once in a grass fire when the flames were licking my dress and Terry pulled me to safety, and another time at the Wagga beach on the Murrumbidgie River when he saved me from drowning.” The McDonald kids all attended Turvey Park Primary and Wagga High School, where Terry won the mile race in bare feet against the serious competitors who had track shoes and starting blocks.

Left: Terry on the road and in a relaxed mode. Right: Terry’s 250 Bultaco short circuit machine using a modified Bantam frame.

In his teens, motorcycles began to play a part in Terry’s life. There were plenty of old bikes scattered around on farms, and the youngsters built a bike shed at the McDonald’s new property at Rowan where bikes would be pulled to pieces, rebuilt and scrambled around the paddocks. It led to bigger things and Terry began racing in local Short Circuit events and Scrambles, initially on a 250 DKW and later on a Honda twin fitted with raucous open megaphones. He worked for a while as a carpenter, then moved into the motorcycle trade via the workshop at Jack Skeers’ long-established business. It was here that he acquired the 250 Bultaco engine that he grafted into a modified BSA Bantam frame, and later managed to purchase a Hagon frame. But there was little organised racing activity in Wagga and the isolation made him restless. To get closer to the action he decided on a move to Canberra, which had its own Short Circuit track at Mt. Ginn. He found work with local motorcycle dealers Doug and Wayne Bryant, later moving to Honda dealer and sidecar racer John Grant and then to R & J Genge. With the Hagon Bultaco fully sorted, the results began to flow. There was plenty of Short Circuit racing to be had at places like Temora, Young, Narrandera, West Wyalong, Tamworth and occasionally in Sydney, and more often than not Terry claimed his share of the prize money. He travelled to Adelaide with Allen Tye and a group of mates for the 1968 Australian titles at a rough and ready track near Elizabeth, but it was more suited to motocross machines and there were no results for the squad from Wagga. In October 1969 he had his biggest trip to date, to Perth to compete in the Australian Short Circuit Championships at Forrestfield. Unexpectedly, the eastern-staters encountered stiff opposition from the locals, although Narrandera star Charlie Edwards had the 125 cc race in the bag until mechanical woes stopped him. Only in the 250 cc class did the visitors claim a victory, and it was Terry on the top step of the dais after a race-long battle with Edwards, who fell on the last lap and broke his ankle. He also finished second in the 350 class to WA rider Ray Long and in the Unlimited (riding his 250 Bultaco) to WA star Bob O’Leary on a 650 Triumph-engined Kerr frame, a locally-built Hagon-style chassis. One month later, Terry wrapped up the NSW 250 cc Short Circuit Championship at Salty Creek.

Terry McDonald aboard his Hagon Bultaco at Temora NSW.

Earlier that year, Terry achieved a long-held ambition to race at Bathurst, lining up for one of the most hotly-contested events on the program, the Lightweight Production Race. Although the six-speed Suzuki Hustler was regarded as the hot set up at the time, the Bultaco Metralla was also a very rapid machine and handled superbly. From the start, Terry and his dirt-track rival Kevin Fraser, both on Metrallas, shot into the lead and staged a mighty battle, leaving Suzuki-mounted Paul Spooner and Kevin Arnold to dispute third place. Unlike Terry, Fraser had considerable experience on the tar, having raced production Bultacos and well as a 125 TSS, but the youngster from Canberra wasn’t giving this chance for glory away easily. Frasrer led until the last corner when Terry swept by to win by a wheel, his final circuit knocking five full seconds from the class lap record.

This was the tonic that Terry needed, and from now on, his focus was on road racing and ultimately, a trip overseas to compete at what he regarded as the pinnacle of the sport, the Isle of Man TT. In Canberra, Terry had befriended former Federal policeman Alan Black, himself an occasional competitor. Between them, they hatch a plan to leave Australia for a season’s racing during the 1970 European winter. At this stage, Australia was not a member of the F.I.M. so competitors from these shores usually raced under a British licence overseas. Although the TT was his goal, Terry and Alan were wise enough to realise that with Terry’s relative inexperience it would not be a wise place to start, and there was also the problem of obtaining the necessary level of International Licence required for the TT, not to mention the considerable expense involved. Instead, they decided to spectate at the TT before heading off to Europe, avoiding the glamour events for the lesser internationals where results, and hopefully prize money, would be easier to come by. Watching the world’s most famous road races from the sidelines must have been a sobering experience, for 1970 was one of the most gruesome on record, with six competitors killed, including top-liners Santiago Herrero, Brian Steenson and Micky Collins.

Alan Black owned one of the few Matchless G50s in Australia at the time, and this was prepared, along with a spare engine and shipped to Europe ready for their campaign. Alan was to act as mechanic and manager while Terry took care of the riding duties.

Left: Terry McDonald on the winner’s dais in Hungary. Right: Terry (25) in a determined mood during the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Their first meeting was at Sachsenring in East Germany for the East German Grand Prix on 12th July, a round of the World Championship, and amid some fairly serious company that included Giacomo Agostini on the works MV, Aussies Jack Findlay and John Dodds, Kiwi Ginger Molloy, and top British riders Alan Barnett, John Blanchard, Dave Simmonds and Tommy Robb. Terry came home in sixteenth place in the 500 cc race. It was an encouraging start and the boys next headed to Sweden for the Grand Prix at Anderstorp, a converted airfield circuit. In a letter to his parents, Terry said, “I was coming eighth and it started to rain; that was good because about four more bikes dropped out, mainly Kawasakis and Lintos, and I had about five laps to go and the petrol line came off the bottom of the carby so I had to stop. I would have come fifth and I was much cranky but that’s racing.” Packing up for the long haul to England to await further developments, Terry and Alan found a telegram waiting for them from the organisers of the Austrian Grand Prix at the Salzburgring. “We only had a few days to go 800 hundred miles so we left straight away, “ Terry’s letter continued. “We still had the old motor in the frame from East Germany and it was sick so we didn’t finish the race (in Austria).”

Remaining at a friend’s place in Austria, the second engine was rebuilt with a new crank pin and off they went to Budapest for the Hungarian Grand Prix at Nepliget (People’s) Park. The 3.1 mile circuit was tree-lined, extremely twisty, and highly dangerous, but this time things really clicked. After qualifying well, Terry joined a battle for the lead and held his nerve to take the flag first in a photo finish. The win brought a silver trophy and best of all, the equivalent of Australian $600, which was a Godsend as the coffers were virtually empty. The only problem was, the money could not be taken out of the country, so Terry and Alan stayed in Budapest for a week, bought new clothes, and stayed in a “posh hotel eating good food and drinking wine”. “Budapest is a nice place,” Terry wrote, “but I don’t think I would like to stay there. The people are locked up like dogs but it is better than East Germany.” With the money spent and their Hungarian visas due to expire, it was back on the road again to Austria to cool their heels for a few days until they headed south to Greece for a road race around the streets of Corfu.

An island in the Ionian Sea, Corfu’s nearest mainland port is Sarande, in Albania. Its main city is also called Corfu (Kerkyra in Greek). For the Grand Prix of Greece, a 3.6 mile circuit had been laid out through the streets of the city with a spectacular section down and back along the Bay of Garitsa. The top, northern section of the track ran around the city’s park, with the start/finish opposite the ancient Fortress that guarded the harbour. By the time Terry and Alan arrived in Corfu, they were again strapped for cash, but with the success from Hungary still fresh, confident of doing well. Trying hard for a good grid position, Terry attacked the circuit in qualifying, but misjudged a corner, clipping the inside kerb and pitching himself off the bike. He struck a roadside pole headfirst, receiving severe head and neck injuries, and was pronounced dead on arrival at Corfu Hospital. His 23 years were up.

Back home, the news of Terry’s death was a devastating blow to his family, who raised $2,000 to have the body flown home. He was buried at Wagga Cemetery on September 28. The organisers of the Corfu event, the Automobile and Touring Club of Greece were equally distraught at the tragedy, and offered to donate a trophy in Terry’s memory. That Trophy was awarded for the main event at the Terry McDonald Memorial Races at Mt. Ginn on 28th May, 1972 and was won by Terry’s friend and great rival, Kevin Fraser.

A collection of Terry’s sashes is on display at the Sporting Hall of Fame, Museum of the Riverina in Wagga, along with his original dirt track helmet (left).

In 1999, thanks to the efforts of Wagga resident Allan Tye and a number of others, Terry McDonald was inducted into the Wagga Wagga Sporting Hall of Fame, along with other prominent local motorcyclists Michael Stormonth, Lloyd Richards and Kevin Condron.

Peter Dunster from Canberra worked with Terry at Genge’s motorcycle dealership and recalls a typical anecdote. “Terry was always clowning around on a Honda 90 and once did a wheelie, two-up, for the entire length of the main street. Another time on the Honda, he did this huge wheelie away from the traffic lights and got nabbed by the law. Terry put on this big act and said to the copper that he didn’t know what happened when he let out the clutch – ‘the bike just went out of control” – so the policeman showed him how to release the clutch properly so it wouldn’t happen! Terry had this old flying helmet – the type with the ear muffs in the side, and had painted it up in wild colours. When he left Genge’s for overseas, he hung it up in the rafters of the workshop and said he would collect it when he returned. It was still there years later (after Terry’s death) and the boss was going to give it to a kid who wanted a helmet to ride his mini bike, but the guys in the workshop absolutely refused to allow it to be taken down. “That’s Terry’s helmet, they said. He’s going to collect it when he returns.”

Story: Jim Scaysbrook with assistance from Allan Tye • Photos: McDonald family collection.

OBA Issue 24
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.24