The Swann International Series – Part 2: 1984-88

Rider Profiles

OBA Issue 12
Michael Dowson (Yamaha TZ750), Wayne Gardner (Honda RS500) and Rob McElnea (Suzuki RGB500) take the bridge at Oran Park in 1984.

Last issue we looked at the highs and lows as the Swann International Series established itself as a major attraction in the European off-season. There were bigger things to come…

More fun in the sun

After his narrow defeat at the hands of Malcolm Campbell in 1983, Rob McElnea was back a year later, bringing with him the works Suzuki XR40 square-four 500, fitted with a square-section alloy frame. But he faced a tough opponent in Wayne Gardner, now a factory rider himself and equipped with a works RS500 Honda triple. Other imports were British privateer Paul Iddon, and the Moriwaki factory pairing of Shinji Yatsushiro and Hikuru Miyagi. Andrew Johnson, once again, carried injuries into Calder’s opening round – a broken ankle received at Winton three weeks earlier, which itself was only weeks after breaking eight ribs in Adelaide. At Calder, McElnea triumphed in the first leg but Gardner turned the tables in race two, recovering from a poor start to plough through to win. Newly-crowned Australian 500 Champion, 26-year-old Glenn Middlemiss continued his fine form on his self-funded RG500 to take third in the opening race. While Gardner won the first race at Oran Park, Middlemiss caused a sensation by taking out the second race. Gardner had slowed when he was covered in oil from Rob Phillis’ Suzuki, letting Andrew Johnson into the lead, but with victory in sight, Johnson high-sided from the RS500, re-breaking his ankle and letting Middlemiss through for a popular win. McElnea retired in both races. At the final round at Surfers Paradise, Gardner knew he could afford to cruise home, which he did behind McElnea in the first leg. With Johnson’s exit, Malcolm Campbell inherited the Honda Australia RS500, but fared little better, crashing on the first lap and breaking a wrist. In Leg two, the final race of the series, West Australian Michael Dowson scored a brilliant win over McElnea on an ageing TZ750 that had been fitted with a front end from a road-going FJ1100 Yamaha. The result hoisted Dowson to second overall, one point ahead of McElnea.

OBA Issue 12
The Moriwaki team of Shunji Yatsushiro and Hikuru Miyagi on the grid at Oran Park in 1984.

For the eighth running of the Swann insurance international Series in 1985, organisers managed to sign up the previous year’s protagonists Gardner and McElnea, plus South African Dave Petersen on a RS500 Honda. Gardner was aboard a factory NSR500 V-4, while McElnea had the works XR45 Suzuki, now with a carbon-fibre chassis. Honda also supplied a works V3 engine for the ancient Team Honda Australia RS500, to be ridden by Malcolm Campbell. A $50,000 bonus was posted for any rider winning all six races in the series. Calder’s opening round also hosted the final race in the Australian Road racing Championship, where West Australian Peter Radford took out the crown on a works Suzuki XR-75/10 owned by the Italian Gallina Team. As expected Gardner took the V-4 to two easy wins from McElnea and Dowson’s venerable TZ750, the results being the same in both races. At Oran Park, Gardner pulverised the lap record in practice, setting a time of 1.13.2, more than 2 seconds under Campbell’s record. Rain fell just prior to the start of the first leg, where Kiwi Robert Holden kept the two-strokes at bay for half of the 12-laps on his GSX-R750 Suzuki. Gardner found the V4 a real handful on the slippery track, but with the $50,000 carrot still dangling, took over the lead and held it until the final corner, when Campbell rushed by under brakes. The pair bashed fairings as they raced to the line, with the verdict going to Campbell by a tyre’s width. The track was dry for leg two and Gardner wasn’t hanging around this time, setting a new outright lap record on his way to another win from McLenea and Campbell. One week later in Surfers Paradise, spectators and live television viewers were treated to the awesome sight of Gardner, McElnea and Campbell drifting to the point of broadsiding at the flat out right hand sweeper under the Dunlop bridge at the end of the main straight. In a sensational race, Gardner just held out McElnea, clinching the title again in the process. Just one race remained, and Campbell meant to win it. The Tasmanian took the lead from a surprised Gardner on lap two, setting a new outright lap record of 1.12.6. The lead see-sawed between the three riders, with Gardner’s V-4 usually gaining the advantage down the straight. Campbell knew he had to stretch the advantage to avoid being out-dragged to the finish, and really put his head down with two laps to go. Seconds later Wayne lost the V4 in a big way, somersaulting into a water-filled ditch. To add to his embarrassment, the whole incident was captured by the cameras (including Gardner’s on-bike camera) and replayed around the world. Campbell took the win, giving him second place in the series overall ahead of McElnea.

OBA Issue 12
Malcolm Campbell took two wins in 1985 on the Honda Australia RS500.

Kevin Magee looked to have been handed the 1986 Swann International Series on a plate when it was announced in October that he would have the use of Eddie Lawson’s World Championship-winning YZR500 Yamaha, to be fettled by former 250 Champion kel Carruthers. The only other international signing at that stage was British privateer Simon Buckmaster on a well-worn Honda RS500, but at the last minute, Rob McElnea, who had ridden as Lawson’s team mate through the 1986 season, gained permission to bring his mount as well. Reversing the normal order, the series opened at Surfers Paradise on November 23. McElnea romped away to two easy wins over Magee with Donnie Osborne third on his Honda RS500. Surprise packet of the meeting was Michael Dowson, who gave the Yamaha FZR1000 a world debut and took two fourths on the standard production machine. The finishing order was the same in the first race at Oran Park, giving McElnea a tantalising sniff of the $50,000 clean-sweep bonus, but it was obvious that Magee was rapidly coming to grips with his new mount. McElnea made a lightning start in the second race, leaving Magee to dispose of Osborne and Wayne Clarke’s Suzuki Superbike. At half distance, Magee had closed to within two seconds of the Englishman, in the process setting a new lap record of 1.12.1 With a most audacious move on the second-last lap he swept under McElnea at the ‘Flip Flop’ and held on to take his first Swann Series round win by 1.6 seconds, while Osborne held out Clarke for third. At Calder’s final round, a shower doused the track just prior to the opening race, sending first Dowson, then McElnea and Osborne sprawling. McElnea was up and away again quickly, carving through the field with Magee now in front, but clearly uncomfortable on the drying track. While Magee battled slides from destroyed wet tyres, McElnea swept past for a thoroughly-deserved with that all-but clinched the series. In the dry final race, Magee made the running but McElnea, who had lost a fingernail in his first lap prang, pounced mid-race and led into the last lap, when Magee thrust pass on the last corner and won the drag to the finish line with Dowson a distant third. Third overall in the series was Donnie Osborne, who was consistently the best of the rest aboard the old ex Team Honda Australia RS500 that had already contested three Swann series in the hands of Johnson and Campbell.

By 1987 the Australian Marlboro Yamaha team, under the management of former racer Warren Willing, had become a formidable force on the local scene, with Kevin Magee and Michael Dowson aboard the locally-constructed FZR1000-based Superbikes. Honda sent two of the ultra-exotic oval-piston 32-valve NR750 V-fours for Malcolm Campbell and fellow Tasmanian Rob Scolyer. This time, the ‘imports’: Rob McElnea, Roger Marshall and Swede Anders Andersson, had no answer to the top Australians and New Zealander Robert Holden. At Oran Park, Dowson won both races comfortably from Magee, while Campbell, who had ridden the NR750 in the Le Mans 24-Hour Race earlier in the year, dropped the priceless machine in race one. The local Yamaha team fielded a third Superbike for McElnea, but Dowson was in a class of his own all weekend. Campbell made up for his earlier mistake by giving the NR750 a world-first win in the opening leg at Calder, which was run using the Daytona-style banked oval, with its off-camber entry and exit corners, as well as the road circuit. Leading from the start, Campbell held off Magee to the flag, with Dowson third, and rueing loss of his chance at the $50,000 bonus. Dowson had his revenge in race two, holding off determined challenges from Magee, with the Hondas of Campbell and Scolyer next home. With the Surfers Paradise circuit now closed, the Queensland round moved to Lakeside for the series finale on December 12. In his last ride for the local team before joining Kenny Roberts’ GP team for the 1988 season, Magee pulled off a double win, with Campbell crucially claiming a pair of seconds ahead of Dowson. This hoisted Magee to the top of the points standings when it mattered, giving him snatching the series victory by just five points from Dowson. The best ‘foreigner’ was Roger Marshall on the Skoal Bandit 750 Suzuki, who rode consistently if not spectacularly to fifth overall.

OBA Issue 12
Kevin Magee holds of Rob Scolyer’s NR750 Honda at Oran Park in 1987.

1988 marked the eleventh year of the Swann series, but it was to prove the last. A major blow was the loss of the live ABC Television coverage that had been pivotal in attracting sponsorship, and the arrival of the World Superbike Championship, held at Oran Park in September, was another. The international component of the Swann Series consisted of British superbike star Terry Rymer, plus Kiwis Gary Goodfellow and Aaron Slight. Oran Park again hosted the opening round, on November 20. Kawasaki provided a works ZXR-750 for Rob Phillis, and he used it to good effect to win both races, defeating the Yamaha duo of Michael Dowson and Mick Doohan. At Lakeside, the weather played a major role. With the rain pelting down, the start was delayed 20 minutes, but with no change in the weather the field was dispatched. Doohan and Phillis slogged it out until the race was red-flagged when Rymer crashed spectacularly on the main straight. In the re-start, Doohan and Phillis again went at it hammer and tongs in the wet, with the impressive Goodfellow giving Dowson a hard time for third. Phillis crashed early in the race, and Dowson fell on the final lap, leaving the result as Doohan, Campbell, Goodfellow and Rymer. The circuit was dry for race two, and the crowd was treated to a thrilling display from Dowson, who smashed the lap record to close on leader Phillis, who then crashed at The Carousel for the second time. This time however, he didn’t walk away, a broken wrist and finger putting paid to his series hopes, while Dowson took the win over team mate Doohan and the improving Rymer. The series concluded at the newly-rebuilt Phillip Island circuit, where Doohan, having his last domestic outing before joining Honda in the 500cc World Championship, fried his clutch on the line for the first leg and crucially failed to finish. Dowson took the win, but only after overhauling Goodfellow, Campbell and ex-dirt tracker Peter Goddard’s FZR750 Yamaha. The final leg was a cracker between Doohan, Dowson and Malcolm Campbell’s Honda, the win going to the veteran Campbell by one tenth of a second. But, after five years of trying and two runner-up positions, it was Dowson’s series.

Australia was poorer for the loss of the Swann Insurance International Series. It had brought star overseas names to the country and produced brilliant racing, but times were a’changing. With the World Superbikes and, in 1989, the World GP Championship establishing rounds in Australia, there just wasn’t room for the Swann Series.

The Honour List: Swann International Series 1978-1988

1978: Jeff Sayle – Yamaha TZ750
1979: Greg Pretty – Yamaha TZ750
1980: Graeme Crosby – Suzuki GS1000R
1981: Wayne Gardner – Moriwaki
1982: Dave Hiscock – Suzuki GS1000R
1983: Malcolm Campbell – Honda RS920
1984: Wayne Gardner – Honda RS500
1985: Wayne Gardner – Honda NSR500
1986: Rob McElnea – Yamaha YZR500
1987: Kevin Magee – Yamaha FZR1000
1988: Michael Dowson – Yamaha FZR1000

Story: Jim Scaysbrook Photos: John Ford, Bill Forsyth, Michael Andrews

This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 12.