Monthly Archives: November 2013

Speed King

For enthusiasts of Land Speed Record breaking, the title “Speed Ace” or “Speed King” conjures images of such archetypal heroes as Segrave, Campbell and Cobb, frantically sawing at the wheel of some aero-engined behemoth as it thunders down the beaches of Daytona or along the dazzling white salt flats of Bonneville – English gentlemen who would risk life or limb for King and Country and the prestige of Britain.

But record breaking often creates less likely heroes who would arguably qualify for the same distinguished mantle.  Don Vesco was one such person, who not only set an outright World Land Speed Record for motorcycles of 318.598mph (512.73kph), but also an outright World Land Speed Record for a wheel-driven vehicle of 458.440mph (737.787kph).

Don Vesco.

Don Vesco.Record breaking was only one part of a lifetime chasing speed.

Record breaking for Vesco though was only one part of a lifetime chasing speed.

Don was born in Loma Linda Southern California on April the 8th 1939, in an environment that not surprisingly nurtured a “need for speed”.  His father, John Vesco, ran hot-rods and streamliners out of his body shop on Southern California’s numerous dry lakebeds – a perfect setting for Don and his two younger brothers Rick and Chuck to gain an education in all things fast.

Vesco was mechanically gifted as a child, and while still in his teens, modified a rigid framed Triumph 500cc T100R twin to enter his first official race, a local drag race meet at San Diego’s Paradise Mesa drag strip. What followed was that unique blend of American motorcycle racing, on bitumen, dirt track and TT steeplechase. One of Don’s old Hoover High School buddies and main rival on the track in those days was a future legend, Cal Rayborn.

It was in the discipline of road racing that Vesco excelled and it soon became apparent that the Triumph was no match for the Manx Norton’s many of his rivals were racing.  Thanks to a loan from his girlfriend Norma, who would become the first of his three wives, Don was able to purchase a Manx.  The combination proved almost unbeatable in local road races at tracks like Willow Springs and Riverside in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s – at a time when Japanese manufacturer Honda was trying to take a foothold in the lucrative American motorcycle market.

Don on the salt at Bonneville with his Manx Norton.

Don on the salt at Bonneville with his Manx Norton.

Honda hired Vesco to race its highly successful RC161 four-cylinder four-stroke 250cc Grand Prix racer in American events to help promote the brand. Don duly notched up two wins on the RC161 first time up at the Goleta Airport track in Santa Barbara but crashed the bike several months later at the same venue.  When a promised ride in the 1962 US Grand Prix at Daytona (an FIM sanctioned international event) was given to Japanese rider Kunimitsu Takahashi, it appeared that Don was out of favour.

Don aboard the Open Class winning Yamaha RD56 at Daytona 1963 with Japanese rider Fumio Ito.

Vessco aboard the Open Class winning Yamaha RD56 at Daytona 1963 with Japanese rider Fumio Ito.

In a twist of fate another Japanese manufacturer, Yamaha was also trying to promote their motorcycles in America. Yamaha contacted Vesco to race its RD56 250cc two-stroke Grand Prix racer the following year in the open class at the same event. The race, however, wasn’t to be all smooth sailing. Vesco, suffered a fall in the Daytona infield, but remounted and went on to lap the entire field to win the 1963 US Grand Prix, giving the Japanese manufacturer their first major victory in America. Vesco was to ride again for Yamaha at Daytona in 1964 and this time the Grand Prix was a fully sanctioned round of the FIM 250cc World Championship.  Unfortunately, a nasty fall in practice resulted in a broken collarbone for Vesco, and the GP racer was handed to up and coming English rider, and future World  Champion, Phil Read. The bad luck continued for Yamaha and the bike seized during the race.

Yamaha was now offering Don a dealership, which initially he declined, but reconsidered when his employer complained he was having too much time off through racing accidents. He opened shop in El Cajon California in 1966.

Don on the cover of the Orange County Raceway program riding a 250cc Bridgestone GP racer.

Vesco on the cover of the Orange County Raceway program riding a 250cc Bridgestone GP racer.

By the early 70’s Vesco had two of the world’s best racers riding out of his dealership, former world 250cc Grand Prix champion, Australian Kel Carruthers (who had come to live and race in the U.S. at Don’s invitation), and his old racing buddy and rival Cal Rayborn.   By the late 70’s other such greats as Gene Romero, Dave Aldana, Ron Pierce and Yvon du Hamel had all ridden under the Team Vesco Yamaha banner.

Don had by now shelved his own racing ambitions to concentrate on the dealership with the satisfaction of having been a factory rider for a number of manufacturers including Honda, Yamaha, Bridgestone and BSA.

It was during this period that Vesco began his highly successful motorcycle land speed record runs at Bonneville Salt Flats. Don was no stranger to the salt having first run a motorcycle at Bonneville at the age of 16, and in 1963 joined the exclusive 200mph (321.87kph) club, driving his fathers Offenhauser powered four wheeled streamliner #444 to 221mph (355.67kph).

However, it was the outright Motorcycle Land Speed records that Vesco became synonymous with. The first was in September 1970 using a twin-engine streamliner fitted with Yamaha R3 air-cooled 350cc two-stroke engines to set a new world record of 251.924mph (405.43kph), becoming the first man to break the 250mph barrier.  It was short lived though, as less than a month later Harley-Davidson broke his record with Cal Rayborn at the controls. Vesco knew of his friend’s record attempt and made sure he received his contingency money from Yamaha and his other sponsors quick smart!

Vesco and Big Red the first motorcycle to achieve over 250mph.

Vesco and Big Red the first motorcycle to achieve over 250mph.

Five years later Don returned to the salt and was the first to crack the 300mph barrier and set a new record in the Silver Bird Yamaha, (a stretched version of his old streamliner Big Red, fitted initially with two TZ700cc two-stroke Yamaha racing engines), leaving the mark at 302.928mph (487.53kph).

This was not enough for Vesco and in August 1978 he established a new outright world record of 318.598mph (512.73kph) with Lightning Bolt using two modified 1015cc turbocharged Kawasaki KZ900 engines.  Remarkably this outright world record stood for 12 years.

But it was only two months later that success turned to failure when Don took Lightning Bolt to El Mirage dry lake and crashed.  Vesco escaped without injury but much of the streamliner’s bodywork was damaged.  By 1980 Don had finished work on a new streamliner using two turbocharged 1300c six cylinder Kawasaki engines, although success eluded his new creation.

Don with the Silver Bird Yamaha streamliner after setting an new world record of 302.98mph.

Don with the Silver Bird Yamaha streamliner after setting a new world record of 302.98mph.

Vesco now started to eye the record for wheel-driven automobiles and in 1982 returned to Bonneville with a unique machine called Sky Tracker. Built along the lines of Don’s motorcycle streamliners, Sky Tracker used the driver’s compartment from Lightning Bolt and sported five wheels, two next to each other at the rear, one on each side and enclosed in the middle of the bodywork, and one at the front.

Rain, in both 1982 and 1983, thwarted attempts with Sky Tracker at Bonneville, although a speed of 235mph (378kph) was achieved in 1984 using a turbocharged Drake-Offenhauser engine before the meet was rained out again.  1985 saw Vesco qualify Sky Tracker for the World Finals record runs with a pass of 318mph, (512kph) his unusual creation starting to show its potential. Like anybody involved in the pursuit of speed, Vesco was well aware of the dangers, but a blown rear tyre at 350mph (563kph) underlined that point in no small way.  Sky Tracker crashed end over end five times totally destroying the car. Don came away with damaged vertebrae, concussion and a broken bone in his hand and right foot.

Don with the Kawasaki Lightning Bolt. His record stood for 12 years.

Don Vesco with the Kawasaki Lightning Bolt. His record stood for 12 years.

Finding enough money to continue chasing the record was not unfamiliar territory for Don and his brother Rick who was also working on a parallel project. It made sense to join forces to complete a new twin-engine car, although it was not until 1991 with a pair of turbocharged 160 cubic inch Drake-Offenhauser power units that it started to show promise with a run of 372mph (598kph).   Expensive engine failures were now becoming a problem and it was apparent to the brothers that piston engine power was reaching its upper limits. A different power source was needed if they were to break Al Teague’s wheel-driven record of 409.97mph (659.78kph).

A gas turbine was seen as the best solution and a compact helicopter unit could be found comparatively cheaply in the form of an Avco Lycoming T55-L-11A SA. The streamliner now became known as the Turbinator with its engine producing 3,750hp at 16,000rpm, driving all four wheels through a gearbox bolted to the front with a reduction ratio on the shaft of 2:1.

Turbinator.

Turbinator.

The first development runs took place in 1996 at Bonneville and over the next four years, Don and Team Vesco set three national records at the World Finals in excess of 400mph (643.74kph), culminating a one-way run of 427mph (687.19kph) in 2000. The world record slipped through their grasp that day when a gearbox failure with Turbinator prevented the team turning the car around for the return run within the one hour stipulated by FIA regulations.

Team Vesco returned to Bonneville once again in 2001 for the World Finals, with 500mph squarely in their sights.  The team were buoyed by the fact that in a one-way “shakedown” run Turbinator reached 470.28mph (756.84kph) and was still accelerating out of the measured mile. The record runs however produced a real problem.  Don was unable to hold open the throttle as the engine temperature at the burners kept creeping up dramatically and could have caused the engine to self-destruct. Vesco had to modulate the throttle 16 times to contain the temperature but still hit over 458.mph (737.08kph) on the first run. The problem was the reduction gearbox, bolted to the shaft on the front of the engine, prevented enough cooling air to flow into the turbine.

The return run was going to be challenging and again Vesco was required to modulate the throttle 18 times to contain engine temperature. Worse was yet to come as the rear left tyre blew inside the measured mile. It took all of Don’s skill and experience to keep the Turbinator on track and slow it down, stopping a mere 15 feet inside the black line.

Team Vesco had done the job; the return run had equalled the first to give a two-way average of 458.44mph (737.79kph).

Don and the team were happy to have beaten Al Teague’s 1991 wheel driven record of 409.986mph (659.81kph) in Spirit of ‘76 but more delighted to have broken the record for a gas turbine automobile of 403.10mph (648.73kph) set 37 years earlier in 1964 by Donald Campbell at Lake Eyre in South Australia driving CN7 Bluebird.

Don and Team Vesco break the wheel-driven Land Speed Record 2001.

Don and Team Vesco break the wheel-driven Land Speed Record 2001.

In 1999 the American Motorcyclist Association had honoured Vesco’s achievements and inducted him into their Hall of Fame. Don turned 60 that year.  If there is one thing that old motorcycle racers know from experience, crashing and riding injured come with the territory. Vesco had suffered his share, but in 1995 while spectating at a sprint car meeting at the Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix Arizona, Don was struck in the left eye and permanently blinded by a piece of debris thrown up by the rear tyre of a sprint car. Driving Turbinator with one eye was just another obstacle for Don to overcome, which makes those 400mph (643.74kph)  plus runs all that more remarkable. It didn’t deter Vesco from competing at Daytona in the BMW legends series, riding an R1100RS as fast as ever, and he continued to compete in AHRMA events on one of Team Obsolete’s Manx Nortons.

Unfortunately, there was one final obstacle Don was unable to overcome before he could achieve his dream of 500mph (804.67kph). He was diagnosed with prostate cancer and succumbed to the illness on the 16th of December 2002 aged 63.  Vesco was inducted posthumously into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2004.  Today, after 13 years, Don’s record still stands, but Team Vesco will continue to work towards that dream of 500mph (804.67kph) and will be back at Bonneville with an upgraded and improved Turbinator 11.

Don Vesco, factory motorcycle racer, team owner, engine tuner, designer, Land Speed Record breaker. Speed King.

Words Geoff Dawes (C) 2013. Images http://www.bluebird-electric.com, http://www.bikernet.com, http://www.gregwapling.com, http://www.forumboxerworks.com, http://www.yamahapart.com, http://www.eliteday.com, http://www.global.yamaha-motor.com and http://www.croinfo.net.

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Heli Bars

Comfort without compromise.

Funny word “average”.  It can be seen in some applications as almost derogatory or just plain insulting if it’s used with the right inflexion.

But it’s a word motorcycle manufacturers have to live with on a daily basis, although not in the context of the quality of the product they produce.  It’s what they have to take into account when deciding on the ergonomics of a given motorcycle, as the human body comes in such a diverse range of shapes and sizes. Ultimately these decisions are usually a compromise based on the dimensions of the “average” human.

Enter American accessory handlebar manufacturer Heli Bars. With a slogan like “comfort without compromise,” they engender hope to those of us perhaps at the wrong end of the “average” spectrum.

I purchased a pair for my Suzuki SV1000s from the local importer, Mick Hone motorcycles, via their website ( www.mickhone.com.au) for the reasonable sum of $350.00c including express postage.

Fitting them was a straight forward procedure using the company’s instructions, although to retain the manufacturer’s warranty fitting by a qualified mechanic is required.  The only special tool needed was a torque wrench for the head stem nut and handlebar pinch bolts.  Most of the bars Heli make utilise the stock brake, clutch and throttle lines, which was the case with my SV1000s.

The end result lifted the bars by just over 5cm and reduced the “reach” by a maximum of 2.54cm. This doesn’t seem like much but the difference is quite noticeable with less pressure on the wrists and lower back and even modulating the throttle seems a little easier.  I didn’t weigh the stock handlebars but the Heli Bars are heavier and appear to dampen engine vibration better. If there is a down side I did notice a slight loss of “feel” from the front wheel, but the benefits of the Heli Bars far outweigh my sensitivity in adjusting to them.

Heli Bars.

Heli Bars.

Original handlebars.

Original handlebars.

Long rides without the discomfort of the stock bars, in my opinion, make them a worthwhile investment.  Heli make a range of replacement handlebars for most popular motorcycles from a wide variety of manufacturers.

Words and photographs Geoff Dawes. (C)2013

Casey Stoner Pushing The Limits

For a large number of MotoGP followers, and in particular fans of Casey Stoner, his new autobiography (with Matthew Roberts), “Casey Stoner Pushing The Limits” subtitled ‘The controversial and explosive autobiography of a two-time World Moto GP Champion” holds very few surprises. Many of the events in Stoner’s career and early life have already been well documented in the media.9781409129219

But the book draws all the elements of Casey’s life together in a single volume that gives him the freedom to set the record straight after years muted media statements often due to the politics and pressure of the MotoGP paddock.  Stoner does not like being in the public spotlight and has found it difficult to fit the “Superstar” persona that the commercialised sports owners, Dorna, and the ensuing and often frenzied media pack try to demand.

Casey’s early life and his  love of motorcycles and racing is intriguing, and it’s clear that his upbringing played such an important part in shaping his career

However, the greatest revelation, I personally found, was his reasons for leaving Australia to compete overseas.  Although forced upon him, it was this decision that set Casey and his parents on the long and hard road to success.

“Casey Stoner Pushing The Limits” is well worth reading if you have little or no knowledge of this great Champions career. For those who follow the sport, or are a Stoner fan, it will clear the muddied waters of MotoGP politics, revealing how incredibly special the talent of Casey Stoner is.

Highly recommended.  Available from the Book Depository in hardback or paperback.

Words Geoff Dawes (C) 2013.

The Changing Of An Era For MotoGP ?

Hionda’s new “Open Class”production racer the RCV1000R.

The final MotoGP of the 2013 season at Valencia brought with it a remarkable conclusion to the championship, with Marc Marquez clinching the title to become the youngest ever MotoGP World Champion and the first “rookie” to do so in 35years.

There were, however, a number of other events surrounding the race that also announced the changing of an era.

Honda unveiled its RCV1000R “Open Class” racer (formerly CRT) and it is the first production racer to be sold to private teams by Honda since the NSR 500V two-stroke V-twin in 2001.  That in itself is a boost for the category, but when HRC revealed that Casey Stoner tested both bikes at Motegi on the same day, on the same tyres, and the difference between the production racer and full factory RC213V was only 0.3s,  it shone a spotlight onto what may be the future of MotoGP. More significant though, was the time set on the softer compound rear tyre only available to the ‘open’ class riders, dropping the gap down to just 0.17s!

Hiroshi Aoyama on the RCV1000R at the Valencia tests.

The production racer is a “toned down” version of the full factory RC213V. The main differences being steel sprung rather than pneumatically operated valves, and a conventional rather than seamless shift gearbox. The 1000cc 90 degree V4 engine will still produce ‘over 175KW’ (235hp) at 16,000rpm with Öhlins suspension and Nissin brakes fitted as standard.

The price tag to buy the Honda is believed to be around 1.2million euros, however, an upgrade package for 2015 means that the cost, when spread over two seasons, is likely to be around 800,000 euros a year, which is more in keeping with Dorna’s policy on pricing for the newly named category.

Four machines so far have been purchased; two earmarked for the Aspar Team to be ridden by 2006 World Champion Nicky Hayden and Hiroshi Aoyama. MotoGP rookie Scott Redding at the Gresini Team and Karel Abraham of the Cardion AB Team will ride the other two machines.

Nicly Hayden on the RCV1000R production racer in testing at Velencia.

Nicly Hayden on the RCV1000R production racer testing at Velencia.

Yamaha will also supply “Open Class” machinery to the NGM Forward Racing Team for both Colin Edwards and Aleix Espargaro.  This is the first time since the early 1990’s that Yamaha has offered competitive machinery for sale to private teams in MotoGP.  At that time Yamaha supplied complete engines and technical information to specialist chassis manufacturers Harris and ROC.  For the new “Open Class” Yamaha is supplying the MI engine, frame and swingarm.

Not to be left out, Ducati will also supply a complete “Open Class “ machine to the Pramac Ducati Team.

Aleix Espargro on the Yamaha production racer at the Valencia test.

Aleix Espargro on the Yamaha production racer at the Valencia test.

All of these production racers will have the benefit of 12 engines per season as opposed to 5 for the full factory prototypes and four litres more fuel, 24 compared to 20 for 2014, and there is also a greater choice of tyres for the riders as well.  All of these machines will use the officially supplied MotoGP ECU and software.

The other major event at Valencia was the “sacking” by Valentino Rossi of long serving Crew Chief Jeremy Burgess.  The announcement was made at a press conference held on the Thursday before the Valencia MotoGP at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo.

Valentino Rossi' Crew Chief, Jeremy Burgess, talks about their parting of ways.

Valentino Rossi’ Crew Chief, Jeremy Burgess, talks about their parting of ways.

“It was my decision because we had already spoken with the team about next year,” explained Rossi. “Jeremy said that he wanted to stay. [But] Jeremy had some question marks for the future [beyond 2014] and he didn’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, just that he wanted to wait for next year [to decide].

“I also want to wait until next year and I will decide after the first races if I want to continue. So it was more my decision and yesterday we spoke together to explain that I needed to make a change and try something different. It’s a new boost to get more motivation so we decided to do this.

“The level now has raised a lot with the top three riders and they are able to ride these bikes very fast and the lap time has improved a lot. It’s a great challenge for me and for us and we know that it is difficult, but I don’t have any regrets or problems with how the team has worked and especially with Jeremy.

“I know that this is a key moment because I have in mind that I want to try one time in another way and that this is the moment for that.”

After Rossi had given his reasons for the parting of ways the 60-year-old Burgess commented, “It blindsided me and I didn’t expect it whatsoever,” he said. “I knew yesterday afternoon when Valentino invited me into his trailer that we weren’t going in there for the Christmas bonus!”

“I haven’t made any plans for the future at this stage. My intention originally was to continue next year and depending on results and desire I would make a call. We’ve been chasing rainbows for four years and haven’t nailed anything decent and these are long periods in racing and it becomes more difficult [to win].

“I’ve read many sports biographies and quite often the top sportsman in the latter part of his career will have a change of caddy or a change of coach and this is what we’re working on. We worked on fixing the problem for four years and this is part of that fix and this is the next step to try and get Valentino back on top.

“Obviously I’m disappointed but I understand that some change was necessary and only history will determine the outcome of this adjustment. It’s an adjustment to improve the package for Valentino and if this does it than it’s been a success.”

Burgess added: “I prefer how this happened and think that it was a far better way to do it rather than showing up on Sunday night and just saying ‘Ciao it’s all over’.”

During their 14 seasons together Rossi and Burgess have won a record 80 Grand Prix races, using 500cc Honda, 990cc Honda, 990cc Yamaha, 800cc Yamaha and 1000cc Yamaha machinery. As a Crew Chief Burgess has won 13 MotoGP World Championships, 1 with Wayne Gardner, 5 with Mick Doohan, and 7 with Valentino Rossi since starting his career as a mechanic in the 500cc Grand Prix class with Heron Suzuki in 1980.

Indeed the end of an era.

Words Geoff Dawes (C) 2013. Photographs courtesy of Repsol Honda and MotoGp.com

Archives: The Unknown Grand Prix Hero

Newcombe in full flight at the Dutch T.T. at Assen.

Before the start of the 1973 500cc Grand Prix season, the all-conquering MV Agusta team held a crushing stranglehold on the premier class.  The monopoly had lasted for 17 years, winning the championship 16 times, the last seven in the hands of the great Giacomo Agostini.  Even the might of the Honda factory with the talents of Mike Hailwood had failed to take the title away.

In 1973 it was Yamaha who decided to take up the challenge and try to become the first Japanese factory to win the blue riband class.  Yamaha’s line up was a formidable one utilising the talents of their 250cc world champion, rising Finnish star Jarno Saarinen, aboard the factory’s latest weapon; an across the frame 500cc four-cylinder two-stroke.  His team-mate was respected Japanese test rider, Hideo Kanaya.

The Italians though, proved they were not about to rest on their laurels by hurriedly building a new four-stroke 500 based on their compact 350 four.  Three times 250cc World Champion, Englishman Phil Read, was drafted into the team to ride it alongside Ago on his tried and proven triple.

But incredibly it became an unknown New Zealander, riding a home built special with an engine from a marine outboard motor, that was to be MV Agusta’s greatest threat.

Kim Newcombe was born in Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island but was brought up in Auckland where he served an apprenticeship as a motorcycle mechanic.

Like many great riders of the modern Grand Prix era, Kim’s early racing career was on dirt tracks. His passion, in particular, was motorcycle scrambling (Motocross)), even riding his Greeves scrambler to meetings when a lift wasn’t available.

Phil Read leads Newcombe at the 1973 Czehoslavakian G.P.

Phil Read leads Newcombe at the 1973 Czechoslovakian Grand Prix.

In May 1962 he was rewarded with a second place in the New Zealand Scramble Championship, which he followed up later that year with another second place in the North Island 250cc Championship.  After such encouraging results, Kim and his wife Janeen decided to sell the Greeves and move to Australia in 1963 for what would become a five-year stay.

Newcombe initially spent time in Brisbane where he raced in both scrambles and Speedway.  Kim and Janeen then moved to Melbourne, and after putting in some good rides on a home-built special (an outdated Greeves with a BSA gearbox), he received sponsorship from Bob Beanam of Modak Motorcycles in the form of a 400cc Maico.  Beanam also sponsored another rider by the name of Rod Tingate, and it was this pair that debuted the first Maico moto-cross bikes in Australia.

However, Newcombe first came across the remarkable German Konig outboard motor while he was working for Bob Jackson Marine in Melbourne.  The Konig proved to be almost unbeatable in its class of hydroplane racing, and in 1965 Kim won two Victorian Outboard Championships using the impressive two-stroke engine. In effect, it was these two West German products that would have such a profound influence on Newcombe’s future.

Kim and the Konig leads Read on the MV Agusta at the Swedish Grand Prix in 1973.

Kim and the Konig lead Read on the MV Agusta at the Swedish Grand Prix in 1973.

Having succumbed to the lure of racing Motocross in Europe, Kim arranged a job as a mechanic with Maico’s experimental department in Germany.  But the position was not available until March 1969, and as Newcombe and his wife were to arrive in Europe some eight months earlier something else had to be found. A phone call to Dieter Konig in Berlin secured Kim a job in the Konig factories experimental department, and it was here that the idea of putting the 500cc flat-four two-stroke engine into a motorcycle racing chassis jelled.

Kim found that Dieter Konig was convinced his two-stroke engines could be as successful in Grand Prix motorcycle racing as they were in hydroplane racing and Newcombe was given the resources and encouraged to develop a Grand Prix racer. But it was a German rider named Wolf Braun who had initially shown an interest in racing a Konig, fitting the outboard motor, mated to a Norton gearbox and clutch, in a modified BSA chassis and then giving the hybrid machine it’s first race.  But minor injuries and a lack of funds prevented Braun from continuing development of the Konig and the complete bike was left at the factory.

Although Kim was keen to prove his ideas about making the Konig into a competitive Grand Prix racer he had not really considered racing it himself. But towards the end of 1969, Kim decided to race the Konig. In September, after obtaining a West German national racing licence, Newcombe entered his first road race at the Avus autobahn circuit near Berlin and won! The following season saw a completely new chassis – and Aussie Grand Prix rider John Dodds on the bike.

Again it was relatively short lived; as a privateer, Dodds could not afford to help develop and race a completely new machine. Newcombe would again have to ride the Konig himself.

Kim on the Kn ig at the Dutch T.T. at Assen 1973.

Kim on the Konig at the Dutch T.T. at Assen 1973.

Kim had qualified for an international racing licence for the 1972 season after winning five junior races the previous year.  His first international race was at Mettet in Belgium, but it was his performance in the selected Grands Prix which followed that showed Kim and the Konig’s true potential, their best results coming from two third places at the East and West German Grand?s Prix.  The mongrel motorcycle was proving very competitive, with enough power to pass Pagani’s MV on the straights.

Before the ’73 Grand Prix season had started Kim suffered several broken vertebrae in his neck due to a race crash at Hengelo in Holland.  This called for a trip to London to see a Harley Street specialist and Newcombe used the opportunity to attend the annual motorcycle show. The main purpose of this was to visit Colin Seeley with reference to making a batch of frames for Konig which Kim had designed himself.  By chance, he ran into his old friend and former teammate from Australia, Rod Tingate, who was working for Seeley.  Tingate was on the verge of leaving Seeley to have a shot at racing in the European Grands Prix.  Rod became an integral part of Newcombe’s team, racing his Yamaha TR3 when he could get a start, but mainly helping to maintain and develop the Konig.

The first race of the season was the French GP at the Paul Ricard circuit in the south of France.  The new Yamaha 500 in the hands of Jarno Saarinen dominated the event, easily beating home Phil Read on his MV, with Kanaya’s Yamaha coming in third.  Considering Newcombe was developing a new machine, learning a new circuit and progressing as a rider, fifth place in the race was creditable performance.  Agostini however, had fallen while trying to stay with Saarinen.

Yamaha took a one-two win in the freezing rain at the next round, the Austrian GP in Salzburg. Again Saarinen dominated, taking the win, while both Ago and Read failed to finish, leaving Kim to pick up a fine third place some 30 seconds in arrears.

On the Podium with Agostini (2) Read (1) and Kim (3) at Swedish G.P. at Anderstorp.

On the Podium with Agostini (2) Read (1) and Kim (3) at Swedish G.P. at Anderstorp.

In the heat at the West German GP at Hockenheim, Saarinen broke the lap record, but unfortunately also his chain.  Agostini’s MV again failed leaving Read to take the win. It was a difficult race for Kim who in front of his “home crowd” had mechanical problems and did not finish.

The next race was at Monza in Italy.  It was a Grand Prix meeting that became one of the darkest days in motorcycle sport.  During the 350 race, Walter Villa’s Benelli had broken an oil line, dumping engine oil onto the exhaust system and track.  The Benelli was not black flagged by the organisers, but Villa came into the pits on the second to last lap on his own initiative, only to be sent out again by his mechanics so he could claim fifth spot in the race.

The 250 race was started without an oil warning and there were no oil flags being shown around the track by the organiser’s to indicate the danger.  As the leading bunch hurtled at 210kph into the first corner, the Curva Grande, Renzo Pasolini’s bike went down taking Saarinen with him and sending Kanaya into the hay bales.

The group that was closely following smashed into the debris bringing down another twelve riders. A fire broke out among the hay bales and wrecked bikes causing smoke to obscure the accident.  There was also no sign of any flag marshals to warn the riders who were on their second lap. John Dodds somehow managed to avoid the carnage and began running down the track waving his arms to warn the other riders.  Dieter Braun was leading the race and it was only the sight of Dodds that saved him from entering the smoke at around 233kph.  Sadly both Pasolini and Saarinen were killed.  The 500 race was cancelled, and as a mark of respect, Yamaha withdrew for the rest of the season.

With the TT at the Isle of Man being boycotted by all of the top GP riders for safety reasons, the next race was the Yugoslavian Grand Prix on the dangerous street circuit at the Adriatic seaside resort of Opatija. The question of track safety again came into play when MV Agusta decided to boycott this race meeting as well. Newcombe made the most of the situation by winning the event in fine style, coming home over a minute ahead of second place man Steve Ellis and taking the lead in the Championship by four points.

Kim at work in 1973.

Kim at work in 1973.

The Grand Prix circus then moved on for the Dutch TT at Circuit van Drenthe Assen. Kim was now beginning to experience the pressure of leading the championship in his first full season of GP racing.  This showed in practice, causing an uncharacteristic crash on the technically difficult Dutch circuit, and a long night for Kim and Rod to repair the Konig. But on race day, in front of the massive crowd, Kim managed to recover from a poor start and claw his way back through the field to come home in a fighting second place.  Agostini, after setting the fastest lap of the race, was out once more with a faulty gear selector. Read again showed his class by taking first place and closing the gap to Newcombe to only one point.

Next was Belgium and the Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, another fast road circuit.  Agostini finally broke his duck by winning the race and setting an average lap speed of 206.8kmh, ahead of team-mate Read.  Newcombe was holding a safe third place when his water pump drive broke allowing expatriate Aussie Jack Findlay, on the improving TR500 Suzuki, past on the final lap.

Newcombe was now three points in arrears as they travelled once more behind the Iron Curtain to the Brno circuit for the Czechoslovakian GP.  Phil Read made a good start and led for half race distance with Ago in tow.  Kim was again in third but his engine was only firing on three cylinders.  With only a few laps to go Bruno Kneubler caught up with him, and as they tussled out of the final corner the Konig cut in on all four cylinders spitting Newcombe off! Agostini, however, had managed to get the better of Read and notched up his second successive win.

Newcombe leads Read at the Swedish Grand Prix.

Newcombe leads Read at the Swedish Grand Prix.

Kim could see his chance at the Championship title slipping away as the Konig team moved on to Scandinavia and the Swedish GP at Anderstorp.  If there had been any doubt about Newcombe’s riding ability this race proved his worth. Newcombe took the lead for the first ten laps by pushing the Konig to its limit, using extreme angles of lean through the corners to stay ahead, until he grounded the gear lever which knocked the Konig into neutral and almost sent him spearing off the track.  Read was through in a flash to eventually beat Ago by half a second, with Kim in third place.

The Finnish Grand Prix at Imatra was almost disastrous for Newcombe.  The bumpy tree-lined circuit was made worse by dirt and damp leaves on the track, causing several excursions up the escape roads with the Konig scrambling for traction in the turns and under brakes. At one point Kim fell as low as eighth but managed to work his way up to fourth at the flag.  Agostini had won again, with Read’s second place making him unbeatable in the championship.

There was a break before the final Grand Prix of the season in Spain, the next major meeting being the August 12th “British Grand Prix” international meeting at Silverstone.  Kim had ridden the Konig in England for the first time at Brands Hatch the week before, but the poor weather had put a dampener on the meeting, and Kim had no intentions of extending himself while in England.

Bad luck followed Newcombe to Silverstone as he was unable to race the preferred 500cc Konig when in practice it broke a big-end bearing cage.  This left the Super Konig, a 680cc version of the bike for racing against the Formula 750 machines in the 1000cc class.  The 680 was more difficult to ride being brutally powerful.

Kim on the 680cc Konig chases John Williams on the Norton F750 racer at Silverstone.

Kim on the 680cc Konig chases Peter Williams on the Norton F750 racer at Silverstone.

All the big names were at Silverstone for the 1000cc event.  Paul Smart (Kawasaki 750), Barry Sheene (Suzuki 750), Phil Read (MV), Agostini (MV), Gary Nixon (Kawasaki 750), Yvon Du Hamel (Kawasaki 750), Dave Croxford (Norton 750), and Peter Williams (Norton 750) amongst others.  But for six laps Newcombe on a hybrid home-built racer proved embarrassingly fast for the factory racers.  Smart gradually pegged back the Konig, and as they swept into Stowe corner Kim’s brakes appeared to fade, causing him to run wide and eventually crash.  Newcombe and the Konig slid for a distance before smashing into an unprotected brick wall.

Although his injuries appeared superficial, Kim had suffered severe head trauma similar to that of Suzuki’s Kevin Magee’s at Laguna Seca.  Unfortunately, the modern medical techniques that saved Kevin’s life were unavailable to Newcombe.  Three days later Kim succumbed to his injuries in a Northampton Hospital.

As usual, Newcombe had walked the circuit before practice began, and was involved in a four-hour meeting with race organisers over concerns about safety.  It’s ironic that the next day an identical accident occurred at the same corner, yet the rider was able to walk away, thanks to hay bales belatedly being placed there.

Posthumously second in the 1973 500cc World Championship, Kim Newcombe’s achievement should not be overlooked. Taking on the might of the unbeatable MV Agusta team with what amounted to a home-built special on a shoestring budget, and in his first full season of Grand Prix racing, deserves much more than that.

Konig Technical File

The success of the Konig flat-four two-stroke boxer engine design is quite unique in the history of the 500cc Grand Prix class.

Similar layouts were tried later in the mid-seventies, however, Helmet Fath’s more advanced two-stroke design was never as successful in the Grands Prix, and MV Augusta’s boxer four-stroke was never raced.

Kim and the Konig in the paddock at the Swedish Grand Prix. Note the Norton gearbox casing and the belt drive to the water pump and rotary disc valve.

Kim and the Konig in the paddock at the Swedish Grand Prix. Note the Norton gearbox casing and the belt drive to the water pump and rotary disc valve.

The water-cooled unit sat transversely across the frame with two cylinders pointing forward and the other two rear ward.  The two right-hand cylinders fired together while the left-hand pair repeated the process 180 degrees later.  Basically like two flat-twins sharing a common crankcase and a single crankshaft.  The crankcase itself was split into two separate pumping chambers for each pair of opposed cylinders – a necessity for two-stroke breathing.

This enabled the use of a single large rotary disc valve on top of the crankcase for inlet timing, with a single inlet port for each pair of opposed cylinders.  The disc valve was driven by a toothed belt from the timing end of the crankshaft, and appeared somewhat fragile, as it had to run through rollers and make a ninety-degree turn.

Even the expansion chambers were shared – originally an agricultural looking single “canister” chamber with the front and rear pairs of cylinders siamesed into it.  This was later replaced with two conventional looking expansion chambers – one for each pair of front and rear cylinders.

Carburation varied from two East German BVF carburettors to a twin-choke 38mm downdraught Solex, and finally a pair of American 42mm Tillotsons.  The engine ran on petroil at an old fashioned 16:1, although this was later changed to 20:1 using a vegetable oil.

All the internal components were quality West German products, with the crankshaft being a pressed up five piece affair made by Hoeckle.  It rested on three main bearings – utilising a double ball on the timing end and two separate ball races on the primary side, with split-type caged rollers for the middle main bearing.  Caged roller bearings were also used for the connecting rod’s big-end, while the little-end used crowded needle rollers and shims on the piston pin to centralise the conrod.  The pistons themselves were forged high silicone Mahle items with a single chromed ring.  Bore and stroke were a classic ‘stroker 54x54mm although this was said to have changed during development to 50x56mm.

The ignition system was provided by a conventional battery, twin coil and dual points set-up, run off the right-hand end of the crank.

The main weaknesses with adapting a design originally intended for power boating was the lack of an in-unit clutch/transmission and getting enough water through a cooling system that was built for a limitless supply of cold sea water.

The clutch/gearbox problem was overcome by running a toothed Westinghouse chain off the left-hand side of the crankshaft (hence the reasoning to mount the engine across the frame), to a clutch and a Norton gearbox casing fitted with a Schaftleitner six-speed gear cluster.

The cooling problem was never solved completely, and the engine did not like to get any hotter than 60 degrees.   A cast-finned sump was fitted underneath the engine to act as a reservoir for five litres of coolant that passed through a large radiator.  Newcombe experimented with slots in the fairing, which yielded some success, but just in case the Konig was never warmed up before a race so it could be taken to the starting line cold.

Kim hard at work on the Konig at Spa in Belguim.

Kim hard at work on the Konig at Spa in Belguim.

In its final 1973 form, the Konig had a chassis designed by Kim that used Ceriani front forks and drum brakes with Girling rear shocks.  By this time the engine was pumping out 85bhp at 9,800rpm (at the crankshaft) with the 680cc version giving 90bhp to 9,500rpm.  With a weight of only 139kg, the 500 was good for around 265kph!

Konig made eight bikes in kit form (less wheels and front forks), and for about the same price as a TZ350 Yamaha, a privateer could buy a potentially competitive 500cc or 680cc racer.

With Kim’s demise though, interest with the solo racer diminished.  The factory did, however, help Rolf Steinhausen and passenger Josef Huber in the sidecar championship, for which they were rewarded with a Konig engine winning both the 1975 and 1976 Sidecar World Championship.

Words Geoff Dawes (C) 1991. Photograph’s Mick Wollett, Jan Heese, Robyn’s Liege and Volker Rausch. Published 1993 Bike Australia, Classic Racer (UK) and Extra Editon Motorcyclist (Japan).