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Yamaha Pro Am madness, the best one make championship ever?

Sat, 18 Dec 2010

I’m biased of course, but the best one make road race championship has to be the Yamaha RD 350LC Pro Am series. Back in the days when manufacturers had spare cash (1980 to be precise), Mitsui Yamaha organised this televised championship at major British race meetings to promote the recently launched, and now iconic, Yamaha RD350LC. Twenty four riders (twelve established and twelve rookies) were chosen by a panel of experts then given a completely free season of racing with a very generous prize fund thrown in. To put this in perspective, I was taking home £95.00 per week from my electricity board job but I could earn £500.00 for winning a Pro am race, mint!

There seemed to be no health and safety back then as we were never briefed to worry about damaging the bikes but just to get out there and ‘entertain’, so that is exactly what we did. After picking ignition keys out of a hat, we would make the most impossible passes, scaring each other but normally laughing at the same time. Holding on to fork legs with feet behind our backs on the seat for better aerodynamics was quite acceptable as was pulling on the rider in front’s grab rail for the perfect slingshot pass. There was usually contact at every corner and the occasional RD skittle crash but amazingly never any serious injuries. We all desperately wanted to win but I can honestly say we were the best of buddies off the bikes.

My first ever race was as a wild card at Knockhill in 1981 where I had to start dog last. I felt like a win was on the cards but ran out of laps after battling through to fifth. I was awarded a full time ride over the next two seasons and while I won plenty races I could only manage a runner up spot in the 1983 overall Championship. At the final race of the season I was first to line up on the grid at Brands Hatch and stopped my engine for the usual dead engine start. As the others pulled up the lights changed instantly and everyone shot off leaving Kenny Irons and myself sitting on the grid looking like muppets.  Kenny wasn’t too bothered but with Graham Cannell crashing I only needed a few points to win the championship and a brand new 350LC to boot. The race was never going to be stopped so I was given £500 cash to soften the blow but I was still gutted.

Our adventures extended to Germany in 1983 when the top five riders in each of the European series were sent to Hockenheim for even more madness. And the Brits didn’t disappoint as we were close to the front all weekend.  I led on the last lap (never a good idea at Hockenheim) and eventually finished 4th, however Manxman Graham Cannell did us proud beating all the foreigners. Our Yamaha chaperones had the toughest job though, as the combination of Ray Swann, Kenny Irons and a council estate Scotsman on a free holiday was only ever a recipe for disaster. Unpaid bar bills, farmers complaining about crop circles made with an Opel Kadett and hookers charged to innocent hotel guest’s rooms were only a few stunts we pulled on our four day trip to Manheim. Mat Oxley and Steve Chambers were the other two riders on that trip and they were also good fun, just a little less animalistic than us.

Some big names rode with us over the years, GP winner Alan Carter, TT winner Rob McElnea and F1 champ Damon Hill to name a few. Unfortunately though, quite few stars from the Pro Am were less lucky outside the series. The first ever Pro Am winner Kevin Clementson was killed in another event  at Mallory Park, Douggie Taylor at Knockhill, Neil Robinson at Scarborough, Kenny Irons at Cadwell Park and Ray Swann in a car crash. No need to be sad though as I can guarantee all of these lads left us while living life to the full and like myself doing exactly what they loved.

The Yamaha RD 350 Pro Am Series may have appeared mental if you were watching on telly or standing trackside but it worked on every level for the riders and organisers. It certainly did for me, as without the 350LC I would have never have even started racing, so thank you God for this wonderful invention!  

By Niall Mackenzie

See also: John Reynolds: Riding Masterclass, What Has James Stewart Been Up To? [video], Air time Kenny Roberts-style.