Cape Town – The second and final round of the international SA TT Historic Motorcycle series at Killarney on Saturday was cut short by a tragic crash that claimed the life of former SA champion Gavin Ramsay, on lap three of the final race in the popular series for road-racing motorcycles made before 1989.
Gary Hunter’s borrowed Honda CB1100R went down under braking for Turn 1, whether on its own oil or on oil that had been dropped on the circuit by another competitor is unclear. Hunter scrambled to his feet unhurt as the yellow flags came out, but before the marshals could begin moving the big Honda from where it was lying at the entrance to the escape road, Ramsay crashed on the same oil.
Ramsay was fifth at the time behind local rider Danie Maritz (Suzuki GSX-R Pre-Sling), Ian Simpson (Suzuki XR69), Graeme van Breda (Suzuki GSX-R1100) and Iain McPherson (Suzuki GSX-R1100), and pushing hard to catch up after a poor start.
His Suzuki GSX-R750 tumbled past Hunter’s fallen machine and wound up near the tyre wall, but Ramsay slid into the wrecked Honda at high speed, sustaining injuries which were to prove fatal at the scene.
The post chief marshal called for a red flag before Ramsay’s bike had stopped tumbling, the race was stopped immediately and the ambulance was on the scene within seconds. Marshals showed the red-and-yellow ‘change of surface’ flags well ahead of the crash site and waved the riders away from the deadly spill, so nobody else went down as the riders returned to the grid and, when it became apparent that the race would not be re-started, to the pits.
A rumour started almost immediately on social media that one of the Turn 1 marshals had been injured by Ramsay’s tumbling Suzuki, but this turned out to be untrue.
Earlier in the day Ramsay had been one of the stars of Race 3 in the SA TT Series, and annual international classic challenge between four-man teams from Scotland and South Africa.
The Boksburg bike dealer had in fact won Race 1, at the previous weekend’s ‘Day of the Champions’ historic race meeting at Zwartkops, and was second to Scottish star Ian Simpson in Race 2. Simpson is a member of the factory-backed Team Classic Suzuki, that races vintage XR69 endurance machines at historic race meetings around the world, and a previous winner of the individual honours in the SA TT series.
But Simpson didn’t make timed practice, and Ramsay qualified fifth, behind ‘Danie van Killarney’ Maritz, Noel Haarhoff (Suzuki GSX-R750) Van Breda and ‘Fearless’ McPherson (Suzuki GSX-R1100).
Haarhoff got a cracking start and led lap one, only for Maritz to power past on the second tour and romp away to an unchallenged win. Simpson, meanwhile, put in the ride of the race from the back of the grid – he was up to sixth by the end of the first lap, third on lap three and passed McPherson for second on lap four.
He posted the fastest lap of the race - a superb 1m16.386 - on lap five, which closed the gap to Maritz to less than three seconds, but was unable to get any closer in the remaining three laps.
Simpson finished a heroic second, ahead of Van Breda, who’d relegated McPherson to fourth two laps from home, with Ramsay a close fifth.
The two classic parades, for motorcycles too rare and too valuable to race, raised a number of eyebrows all round the circuit, not least at the sheer speed at with these riders, some of them now well into their seventies, were prepared to ‘parade’ their old bikes - and the volume of noise these pre-nanny state machines put out.
Among the chief culprits were John McKerchar’s 1975 Suzuki RG500 Grand Prix machine - although by contrast Mick Grant’s 1983 Mk7 version of the same model was almost indecently quiet - Casey Wolters’ Kawasaki H1A two-stroke triple, which sadly lasted less than one compete lap, Alan North’s 40-year-old Yamaha TZ250D and Charles Oosthuizen’s iconic Yamaha TZ750 - a full-on Formula 750 two-stroke monster that was made in such numbers for privateer racers that it qualified as a production machine in the United States and turned AMA racing on its ear for more than a decade from its inception in 1975.
By contrast, the big old Ducatis droned round – going a lot faster than they sounded – as did an immaculate early-1960s Aermacchi Grand Prix single, and a clutch of Britbikes, including Bruce Verdon’s Manx Norton, an original Norton Commando, an 850cc Weslake Norton engine in a Suzuki GSX-R750 frame, and a gorgeous BSA Rocket 3, also with Weslake-modified cylinder head, that spoke with the sonorous bass voice typical of the pre-four cylinder era.
That, and all-or-nothing riding style necessitated by the narrow, hard tyres and primitive suspension of the times, goes a long way towards explaining the undying attraction of these 30 and 40-year-old race bikes, even among enthusiasts too young to remember when they ruled the Grand Prix circuits and the Isle of Man TT.