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Stu Avant – Running on Empty Part III

Submitted by on November 13, 2009

Never heard of Stu Avant? If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming a GP racer, Stu’s story will dispel the myths and reinforce the realities of a unique life on the grand prix trail in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

In 1977, Stu Avant made his debut at the Isle of Man, a place he says got the better of him. “You have to be a lunatic to ride hard there,” he says.

“The organisers wanted you to race just to say grand prix riders would go, and were prepared to pay for it. I’m not ashamed to say it, but the Isle of Man beat me. People can laugh about it, but I normally pulled out because of clutch problems after one lap….”

Still, Avant recorded a 107mph lap from a standing start, and was second on the road to Pat Hennen when he crashed in the 1977 TT.

“I was coming through Parliament Square on the way up to Ramsey on a Yamaha TZ750. A mate from New Zealand, Peter Leahy, showed me a pit board, which I tried to read, and I ended up over cooking it in the next uphill right-hander! I hit a wall and broke a few toes.”

He enjoyed a moment of glory later when he led the opening laps of the 1982 British 500 GP at Silverstone, but perhaps more importantly, Avant witnessed the undoubted genius of a 20-year-old Freddie Spencer at close quarters.

“I went into Club Corner, a fast-right hander, and Freddie went underneath me. I thought, ‘Jeez, he’s in trouble’ but no way. He just tucked the front under to lose some speed then he took a hand full to turn it. That’s a memory!”

Asked what attracted Spencer to teams late in his career even when the Fred was no longer a genuine threat, Avant offers this. “I think why so many ex-rider managers were keen to give him a ride because they saw the same things that I saw Freddie do, but times and technology had moved on. The advent of radial tyres in the mid ‘80s took away his advantage because he was never as good as those years when he was balancing a bike so brilliantly on cross-plies, which gave similar grip but were unforgiving.”

Avant considers he is part of the era that prevailed until MotoGP in 2001: multi-cylinder water-cooled two strokes running on slick tyres. And when IRTA (International Racing Teams’ Association) was established, Kenny Roberts became the representative for the works riders while Avant was the voice of the privateers. Naturally, the chasm between the non-factory and factory riders was often too broad to bridge, but it was guys like Avant who stamped their own brand of equality on the disparate paddock landscape.

Finding 15 ways to cook cheap mince, scamming tyres and spare parts was only part of a privateer’s apprenticeship. Making phone calls regaling victories, close shaves or asking for more money from home was a financial and spiritual imperative.

“The most scandalous thing happened when I was wandering around the race control at Spa,” Avant reveals. “I found my way in to the FIM jury room where I stumbled upon four phones and a fridge full of booze. So at 10 o’clock at night, I rounded up all the Aussies and Kiwis, and a few South Africans. At seven the next morning, we were still going, calling all over the world! The next year, we went up there and the phones were covered in barbed wire – they must’ve had a phone bill of a million dollars! We did things like that not to be smartarses, but simply to get by, to race.” And to the Michelin guys snigger when they see Avant.

“I knew the factory Michelins worked real good, so I sneaked down to Barry’s (Sheene) pit and grabbed a couple and put some standard ones in there to make it look like a mistake. But one day I got caught. I qualified at Spa in front of a few works Honda’s so I attracted a bit of attention. I had a Michelin front and a Dunlop rear, and the Michelin guys wanted to know where I got this trick tyre from. The morning of the race, they said they wanted it back.

“So I said, ‘Look, you guys are full of shit. I took up my wheel with a standard SV12 Michelin on it, and you gave it back to me, and it wasn’t until you pointed it out that I realised I had the works tyre on, so get stuffed.’ Eventually they said ‘okay, but we want the tyre back after the race’. Anyway, after the race they took my wheel, and I said, ‘Hold on! I want that SV12 like I wanted in the first place!’ which they duly fitted…”

In his twilight years, Avant became a race commentator, a road tester for Motorcycle Mechanics, and Suzuki GB’s test rider, developing its honey-comb frame and AP’s carbon-brakes. “I was doing things I always wanted to do.”

He also became Dunlop’s race manager, and true to form, his home-grown notion of egalitarianism came to the fore. “All I can say is that a lot of privateers did pretty well out of it. It’s amazing what you can do with a sharp pencil…” His last race was at Bathurst in 1985 on the honey-comb framed Suzuki 500.

In 1997 Avant was part of Lucky Strike Suzuki’s GP effort, in the role of ‘rider liaison’. By finally joining a big factory team, Avant’s life had gone full circle and a bit more. Envious of Graeme Crosby who walked into Suzuki 500 factory team after dazzling the English fans just six months previously, Avant became a belated member of Suzuki’s works team he always aspired to. Still, he was always realistic about chances of securing a works ride. “I was never a must have, just a could have.”

For a man who had to say goodbye to men like Tom Herron, Patrick Pons, Norman Brown, Kenny Blake and many others, Avant has made the most of his good fortune and put something back in to the sport without re-living past glories. “Like I said, I’ve got no regrets. In fact, I’ve only ridden a few bikes since I quit!!”

Does he ever miss racing? “No. I’m funny that way. I’ve never been one to dwell on what I could’ve had. Never.” According to the boxing axiom, your biggest fight is with retirement, to which Avant related the story about a privateer colleague of the ’70s whom he wouldn’t name. “I was a little concerned with him. He kept talking about how things could’ve been, all of his regrets, and he was still quite depressed by it. He really should be careful with how he deals with the past. I know I have.”

Now 53, and a successful businessman, Stu has been living in Sydney for over two decades, and owns one of the largest Bob Jane tyre marts in Australia.

Darryl Flack

Video: British Grand Prix 1982

Read: Stu Avant – Running on Empty Part I here

Read: Stu Avant – Running on Empty Part II here

Read more feature stories here

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