Interview: Mal Campbell
Mal Campbell has been there and done it all, and still does it in Historic Period 5 racing. Riding for Team Honda in Australia and for HRC he rode all manner of machines, including factory built RS860R Superbikes, the rare oval piston NR750, a factory RS920R V4 and several GP 500 machines. He also raced the unique ELF 500 in the GPs. Campbell won the Castrol Six-Hour, the Swann Insurance International Series, the Australian 500 GP at Bathurst and the national Superbike crown. He raced in the WSBK in Europe, the Le Mans 24-Hours and the Suzuka Eight Hours. In the mid-1980s he was one half of the grand Superbike double, head-to-head with Rob Phillis.
What was your most satisfying race, whether you won or not?
Winning the 1983 Castrol Six-Hour race, for Honda with Rod Cox. I always enjoyed the team aspect, team-type sports, with everyone involved. It was a one-week effort for riders and longer for the team, so the celebrations and the memories last longer. Individual wins, it’s over on Sunday and forgotten on Monday.
What was the first motorcycle you bought with your own money?
An Ariel 500 Red Hunter.
Who was your fiercest rival and why?
Over a long period, Robbie Phillis. We competed head-to-head over many years, whereas I only raced Mat Mladin and Mick Doohan for a short time span. Robbie and I butted heads in Australian Production racing and Superbikes, World Superbikes and the Suzuka Eight-Hour, and we’re still butting heads today.
Which bike you’ve raced is your favourite?
Over a long racing career, it’s hard to pinpoint, but the Honda RC30 goes closest. I rode it at perhaps the peak of my career and it served us pretty well in the Honda team. We raced it from late 1987 to 1992 and it kept evolving.
What is the greatest racing motorcycle ever built?
At the recent Barry Sheene Memorial Meeting I spoke about Suzuki putting a lot of bikes out there that privateers could buy, such as the RG5004, and Yamaha too. But my favourite from those I’ve ridden would be the Honda NS500 three-cylinder. It went well and it handled very well.
Was racing better then or now?
Today’s machines are definitely better. But Australian racing was far better in the 1980s. At world level, we’ve seen new classes open up and World Superbike appear, with factory rides. Yet in 1988 when Robbie Phillis and I went away to some of the European rounds in 1988, there were 60 riders trying to qualify for 40 places on the grid. Grand Prix has shrunk too, since the exit of guys like Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Christian Sarron. Grids have dwindled across the board and Australian racing has suffered greatly.
Who is the greatest road race rider of all time?
It keeps changing, so I can’t go there. I was a great Mick Doohan fan and also a Rossi fan as well, but what’s happened there? Casey Stoner gives 110 per cent very time he is on a bike. How long he sticks at it might determine his standing. I couldn’t throw one name into the hat. I don’t know enough motorcycle racing history, only the times when I got into racing and then my main focus was racing rather than reading the history.
What was your closest shave or “holy shit” moment?
On Sunday, April 29 just past! I’ve had some near misses, but if you’re a genuine racer you get them out of the memory pretty quickly. This latest one was at the Symmons Plains hairpin. I don’t know if there was water on the road or something, but the Honda FireBlade I was riding came around so far it tucked the front wheel and started to launch me into the gravel on the inside of the corner, the way a car comes around and heads for the inside. The angle of the embankment saved me and I stayed on. Mind you, I have banged myself on the head a few times.
What is your favourite racing livery or logo?
An interesting question! The Moriwaki bikes in Japan always came up well, in blue and sometimes in grey. I also liked the red, white and blue Honda I rode in WSBK, the one with the Citizen (watch) logos. A neat bike.
Which riders, dead or alive would you most like to have dinner with?
Fred Merkel was always a fairly interesting character and a bit of a showman. A catch-up with him would be good.
Who was the best rider you saw, who didn’t make it to the big time?
My son, Scott Campbell and another Tasmanian, Scott Stephens. An underrated rider, Scott.
What was your biggest disappointment in racing?
Losing my son Chris in 1989. (Chris Campbell was practicing at Symmons Plains.)
What made you retire from racing?
I haven’t ever retired, but I did have a quiet time for a few years after my son’s accident. But thank you to Brook Henry, who gave me a bit of a stir up to do historic racing. It’s been good for me in a lot of ways.
What’s been the best post-race party?
There’s been a few of those, but most of the ones that come to memory were the worst ones. Marco Lucchinelli had some party tricks that were not very pleasant. I think the best ones were when Daryl Beattie and I were together in the Honda team. We had some enjoyable evenings. Daryl is a good guy to have a laugh with, and he’s not short of a laugh.
Have you ever searched yourself on YouTube? (If so, what’s the best clip?)
Is there an event you would still like to race in?
If I had an invitation to do the Suzuka Eight-Hour again I would certainly do it. I may be disappointed today, compared with the 1980s and 1990s, when it was absolutely huge. It was very physical but I enjoyed it immensely. I’ve been invited to the Isle of Man, but I didn’t have to think too long before saying no. I would be happy to go as mechanic and have the guy who invited me do the riding.
Electric bikes? Yes or No?
Honda is now working on electronic steering. Thinking of the ELF bike with the funny front end…that probably could have worked today with electronic steering. As for motors in a bike, they’ve got a long way to go up against the current road bikes, but nothing would surprise.
Are you optimistic for the future of road racing?
Yeah, it’s always a challenging world. But racing will be there for many years to come at the level it is. I don’t know how it will be in Australia. MotoGP and WSBK will continue as long as the factories produce bikes that sell on the road and people can race. If they can justify racing as a publicity arm, racing will certainly go on.
What do you think of the historic racing scene?
A tricky question. The competition level has gone sky high. I hear banter from the mainland for Period 5 to perhaps have control tyres and a limit on the number of tyres. It’s getting a bit like WSBK with the way the factories are involved there. Competition has been sky high at the last few Island Classics, so much so that guys who go there for the fun of riding might drop out. That’s a possibility. Motorcycling Australia’s rules are very vague, open to people finding rules they can bend and stretch. Of course the cream always rises to the top as far as riders are concerned. People point at Steve Martin and Shawn Giles, but they’re good enough to winning anyway. Rob Phillis and I have aged a bit compared with them. We look for a reason that we’re struggling and see their bikes and tyres, but really it’s a small part of lots of things. I don’t feel old, but when my son Scott and I go to Symmons Plains, he’s 1-2 seconds quicker on the on the same bike, and that’s a wake-up call for sure. I still want to win if I can, if I can get a bike that is fast enough I’ll give it a good shake. It’s just racing again. The same as in ASBK, people use the best product they can get. I hear guys like Gilesy do lots of testing and set up. I’ve been jumping between bikes. It might take lots of testing and a couple of meetings to one where I want it to be to ride 100 per cent. The historic rules are out of date. We should have followed the capacities that the bikes were at the time. But they opened Period 5 to let in the Katanas. It’s the old story of the squeaky wheel getting the most oil. People who bash MA (Motorcycling Australia) get what they want. Take our ASBK rules. Ten years ago, we had Production Superbikes. Now our bikes are nearly as fast as WSBK bikes, and might be if they had the same tyres. They did the bashing to get what they wanted. The more changes, the further out of the grip of privateers…and that’s why fewer bikes on the grid. The problem is distributor teams have to justify their budgets. If they’re not in front and getting results, the bean counters take a dim view. Rule changes keep the distributor teas in there, but that doesn’t help the privateers.
What is your current state of mind?
People might question it, but I’m pretty relaxed. I can turn up an historic race and actually accept not being at the front! That’s good for me. It’s only happened in the last 18 months. If I wanted to be at the front I’d have to build a bike, and that isn’t going to happen. So I accept riding other people’s bikes with gratitude. Real gratitude. I accept that without a lot of work I will never be at the pointy end of the field.
By Don Cox
Images: Derek Hanbidge Deejay51.com, John Lindesay Small