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Stu Avant “Running on Empty” Part 1

Submitted by on October 28, 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.

Back in 1976, 20-year-old Kiwi Avant shot to world-wide prominence when he passed Giacomo Agostini’s MV Agusta GP around the outside at the Laverton TT in Australia, telling reporters after the race that he thought to himself: “Am I allowed to do this…”

“There’s a little fold that forms on the back of your leathers when you tuck in, and one day there’ll be a message written in neon; ‘Take me Now’. I still think that,” says Stu Avant. Only ex-racers get to relate philosophy on the fickleness of fate. It’s true the breeding ground for the paddock soothsayers and self-appointed sages comes from the vast pool of struggling non-factory riders, and when it came to the archetypal GP privateer of the ’70s and ’80s, they didn’t come anymore genuine than Avant. A lover of good times, fast racing and a rollicking craic, the Christchurch-born rider had a depth to him that his contemporaries kept well hidden or just didn’t have.

Naturally, contesting the Continental Circus on a shoe-string would guarantee a vast gamut of experiences; from sleeping in his scuffed leathers in the back of the van in freezing Finland despite pushing it off the ferry and through the paddock gates, then fuelling up the damn thing with heating oil to save money to losing a close friend. But then there was the thrill of leading a 500 GP, mixing with the rich and famous and forming life-long friendships with the real people of racing. “I saw Philippe Coulon at a Grand Prix in ’95 for the first time in many years, and we looked at each other and smiled as if to say, ‘Yeah, you still don’t look too bad!'”

A multi-New Zealand Champion at just 17 after deciding to give up ambitions of playing hooker for the All Blacks, Avant had his last competitive ride at Bathurst 1985 at age 29. He escaped with few lasting legacies save for a book full of side-splitting memories and a network of friends he deeply treasures. “I’ve been lucky,” he simply says.

His racing anecdotes are delivered with a pleasing turn of phrase accompanied by a friendly smile and an engaging glint from his hazel-green eyes. It was easy to see why he had become a sought after companion in Europe, and why he’s now a successful businessman.

Not that it should diminish Avant’s achievements on the track. The candour in which he explains and recounts extinguish, rather refreshingly, any false modesty. “I was good,” he simply says.

And good he was. If Kenny Blake won the hearts of the crowd by defeating Giacomo Agostini at the 1976 Australian TT at Laverton, Avant was the talk of the movers and the shakers in the pits.

“Laverton was huge. It was the biggest meeting I’d ever been to,” Avant explains.

The 20-year-old Kiwi made a name for himself by rounding up Ago’s white and red MV Agusta 500 before pulling away at half-a-second a lap. His glory was shortlived when his Suzuki RG500 seized and spat him off four laps from home.

“Everybody talks about it, but really, Ago was just there for the beer,” Avant says of his passing move. “He was such a legend and everything, but I remember walking behind him through the paddock, signing autographs and what-not when I noticed about 8000 flies on his back. Even 15 times’ world champions are human!”

Avant has a fine eye for humour and irony, two qualities honed by a decade on the grand prix trail dotted by several years racing in Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia. He never raced in America, unlike countrymen Geoff Perry and John Boote, who both enjoyed sparkling success there. Avant never raced in South Africa either, not for the want of rebel promoters.

“I was offered to race in South Africa when apartheid was well and truly in force, but I turned it down flat. They even offered to insert a special page into my passport that could be torn out later to hide the fact I’d entered the country, but there was no way I was going.”

“My brother was a leading anti-apartheid activist in New Zealand and lots of my friends were Maoris,” Avant adds.

Europe and England remained Avant’s focus throughout his career, which began back in 1976 when the two most promising lights in the 500 GP class were American Pat Hennen and one Stu Avant. How so? Avant’s big break came at Laverton where Perry’s team chief, John Allnatt, introduced him to several big Italian teams. He spoke with multi 250-350 world champion Walter Villa, who was quite helpful, Morbidelli chief, Giancarlo Morbidelli (who later became a good friend) and the sponsor of several Italian teams, Diemme, a heavy farm-equipment manufacturer.

It telegrammed Avant confirming his place in the team, and at just 20-years-old he set off with a childhood friend who would go on to become chief engineer in one of the most successful 500 teams of the ’90s, Team Marlboro Yamaha.

“Mike Sinclair was a childhood friend who went on to become a brilliant mechanic and a good racer. We used to work together at the Suzuki dealership in Christchurch, Tommy McCleary’s, who sponsored me. Mike was knocking down houses in Melbourne when I asked him if he wanted to come to Europe with me, and he said, ‘yeah, okay’, and that was it.”

The pair arrived at Rome after buying tickets to London, saving $200, but the bike had gone through to Milan and there they were, in the middle of winter, waiting to be picked up in T-shirts!”

It’s something Avant reflects back on with a wry grin; not even knowing the Northern Hemisphere was in a different season.

Still, the brutal reality of grand prix racing hit home soon after. After finishing a fine seventh in his first 500 grand prix at Le Mans and then fifth behind Agostini in Austria on his Diemme Suzuki RG500, the large and gregarious Diemme outfit went from a three-man team to a one-man team after Paolo Tordi and Ottelo Buscheri were both killed at Mugello. Keeping his composure, Avant engaged in a race-long duel with Hennen in the 500 race before it became too much, vomiting inside his helmet from the sheer effort of it all.

Despite his creditable results and the loss of his team-mates, Avant could sense dark clouds on the horizon with the Diemme team. “They expected me to be the next Johnny Ceccotto because they sponsored him the year before. Mike was working all-day every-day on the bikes, teaching the Italians how to make them go really quick while I read stick books and cowboy comics in my room.”

Darryl Flack

Read part II here

Read part III here

Images: deejay51.com (Check those rare shots of Agostini from Laverton in 1976)

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