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Gregg Hansford – His Greatest Australian Race

Submitted by on November 19, 2009

Ever witnessed a feat that changed you for ever? Something that left an indelible imprint that sends shivers down your spine just re‑living it. The occasion that left me a devoted disciple of motorcycle racing, and convinced me that Gregg Hansford had to be one of the greatest motorcycle riders in the world happened over 33 years ago on a spring afternoon at Oran Park. Regrettably, Gregg Hansford has gone, although he has left many splendid memories for his fans in Europe, America and the UK. I count myself very lucky to have witnessed one of his greatest victories in Australia. Sure, Oran Park doesn’t rank with the Isle of Man, Silverstone or Daytona and there was no Kenny Roberts or Barry Sheene either. But the dice that Hansford, Warren Willing, and Kiwi charger John Woodley staged at the final round of the 1976 Rothmans Pro 750 Series would remain a legacy of the Queenslander’s enormous courage, and also inspire Australia’s first 500c world championship. How so? Quoting from ’The Wayne Gardner Story’ by Nick Hartgerink, “Late in 1976, Wayne (then 16) attended a road race meeting at Oran Park, and was lucky enough to witness one of the races of the decade. The top riders in Australia at the time, Warren Willing and Gregg Hansford were baffling it out with New Zealander John Woodley in a magnificent, all‑in contest that saw the lead change almost every lap. Enthusiasts remember it with awe, and Gardner was dazzled. ‘I was hooked. Watching those three guys was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. But more than that, I was watching what they did and how they did it. When the race was over, I decided that I could do that, and with a bit of experience, I reckoned I could actually do it better”. A big call, because the 6000 fans on hand couldn’t have imagined anybody usurping the magic Hansford created on that glorious afternoon. In the wash‑up, though, the daring and utter brilliance of the late Gregg Hansford won the day, the crowd and the heart of the man that would go on to secure motorcycling’s most coveted crown 11 years later when Gardner won the world 500cc title.

That race at Oran was the culmination of the intense Hansford‑Willing rivalry that began in 1974 when both riders campaigned the all‑new 90 bhp Yamaha TZ700. The whip‑thin Willing from Sydney held sway in the biggest prize of them all, The Unlimited Grand Prix at the daunting four‑mile Mount Panorama circuit near Bathurst. He beat Hansford in the 1974 event by the barest of margins after a titanic duel, then, debuting for Team Kawasaki in 1975, Hansford crashed, handing another GP and lap record to Willing.

While the Kawasakis of Hansford and teammate Murray Sayle won more often than not in 1975, Willing was still considered the pick of the two when it came down to a showdown in the big events, which the Rothmans series was.

The heat races were pretty uneventful, Hansford dominating his after dealing with Jeff Sayle’s Suzuki RG500, while Willing pipped Woodley in a lively scrap to set up the final to be held after a full program of support racing. Wandering around from Yamaha Corner to BP Corner for lunch, I remember overhearing the observation of one punter. “Hey, if it was all corners, Woodley would win, doncha reckon?” he appealed to his mates.  Nobody disagreed.  The quiet Kiwi had just shipped his Suzuki RG500 in from Malaysia that morning, and had done exceptionally well to lead Willing’s ex-Giacomo Agostini OW29 Yamaha 750 in their heat. Up until that time, I’d never seen a rider give any more quarter, without actually hitting anybody else or crashing. Woodley was a hellman. Period.

The sidecars staged the last race before the Rothmans final, and true to form, one outfit blew a con-rod at the end of the straight, forcing a long delay to the start. Finally at about 4.20pm, the race got underway.  Having referred to my copy of REVS Motorcycle News to refresh my memory of the early laps, Willing led by two seconds after a brilliant start, and it looked like he may’ve run away with it when Hansford and Woodley got stuck behind Paul Grayden. The pair finally made their way past and reeled off four lickety-split laps to close on Willing.

Inexorably, they got within striking distance, then Woodley set the crowd alight when he out-braked Hansford at the end of the straight, then slammed by Willing over the Shell dog leg for the lead.

Next, Willing blitzed the Suzuki down the straight, but was relegated to third when Woodley rode around the outside, and Hansford stormed down the inside in turn one.  This set the tone for the next 20-laps before Hansford tried desperately to make a break when he forged to the front with the first 100mph lap at Oran Park – not a bad achievement on a track described by Allan Grice as like running around the bottom of a cocky’s cage.

Incredibly, Woodley and Willing stayed with Hansford as he levered by back markers with the force of a storm trooper and the precision of a brain surgeon.  Willing made the most of the traffic, though, then re-took the lead and established a comfortable buffer with four laps to go.  Meantime, Woodley had been balked several times by slow riders, and dropped off from the leading duo.

With the laps running down, and my memory crystal clear, Willing appeared to have the race in his keeping. Over the dog leg for the last time, the crowd was expecting a last corner desperate from Gregg, but back-marker Phil Leslie was in both riders’ cross-hairs as they entered the final braking area at over 170kmh. What happened next still mystifies me.

As Leslie peeled into the corner first, Willing realised he couldn’t nip down the inside and took the safe option around the outside. Seizing the moment, Hansford slammed his lime-green KR750 between Leslie and the ripple strip, a move that would surely bring them both down.  Somehow, Hansford’s bike held its line and momentum beautifully, and missing Leslie by millimetres, he held the inside running to claim a stunning victory across the line. But let me tell you, that gap between bike and apex Hansford knifed through was an aberration. I swear he conjured it.

Dad was speechless. Well almost. After 25 years in motorsport, he declared, and does to this day, “That’s easily the best race I’ve ever seen in my life!” And he’d seen them all. Clarke, Duke, Rindt, Brabham, McLaren, Moss, and Hill.

The crowd was agog at what they had just witnessed – the display of a genius who was pushed to new levels by two special competitors. Warren Willing was introspective and reserved at the best of times, more so after a close defeat. How did he react? As an irrepressible grin spread across his face, he could barely contain his excitement. Quoting from REVS Motorcycle News, “It was unbelievable! I’ve never ridden so hard in my life. Gregg was great, and how about that Woodley? How do I feel? Fantastic! No one could complain about coming second in a race like that!”

Indeed, what about that Woodley. The rural-bred Kiwi was a wildman himself but exclaimed, “Those two are crazy! There’s no way I could have beaten them, but I think I scared them. The RG’s nowhere near as fast, but no-one can beat its handling and brakes. It’s the best race I’ve ridden.”

An equally incredulous Hansford said, “That’s the greatest race I’ve ever had! I came into BP so fast, I don’t know how the front wheel didn’t lock under brakes. Then I realised if I kept braking, I was going to ram Leslie, so I just let off the anchors and pitched it into the bend. How I got around, I’ve got no idea, but the bike held its line amazingly well. Our Bathurst clash in 1974? Oh that was good, but we were going slow then. No, this is the best ever!”

Reflecting back on the race many years later, the spirit of Gregg Hansford lives on for Warren Willing. Willing was forced into retirement following a horrific accident in the 1979 North-West 200 in Northern Ireland that smashed his left leg.

“Talking about that day brings back many memories of Gregg, not just the race,” said Warren. “I still don’t believe he’s gone. I can remember riding as hard a couple of time after that, but that was the last great race I had.

“The only thing I would have liked to have done differently would have been to win, but when you are riding that well, the decisions are made subconsciously and around the outside was the only option I saw at the time because there was no gap down the inside. Gregg created it. Desire overruled judgement at the time and he pulled it off. That was Gregg off and on the track!”

Darryl Flack

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