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Stu Avant – Running on Empty Part II

Submitted by on November 4, 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…”

Avant qualified fourth and led the race for eight laps in the 1976 Swedish 500 GP at Anderstorp, but a lack of race fitness saw him succumb to eventual winner Sheene, spectacular Finnish rider Teuvo ‘Teppi’ Lansivuori, second-placed Jack Findlay and Chas Mortimer to finish fifth. In the next race at the Imatra street circuit in Finland a week later, Avant started with new front brake pads that hadn’t been bedded in and after forging his way past Agostini and Marco Lucchinelli on the opening lap, “I got by Boet van Dulman into the hairpin and all of a sudden, no brakes! The pads had glazed up and I centre-punched Boet and brought down about half the field! I ended up with internal bleeding from that, lost two pints of blood and thought I broke my back.”

From there it was back to London to convalesce at Phil Read’s Surrey mansion where a wide-eyed 20-year-old colonial mixed company with one of the true legends of the ’60s and ’70s. Eight-time’ world champ Read was quite complimentary of Avant, describing the Kiwi as “quite brilliant” in his debut season of 1976.

“Phil was always trying to convince me and Mick (Mike Sinclair) about England being better than Australia, so everytime we’d have a steak, it’d be hanging over the edge of the plate three-inches either side.

“Then he had this pool built and threw a big party and wanted to impress everybody so he had the thing filled with hot water so we could all swim in it! He was a very funny guy, very generous, and very competitive too.

“We’d start off playing table tennis in the morning and if I won, he’d say, ‘You’re just lucky,’ so then we’d go and play tennis, so I’d win that and he’d say, ‘you’re lucky, and you cheat too!’ then go off and sulk for the rest of the day.”

But one story Avant will never forget is the time he was whisked off to London’s most exclusive discos of the ’70s, Tramps.

“I landed £550 start money from the Hutchinson 100, and the night after the race, Phil and his wife Madeleine said, ‘Look Stu, you had your 21st in Italy and we’d like to celebrate it properly’. So we finally got in and Mick Jagger and Noddy Holder from Slade were there. I was a pretty cool get-on-down dude back then and I was having a ball. They brought out a cake for me and everyone sang happy birthday – then they slapped me with the bill for £560!” Avant explained.

“That’s how we lived back then.”

Rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, however, didn’t stop at London’s version of Studio 54 in the era of wide lapels, kitschy bling and beige flares.

“I remember Phil decided to give his world championship-winning Yamaha 250 to Lord Montague for his museum at Beaullie, and we went down there for the ceremony, things like that, which for a guy of my age was pretty amazing. Then after Sheeney won his second world title in ‘77, we dined with George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, and that was exciting….well actually, Steve Parrish invited me along and said ‘we’ll stick you at the end of the table so no-one will notice you.’ I didn’t have enough money for lunch anyway so along I went!”

In between his forays to Europe, Avant contested the Marlboro Series in New Zealand over summer. In 1977, he raced a Suzuki RG500 supplied by Marco Lucchinelli’s team. The Italian was making his first visit Down Under, where Avant became aware of Lucchinelli’s off-track habits.

The 1981 world 500 champion was eventually jailed in 1991 following a drug trafficking conviction, and Avant tried to alert the team before it would get out of hand, but they refused to believe it.

“Marco is a lovely guy and a brilliant rider, but he had a real big problem back then. I hate fighting but one night, I punched Marco over the bonnet of a car.”

After two years grafting through the grand prix trail, Avant returned to Australia to race for Dick Hunter aboard the Total Hunter Suzuki RG500 on which he won the Bathurst 500cc race. In 1979, he raced a TZ750 for Gold Coast Yamaha dealer Donny Pask. He was back in Europe the following year, with his English-born wife he met while working as a salesman in Pask’s shop.

With backing from BP, Avant ran his own Suzuki RG/B500s during the early ’80s where he contested GPs, international and national races. In 1980, Avant got a taste of big-bore Formula One racing aboard a Suzuki 1000. Although he never considered himself a supremo four-stroke racer in the manner of countryman Graeme Crosby, Avant loved the brute power of the 998cc beast, picking up a fifth at the F1 support race in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, and a sixth at Cadwell Park a month later. His crowning achievement, though, was the 1982 North-West 200 he won from Joey Dunlop, Norman Brown and Mick Grant. It was a sweet victory against three of the best street circuit exponents of the time, and a triumph over the psychological effects of his worst-ever crash.

“I raced at the Ulster Grand Prix in 1977 on a sleeved-down Yamaha 750 (500cc). In practice I was having a bit of trouble through a section of the road, Deer Leap (a 210kmh downhill off-camber right sweeper). Tom Herron told me he was taking it flat-out in top gear, so I thought I’d give a go…”

In the race, Avant passed John Woodley and Stan Woods on the approach to the scary bend, in top, when both wheels came off the ground!

“The bike landed and I ran wide into a concrete and stone wall. Woodley went one side and Woods the other. The bike ended up 200 yards up the road. It was totally destroyed. Back in the pits, Stavros (Suzuki GB star Steve Parrish) heard that I’d crashed at Deer Leap, and said, ‘that’s it, he’s dead’, and started going through the pockets of my jeans because I owed him money!”

Somehow, Avant got up, staggered around and was congratulated by 200 Irish fans for surviving the egg-beater crash. “Later, I was having a chat with Tom about going through there in top gear. What he neglected to tell me was that he did that on his 250!”

Darryl Flack

Read “Running on Empty” Part I here

Read “Running on Empty” Part III here

Read more feature stories here

Images: Darryl Flack

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