I would rather like this to become a written tribute to some of Racing's great sportsmen. The subjects don't have to have been great champions. I personally would be as interested to hear about a club racer from Iowa or an unsung hero of the salt flats as I would the more famous names, although they must be included of course. We all have hero's, tell us something of yours. I shall start off with the tale of a great Isle of Man TT ride by a man who was never a "Big Star" and is now largely forgotten, unfairly so in my opinion.
I shall start the story at what would logically be the end. Geoff Johnson of Richmond, North Yorkshire (my home town coincidentally) passed away a few years ago now. I draw comfort from the fact that he didn't meet a violent end out on the TT course as did many of his contempories. In fact he complained one day of feeling rather unwell and rather than accompany his wife on a shopping trip settled down instead in a comfy chair to watch a sports program on TV. He simply went to sleep and never woke up, which is, let's face it not a bad way to go. Certainly for a man who spent his working life racing around the thirty seven and three quarter mile public roads course that is the IoM TT. Where,it is said,the "Grim Reaper" is always riding pillion.
Johnson was a "jobbing" racer. Never one of the real high earners of our sport he relied on the TT for a good "pay day" to help make the house payments etc.
A Production (street bike) TT win sells a lot of motorcycles both in the UK and other key markets like Germany.
In 1984 Kawasaki introduced the GPZ900R and engaged Johnson to race one at the TT that year. He would have been paid a fee for riding and undoubtedly a bonus for winning. Add to that the appearance money, lap bonus payments and prize money from the organisers and a win would add up to a "nice little earner".
Win, he did and everyone was happy. Especially Kawasaki who embarked on one of the biggest advertising campaigns ever seen in UK motorcycling.
Motorcycle mags, national papers, advertising hoardings at the roadside,all carried a picture of johnson on his winning ride with the slogan "Who can catch a Kawasaki?"
The GPZ sold like hot cakes, it was a very attractive and capable sports bike.
In the spring of '85 Johnson contacted Kawasaki to try and agree terms for the TT of that year. He was told that Kawasaki did not require his services, after all they reasoned, with 90 percent of the field GPZ mounted and no other manefacturer having a bike capable of winning they had it all sewn up.Why would they need to pay him to ride for them when others were doing so for free?
He contacted Honda and got a sympathetic hearing. Honda had already entered two good runners on their big sports bike, which was not truly considered competitive against the GPZ anyway. How would he like a "fly the flag" ride on their new sports tourer? This was the VF1000 Bol d' Or. A bike with a large, bulbous fairing offered as a competitor to the BMW K100RS! Mostly seen two up and more likely to be seen wearing hard panniers and taller screen than racing plates. Honda were probably keen to show that it was as good at sports as it was at touring. Not many were convinced, including I suspect, Geoff johnson. It was however the only offer on the table and he had a living to earn.
When the race fans began to arrive on the "Island" they found the Kawasaki PR people in full flow.
Adverts were broadcast on Manx radio every few minuites, posters, tee shirts etc all with the slogan "Who can catch a Kawasaki?". Some of the Kawa fans were heard to be unkindly wondering why Johnson had even bothered to turn up. "He could always leave the panniers on" they opined "carry fuel cans with him and do his own pit-stop in a bus stop somewhere". That sort of thing.
Come Race Day and those bloody tee shirts lined the course. Everybody expected the inevitable Kawa victory. Most thought Johnson would tour round for a couple of laps before pulling in with "face saving" puncture or similar fault, need to be carefull though, can't make the machine look unreliable. Honda would hate that.
Well. To reduce an heroic tale to its' essentials (you must have guessed by now anyway) Geoff johnson slid, slithered, bucked, bounced, weaved and wheelied that ungainly beast to victory. What must be the most unlikely, most im-bloody-possible victory of all.
Kawasaki were crushed. Honda smilingly opened its' corporate cheque book, pen in hand.
A good enough tale, I hope you agree.
But wait, there's more.
The TT prizegivings are held at the Villa Marina Ballrooms on the Douglas seafront. I don't know how many thousand race fans can squeeze in there to see their hero's given their rewards but the place gets packed. A jacket and tie affair (for the riders) even the sartorially challenged Joey Dunlop was known to comb his hair and don a jacket. The organisers are keen to promote the event in the best possible light.
When Johnson stepped up to recieve the winners silerware he was wearing a tee shirt! The crowd fell silent. Hang on! It's *THAT* tee shirt! Look! "Who can catch a Kawasaki?"
He turned his back to the crowd, it read "Geoff Johnson on his HONDA".
The cheers shook the old building to its' very foundations.
Geoff rode mostly for Honda after that. Not surprisingly. He had one further win to make it three altogether. It would have been more, in my opinion, but for the fact that he was unlucky enough to be racing there whilst William Joseph (Joey) Dunlop was at his peak. A man who's iron grip on his particular field of endeavour far exceeded that of Rossi over Moto GP today. The others were just racing for second place when Joey was around.
Rest in peace, Geoff. You're not forgotten.
Racing lessons are normally well learned and mistakes rarely repeated. Sometimes though company pride gets in the way. Kawasaki believed their mahine was so good that it would win whoever rode it. They were wrong. Twenty years later Honda (of all people) thought the same and allowed the best rider of his era to go to a rival team. Pity that Geoff Johnson wasn't still around to tell 'em.