British motorcycle racing in the mid-1990s was a disparate amalgam of various series, TV-only events and confusing formulae which only the committed race fan could understand… then came ‘BSB’ with an added BOOST!
Words: Bertie Simmonds, Niall Mackenzie, James Whitham
Photographs: Clive Challinor, Don Morley, Bertie Simmonds
Published: Classic Racer – November/December 2021
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In 1994 the Motorcycle Circuit Racing Control Board took control of the British Championship from the Auto Cycle Union – or ACU – and in October 1995 the MCRCB revealed their big plans for the series for the following year…
Simplicity was the key: no more duplicitous variations of a championship on telly (or not) but instead a one-size-fits-all ‘British Superbike Championship’ which would be televised on the BBC no less. With £20,000 in the pocket of Barrie Hinchcliffe Productions for a promo video (they did the-then very successful British Touring Car series) the Beeb were won over and decided to give each round a 25-minute package, slotted in at peak viewing times on BBC’s Grandstand sporting programme.
Decent prize money also came into it, as did big names from the bike race world – soon to be seen on terrestrial telly. 1996 would prove to be a pivotal year: one that would see the two main protagonists, Niall Mackenzie (Scottish returning Grand Prix star, aged 35) and James Whitham (Huddersfield’s finest, just back from battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, 29) take the title to the very final round, when they arrived equal on points…
Adding to the drama was that Whit had been 2nd overall in 1995 to Steve Hislop, when he fell sick and wanted to prove himself once more. Meanwhile Mackenzie wanted a swansong year back home in front of his fans after a couple of unsatisfying seasons as a 500cc and 250cc privateer…
Controlling all this was Rob McElnea, former British champ and friend to both riders. He and Yamaha UK had secured the 1995 factory World Superbike Yamahas (worth £60,000 apiece) from Belgarda Yamaha and scored a coup with the backing from Cadburys with their ‘Boost’ bar…
Bertie Simmonds pressed record and asked the two men at the centre of this amazing season, what happened next. Apologies for the odd swear word.
For more, go buy Duke’s video/DVD of the season at: www.dukevideo.com
Niall Mackenzie: I was in my last season in Grand Prix, doing 250cc and my options were drying up. I wanted no more privateer stuff and I hated the team I was with at the time. I also had two young kids – Taylor was two or three and Tarran turned up in 1995. I wanted to carry on racing in some way, preferably at home. Being best friends with Robert Fearnall, who effectively relaunched British Superbikes with the MCRCB, he told me what he’d been doing behind the scenes, pretty much the format it is now. He was excited about it and it got me excited too. The original plan was for me to come back and just do one year, and sign off my career but I stayed for longer and won three titles. I’d done a few superbike races – mainly end of season. I knew I was still riding OK but was forgotten about in the UK because – back then – there wasn’t much in the way of TV coverage on Grand Prix in the UK.
James Whitham: ‘BSB’ is a successful brand, now. Previously, they’d been a British Championship but it had been messy with the four-stroke era getting into a settled format. I mean, you had Formula One, you’d have senior-stocks, junior-stocks, super-stocks and it changed all the time. You’d have the main Supercup series then the televised HEAT Supercup with just a few races – confusing for some fans. But in1996 it was more cohesive, you had set classes and it was properly organised.
NM: Robert had delivered… We also had proper bikes and a glitzy launch at The Hippodrome, Simon and Yasmin Le Bon were there, Peter Stringfellow – it was all dry ice and glamourous…
JW: What I recall about that day was this: I was fine with the dry ice, I was fine that we came out of a hole in the floor and up onto the stage on some sort of lift: but the fireworks… fucking sparklers were burning my bald head. I was coming back from cancer and chemo.
NW: It wasn’t all glitz: the horsebox!
JW: The horsebox/transporter was Steve Parrish’s old one. Rob sat us down and said ‘new trucks, articulated this and that,’ blah, blah.’ And a month before season, Rob admitted that we had to use that old horsebox! Neither Niall nor I said a thing, we wanted decent bikes: we didn’t give a shit if those bikes turned up in an ex post-office LDV… Things were simpler then: hospitality was Niall’s wife Jan and Andrea my girlfriend making ham and cheese sandwiches.
NW: Those bikes and the team were mega.
JW: Yeah. I’d won a championship before on the Fast Orange YZF750 in 1993, but it was very basic: same geometry weight distribution as the road bikes and a B-kit. Our 1996 bikes were just beautiful… they revved more, lovely things and a much more racy feel than my 1993 YZF.
NM: We had one bike each and a spare, when I rode that it was identical. It was a great team the likes of Ade Marsh, Barry Stanley, Stuey Smith and Mel Allen.
I’d done some superbike racing, but instead I’d ridden lots of two-strokes, but I knew I could ride a four-stroke. I also knew what James was capable of: we knew each other but not best mates like we are now. We had different career paths really… me with GPs and him in the UK with the superbikes. Once we got together we became best mates and raced fair and square on the track and socially it was brilliant. It’s worth saying that Rob McElnea was a good team manager for both of us…
JW: Rob was my team manager/team-mate in 1993, so I knew Rob well. I’d been with a guy called Hoss Elm in 1994/1995 (the Ducati UK importer, Moto Cinelli, with Rob as team manager) and we’d won a world superbike race and had some good results in BSB in 1995 coming 2nd overall. But, Hoss had said to Malc Wheeler who worked for him that the cancer thing would finish me as a racer. It took Malc 10 years to tell me that. Hoss was brutal – and I don’t blame him – but Malc told him that it would look good to keep me on for 1996: they didn’t. Rob Mac was the first one to see me in hospital and he kept me up to speed with what he and Yamaha were planning.
NM: Rob would be round to your motorhome for a cup of tea if you had a bad day – he wouldn’t worry about the guy who’d had a good day. Rob loved James – still does – and they worked well together. At the time I know Hoss was working hard to put the Old Spice Ducati deal together as he’d been chasing me to ride for them since 1995 so it surprised me that James wasn’t a target, being as he’d done so well despite illness. Watching the season back the other day the Old Spice Ducatis started good, but it fell apart for them. I made the right decision.
JW: At the first race of the year at Donington, I was going to finish 3rd easy. I couldn’t keep with Niall and Terry Rymer on the Ducati – they had a good set-to. Happy with that, as I’d not done much riding since getting cancer, and then the gear lever snapped. Race two, things ended at The Esses: I was maybe pushing a bit too much considering my recovery and I high-sided. Apart from that I didn’t make any mistakes all year…
Niall never could make a good start: he had a good launch but on the first lap he’d get swallowed up. I always thought if I get my head down I can get five or six seconds into him… When it was going – the Ducati was a good bike and Terry was on it. I remember the back-to-front win from Terry at Thruxton at round two: he’d been off for an Endurance Race and flew back to start at the back of the grid and he won it… That was the most impressive win that year – he missed all practice and hadn’t raced at Thruxton for two years: spectacular. Terry is different to me and Niall, I like him a lot, he’s a bit of a ‘geezer.’ I raced with him a few times and he’s a good solid man.
NM: Terry said he would win 80 per cent of the races on that Ducati though!
JW: No! He said if the bike kept going he’d win every race….
NM: That made us all go: ‘right! Here we go!’
JW: I could feel the hairs on my chest stand on end when he said that, even after that much chemo!
NM: There’s nothing better than that for motivation, really…
JW: Terry at the short circuit at Brands: in the early meeting (round five) Niall got his typical hideous start so it boiled down to me and Terry – the Yamaha was quicker and I felt I had a bit more tyre left. I beat him by six-inches and Niall had come back to 3rd. Well, Terry was ranting, wasn’t he? He was on the rostrum and he’s spitting going: ‘Five fucking horsepower, that’s all I needed.’ So when anyone asked what the kerfuffle was about after the race, I just said: ‘Five fucking horsepower mate…’
NM: Terry believed – and rightly so – that he’d win every race: you can think that, but don’t say it…
JW: Niall was the one I was watching: I won 10 races, he won five. I got two fastest laps he got 12 or 13. I based my own decisions about what he would do. Cadwell Park: he had a quicker lap in him than me, we were both lap record pace, then it rained and was drying out. I put on inters and got my head down as I knew I could push on, take some risks… I won both races: but fastest lap of the race – him – on each of the last four laps…
We were mates, but you wanted to win and beat him on track. This wasn’t Hockenheim or Monza, it was Cadwell, Oulton, Knockhill. I thought this gave me an edge.
NM: Rob Mac said to me: ‘James has looked death in the face, he’s not scared!’
JW: He said that to motivate you! I recall Knockhill… I thought I’d easily do a job on Niall there. It’s a club-racing circuit. I know he raced and won there… but it’s a scratcher’s paradise. That was the biggest disappointment all year for me: he took two wins.
NM: Of all the tracks I came back to, whether it was Thruxton, or Cadwell, or Mallory Park – Knockhill was one track that I knew I would have a proper go at. With the final round of the season at Donington Park with equal points, I look back now and think that if the showdown was at the likes of Mallory, I’m not sure I would have committed as much as James would have.
JW: I knew Niall was exceptional at Donington Park: I’ve seen him take the lead of a 500cc Grand Prix race there in 1989. But, I did alright there.
NM: I never thought it was ‘job done’ until it was… Weirdly I did dream near the end of the season that I’d won it. That hadn’t happened before. James at the time was getting double wins with me close behind…
The team was a really happy team and we did our own thing: never any animosity. Those two Brands races where I was 3rd and James was 1st and Terry was 2nd both races, I was really pissed off – only with myself. I was miserable until the next race… I should have gone better there, really.
JW: My mindset at the final round was to pull any advantage: I felt my bad luck was out of the way from round one. I’d won nine races he’d won four so on a countback I’d win clearly if we finished level on points.
NM: My thoughts leading up to it were the disastrous wet previous Brands round, with just one team podium. We were walking up the pit-lane looking at each other and realising we were level on points: ‘Donington, here we come!’ Rob had a bike at Donington painted up with a number one on it. That was kind of weird, but it was ‘business as usual.’
JW: Tyres were always a thing at Donington. Rob convinced me that I needed a harder tyre as I couldn’t get away with a softer one. He was probably right, there was nothing wrong in saying that. I recall saying that I was going to run what Niall had, and Rob saying: ‘You can’t fucking run that tyre.’ We looked at throttle trace and Niall was smoother, so Rob was saying it for the right reasons.
NM: I think Rob had mixed emotions as he’d been with James before as a team-mate and manager and stuck with him during his cancer treatment, so it would have been a fairytale ending had Whit won. By this point I’d had a lot of luck in my career so I can see Rob’s point of view that – if he had to choose – James would have been the perfect ending. But all I had to do was make a decent start – for once…
JW: At the end, I wasn’t overly disappointed really, as runner-up. Well, just a little bit… I came away thinking: ‘my career’s back on track, I can still ride a motorbike, still got a job for a few years ahead, I look better now I’ve got hair,’ so what’s so bad? One part of me was like: ‘Why the fuck did I listen to Rob?’ I won the last race, but I should have beaten him in the penultimate bloody race… But then Niall didn’t have to win that second race, so…
NM: I wasn’t going to risk it all with it almost in the bag – maybe I would have risked it all, if I had to win. I only celebrated on the last lap inside…
JW: Sean Emmett was there and he was someone else I had to beat – but in race one at that last round I didn’t, I was 3rd and he was 2nd. Thing is, he was racing for a job, so – would I have done the same and beaten me? Of course I fucking would! As a racer you go as fast as you can… On equal terms, I could have beaten Sean, but you can’t blame him.
NM: This is where I have so much respect and admiration for James. He could have shut himself away that night. If I had lost, I would have gone out and got pissed with the team, but I wouldn’t have been in a good place, but James was like brand-new. So much so that he played with his band, we had a big party and his reaction was so good. I recall that when John Hopkins narrowly lost the title to Tommy Hill in 2011, he just ‘left the building’ so to speak, and you can’t blame him for that.
JW: However bad racing gets… other things are worse…
NM: Anyway James had the Suzuki World Superbike contract. He was that bit younger than me: I was looking around but stayed put.
JW: Yeah, I’d been lucky enough to get that. And I was lucky enough to replace Wataru Yoshikawa in the factory Yamaha squad that year for a few WSB races. I had that Suzuki Team Harris contract on the table so I knew I was all right.
NM: We have to mention the incident. That night, we’re both pissed and the security guard’s van was ticking over… James was on a comfort break from drumming and I was outside and the Astra van was there, door open and James said: ‘You need to drive that, you do…’ So I got in driver’s seat, he was in the passenger seat and then – a hand came in through the open door. Some big bouncer pulled me out. Result was me getting a kicking and James bravely scuttled off right then…
JW: I was like Forrest Gump! But we all told Jim Moodie who went to exact revenge for us. You don’t mess with Jim Moodie, let me tell you. (Both laugh!)
NM: You don’t… I recall some years later Rob Frost was running a generator late one night, not working on bikes, just having a party and Jim was just wanting to sleep. Jim asked nicely if he could turn his generator off but Rob just shrugged and smiled. So, Jim went to his motorhome, got a sledgehammer and smashed the generator up. He said to me: “Niall, I don’t waste time arguing…” Looking back, the 1996 BSB season got everyone’s attention: it was mega and set the pattern for the future.