I am delighted to have the opportunity to ask ex-NATIONAL
SIDECAR CHAMPION Gerry Wheelera few questions about his illustrious
how did you start in Grasstrack racing, and when?
first competed in a motor cycle event in 1947 in a local trial
continuing until early 1949 in this pursuit, at which time I joined
the Army to be trained as a vehicle mechanic over a five year period,
during which time I rode in Army motorcycle trials on a 350 Matchless
and became one of a number of riders in a motorcycle display team
the Army in 1954, I commenced scrambling on a 350cc Triumph; quickly
to progressing to a 500cc J.A.P. powered Ariel.The club I was involved
with ran scrambles, trials and grasstrack meetings and I became hooked
on the latter, whilst not really being able to afford it! To get over
this problem, my friend Reg Grenville and I bought an ex Freddie French
500 Ariel sidecar outfit, complete with a grasstrack and scramble sidecar
on which we competed until the end of 1964, at which time “Reg” retired
from racing and Gerry Stoneman became my passenger for 1965, departing
at the end of the year to build and ride his own outfit.
first came to my attention in the mid 60's. Remind us about those
the beginning of 1966, John Holt became my passenger and we competed
regularly in many of the bigger meetings with some success on a
B.S.A. powered outfit. During the latter part of the period up
to early 1969 Gerry Stoneman and Gordon Gill built the first G.S.R.
in which we installed a very potent 650cc Triumph engine, competing
in many big events and qualifying for the final sidecar championship
at Yeovil. During the final leg of the event the swinging arm broke,
subsequently throwing off the rear chain, end of story!
For 1970, we
decided to supercharge our existing 750 Norton engine. During 1969
Gerry Stoneman had become our race engineer and duly effected the installation,
fuelling the supercharger induction via a Wal Phillips injector, resulting
in the outfit almost running away with us and being virtually un-rideable!
Not to be beaten. Our brilliant engineer exchanged the injector for
a huge S.U. carburettor which could feed vast amounts of fuel necessitating
a huge float chamber to be produced utilising the barrel of a beer
pump. - he worked in a brewery!)
3. 1970 was YOUR year without a doubt.
You & John
won the National Championship at Evesham, by 4pts, and at the age of
39 the oldest National Champion. You also had that memorable day Oct
25th, at Lydden riding (for you) the wrong way round! Tell us about
that year as you saw it.
A: 1970 was indeed
a great year. Eventually the G.S.R. was tamed; many excellent results
were achieved culminating in the win at Aston Somerville of the championship.
John Holt was a great passenger and the results year long could not
have been achieved without his tenacity and the brilliant work freely
given by Gerry Stoneman.
The Lydden episode
was one of the greatest surprises of my life, for various reasons
the top sidecar drivers of the day had decided against competing
there, not to be outdone, Bill Chesson gave
out that if the ‘Brits’ wouldn’t compete, he would
bring the ‘Continentals’ over, who would show us how it
should be done.
Out of the blue, I received a call from Frank Ward of Motorcycle
News requiring details of my challenge to the ‘foreigners’,
I advised that I certainly hadn’t made any challenge, and in
any event, I didn’t even have a wrong way round outfit. Frank
was very mystified, but minutes later called again to say that Gerry
Stoneman had issued the challenge on my behalf and was assured that
we would be there. I then called Gerry to ask what the heck was
going on and how could we race without a ‘foreign style’ outfit
and with literally two weeks to prepare only to be told: ‘Don’t
worry boy, I'll put a sidecar on the other side of the G.S.R., I’ve
got the chair half made’! We worked every night until the first
test ride on the Wednesday prior to the meeting on Sunday 25th October,
only to find that I almost couldn’t ride it.
On the way
home, I suddenly realised what the problem was and said so to Gerry. ‘Tell
me what it is, we’ll work all night
to fix it’ he said. I told him there was nothing wrong with the
bike, I was the problem, I wasn’t steering it! This was proved
with a successful test run on the Thursday morning much to everyone's
relief, especially mine!
On arrival at the circuit and seeing
the banking outfits going around I had doubts as to whether I could
keep up. In the event all went well with three wins out of three rides.
This was the only meeting that I had ever heard the spectators cheering
over the noise of the machine.
normally rode No 8. Was that a lucky number for you, or how did you
A: In 1954, I rode at my first scramble
since leaving the Army and requested riding no. 31, but was given 8 – it’s
been a good memorable number ever since.
750 Gill-Stoneman Racer (GSR) was Norton powered. Who did what on
the outfit between outings?
A: As detailed
in Q2, the G.S.R. was initially powered by a 650cc Triumph, but in
mid 1969, whilst competing at a local centre meeting, I managed to
get in front of Gerry Stoneman, then riding a Stoneman built outfit
with a 750 Norton atlas engine. I recall that he said at the time ‘If
you can beat me riding that old rubbish, I think I will give up and
put my Norton into your G.S.R.’ – this
he did, resulting in his becoming our engineer and the brains behind
our championship win.
did your sponsorship from Whitbread come about?
A: A total sum of £100.00
sponsorship was achieved from Whitbread for whom Gerry Stoneman worked
as an engineer and came about because in 1972, and looking to improve
our chances in 1973, we decided to build a front wheel drive outfit
which on completion, Frank Ward christened “SWORD” being:-
Stoneman Wheeler Original Racing Device. The public relations side
of Gerry convinced the manager of the brewery that good publicity may
be achieved by this machine and so it became the ‘Whitbread Sword’.
The £100 received for this project was the only sponsorship ever
received during my career.
the Bridgewater Easter Monday meeting in 1971, the motor went 'Bang'
in a big way. Tell us where the bits went.
the Bridgwater Easter Monday meeting in 1971, the supercharged
Norton was running somewhat erratically and in attempting to locate
the problem, our race engineer became over enthusiastic and a succession
of violent blips resulted in an almighty bang, fortunately all
the bits came out of the bottom of the engine, with a portion of
the flywheel being recovered from a position fourteen inches below
April 1971 you did your first continental meeting at Holzwickede.
As usual, as well as the drum of dope in the back of the van, you
had a five gal. Container of best 'Zummerzet Zider'. How does the
that Holzwickede meeting, when it soon became evident that our
Somerset scrumpy was well liked by the German fraternity, on each
subsequent visit, any spare space in the van was taken up by gallon
containers of cider. There
are many tales regarding the consequences of the disposal of this
liquid, two of which I relate.
The first concerns a rather imperious
German solo rider who on seeing the containers lined up, enquired ‘Is diss alcohol?’ to
which I replied in my best German speak ‘Ja, ist alcohol’.
He duly purchased a gallon and went away returning a few minutes later
looking somewhat puzzled and saying ‘dis ist nicht alcohol’,
I assured him it was alcohol and took a swig from the container, at
which point he exclaimed ‘ dissist nicht gute fot mein machine!
another occasion, a German fan who had developed a considerable liking
for our beverage, purchased a gallon almost as soon as we arrived at
the meeting on the Saturday afternoon, returning a couple of hours
later for another one. I was somewhat concerned and warned him not
to drive and away he went. At about 8pm he purchased yet another gallon,
and again went away. He didn’t arrive as usual for the practice
sessions, not turning up until mid afternoon, looking as white as a
sheet. ‘ALOIS, ALOIS’ I proclaimed ‘VOS IST LOS’?
(what is wrong), to which he replied ‘ACH YERRY YERRY MEIN KOPF
IST NICHT GUTE UNT MEIN ASS IST BROKEN’ (Oh Gerry, my head is
not good and my ass is broken)!
said at the time that you were not keen on the 'multi-round championship'
format which the ACU seemed to change every year. In your Championship
year, there were rounds at Rochester/Colchester/Blackmore Vale/Point
of Ayr/Evesham. What system would you have preferred they had adopted?
A: Whilst not being
very keen on the multi-round championship, I wasn’t entirely
against the concept which in theory should produce the best rider or
team of rider and passenger at the end of the series; my concerns were
that the wide geographical spread of the circuits made it expensive
to attend all of them. To fill the programme it was possible that some
riders, perhaps with insufficient experience, would be included possibly
to their detriment and finally that international licences were, at
the time, issued or otherwise, on positions achieved in the British
Some time after 1970, I became a delegate to
the A.C.U. head office meetings and eventually became a member of
the Grass Track and Speedway committee. A great deal of time was
spent in an effort to sort out a system of qualifying for the competition
which resulted in competitors being invited to compete depending
on results achieved throughout the year. These were recorded by centre
officials and collated by H.Q. Following approval of this system,
eventually semi-finals and a one day final was set up. It sounds
simple, but it wasn’t quite so.
Meetings with various interested and competent bodies were arranged
and much deliberation took place.
I believe that the present
system is probably as fair as can be achieved and is acceptable to
riders, the fans and of course to the hard working organisers.
always rode with a 'chinstrap' to hold your helmet on. Did you consider
that safer than the conventional helmet straps?
A: I preferred a
chinstrap on my helmet, in the probably mistaken belief, that in
the event of an accident, I wouldn’t
be choked by the strap across my throat – I’m now quite
happy with the conventional methods!
you 'for' or 'against' chicanes on a circuit?
was always in favour of at least one chicane on a circuit. It was
fun for the team, interesting for the spectators and kept the passenger
the design of modern outfits now makes it impractical and unsafe
to incorporate such a feature.
1974 The SWORD was built. How did it handle with its front wheel
A: The “SWORD” was
a very original concept and with development, could have been competitive.
It required a totally different riding style as was evidenced in
the few times that I rode it.
the launch day at the Whitbread brewery site in Tiverton, it was
unveiled to much OOHING and AAHING. We were then asked to demonstrate
its abilities, and following a lively push start by two experienced
passengers with me running alongside and jumping on side-saddle
to get the motor running, I didn’t expect both
passengers to leap off, thereby permitting the sidecar wheel to lift
two feet into the air with the outfit executing a sharp right turn
into the doorway, over which was displayed a sign saying: FIRST AID
HERE!. No damage done and I lived to crash another day.
some test runs on an aircraft runway, the time came to demonstrate
it at a grasstrack meeting. All went well until I gave it a big handful
of throttle going downhill, the de-celeration was immense with all
the weight being thrown onto the front drive wheel at throttle closure
and the back overtook the front, depositing my new passenger Stuart
Rattenberry and me in an undignified tangle on the grass with the “SWORD” looking
even more undignified. This incident would not have mattered quite
so much if we had not been committed to demonstrate the machine to
the television people at a meeting in Germany the following weekend.
decided that the incident occurred because of the weight transfer on
de-celeration, it was decided to
fit a freewheel device to operate at throttle closure, thus precluding
the likelihood of another crash. All appeared to be well on test,
and we arrived in time at the meeting.
Following a demonstration of its ability to turn left and right, the
flag was dropped and we went for it. The straight was about a quarter
of a mile long and we arrived at the de-celeration point very rapidly.
Unfortunately, I had forgotten the free wheel device, so no de-celeration
took place! I suddenly remembered FRONT WHEEL DRIVE and turned the
wick up hard, missing the safety fence by inches. This was followed
by four fairly quick laps, and then an even quicker trip to the loo!!
The spectators loved it but I never rode it again, deciding that I
had too many bad habits for this design.
The machine still exists and may even re-appear as a curio.
well as a rider you were a well respected promoter of 'The Western
Winner' which always had a cracking entry of international solos
and the big 1000cc Chairs. Did you enjoy this as much as riding?
What was your highlight from the days at Clyst St Mary/Edington/Clyst
St. George where BSSA (SW) ran The Masters for four consecutive years
A: I thoroughly
enjoyed the time I was part of the
B.S.S.A. team and the Winner M. C. team who were instrumental in
running many big meetings including the British Masters events
and of course the Western Winner. I suppose one of the highlights
of that period was when at Clyst St Mary, the entry included Ivan
Mauger, Barry Briggs, Peter Collins, Don Godden, plus no less than
six national solo champions in addition every top sidecar team rode
truly great and memorable times.
Q 14. Who did you respect most when you were racing?
I suppose I respected all my contemporaries, but great names and teams
well remembered include: - Bill Evans, Tommy Bounds, Mick Webster,
Nigel Meade, Chris Vincent, Cecil Taylor, John Miell, Roger Measor,
Ken Norcutt and Mike Lane, such a variety of riding styles, frames
and engines. Other riders include: Paddy Lynch, Mick Humberstone, Steve
Smith, Ted Scott and Alan Artus.
15. In 1972 you had a great scrap with Dennis Teasdale
for 'The Folkstone Grand Slam' at Rhodes Minnis. How do you rate what
many consider to be the best track in the country?
A: For many reasons
I remember the occasion when we won the ‘Grand
Slam’ at Folkstone. We had a tremendous battle with Dennis Teasdale,
the magnificent trophy didn’t arrive at the track so I didn’t
get it and probably the event is well remembered because after one
very “hairy” heat, the clerk of the course came to me and
said ‘cool it a bit Gerry, you’re not thrilling the spectators,
you’re frightening them’!
we expect to see you and John to do a 'demo', with your neckerchiefs
blowing in the draught at The Masters this year?
A: I’m very
much hoping to do a “demo” run
at the masters at Rhodes Minnis, although John wont be passengering,
hoping it will be my 55 year old eldest son Steve, who rode for many
years with Ken Jones.
I have always considered Rhodes Minnis
to be my very favourite track and I can’t wait to experience
once again the hills and valleys of this wonderful venue on my 1970
Thank you Gerry for sparing time from 'Vintage Wheels' to remind
us of what many consider 'The Golden Age' of Grass Tracking.
See you at Rhodes Minnis on August the first.