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Monday, 22 May 2006
Tea and Biscuits with Hugh Anderson

On the weekend I had the mighty privilege of meeting one of NZs great living legends of motor-sport, Hugh Anderson (or "Huge" Anderson as he mentioned race friends used to refer to him as)

As a quick overview of Hugh's racing career: He was born in Auckland in 1936, raced successfully in off-road and road events in NZ for years before moving to the UK in his early 20's where he raced National events on Nortons and AJSs, was recruited by Suzuki in '61 to develop and race their 50cc and 125cc GP machines in the world championships which he  won two of in '63, and one each in '64 and '65 before  "retiring" to live back in NZ where he now continues to  maintain, restore and ride classic machines.

Last year during the running of the Isle of Man event I just  happened to tune into Internet radio coverage on of the parade rides and the general build-up to the TT when the radio reporter got all excited and announced that one of  the Britten machines was about to be fired up and that it  was to be ridden round the circuit by none other than Hugh Anderson.

I mentioned this kiwi-coincidence to one of Kym's workmates  just a couple of nights later at the pub and she told me she  and her partner Pete actually knew Hugh (who now lives in Hamilton) and could surely organise a meet up some time. So blow me down that's exactly what happened on Sunday

When we had arrived he was finishing off washing his car but he put that on hold, showed us round the beautiful bikes in his garage and entertained Pete and I for the next few hours on his back-porch.

As we pored over photos and articles from old race programs and magazines from the 60's Hugh waxed lyrical about the bikes, the riders that inspired him (and those he didn't rate), the circuits he liked, the victories, accidents, his disdain for the press, friends he made (and lost) during the glamorous and apparently courageous post-war and 60's bike racing period.

Having just read both Niall McKenzie and Valentino Rossi's autobiographies it was a fantastic contrast to hear Hugh talking about his time working for Suzuki, who like Honda were only just breaking into the GP racing scene in the 60's with their small-capacity bikes. Compared to the modern racer he clearly had a much more intimate relationship with the mechanics and configuration of the machines he raced, in a significantly more hands-on way than is the case today in pro GP teams.

I asked Hugh about his relationship with the Japanese manufacturer and staff and it sounded like he got a hell of a lot more input into the machine than some of his contemporaries. The Japanese mechanic assigned to him clearly trusted his judgement on matters like carb settings, suspension setup, gearing (the 50cc machines had 8 and later 10-speed gear-boxes!) but he said they only offered him that input whilst his tinkering actually resulted in improvements. At that point Hugh mentioned that whenever he had tinkered and it turned out that he'd made the wrong decision he'd never admit it but instead made sure he worked the machine harder than usual during the race to make up for it so the team thought he'd actually made the right decision after all.

He talked a lot about the European attitude to his controversial riding style. His early off-road experience in NZ led him to ride road machines in a way we would easily recognise today watching modern racers, i.e. moving his body weight round sliding across the saddle and sticking his knee out/down while cornering, but at the time the orthodox style was what Hugh described as "the Tin Soldiers look" all rigid, straight arms, very upright and inline with the bike form, not hanging off the side which he apparently copped a lot of early flack for. Of course his results ultimately spoke for themselves.

Antother innovation he mentioned was the leather face-mask he introduced. The goggles of the time protected the eyes to some degree but most racers simply kept their mouth closed during races otherwise it would seriously dehydrate. Some of the French and Italian riders (he specifically cited those nationalities :-) wore pretty scarves round their faces to keep bugs out and the like, but Hugh knew he raced more effectively with his mouth relaxed and open (think of some of the modern rally drivers) so began wearing a thin leather mask across his face so he could breath through the open mouth without drying it out.

Something else he was clearly proud of was his photographic memory and uncanny ability to visualise track layout and mentally playback laps. He said he would often determine how a possible gear ratio change might impact lap times by visualising where and when he would need to be shifting and how the bike would be reving with the new hypothetical ratios for an entire mental lap or so to work out whether or not he would actually reduce lap times. In so doing saving the bother of actually having to make a gear change. He claimed to be able to do so reliably and accurately and that noone else that he was aware of was employing the technique at the time. Pretty impressive.

Hugh told us a couple of stories about colleagues who were seriously injured during meetings and one powerful story stands out about an Aussie mate who was killed while they were both racing the Isle of Man TT. Hugh described how he came flying through a quick but twisty section to see his cobber and machine crushed up and wrecked against a rock wall. The mate had serious head injuries (and later died) and Hugh recalled noticing a pool of blood beside a pool of oil as both man and machine both leaked out across the track. Somehow he kept his mind on the job and continued the remaining couple of laps only being 2 seconds off his pace prior to the incident. That seemingly cold heartedness clearly an element of his and other successful racers character.

Another obvious character feature of any champion is confidence of course. As we listened to the various racing exploits it was clear he had no time for concession, complacency or half-arsedness. He had that winners spirit, he was after all a 4-times world champion but I was interested to know what Hugh thought about the folks that regularly finish further down the field. I cited a couple of names from the modern MotoGP line-up who usually finish in the bottom half and asked Hugh what he thought about what was driving them. His answer was "I cant understand why they continue". Its a harsh call and we cant all win right? but I believe he was being sincere, he really couldn't understand why they bothered.

It was awesome listening to Hugh talking about his time in the UK and on the international Grand Prix circuit, checking out his FIM medals, his OBE from Queenie, loads of great old photos etc. I swear he woulda kept on talking all day if Pete hadn't rightly excused us for consuming most of his Sunday. Hugh was insanely generous with his time, fascinating and entertaining to listen to, and his memory for detail is still clearly well intact.

Bloody marvellous !!!

10:03:58 PM  

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Todays Reading...
o Steam motorcycle
o UFO Area: Our Special Reports
o SOA Facts
o xkcd - A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language - By Randall Munroe
o Helen Clarks marijuana speech 1994 Waikato University

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