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Not Forgotten – Rodger Freeth | Columns | Gassit Garage

This Kiwi champion was the ultimate outlier in the world of motorcycle racing

Enter Rodger Freeth, the bespectacled Kiwi rider who made his name at Bathurst with a number of sizzling performances on McIntosh Suzukis in the 80s.

Top motorcycle racers of the 70s and 80s were typically tradesmen, with the odd white-collar worker thrown in. Many were mechanics who spent their working day adjusting tappets and points of CB250s before fettling their temperamental race machines at night. Others worked as builders, tilers, and roofers. In the world of pressed shirts, wide ties and clean fingernails, Joe Eastmure was a customs clerk, Jim Scaysbrook an advertising creative. It’s difficult to remember any gun racer back in the day with a post-graduate university education, let alone a PhD. 

Freeth was a bit player in New Zealand’s Marlboro Series of the mid-70s until he turned heads with a radical winged TZ750 he first raced at Manfeild in September 1977. After the bike was prevented from racing at a Pukekohe meeting, Freeth finished second to John Woodley’s RG500 at a non-national meeting at Blenheim. The wings were then banned for good after officials raised concerns about them contacting other riders in tight corner tussles.

Freeth first visited Bathurst in 1980 and returned in 1981 with a Suzuki RG500 and a McIntosh Suzuki GS1000. Ken McIntosh and engine builder Alan Franklin had developed a stink-hot GSX1100-powered machine later in 1981, but for the 1982 Arai 500 at Mount Panorama they opted to install a near-standard Katana powerplant with open-mouthed carbs and a 4-into-1 exhaust.

Even though he was 10km/h slower down Conrod Straight than Mick Hone Suzuki stars Robbie Phillis and Mick Cole, Freeth rode the mountain at demonic pace in practice to be almost a second faster. According to McIntosh, “Rodger’s style was to slam the bike over so hard that he would scrape the clutch cover bolts.”

With plenty in reserve, Freeth rode a measured race to claim the Arai 500, two laps ahead of Pete Byers’ Honda CBR1100 proddie bike, making it a Kiwi 1-2.

In 1984, Freeth figured the factory Hondas would expire – two did in the hands of Malcolm Campbell and Rod Cox – but Andrew Johnson’s VH860R held together for the win. He returned in 1985 with the same 998cc Suzuki on which he won the NZ Formula 1 Championship and outlasted the top factory Hondas to claim his second Arai 500 from the Team Kawasaki GPZ900s of Paul Feeney and Len Willing, with Mat Oxley fourth on a Team Honda VF1000F.

After contesting Bathurst in 1986, Freeth’s two-wheeled career came to an end after he damaged ligaments in his hand while pushing a rolled car back onto the road at the Olympus Rally in the US. He finished with 12 NZ bike titles to his name.

Freeth began a car rally co-driving career in 1979, navigating for a bevy of Kiwi and international drivers over the next 14 years, and in 1988 he moved into the driver’s seat as a circuit racer, winning the NZ Sports Sedan Championship. In 1993 he set the NZ land speed record in a Lola Indycar at 315km/h.

Several months later, in Rally Australia, Freeth was co-driver for Kiwi ace and long-time rally partner ‘Possum’ Bourne. The pair were travelling at high speed through the forests of Mundaring east of Perth in an early stage of the event when their Subaru Legacy left the road and hit a tree.

Hanging upside down in the car, a shaken Bourne asked Freeth, “I’m okay, Roj, what about you?” After a pause, Freeth said, “No, mate, I’m not.”

Freeth, 40, passed away due to internal injuries two hours later in a Perth hospital. Bourne struggled with the death of his friend, but still drove with his spirit by carrying the numberplate ‘ROJ’ on all his rally cars.

Bourne bounced back several years later to become the number one driver in both Australia and NZ before he too was killed, in a head-on collision with another vehicle in a pre-event run in New Zealand in April 2003. The other driver was later convicted of aggravated careless driving.

Ken McIntosh gave a rare insight into Freeth, who earned a PhD in astrophysics and served as a university lecturer. To most Australian fans, the tall Kiwi was an oddity in motorcycle racing – highly academic and quite reserved – but McIntosh says you can’t judge a book by its cover.

“When Rodger started racing when he was 18-19, he was a non-drinker,” Ken explained. “But a bit later on, I reckon Jack Daniels was his best friend.

“The subject of his PhD was black holes, which he always reckoned was a good opening line at parties…

“He was a lot of fun. Sometimes he’d come in after a stint and we’d be waiting for his considered feedback, and he’d say, ‘Mmm… I dunno what’s wrong with it. Can you just fuckin’ fix it?!’

“The thing with Rodger was that he wasn’t exceptionally quick on closed circuits. Places like Bathurst with fast, open corners, he really excelled. That was his kind of track, he just loved it.”

Mal Campbell scrapped with Freeth more than any other Aussie, and has fond memories of the wickedly fast professor of speed.

“We spent a bit of social time together at Bathurst in 1986,” Wally remembers. “He was a nice guy, a true New Zealander, and very inventive. I saw his TZ750 in New Zealand with the rear wing like a race car, and wings on the front. It took some time for someone in the bike world to try it. Rodger was the guy to do it.”

By Darryl Flack

1. People were never too sure how to take the lanky astrophysicist, but he was a lot of fun and clearly had a self-deprecating sense of humour 2. On the TZ750 in 1977 – the extreme design was subsequently banned 3. Freeth was killed while co-driving with good mate Possum Bourne in a factory Subaru world rally car