Skip to content

Not forgotten – Robert Holden | Columns | Gassit Garage

A world class rider who made his mark in Aus, NZ, the UK and the TT

Robert Holden was born in the UK in 1958, and emigrated to New Zealand with his family when he was 13. In the mid-70s he survived a near-fatal road crash to take up racing on a Suzuki RM125 converted to a road racer, winning the national ultra-lightweight championship. He also won the 125cc New Zealand Grand Prix, 125 TT and the 250cc hill climb championship. Fast and competitive, he was destined for big things.

Roll on a decade, and Holden was at the centre of one of the most controversial episodes of the Castrol Six-Hour. Holden’s Action Suzuki GSX-R750 was engaged in a furious dice with the pole-sitting Team Honda VFR750F of Malcolm Campbell in the 1986 event. It was mid-race when Campbell crashed out at the tight left-hander at the end of the Oran Park straight whilst in hot pursuit of Holden’s Suzuki. Trying to make it a trifecta of wins for the new VFR750 following victory in the Shell Two-Hour at Oran Park and the Surfers Paradise Three-Hour, Campbell had been passed by the sizzling Suzuki a lap before and was struggling to keep pace with the 20kg lighter GSX-R750. After Campbell wobbled down pit lane on the bent Honda, team manager Mick Smith retired the bike with the mangled left-handlebar and clutch-lever assembly dangling ominously.

Sitting on the floor at the back of his pit, a dejected Campbell was cornered by ABC-TV pit commentator John Smailes, who asked the wiry Tasmanian what happened. “I locked up the front-brake at the end of the main straight trying to make up ground on Robert Holden’s ‘Superbike,’” a smarting Campbell told a shocked national television audience. “I was getting pretty dejected with the speed that it had.”

“That’s a pretty heavy allegation – ‘Superbike’,” said Smailes. It was a comment that hung around for the rest of the day, and for years to come. Holden and co-rider Brett Jones finished second behind the Marlboro Yamaha FZ750 of Kevin Magee/Michael Dowson, but nothing more was heard about the legality or otherwise of the Suzuki. In 2010, when asked about his 1986 ‘Superbike’ comment, Campbell replied with a regretful, wry smile, “Well, you say these things in the heat of the moment.”

Campbell’s Honda teammate in 1986 was Iain Pero. The Christchurch racer was in a group of riders including Holden and Bob Toomey that travelled around New Zealand in the early 80s. “We did the Christmas summer series together at Pukekohe, Manfeild, Wellington, Ruapuna and Invercargill. We had a lot of fun. Robert was a typical New Zealander – humble and quiet – but he was also a practical joker. There were plenty of flour and egg fights, but on the track he was aggressive. If he wanted a corner, he would bash into you. I wouldn’t say he was a bad guy to race with, he just had the balls to go for tough passes.”

Pero remembers Holden’s time in the Wellington Motorcycle Centre team spearheaded by the Hiscock brothers, Dave and Neville. “I was sponsored by Hutt Motorcycles and Robert was the up-and-coming rider behind the Hiscocks in the Wellington Motorcycle Centre team, he had a lot of success.

I remember the time he crashed through a big Holden sign, which made it to the evening news right around New Zealand – ‘Holden crashes into Holden’!”

Holden first appeared in the Australian Castrol Six-Hour in 1983 with Roger Heyes on a GS1000 to finish a hard-fought third on debut. In 1984, he teamed with Neil Chivas to claim another brilliant third aboard the unheralded Suzuki GSX750SE, followed by a ninth in the wet 1985 event with Neil Robinson, his only non-podium finish in five starts. In 1987, he teamed with a young Aaron Slight to claim third in the last-ever Castrol Six-Hour.

Robert’s best finish at Bathurst was third in the 1985 750cc production race behind Neil Chivas and Robbie Phillis.

The final chapter of Holden’s career revolved around Ducatis, and a return to the UK with success at the North-West 200 and the Isle of Man. He finished second in the 1994 Single TT on a Ducati Supermono, and went one better in 1995 to claim his first TT win. It was in the 1995 Senior TT on a Ducati 916 Superbike that Holden famously brushed his shoulder on a stone wall, ripping his leathers while fourth, chasing Joey Dunlop.

At the 1996 TT, Holden recorded a stunning 120mph lap on his Ducati Superbike in practice, but later crashed fatally at Glen Helen on 31 May. Holden had planned to return to NZ and take up sidecar racing after the UK season had concluded.

Iain Pero laments the early loss of his old sparring partner from Wellington. “It was very sad to hear what happened to Robert in ‘96, and it’s sadder to think that he’s not around to talk about the old days and the fun we had.”

Holden’s ashes were spread at his favourite circuit at Wanganui. A fan favourite across New Zealand, Australia and the UK, the annual Robert Holden Memorial race at Wanganui was established in his honour, an event that has been won by his great friend and number one fan, Alan Cathcart.

By Darryl Flack

1. He got to do a lot of this at prizegivings  2. He headlined the news nationwide by taking out “his own” hoarding 3. Frenzied pit action 4. In those days, pitcrews were made up of whoever turned up