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Tobacco and MotoGP | Columns | Gassit Garage

It was big tobacco that brought MotoGP Down Under

As Australian tobacco advertising restrictions tightened throughout the 1980s, ‘big tobacco’ poured more and more money into motorsport, with the consequence that Wayne Gardner’s 1987 World Championship was as big a boost for Rothmans as it was for Honda. It was also Australia’s greatest two-wheeled success since Keith Campbell brought the top trophy Down Under two decades earlier.

Suddenly motorcycling was back in the sports pages. Certainly not as popular as cricket, Aussie Rules or rugby, but the Wollongong Wiz quickly became sporting royalty. Racing was not yet quite marketable enough to challenge ball sports on Channel Nine’s Wide World of Sport, but sufficient for the SBS network to program the entire World Championship season for 1988.

Gardner, Magee, Doohan, Taira and Lawson, Australian GP 1989

SBS was on a winner, but Gardner’s title defence on the Rothmans Honda was smoked by the Marlboro and Lucky Strike Yamahas of Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey. Yet Gardner’s success lifted Australia’s profile and influenced the motorcycling federation’s decision to grant Australia a round of the FIM World Championship.

Immediately the sport was awash with money, not all of it from cigarette marketers.

Flamboyant businessman Alan Bond, having purchased Channel Nine for more than a billion bucks, then ensured his recent acquisition secured the TV rights to broadcast the entire 1989 championship. Bond’s brewery also sponsored the Aussie round, to be named the Swan Premium Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix – though reports he made an offer to purchase the Phillip Island circuit were never substantiated.

Yet somehow sufficient capital was available to completely redesign and reconstruct the 32-year-old race circuit – shortened slightly to 4.45km – under the direction of acknowledged expert Bob Barnard.

Gardner, Magee, Tara and Doohan, Australian GP 1989

The new track played host to the final 1988 Superbike event, which was Mick Doohan’s last home ride before his Grand Prix debut in 1989. Now Aussie fans were looking forward to a season in which a trio of their countrymen – Gardner and his Rothmans teammate Doohan, together with Kevin Magee on a Marlboro Yamaha – would take on the world’s best riders.

As it eventuated, Kevin Schwantz won the opening round of the 1989 season in Japan, with Gardner and Magee finishing fourth and fifth. Then the circus moved to Phillip Island, where both Mal Campbell and Michael Dowson scored factory wildcard rides.

With the Nine Network and Swan Lager promoting the event for weeks beforehand and Rothmans, Marlboro and Lucky Strike inviting every would-be celebrity and legions of VIPs to their corporate boxes, there was more hype than for the Melbourne Cup.

More than 90,000 spectators rolled through the turnstiles. Many of them were regular race fans, and over 20,000 of them had ridden from all over the continent and now occupied a tent city.

Many of the enthusiastic crowd were attending their first motorsport event of any kind, such was the sense of occasion. This was, after all, the first World Championship grand prix for motorcycles to be held in Australia. And the Phillip Island weather was perfect; what could be better than stripping off your shirt, grabbing a beer and a fag, and cheering Australia to victory?

And what a race it turned out to be. Schwantz crashed out early, but Gardner and Rainey went ’bar to ’bar with Christian Sarron and Magee. There were 19 lead changes before Rainey and Gardner settled in to duke it out over the final four laps.

Gardner went on to take what was possibly the most outstanding victory of his career.

Rainey also paid homage to the parochial power of the spectators: “Gardner was certainly lifted by the crowd and I doubt he would have been as fast without the fans behind him.” 

Crowd cheer on Gardner, Australian 500GP 1989

Words Peter Whitaker   Photography Gold&Goose