Where are they now? Gary Coleman | Columns | Gassit Garage
Gary Coleman successful racer turned long-time Grand Prix mechanic
Not many people amass 36 years’ involvement in racing –12 years as a rider, winning three Australian Grands Prix at Bathurst, and 24 working for premier-class GP teams, 17 of those in Valentino Rossi’s crew. That’s the Gary Coleman story.
At the end of the 2016 MotoGP season, Coleman called time, just before his 65th birthday. “It was my choice to go out on top for my rider and myself,” Coleman said. “I had a great last GP at Valencia, an unbelievable send off with so many friends. Vale was fantastic to me. I’d like to see who’s better as a rider and he is a gentleman.
“I could have gone on, but it was time. I didn’t want to let him down or make a mistake.”
Gary says he misses the action, camaraderie and team banter, as well as the technical aspects – but not the 500-600 hours per year of flying. From 2000 to 2009 he drove Rossi’s truck from Milan to the European GP rounds and through to 2016 his roles included the pit board.
Now Coleman is retired in Newcastle, NSW, where he and wife of 44 years, Sue, have owned the same house for three decades. They now enjoy touring the Outback in their off-road caravan.
Coleman’s racing career saw him win on machines as diverse as a Yamaha TA125 and XS11 Superbike, but he was best known as a 350 and 750 racer. In 1975 he won the Australian 125 GP at Bathurst in a three-way, last-corner braking duel. He rode a borrowed machine without a single lap of practice. In 1978 and 1981 he made comebacks from larger machines to pilot loaned Yamaha TZ350s at Bathurst, winning on both occasions.
Coleman’s path to top level road-racing was off-beat. He started riding trials on a Bultaco Sherpa and, through the Spanish bikes, met Bultaco importer Norm Fraser and racer Graham Gates, who took him to a road race at Amaroo Park. Gary made his tarmac debut on a Bultaco Bandido. In 1974, he bought a Yamaha TZ350A and had immediate success, winning the Bathurst 350 B-Grade.
The following year, Coleman’s promised machine for 125 GP was given to another rider at the last minute. But injured friend Barry Lemon offered his TA Yamaha and Gary won on it. For the next two years he rode a new Yamaha TZ350 and then a Suzuki RG500. In 1978, Norm Fraser Motorcycles and Newcastle builders the Kay brothers bought him a Yamaha TZ750. That led to rides with McCulloch Yamaha and Warren Willing’s Yamaha Dealer Team.
Career highlights included twice runner up in the Swann Insurance International Series (1980 and 1981), third in the 1979 Castrol Six-Hour with Len Atlee on a Yamaha XS11, second in the 1981 Australian Unlimited Road-Racing Championship, first in the rain-lashed 1981 Coca-Cola 800km with Greg Pretty on the Yamaha Pitmans XS11 , fourth in the non-championship 1981 Malaysian 500 GP won by Barry Sheene, second in the 1981 Yamaha 750km Production Race with Ron Boulden and first in the 1983 NSW 500 Championship.
“I pulled the pin on competing at 32. I enjoyed my time in racing, especially the racing bikes, with the TZ750s being my favourite. I had some great times and made good friends. I am sad about the guys lost.
“Looking back, I should have gone to Europe when I was going well on the 750s, but I was on a healthy retainer with Yamaha and kept saying ‘next year’”.
Coleman left his trade after 12 years and went into the rental car business, but a one-off job with Team
Roberts at a Phillip Island test led to position with the Yamaha-Dunlop test team
in Spain with Warren and Glenn Willing, and rider Randy Mamola.
“I was there on my own for eight months, long before mobile phones and Skype.”
Coleman’s first role in the GPs was in 1995 with Norick Abe. Later he worked for Ralf Waldmann, whom he remembers as always having time for the mechanics.
At the end of 1999, Coleman’s GP adventure seemed over, with no offers on the table. On spec, he called Warren Willing (then at Suzuki) and Honda’s Jeremy Burgess; both men he’d raced against in the 1970s.
“JB said ‘don’t move, I might need a mechanic/truck driver. It’s a new team’.
“JB rang Japan and then rang me back. Next thing, a long contract came through the fax machine. At that stage, I didn’t know who the rider was, but it was a young Italian guy who had just won the world 250 championship. That was the start of 17 great years with Vale.”
By Don Cox