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Where are they now? – Ralph Hannan | Columns | Gassit Garage

The surfie-turned-mechanic whose life was shaped by racing

Ralph Hannan’s first love was surfing, until big brother Ross sparked an interest in motorcycles by taking him to Oran Park Raceway. Eighteen months out of his mechanic’s apprenticeship at a Newtown service station, Ralph was over in Europe with his mate Terry Dennehy.

They were both 22 and defied convention by heading for Italy not England and building a 500cc racer around a Honda CB450 twin engine. German-Swiss Othmar ‘Marly’ Drixl made the frame, Dennehy tuned the engine and the likely lads sourced many components in Milan.

Drixl’s distractions – coffee, fags, pinball and jaw-boning – delayed work, but in May 1969, Dennehy finished top 10 in an Italian championship round at San Remo. The Drixl-Honda went on to place fifth in the East German 500 GP, seventh in the Finnish GP, fourth in the Italian GP at Imola and be the highest-placed Honda in any of the 1969 world championships. It could have been even better. Dennehy was running second to Giacomo Agostini at Sachsenring, but had to push it home, out of fuel. Ralph and Terry were gutted. 

Hannan did the 1970 European season with Ginger Molloy, when the New Zealand ace finished second in the world 500 championship on a Kawasaki H1R. Ralph came back home in ’71, built his own Suzuki 500 racer and started winning C-grade events.

Then Molloy opened a bike shop in Hamilton and asked Hannan to run the workshop. Ralph raced a Yamaha TD2 tuned by Bert Flood, a Kawasaki H2 with expansion chambers and a Yamaha RD350 with TR2 cylinders and exhaust pipes. 

Once again, brother Ross Hannan stepped into the picture. “He came over for a meeting at Bay Park, saying he wanted to expand his business in Newtown and to build Superbikes,” Ralph said.

“I put him in touch with Graeme Crosby. You could see what Croz would be like, because he was winning in NZ on pretty standard bikes.”

Ralph Hannan didn’t build the first Hannan-Kawasaki Superbike, which debuted in 1976, but he refined it and built the others. Number two was completed in a fortnight for the Hannan team’s fabled 1977 Bol d’Or 24 Hour assault. Number three was the hugely successful Z1-R Crosby raced until he went to compete in England in 1979.

The team later ran a Moriwaki-Kawasaki TTF1 machine for Wayne Gardner in the Swann Series, Gardner and Andrew Johnson in the Coca-Coca 800, and John Pace at Bathurst, as well as Superbikes for Paul Feeney and visiting American Dave Aldana. Ralph had a few rides on the Aldana bike.

“In 1989 or ’90, I moved to Cairns and worked in a Suzuki shop for six or seven months, while I did diving courses and such. A friend decided to open an ATV park and wanted me to run the place. We called it Blazing Saddles. Until recently, I was on 50 acres outside Cairns, but now I have an apartment in town with my partner, Leah Yanos.

I’m 71 and I’m as fit as a fiddle. I’m helping a mate build a Suzuki 500 racer.   

Favourite riders?

“I didn’t see a lot of him, but Jarno Saarinen and (Giacomo) Agostini, too.

“In this part of the world? Croz is the best I’ve ever seen. At the ’77 Bol d’Or he was streets ahead of anyone, on a bike that didn’t handle. That was the only time I saw him ride in Europe. 

“We went to (the inaugural) Suzuka Eight-Hour in 1978 to run (Mamoru) Moriwaki’s bike with Croz and Tony Hatton. Ross told Croz to just go out, break the lap record and tell Moriwaki the bike is great. In three laps, he bettered the lap record by about six seconds. That’s what he could do. I didn’t see a lot of Australian guys of the early 1970s like Warren Willing, because I was in New Zealand.    

“There were guys too that I admired for their tenacity and never crashing – especially Ginger Molloy and Trevor Discombe. Ginger simply didn’t crash. We had five bikes in the van and he’d finish in the top six with all of them. I liked Geoff Perry too.

“The first time I ever raced in New Zealand, at Pukekohe, Ginger, Discombe and Geoff were battling each other and lapped me all at once.”

A few years ago, Hannan had a trans-Tasman phone conversation with Molloy. The two-hour call ended with Ralph in tears – from laughing so much. 

So where did Ross Hannan’s long-ago invitation to help him at a practice day take his surfie younger brother?

“Motorcycling made my life,” Ralph says.

By Don Cox