On the verge of greatness, the white-hot Kiwi was lost in a mystery air crash over the Pacific
In June 1973, Geoffrey Leonard Perry had the world at his feet. The 23-year-old Aucklander had just won his first ever AMA national, defeating Kel Carruthers by half a meter at the sinuous Road Atlanta and claiming a new lap record. The Suzuki rider headed back to America for the round at Laguna Seca on 28 July in a buoyant mood. As the form road racer in the AMA championship, he was scheduled to test with Team Kawasaki USA. It was a journey he would never make.
Standing just 168cm tall, Geoff Perry had the perfect pedigree to become a top road racer. His father Len was a legend of New Zealand racing in the 1950s and 60s. His promising son started competing at 16 on a modified Suzuki 250 roadbike, and had his first race at Bathurst in 1969.
Unlike contemporaries Ginger Molloy, Keith Turner and Kim Newcombe who all excelled in the world 500cc championship in the early 70s, Perry turned his attention to the growing road race scene around the Pacific Rim – south-east Asia, Australia and America. The first Kiwi to target the riches of the AMA Grand National Championship, Perry was agonisingly denied victory on the penultimate lap of the 1972 Daytona 200 after his Suzuki 500’s drive chain broke while he held an 18-second lead. Perry kissed goodbye the $NZ15,000 prize money, four times New Zealand’s average annual earnings at the time.
Perry’s preference to race around the Pacific Rim was assisted by his apprenticeship as an aircraft engineer at Air New Zealand, which also sponsored him. In 1971, he finished fifth at Daytona and won the Singapore and Malaysian Grands Prix as well as the New Zealand 250 and 500 TTs. He performed brilliantly at the Agostini meetings at Calder and Oran Park in December and in February 1972, Perry captained the New Zealand team including Molloy, Turner and Trevor Discombe to a 12-all against Australia in a Match Race event at Amaroo Park. He capped off the year with a fine second in the Ontario 250-miler behind Paul Smart’s Seeley Kawasaki.
Perry was determined to win the Daytona 200 after his luckless 1972 assault. After qualifying third he led the 1973 event on his Suzuki 750 before an ignition failure forced him out. With his Dixie National win at Atlanta under his belt, Perry was looking forward to the $100,000 Laguna Seca Classic. Before he left, his workmates wished Perry luck and urged him to take care. He replied with a smile: “I’m never going to die in a motorcycle crash.”
Perry always flew Air New Zealand, but on this occasion he took earlier Pan Am flight from Auckland to San Francisco via Tahiti because Air New Zealand had restricted flights due to an imminent atomic test by the French at Mururoa, 1120km south-east of Tahiti. On 22 July 1973, at 10:06pm local time, flight PA 816 took off from Tahiti’s Fa’a’ā International Airport. Thirty seconds after take-off, the Boeing 707 carrying 79 passengers and crew crashed into the sea. There was only one survivor. The voice recorder and flight data recorder were never recovered from the wreckage that lay 800m below the surface.
The plane had reached an altitude of 91m when it started to descend, banking to the left. No conclusive cause was ever found, although it was speculated that a gyro-horizon instrument failure was to blame. The pilots had expressed concerns over a recently repaired windscreen that delayed the take-off. A French report into crash said the plane may have sustained a windscreen failure.
Perry’s death on an aircraft bearing the name ‘Wing Clipped Racer’ left friends and fans shattered for decades. The New Zealand race fraternity was further devastated when world 500cc championship contender Kim Newcombe was killed at an international race at Silverstone three weeks later.
Former Kiwi 500 GP privateer Stu Avant says Perry’s influence cannot be over-stated. “For guys like me coming up through the ranks, Geoff was our Jarno Saarinen, he was in another stratosphere. He was smooth, he was fast; his results in south-east Asia, Australia and America showed he was a superstar in the making. He was friendly and always had time to say hi. My mechanic John Allnatt was working with Geoff at the time. He was meant to be on the same flight but they couldn’t get him a seat. Geoff was the guy, he was better than special.”
Former Team Roberts crew chief Mike Sinclair has special memories. “I loaned Geoff my bike at Timaru because he crashed his in practice and needed second to clinch the New Zealand 250 title. Geoff was big inspiration to all of us. I still have a picture in my mind of him in the esses beside the river over the railway lines at Gracefield. A difficult section to get right but he was so fast and smooth.”
Set up to perpetuate Perry’s legacy, the inaugural Geoff Perry Memorial Trophy was won by John Woodley in 1977, and most recently by Linden Magee in 2015.
By Darryl Flack