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Where are they now? Gordon Barrett | Columns | Gassit Garage

Gordon Barrett burned brightly in Oz, and could have gone on to bigger things

Life these days for Kiwi Gordon Barrett is very different to when he won the 1981 Australian 350 road-racing championship. “I’m semi-retired and I have developed a passion for mental health rehabilitation,” he says. “I spent a month in Rwanda helping people get over the genocide.

“After that I had a few periods of a month at a time in Mexico. The first was in 2009, at the height of the drug wars, and there are so many orphans. I teamed up with a local woman who was trying to do her part. We helped the kids and carers get over the unsightly things they’d experienced.

“Without doubt, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. In Mexico, they come up to you and say ‘thanks for helping our people’. They couldn’t believe that somebody had flown from Australia to help them, because no one helps Mexicans.”

It’s a world away from the Wellington suburb of Johnsonville where a young Barrett earned enough money cleaning windows at the city railway station to put a deposit on a Suzuki T350. His father Joe threw him out of home for a month, but later became his financial backer so he wouldn’t have to pay loan interest . Mum June made his leathers.

Barrett’s varied working career has included outboard motor mechanic (so he could learn about two-strokes), construction worker (to buy the Yamaha TZ350G he rode to victory in three of the six 1981 Oz title rounds), used car sales, the motorcycle and accessories trade, advertising sales and his own advertising agency.

He began his racing career aboard a Kawasaki H1 500 on the Onekawa street circuit in Napier. He chose a meeting 300km away so he wouldn’t be influenced by friends and family. In the early days, before he borrowed his father’s Valiant or could afford a van, he rode the bike to race meetings. With no 500 class, he competed against 750s before progressing to a Kawasaki H2 750 and racing local production guns Dave Hiscock and Peter Fleming.

Barrett’s first race bike was a used Yamaha TZ350D, which in New Zealand cost more than a new F model in Australia. His most memorable ride at home was chasing Australian 350 champion Ron Boulden in an event at Pukekohe, until his crankshaft failed.

After crossing the ditch, Barrett bought an ex-Rob Phillis TZ350E and then the TZ350G from Chris Oldfield. He won the ’81 championship from fellow Kiwi John Wood.

At the end of 1981, Barrett and his mechanic Phil Purdue from Albury bought a Suzuki RG500 Mk II (a 1977 model they uprated) to contest the national 500 title. The first time he raced it, in December 1981 at Mt Gambier, he wore his first free helmet from Nolan and covered extra track distance as sidecar passenger for Bob Martin.

Barrett won the opening 1982 round at Symmons Plains and fought for the title down to the last round at Sandown against Len Willing (Yamaha TZ500J), gamely pushing home after the Suzuki’s rear sprocket bolts sheared. Also on the grid that year were Boulden and Gary Coleman on the Yamaha Dealer Team entries, as well as Paul Lewis, NZ international Dennis Ireland and Tasmania’s Craig Bye on current Suzukis, and Victoria’s Glenn Middlemiss.

Without any prospects for the 1983 season, Gordon produced a glossy four-page sponsorship proposal brochure. His next project, after missing the 1983 season, was a Honda VF750 superbike. Failing to persist with it was his biggest regret.

“I was 23 years old and was disappointed after being Australian champion and runner-up in the 500 title that our team hadn’t received any financial help. My dear friends Phil Purdue and Bob Martin were just about all the support I had, and I was tired of making ends meet. I thought if we were to get any help then it would have come before now. Now I know where 23 sits in the scheme of things, and think we would have turned heads, had we continued.”

The final chapter in Barrett’s career was a brief stint in the US racing a production Suzuki GSX-R750 against top Americans Dave Sadowski, Doug Polen and a young Kevin Schwantz.

“My US highlights included sharing one of my favourite corners at Loudon, New Hampshire, with Schwantz on his Yoshimura-Suzuki superbike and coming second to Scott Russell in an open-class six-hour race at Pocono Raceway. That was particularly rewarding, as we picked up second place overall and first in 750 and 1100 proddy classes. Putting this into perspective, most of the competition riding superbikes fell off due to periods of heavy rain and insanely thick fog!”

By Don Cox