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Old School – The day everything changed | Columns | Gassit Garage

After buying a general admission GP ticket, I rode into the parking paddock. I’d never seen so many motorcycles in one place. They seemed to stretch to the horizon

We take the Phillip Island MotoGP for granted now, but the first running of the event in 1989 was a game changer for us former seventies longhairs.

We’d watched Wayne Gardner win the 1987 500cc championship on SBS television. Now we had the chance to see the world’s best riders and their machines in the flesh.

For us the closest thing to this had been the Australian TT at Laverton back in the summer of 1976. Leading European riders and teams had been enticed out to a baking airfield circuit lined with hay bales to do battle in 125cc, 250cc, 350cc, 500cc and Unlimited races.

A huge crowd had watched the Aussies and Kiwis punch well above their weight, with Gregg Hansford beating American Pat Hennen in the Unlimited and Ken Blake upstaging the mighty Giacomo Agostini and his MV in the 500cc race. A swarm of locals had chased them home on Suzuki RG500 production racers.

This model would change GP racing, and the resulting flood of Aussies and Kiwis who headed to Europe to race laid the foundations for the 1989 Phillip Island Grand Prix.

The Adelaide F1 Grand Prix had proved since 1985 that as a country we could host such an event. Now the inaugural Phillip Island Grand Prix had all the makings of a Laverton-like humdinger.

Gardner’s 1988 title nemesis, Eddie Lawson, had finished third at Suzuka’s season opener, one place ahead of the Aussie battler.

At Phillip Island, the second round on a brand new track, Gardner had the chance to regain the momentum he had lost the year before.

Now the big decision: should I travel interstate to watch history being made?

Although deep into the child-rearing phase of my life, I was slightly cashed up after selling a house in inner Sydney.

I bungy-tied a sleeping bag to the duck-tail seat of my road-registered Rickman racer. Then I got into my riding kit of leather Brando jacket and jeans for the solo 1000km road trip.

After buying a general admission GP ticket, I rode into the parking paddock. I’d never seen so many motorcycles in one place. They seemed to stretch to the horizon.

Later that afternoon I met an old friend outside the Isle of Wight pub who offered me accommodation at a nearby seaside shack.

The race lived up to the hype. Pole sitter and Round 1 winner Kevin Schwantz highsided early on. Wayne Rainey led, hunted by Kevin Magee, Gardner, Mick Doohan and Eddie Lawson.

Then Gardner and Rainey got locked in a duel to the finish, with Wayne taking a fairytale win. It was the equal of any of this season’s showdowns.

I retrieved my Rickman from the jumble of parked motorcycles, noticing an Egli Vincent was propped up beside it. Then I started the long ride home.

Rainey was later quoted in a Michael Scott biography as describing Gardner as “a bulldog on a bike” and a man who “rode by the excitement of the crowd”.

Too true, mate, and typical of the time was the fact that the GP was sponsored by Alan Bond’s Swan Premium Lager. This was notable for its anthemic Up There Cazaly-like jingle.  This One’s Made for You was sung by variety performer Ricky May. “They said you’d never make it” were words accompanying the television advertisement’s historic images of pioneering Australians.

Bond was on a roll back then and the nation, fresh from its 1988 Bicentennial celebrations, was still in a state of mild euphoria.

The 1989 Phillip Island Grand Prix harnessed the exhilaration to herald a new era for Aussies in international motorcycle racing.

I managed to tick off a couple of bucket-list items in 1989. Soon after the GP I took a long-overdue pilgrimage to the Isle of Man TT.

Hiring a high-mileage Honda VT500 from London’s Scootabout rentals, I toured Scotland, then rode on to the Liverpool ferry for 10 days of motorcycle madness.

But that’s another story.