ROB PHILLIS- Mr Superbike | Columns | Gassit Garage
Rob Phillis rarely gives interviews, but when we pinned him down he had plenty to say about his remarkable career. Hang on, this could be a bumpy ride…
It’s the end of June 1992. Rob Phillis has just ridden two World Superbike races on the sweeping curves of the Österreichring, these days known as the Red Bull Ring. Score for the day? A second and a fourth in close finishes, and a new lap record. At 36 years of age, he was leading the world championship.
Happy man? No, frustrated to be fourth, in fact. He reckons Ducati’s Giancarlo Falappa held him up and, more galling, the Italian went on to win.
Phillis at that point in the 1992 championship had two victories to his name and five second placings. Kawasaki teammate Aaron Slight was the only other four-cylinder rider who’d won a race. But in the next round at Mugello on 19 July, Phillis crashed in Race 1 on someone else’s oil and banged his head. He didn’t win another race that year, his best finishes a couple of third placings. Doug Polen won a second title for Ducati.
Bizarrely, at the end of the season Phillis, Polen and 1990 champion Raymond Roche were all looking for new rides. It wasn’t the end of Phillis’ international career, but it was the last crack at a WSBK crown for Australia’s own Mr Superbike of the 1980s.
Phillis raced on in Australia and in the German Superbike Championship, but serious crashes in 1993 and 1994, resulting in brain haemorrhages, ruined his chances of winning more championships. Both were accidents beyond his control – the first running into a fallen machine, the second crashing on oil. He retired from full-time competition in 1998, aged 42, but continued to race Harley Twin Sports and more recently the Suzuki GSX1100 he raced in 1981. Last year he was seriously hurt again, crashing at Phillip Island. He hasn’t raced since.
The expression ‘speaks his mind’ might have been invented for Rob Phillis. He turned 60 on 27 April this year and lives in a converted church near where he grew up in Albury. He renovates houses for a living, cares for elder son Tom, and helps younger son Alex with his racing. Tom needs constant care, after almost dying as a baby.
Injuries, hard work and industrial deafness from years of using an angle grinder to cut ceramic tiles haven’t made Rob Phillis any less forthright. In fact it’s part of his charm – expect surprises, blunt opinions and free character assessments. When I ask about his long career and racing times, he starts by recalling one of his first pivotal rides, which came in an unusual event at Sandown in the winter of 1978 – a three-by-one-hour race.
“It was pissing rain and I rode the Malvern Motorcycles Suzuki GS1000 production bike with a four-into-one exhaust and Metzeler road tyres, which in the wet were unbelievable,” Phillis said. “Mick Hone and Alan Decker were the fastest guys in dry qualifying on their Yoshimura-Kawasaki superbikes, but in the wet Bob Rosenthal was quick with a Yamaha XS1100 on Avons.
“I lapped the entire field in the first two legs and
was about to lap ‘Rosie’ again when the condenser wire broke off. I rode the rest of the race like that and finished eighth. Milledge-Yamaha signed me up for the next year on that performance.
“I had the thing sliding everywhere and we never changed tyres in those days, just used the same ones for the whole three hours. It helped that I had that bike at home in Albury and there was five kays of dirt road out to our farm. So I used to ride around, feet-up and doing full lockers with shorts and thongs on at 180km/h! It was a big, winding road and I don’t know how I never crashed it. I had a dirt track out at the farm as well, but I didn’t race dirt because I could only afford to go to race meetings where there was prize money. It was hard to earn money in those days – 115 or 120 bucks a week was an average wage.”
Three years later Phillis was chosen to ride a new Suzuki GSX1100 Superbike, the latest creation from motorcycle dealer Mick Hone and Ansett Airlines engineer Alan Pickering.
“Alan wanted to use Goose [Graeme Muir] and Honie wanted me,” Phillis said. “He was paying the bills, so that’s what happened. Mick didn’t want to ride anymore because his shop was going well and he was selling tuning parts.”
It was a well-organised race team, with Hone, Pickering and race mechanic Dave ‘Dragman’ McGillivray. Was it where Phillis needed to be
at that stage of his career? “Oh, I think it held me back!” Phillis answers. “Mick Smith [a race mechanic from Sydney then based in the UK] and [team official] Garry Taylor had a place cleared for me over at Suzuki GB. In ’83 I was going to go over and ride there. But Mick did say it was a risky business and I could lose everything I had made here. I had only just got married and I was doing alright in Australia.” Phillis says in 1981 he made $15,000, which was half the price of the first house he bought.
“I never looked into the future that much. I was more interested in just what I was doing at home really. It was easy and I’d never really been overseas. I’d been to South Africa and I’d been to Japan, but that was it really. It was probably the first big mistake I made.”
Even though he was known as Mr Superbike, does he wish he’d done more on 500 GP bikes?
“Oh, fuck yeah! I still believe today that I had an opening with Suzuki after riding a Yoshimura-Suzuki with Croz [Graeme Crosby] in the 1983 Suzuka 8 Hours. It was the first year I rode there. We were leading it by a lap when the cylinder head cracked and started a slow oil seep. The Yoshimura guys had to keep topping it up and they tried to fix it with goo. We finished 13th.
“Croz didn’t want to ride it for the last stint, so I stayed on it in the dark with an oily visor from the oil mist that was getting sucked up through the screen. My eyes were bad enough without oil over the visor in the dark, with a headlight off a DS80 Suzuki mini-bike! Plus my gearchange ankle was broken from a crash during the Wednesday night practice session.
“But the following year I rode with Kork Ballington on a Kawasaki that was meant to be a factory bike and in fact was a home-made thing built by Tsukigi. I could have been riding the Yoshimura bike that year, but I did myself over.
“In 1985 I rode a Moriwaki-Honda with Kevin Magee, his first ride there. We were going good and he crashed in fourth position and it sort of cost us a fair bit. We really could have gone close to winning the race that year.
“I shot myself in the foot by doing the Kawasaki ride in 1984 and not taking the 1983 deal in England with Garry Taylor. If I’d ridden the Yoshimura bike in 1984 and stayed on that I probably could have got a 500 ride like Kevin Schwantz.
“I guess I’m just a bit cautious and not always up to speed with making the right sort of choices. And the older I get the better I am at looking back in hindsight, but at the time you think you’re doing the right thing.”
In April 1986 Phillis had another chance to impress overseas team bosses when he raced a Suzuki GSX-R750 in the opening round of the World
TT Formula One Championship at Misano. He finished third behind 1982 world 500 champion Marco Lucchinelli’s works Ducati and Sweden’s Anders Andersson on a TTF1 Suzuki (after Joey Dunlop’s Honda ran out of fuel on the last lap).
The Misano meeting doubled as a round of the Italian championships and attracted a strong field for the 500 race, including a guest appearance from England’s Rob McElnea on a Team Agostini works Yamaha. When Phillis needed help to make a larger fuel tank for his superbike, he received assistance from an unusual quarter – Yamaha crew chief Kel Carruthers. Dave Petersen and Frankie Chili also contested the race; Phillis knew Chili’s sponsor, Roberto Gallina, having ridden a Gallina Suzuki in the final round of the 1985 Swann Series.
“I practised on Chili’s old Suzuki 500 because the GSX hadn’t turned up from customs. So I did a day’s riding on that around Misano and I went as fast as Rob Mac and Chili, the boys who finished 1-2 in the 500 race on the Sunday.
“Kel Carruthers was pretty impressed because he was watching. And then he came and helped me make the bigger tank, in Gallina’s annex. Kel was in there helping me, doing the panelbeating, and I was welding. He was working with Yamaha but helping me, and he was asking me all these questions. It was the first and only time I’ve ever talked to him. But he was a good old boy, talking all sorts of shit. We were just having a good time and there was all these cameras going off everywhere, all with flashes, because he’s in the Suzuki camp helping me for a couple of hours weld up a fuel tank. And he was impressed with my welding!
“In the (TTF1) race I diced with Lucchinelli and [Davide] Tardozzi, and Joey Dunlop for a little while, but he was on a Honda RVF that was way too good for the Suzuki superbike. I had a standard front wheel in that fucking thing and standard brakes. I was quite lucky to finish third in that race.”
Phillis finally made it to the WSBK full-time in 1990 with Kawasaki. He was already 34 years old. In three seasons he finished fourth, third and third again. And this was in the days when twin-cylinder machines enjoyed a 250cc capacity advantage and less weight compared with the fours.
“In 1990 I was new to all the tracks except Austria and Misano. The second year there I was on the podium. But there are places where I felt I should have won. I dunno how many times I led out of the last turn and didn’t even get on the rostrum. It was just bullshit with the power-to-weight, the horsepower for what I had.
“In Austria I got the lap record, which I held for four years. I set that record in ’92 chasing Polen and Roche, because Falappa was holding me up. I was behind Falappa and I got past him and I caught Roche and Polen, who had been five seconds in front of me. I caught them and broke the lap record and finished fourth, after leading out of the last turn on the last lap. And Falappa won. How’s that work? I was so fucking angry. Same in Albacete in Spain – Roche pulled out and just hosed me over the line. And again at Anderstorp in Sweden in 1991; I thought I was going to win, but Polen beat me.”
At the end of 1992, Phillis, now 36, seemed on the verge of a big break. “Polen, Roche and I all got the flick from our teams at the end of ’92. Roche was going to run the Ducati team and he offered me the ride for ’93. And then Kawasaki gave me a two-year contract at home for a good amount of money and a bike I could take anywhere in the world to ride, so I could do the World Superbike if I wanted to. But that changed once I signed the contract; I could only take it to Malaysia – they didn’t want me standing on Scott Russell’s toes ’cause he’d taken my position with the Kawasaki WSBK team.
“Roche was waiting for a budget from Ducati, so he couldn’t tell me what was going on. At the same time Kawasaki is telling me I’ve got a week to make my mind up to sign this contract so I signed the contract with Kawasaki and Roche rings me a week after and says we’re right to go now! I didn’t renege because I’m a man of my word, I don’t lie and I don’t cheat and I don’t dud anybody. They gave the deal to Fogarty and he finished second to Russell, with Aaron third having done all the tyre testing for Kawasaki. That’s why he went to Honda in 1994.”
Phillis can only think of what might have been racing a Ducati in 1993. “In 1990 I rode Roche’s championship-winning bike at Manfeild the day after the series ended. I’d won the previous day on my bike. Then I got on Raymond’s bike and did 15 laps, having never ridden one before, on old tyres and set up like a board, and did the same lap time I’d done to win the race. So Kawasaki re-signed me the next day.
“Marco Lucchinelli put me on Raymond’s bike that day. He was running the Ducati team then and we were quite good friends – same with Raymond. They’re good blokes.”Was Aaron Slight his best mate in racing?
“He still is. I haven’t spoken to him for a few months, but he’s like my little brother, father and best mate. And advisor. He’s family, basically.
“We were so similar. He was always one kilo harder in the rear spring than me, but the front end was the same and the gearbox was same.” When it comes to naming his toughest rival, Phillis says there were many, then mentions Polen and Roche because they beat him to the world titles in ’91 and ’92. But he has a special word for Mal ‘Wally’ Campbell, with whom he had such a great rivalry.
As for his most memorable race, he surprisingly cites riding a Kawasaki W650 in a Gentlemen’s Cup Super Motard on a Swiss airfield. “I had pole position and crashed out of the first race twice, breaking a rib. But there were six or eight thousand spectators there on the fence. I was blowing my horn and waving to them ’cause I was leading the race and they were all waving. I had a full-face helmet on I was screaming out to them. It was grouse fun, a pretty memorable weekend.
Phillis has never counted the number of superbike race he’s won but he does remember the crashes, and the injuries. “I averaged 12 good crashes a year in the World Supers. I reckon I’ve had 200 crashes and broken 49 bones. I’ve had three brain haemorrhages now. I had another brain haemorrhage that last crash 12 months ago [at Lukey Heights, Phillip Island] but not a bad one; it was just a small bleed. I’ve broken 17 ribs, both my scaphoids nine times each, and four or five vertebrae. I cracked a vertebra in that last crash as well, and dislocated my shoulder.
“That last one was probably the worst crash I’ve ever had. It took me months to get over it. I was fucking down. Thank Christ I had Tom hanging around, because he needs me for the rest of my life. Fifty per cent of the time he lives with me, and he’s with his grandmother and his mother the other 50 per cent.
“Tom is 28 years old now. He loves the races. That’s his big thing in life, going to the racetrack. But he is full-time care; you’ve got to feed him, shower him, dress him, hang onto his arm when you cross the street, when you go up and down stairs. He was totally blind for two years, and who knows what vision he’s got now. He can’t really put a big sentence together. When I woke up in hospital after the last crash he was standing at the foot of my bed with tears coming out of his eyes, so what’s that say?
“I’m 60 years old – do I need to be racing anymore? Who’s going to look after him if I can’t. He needs me and I guess I need him too.
“I still like the racing, but I can’t afford it. I’ve still got to find money to do it and it’s too hard. ‘Spud’ [fruit and vegetable business owner Roger Arnold] helps me heaps, but you go to the Island Classic and put a new rear tyre on every race, that’s $1600 in rear tyres if you want to stay at the pointy end.
“And that’s just to race, after practice and qualifying. I don’t know if I can do that anymore. I think I could, and the bike’s going really good, the best it’s ever gone. But I’d like to see Alex on it.
He’d clean up.”
WORDS DON COX
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