THE GREAT RACE | He did what?
The event that landed you in the Singapore Hilton for a week
By the mid 1970s, live TV coverage had demonstrated the reliability of production motorcycles, so when Rob Atlee approached fuel supplier Ampol to sponsor a reliability trial, it readily agreed and fronted up $7000 prizemoney.
“The Ampol Around Australia Motorcycle Competition will be the largest ever motorcycle promotion undertaken in this country,” announced Atlee at the time, adding that the event would be “conducted under the authority of the police and councils of each state, with the emphasis on normal road speed limits and safety conditions.”
The tabloids never bothered with the disclaimer, of course, and the headlines which read ‘$7000 Bike Race’ and ‘15000km Around Australia Motorcycle Road Race’ immediate put the wowsers offside. Only 10 entrants turned up on Bondi Beach Promenade on 4 September 1977 to be flagged away by the Mayor of Waverley.
The rules were simple. Atlee had set an elapsed time between checkpoints under normal and legal road-speed conditions. The rider who consistently nailed Atlee’s secret calculations would score zero, with a one point loss per minute for arriving early; and the same for arriving late. Entrants arriving over two hours late would face an additional 500 point loss. A questionnaire about landmarks of interest on the route would act as a tie-breaker.
Though the competition was covertly intense, the camaraderie was high. How could it not be with 10 adventurous riders taking on the elements, often sharing daily war stories in remote outback accommodation?
And from a publicity angle, the inaugural rally enjoyed a fairytale ending. Neva Richman, a 24-year-old photogenic photographer’s assistant from the Sydney suburb of Lindfield and riding a Kawasaki Z900, won the event with a loss of only 1007 points, finishing ahead of Jack Webb, an agile 52-year-old grandfather from Penrith (Yamaha XT500) with a loss of 1802 points.
Sid Duncan and his pillion Trisha Todd rounded out the podium with 2130 points on their Kawasaki Z1000.
There was no mayhem and only one DNF due to mechanical problems, Ampol was happy and Atlee was already lining up prizes for a sequel. While the 1977 event had bypassed the Victorian boys in blue by heading directly to Broken Hill from Port Augusta, the second event, now titled ‘The Ampol Around Australia Rally’ would traverse the Southern Alps on its return to Sydney.
The event became longer, from 13,000km to 19,000km over 21 days, with rest days in Darwin and Perth. Atlee’s original concept had proven practical and, considering the lack of telecommunications, safety was improved by the network of Ampol service stations and a long list of contacts in the event of breakdown. And a sweep vehicle would be employed.
Up for grabs this time was a return seven-day trip for two to Singapore staying at the Hilton, won by John Westerman on a Suzuki GT750, who took and held the points lead all the way to the end of the final timed stage at Goulburn.
Then on Sunday the entrants rode in convoy to the prizegiving ceremony at Sydney Showground, where the reception lived up to expectations, with scores of people expressing interest in a third running of the rally. Ampol appeared keen to tie-in a major insurance company, however several committee meetings later the venture stalled.
Rob Atlee, busy at the time trying to raise sponsorship for his brother Len’s Grand Prix efforts, was happy that the rally provided a more positive image of motorcycling. And while the four-wheeled version enjoyed years of success decades earlier, the motorcycle rally never quite lived up to the hype.