WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Neil Kelly | Columns | Gassit Garage
Rookie Neil Kelly won the most incredible Superbike race at Mount Panorama
Neil Kelly grew up across the road from the Doomben race course in Brisbane, but it was a horse power of a different kind that caught the eye of the young teenager and his older brother Trevor Kelly, better known to race fans as Terry. “I can remember seeing a Honda CB750K1 for the very first time in the heart of Brisbane,” remembers Neil, who was 13 at the time. “It had those four chrome mufflers, the front disc brake, and cars were literally slowing down to have a look at it.”
Souping up bikes and cars was to become a passion for the Kelly brothers, and it was only a matter of time before Neil took his passion to the track in 1974 aboard a Yamaha RD350 against the legendary Tom Gibson and Queensland champion Barry Lemon, more than matching it with the pair in his race debut at a wet Surfers Paradise. Neil later bought a Kawasaki MkIV 750 on which he went “Z900 hunting” on the streets of Brisbane, and once raced the 750 against superstar Warren Willing riding a similar machine at Lakeside.
His head-turning performances against the era’s best riders caught the attention of Phase 4 Engineering boss, Barry Taylor. “Barry came up to me afterwards and asked, ‘how would you like to ride a real bike?’” Taylor had been building stink-hot Z900 engines for drag racing and sprint cars, and if Neil was a bit reticent about throwing a leg over the hated enemy he never showed it. The partnership culminated in Neil setting a new world drag-racing record for a road-registered Kawasaki 900, and the decision was made to enter it in Australia’s first open national Superbike race at Bathurst in 1976.
Still a C-grader, 21-year-old Neil rode the bike 950km from Amberley outside of Brisbane to Orange before putting it on the Phase 4 trailer for the 45-minute drive to Bathurst. On his first lap of practice, Neil uttered what many Bathurst debutants have done before him, but with an extra 50 scary horsepower behind the words: “Oh my god, what have I got myself into!?!” His initial trepidation didn’t stop him maxing out the Phase 4 weapon, passing TZ750s and RG500s down Con-Rod with ease. That was with the good engine, which was clocked at 283km/h. Without a fairing, Neil was almost blown off the bike. The second engine used for the race was still good for 260km/h, 30km/h faster than his rivals. Gridded on the last row against a bevy of Bathurst legends and rising stars, Kelly was also nursing a broken wrist.
Nobody knew him let alone gave him a chance. It wasn’t long before Neil Kelly was in the lead with Dennis Neill, Roger Heyes and Ken Blake breathing down his neck, stunning the befuddled race commentators scrambling to find the name of the rider on bike # 83.
It is one thing to have a massive horsepower advantage, it is another to get a drag bike around the most treacherous circuit in Australia on street tyres and standard suspension. “It was a bit surreal to tell you truth,” remembers Neil. “Rob Moorehouse had stopped at Reid Pack on his Triumph and waved at me with a big grin then someone threw a beer bottle at me, missing my helmet by a metre. The photographers at the Dipper were so close that I thought I was about to hit their lenses, and my wrist was affecting my braking at Murrays.”
A leaking head gasket robbed him of power later in the race but he was still able to keep the ferocious Dennis Neill at bay, sheer horsepower and a talented, brave rookie pulling off the near impossible.
“It’s funny, I don’t remember the back slaps, just the attention we attracted. It was only later when it sunk in. The best moment was at the trophy giving when I got up to receive my bronze medal from Arthur Blizzard. Just about everyone had gone, but he made me like I was receiving an Olympic gold medal. It was very special what Arthur did, I will never forget it.”
Taylor handed the Phase 4 ride over to Jim Budd for the remainder of the 70s, and Neill continued to race in production events in Australia and New Zealand. A plumber, Neill spent the last decade travelling around Australia in a Mercedes van working in the mining industry, carting his beloved supercharged Suzuki 1400 with him.
He is now back at the Kelly home in Doomben where he and Trevor share caring duties for his dear mother. Neil does a little bit of work for Scott Heyes’ Edge Competition workshop, a gig he treasures. The other treasure is writing himself into Australian motorcycle history for being the last C-grader to win an open race at Bathurst.
By Darry Flack