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Where are they now? Ray Curtis – still the irrepressible larrikin | Columns | Gassit Garage

“I went through two paddocks, one wire fence and a couple of ditches”

Ray Curtis hung up his leathers almost half a lifetime ago. He was racing at Oran Park’s 1973 Christmas Twilight Meeting when the Campbelltown Police sought him out to deliver the sad news that his younger brother Geoff had been killed at the Speedway Royale.

“And he died not six feet from where I fell at the Bullpens corner back in 1966,” he recalls. “After which I quit speedway to concentrate on road racing. However it wasn’t just Geoff’s death that made me quit racing altogether. I had four kids and four racing bikes. The bikes were all well fettled but the kids lived on a diet of baked beans – it was time to re-evaluate.”

Until that time Curtis’ life had been dominated by motorcycles; chasing rabbits through the bush on his uncle’s GTP Velocette, dodging the wallopers on his mate’s Panther 350, restoring a 1929 model Big Port AJS,  borrowing big-time to buy a 1947 3T Triumph 350 – though it seems Uncle Ted never got his money back. But it was a B31 BSA 350 on which he won the first of his championships – the 350cc NSW Junior Title at Wallacia. And only a few years later this was followed by the Junior Title at the 1957 Australian Short Circuit Championships at Junee.

The ever reliable BSA also provided Curtis with his first taste of the tar at Mount Druitt then, with only a change of gearing, several runs at Bathurst – winning the Junior A Division at Easter 1959.

It was around then that Ray, together with his 23-year-old brother Geoff, took on speedway. But Ray, who’d already quit short circuit, returned to road racing where he immediately re-established himself with the spectacular and aggressive style he’d developed on the dirt.

Throughout the 1960s, Curtis was a regular at Bathurst and Oran Park where – still as a B-Grader – made a name for himself on his 350cc Manx Norton. Which is possibly why industry doyen Jack Adams invited him to ride the ‘monster’, an overpowered Triumph Bonneville shunned by the top riders of the era.

“I was well warned by others,” Curtis said. “But after quite a few top-shelf liquors, I succumbed to the thought of the prize money offered by Jack.”

He insisted the clip-on ’bars be replaced with standard issue to better force the beast into the corners. “And at nine stone (57kg) I couldn’t push start it,” Curtis said. “So everyone was at the end of the straight before I got underway. But it had plenty when you turned the wick up.” Enough for Ray to set the outright lap record in 1956.

“I won quite a bit of money before Jack started in on how much it cost to run the Bonny. I just said ‘Jack, if you want the prize money you can have it – just look for another rider’.”

But the days of the heavy British bikes were numbered and Curtis eventually joined the Garry Thomas/Leo Pretti Yamaha Team, running TZ350s.

“Garry’s bike had discs and my bike had drums, but at one meet Garry was feeling crook so they suggested I ride his bike. I held my own for a couple of laps, then on the third lap I left my braking a bit late and locked the front. I let the brake off, dropped my foot down at 120mph, then proceeded to go through two paddocks, one wire fence and a couple of ditches without coming off. I made it back to the pits and never rode that bike again.”

Curtis moved to Batemans Bay in 1967 with his wife Fran and his children Debbie, Greg, John and Julie. True to his word, he retired from racing in 1973 and took on professional fishing, eventually turning his house-building experience into boat building. And now spends much of his time monitoring what seems to be a small fleet of fishing craft for the grandchildren.

Somewhere along the way he traded down from a Kawasaki Z1000 to a Peugeot 100 Scooter which… “does 106km/h downhill, and I defy anyone to take one hand off the handlebars at that speed.”

Sometimes the police do look at him a little strangely but maybe that’s because Curtis always runs a few mill of Castor Oil in the fuel mix.

“Takes me back half a lifetime,” he grins.

By Peter Whitaker