24 Hours at Monza
In 1965 a brand new Suzuki 250cc Sports machine appeared in the USA. First pictures of the bike showed it to be extremely stylish and the reports in the US bike magazines all spoke of the incredible performance – a top speed of just over 100 mph for a 250 was amazing in 1965. The bike was powered by an air cooled 2-stroke twin motor equipped with Suzuki’s new and patented ‘Posi-Force’ lubrication system. This unique system supplied engine oil, which was contained in a tank, directly to the crankshaft via a small pump. The pump had a variable supply mechanism connected to the throttle which ensured the engine received the correct amount of oil under all loads and speeds thus eliminating the need to mix the oil with the petrol – a major leap forward in 2-stroke technology. Also equipped with a six-speed gearbox, a duplex frame and smart metallic paint job, this beautiful little machine caused tremendous excitement in all the motorcycling the press.
Suzuki GB brought 3 of these bikes over from the USA and swiftly modified them in order to take part in the 1965 ISDT which was to be held in the Isle of Man that year. Eddie Crooks rode one and the others were ridden by John Harris and Peter Fletcher. Press reports at the time said that these bikes were US specification ‘Trail’ versions of the basic T20 Hustler although I am not so sure of this. I do know that the one that Eddie eventually brought back, although modified to run ‘off road’, had the low level front pipes from the T20 roadster rather than the up-swept pipes used on the trail version.
Unfortunately, Eddie’s bike retired in the trial with a minor ignition fault and he simply 'forgot' to take it out of his van and brought it straight back to Barrow-in-Furness still covered in Manx mud! The bike was barely out of the van before I had the near-side end cover off in an attempt to locate the ignition problem. I soon discovered a broken condenser bracket and after a bit of endeavour with a soldering iron, the motor fired up like a dream and I was soon screaming over Bridgegate Avenue with the front end in the air. The overall gearing had been lowered for the ISDT so the bike accelerated like a missile and the 6-speed box was a joy to use. There was little doubt in my mind that this bike would make the basis of a really nice road racer.
A few months later, and after a great deal of time and effort, this very machine became the first Suzuki to take part in the Manx Grand Prix and on it I won my first MGP Replica by finishing in 11th place. Pretty soon the Suzuki T20, now christened the Super-Six, was selling like warm bread and swiftly became an icon in motorcycling as the first 250cc road bike capable of topping 100mph. Winning the Motorcycle News Machine of the Year award in 1967 & 68 was confirmation of the popularity of this truly amazing motorcycle.
In July 1968 Alan Kimber, the CEO of Suzuki GB, started making arrangements to take two race teams to the Monza circuit in Italy in order to try to establish a number of endurance World Records around the notoriously bumpy banked oval. Both machines were basic road-going 250cc T20’s modified to the 1967 Production Machine Racing regulations. Alan was confident that these little six-speed two-stroke twins would be more than capable of beating the existing records which I understand had been set way back in the 1930’s. The Suzuki GB machine would run in the 250cc category whilst the Crooks bike, the machine that I had recently ridden in the 1968 250cc Production TT, would be bored out a little in order to move it up into the 350cc class. The bike had gone onto one cylinder due to plug failure on the first lap of the TT causing my retirement from the race. However, with my next big event being the Manx Grand Prix in late August there appeared to be little or no urgency to sort out the Production bike.
phone call from Alan offering us the chance to go to Italy swiftly
changed the priorities and I was soon busy stripping the motor and
replacing any bits that I felt might cause future problems.
The following day we all climbed into Hans-George’s brand new and very impressive white BMW 2002 – probably equivalent to an ‘M’ series today – and drove to the Monza circuit to get everything prepared for practice. In the afternoon we were scheduled to do some circuit testing and carry out all the necessary adjustments to both bikes in order to make things as comfortable as possible for all the riders. We were also told that there would be no circuit lighting, which came as a nasty shock, and consequently we would have to run throughout the hours of darkness using only the single headlight on the bike. We also met up with the official time-keepers appointed by the FIM who were very meticulous and somewhat aloof in their attitude towards our ambitious goal. They carefully explained in great detail what we could and couldn’t do throughout the duration of the record attempt. The banked Monza Oval had a line painted around the inside about 6ft from the inside edge of the track and we were told that we had to stay above this line at all times – apart from the pit-stops of course – otherwise we would be disqualified.
Each rider was given ample time to test the bike on the track and try to establish the sort of lap times we needed to maintain in order to establish a new 24hr World Record. As testing progressed I became more than a little bit irritated that Hans-George had managed to set a lap which was a couple of seconds quicker than my best lap. I found this difficult to accept as I was about the same size and weight as him and had run my best laps with the wheels just inches from the white line. How the hell did he manage to go quicker? I had to find out the answer to this puzzle so I managed to get him to one side and queried him about this issue. He was really good about it and carefully explained that a few years ago he had done a similar record attempt riding the Works 50cc Kriedler. During this event he had discovered how to use the height of the banked track as a sling-shot – start at the top – move down a bit half way round and then work the bike back to the top again before exiting downhill onto the straight. A few runs later, and following his instructions to the letter, I was able to better his lap time – much to my personal delight!
no circuit lighting, we had originally planned to use a plastic
window cut in the front of the fairing but testing had shown that
the reflected light from the window made visibility almost impossible.
Eddie soon came up with plan B – take the fairing off when
it gets dark and run without it until dawn then refit it. A
few practice attempts at this mechanical task proved that we could
take it off in less than 3 minutes. If we made the change
when a new rear tyre was needed we wouldn't loose any additional
time at all. At the pre-race meeting we all agreed that it
would probably be wise to begin the attempt in the late afternoon
in order to be able to go through the hours of darkness reasonable
fresh and then, as the long ride progress, we would face the difficult
mental and physical phase of the run during daylight hours.
At 4.00pm, Eddie and Tommy (I’m not absolutely certain if it was him on the SGB bike but I think it was) got the record attempt under way. I now had an hour to bite my nails before I could get on with what I needed to do – ride the bike! We believed that a 1-hour stint for each rider would be just about the physical limit considering the battering both rider and bike took on the horrendously bumpy banking – in fact there were lingering doubts if each rider could last a full hour!
After what seemed a lifetime, Eddie pulled into our pit and got off the bike. He told me briefly that all was fine with the bike and although he was beginning to cramp up due to being in the one position all that time, he was in pretty good shape. I fired the bike up and, with a full tank of fuel and, after a quick check round the machine, I was off on my first session around the banking. After a few laps I began to relax and really enjoy the experience. As the hour progressed I was trying to perfect or even improve on the H-GA method of slingshot riding. I found the best result came if I could get within a couple of inches of the top rail at the latter part of the banking. I might add that unless you’ve actually been on the banking at Monza it is difficult to visualise just how tall and how steep it really is. The day before several of us had walked round the track and discovered that it was almost impossible to reach the top of the banking unaided – that’s how steep the angle was. With the guard rail only inches away from my left leg I found that I could look out over the trees and the amazing green vista of Monza Park. With the late afternoon sun shining brightly it really was very beautiful. It also felt very surreal looking down at people in the Park. Dads, mums and kids walking their dogs, playing ball or just lazing under a shady tree while, just above their heads, I was thrashing a motorcycle round a near vertical concrete wall at over 100mph – truly incredible!
With the T20 buzzing around Monza like a little wasp and with the rev-counter needle just under the red line, the laps just whistled by. Although the banking was undoubtedly very bumpy, provided the friction steering damper was screwed down reasonably hard, the handling of the bike was remarkably good and once on the straight parts - which were dead smooth - the ride was really quite enjoyable and my hour in the saddle passed swiftly and without incident. My next stint was due round about 9.00pm and this was scheduled as the pit stop for a new rear tyre and removal of the fairing. Although by this time the light was fading, visibility was still just about acceptable but inevitably total darkness would soon be upon us. The bike was still running like a train. Nothing had broken or fallen off and the atmosphere in the pit area was really quite relaxed considering what we were striving to achieve.
The fairing removal went without a hitch and I set of tentatively with the single headlight brightly pointing the way ahead – but not for long. As I swept onto the banking and the G force pushed the front forks down – not withstanding the physical shape of the track – the nice long beam from the headlight became very stunted indeed. This effect became worse the further round the curve I went. Thankfully there was still sufficient light to be able to navigate my way round reasonably well. On my run down the back straight I had an idea. What if I could rotate the headlight unit up a little therefore making the beam a bit too high? Then, on the banking I might be able to see a bit better and once on the straight, flick the dip switch and this would make the beam acceptable for the level part. Reaching forward I gave the headlamp unit a tug and hey-presto – it worked - problem solved at 100mph! Nevertheless, as darkness really fell, it was extremely difficult to know exactly where you were in relation to the sides of the track. I almost hit the barrier on several occasion trying to pursue my sling-shot system – one second there was just a grey track – the next thing a metal barrier was within touching distance of my left side. Very scary!
The next problem I was faced with was the appearance of cats-eyes – not in a straight line down the centre of the track but randomly along the back straight. I soon realised they weren’t cats eye’s but were in fact rabbits eye’s - they belonged to loads of little bunnies! Apparently they found the warm concrete very comforting to sit on during the cool dark night. This strange phenomenon wasn’t a problem as long as you could see them. Unfortunately, as they heard a bike approaching they took to their heels and turned away from the light – and immediately vanished! As far as I can recall we only actually touched one throughout that long night although there were several near misses reported. The other puzzle that I never quite resolved was the fact that I rarely ever saw the Suzuki GB bike on the track although both machines were lapping at about the same pace. Probably just as well as the FIM officials had given both teams strict instructions that under no circumstances whatsoever would slip-streaming be permitted.
The weary hours of darkness went by and with little to do between rides most of the team members tried to grab a few hours of sleep. Personally I found this virtually impossible due to my ears being totally focused on the distant hum of the little two-stroke twin as it purred through the night. Dawn eventually came and soon it was time to refit the fairing and press onwards towards a World Record. Suddenly and horribly one of the engines sounds stopped. It was soon discovered that it was the Suzuki GB bike and the problem was terminal. This was a bitter blow to everyone although I have to admit I was selfishly thinking I’m really glad that our bike’s still running! Closer inspection revealed that the cause was the oil-pump control cable. This had become detached from the pump quadrant causing total engine failure. A little plastic cable connector costing 50p - probable 2/6p in those pre decimal days - had broken and that was the end of the fun for the SGB squad. Some consolation was gained however, when we learned that the bike had established new standing-start World Records for 1000Km, 6hr & 12hr before the mechanical problem brought the attempt to an end.
On and on and round and round, the little T20 buzzed its way through the morning and into the afternoon. As the day dragged on even the FIM timekeepers were becoming quite excited which was somewhat surprising considering the frosty attitude they displayed when we first arrived at the track. They even suggested that as we were so far ahead of the existing record, it might be wise to ease off a little as the final hours approached in order to save the motor. Remember, this amazing little bike had been totally flat out with the twist-grip up against the stop for the last 22 hours! Everyone agreed that this might be a sensible thing to do and, as it was my turn next to put another hour on the bike, I was told to ease off a little, bring the revs down a 1K below the red line and simply cruise round. I pulled back onto the circuit and settled down for my final stint around the bumpy banked Monza oval full of confidence that we would soon have the record in the bag. My confidence, however,was soon brought down to earth when the engine began making some very alarming and rather loud knocking sounds as I eased back on the throttle in order to run the motor a bit below the red line. The horrible mechanical rattles became so bad that I felt I had no choice but to come into the pits before a conrod smashed through the cases. I had to find out what was might be causing the problem. There was understandable panic in the camp when they realised I was coming in for an un-scheduled pit stop. I can safely say, however, that I was probably suffering more alarm and panic than anyone as I had put this motor together and there was a little bit of pride resting on the outcome of this event. After briefly discussing the possible causes, team leader Eddie Crooks told to me "Stop panicking Frank, get back on the track and run it flat-out again, the rattling will go away – I’m sure its only pinking because the motors is now running light". I have to admit that I wasn't totally convinced at this swift diagnosis of the problem - he'd not heard those alarming noises coming from the engine - and so I was very reluctant to take this advice. I was totally convinced this would break the motor and I told Eddie of my concern in no uncertain manner. Eddie had very swift answer to my argument. "Get your backside of that seat and put Brian on it - he's not an engineer, he’s a butcher so he won’t know any different!!" Sure enough, with Brian on board, the lap speeds soon returned to normal and his beaming grin and thumbs up every lap confirmed Ed's decision as correct.
However, circumstances soon took charge of events when, just before 3.pm, the heavens opened with a vengeance and we were force to stop running due to flooding on the circuit and virtually zero visibility. There was some concern because the rules stated that the machine must cover a specific number of circuits in every one of the 24 hours in order to qualify for a World Record – if we couldn’t get back on the track during the last hour we could be robbed even at this late stage. Thankfully, after about 15 minutes the rain eased sufficiently for Eddie to get out on the track in order to complete those important final laps. Suddenly there was panic in the pits – Eddie was free-wheeling back towards us and looking very unsteady as he wobbled his way down pit lane. And the reason – the left-hand handlebar had fractured completely away and with it the clutch lever and LH switch-gear. How on earth he managed to remain in control when this happened as he swung round the South banking is a mystery only he can answer. Fortunately, we had a spare set in the pits and 7 or 8 minutes later these were fitted and a visibly shocked and still shaking Eddie was back on the banking. About 20 minutes later, amid screams of joy from all the team members lining pit the wall, the bike crossed the line just after 4.00pm and the record was ours. I might add that I got a double deal of personal satisfaction with fact that the little T20 motor had never missed a beat for whole 24hrs plus the actual the World Record.
officials who had patiently observed and timed the record attempt
were absolutely delighted when we completed the 24 hours. One of
them told me that over the years he had attended several similar
attempts all of which had failed so to actually see one through
to success made it all very worthwhile. However, the final sting
in the tail for this record attempt had yet to come.
I drained the last of the champagne from the bottle in my hand and opened up my tool box and started stripping the bike ready to be inspected. As I was busily engaged in the task, my mind drifted back over the events leading up to this record attempt. "Suzuki's are planning to go out to Monza to attack some World endurance records and they want us to go along and have a crack at the 24hr world record for 350cc machines at the same time" Eddie had announced out of the blue. "They're planning to run their own 250 Production racer so we need to get some 1mm oversize pistons stuck into your Production TT bike. There isn’t much time as there coming to collect it next week and ship it out to Monza. Do you think that 1mm will be enough to bring the engine size over 250cc?” These were the instructions I received from my leader - everything was oh so simple for Eddie!
The standard cylinder dimensions of the Suzuki T20 is 54mm x 54mm giving a swept volume of 247.376cc - the decimal points being dependent on your version of Pi. Therefore the cubic capacity had to exceed 250cc for the machine to be eligible to run in the 350cc category. It is also important to remember that in 1968, the modern-day electronic pocket calculator was not readily available so all calculations had to be carried out longhand – in my case on the back of a Players fag packet! After a few attempts I had a vague recollection that one of my calculations had produced 255cc and so I had felt reasonably happy that 55mm bore would do the trick - no worries.
abruptly brought back to the present when the FIM official asked
me how much longer I was likely to be. It was only then that
a dreadful realisation sank in. "Oh my God - what if
my sums were wrong - what if the engine is too small to be classified
as a 350". A cold sweat started to collect on my brow
as I visualised the reaction of everyone in the team when I broke
the news to them. "I’m really sorry guys but the FIM chap has
just told me that the engine is undersize and the existing record
still stands - we've been disqualified - anyone fancy another try
next week -----?"
The next few minutes passed as if in a daze - I was almost suicidal - all I wanted to do was find somewhere to hide. I was absolutely certain that the engine would be declared illegal. I could hardly bear to watch as the Official meticulously recorded the fateful readings with his pristine FIM certified measuring instruments. I can vividly remember how carefully and patiently he pondered his little black book of tables showing the swept volume for all the various engine dimensions. Finally, and after what seemed like an eternity, he made the announcement. " I am pleezed to say zat ze capacity is 256.623cc which ratifies ze record - congratulations to you and all ze team" and then shook my hand warmly. The last 30minutes had been the longest and possibly the most stressful 30mins of my life but I never told a soul until to-day how near I came to un-breaking a World Speed Record.