An underdog’s story
When you have a gift for getting the very best from a GSXR1100 engine the easy thing to do would be to just build them for other people and never leave your workshop. If that was what Don Hill at Rooster Racing did, I wouldn’t have a story to tell and the lives of an eclectic group of people that came together to form the Rooster Racing family at Spa would be significantly more ordinary.
oldskoolsuzuki.info first featured a story about Don Hill and Rooster Racing earlier this year. I knew then that there was something special about Don’s ethos towards the engines and the bikes he built. I also recognised that Don chose the riders he built them for very carefully too. I said I would return and find out more about Don’s work later in the year. At the that time, I never imagined I would get to know Rooster Racing quite as well as I have nor could I have known just how involved I would become in Rooster Racing’s fortunes. What I have learned since then, has only gone to reinforce my view that Don Hill and Rooster Racing are true unsung heroes in the growing world of post classic racing.
Race day minus – 3 months
My tale begins with an engine failure. The engine was the 1216 bandit engine in my own GSXR1100 slabside race bike. It was the first race of the 2019 season in April and I had spun a shell on the 3rd lap of my final race. Head in hands,with a full season ahead of me, I contemplated my next move. After a couple of days I got a call from Don. “what are you doing about your engine, apart from crying?” he asked. “I’m going to strip it and survey the damage”, I told him. “Bring it down to me”, he said reassuringly. “I’ll rebuild it and blueprint it so that it won’t happen again”. I politely declined, knowing that my budget wouldn’t stretch to a Don Hill Rooster engine. Don, then made me the sort of offer that I could not refuse. The engine was out and I was on my way down to Don’s days later. It felt like Jimi Hendrix had just offered to play at my garden BBQ for the price of a beer and a burger.
When I arrived at Don’s he was preparing his own 2 bikes for the 4 hour endurance race at Spa at the beginning of July. This made his charity seem even more generous. Both race bikes were undergoing a full rebuild and repaint. In typical Don style he was doing everything himself. It was a mind blowing amount of work for one person to be doing. He was also fabricating his own speed fuel loader for the endurance race. Once again Don’s approach was to avoid expensive costs, he couldn’t cover by fabricating parts himself. My mind boggled at what Don had already done and what he still had to do.
Despite everything Don had going on, in the 2 hours it took me to drive the van home, Don had stripped my engine and sent me a list of parts I needed to source. Over the next month or so I sourced the parts and in the meantime, Don also ported my cylinder head and fitted new Hyabusa rods, new cams and some trick timing that necessitated pocketing my wiseco 1216 pistons. When the engine was complete Don almost apologetically said it’s not a full Rooster build but it will be good for a slack 150BHP. I remembered that Don’s engines routinely and reliably knocked out 165-170 BHP. Just knowing he had built it, gave me a newfound piece of mind that I had never enjoyed building my own engines.
Race day minus – 1 month
Don and I kept in regular contact over the next couple of months and he would regularly send me updates on the Spa race bikes. I would admire his work and give him encouraging words. He was working round the clock, alone, often into the early hours but in typical Don fashion the finish and the high quality of what he was producing never faltered.
I worried about how hard he was working and about how my own engine build might have distracted him and used up valuable and limited Rooster bandwidth. I told him I was worried about how much he had on and offered my support in any way I could. I think Don appreciated my concern but he had seen my engine building skills and probably considered my direct involvement a distinct handicap to the cause.
I was going to be riding from Edinburgh to Switzerland the week before Spa for a work thing, so I had agreed with Don that I would tag a few days at Spa on to my trip and cover the race and the Rooster Racing team’s fortunes for oldskoolsuzuki.info
Race day minus – 14 days
A couple of weeks before Spa Don sent me pictures of the bikes completed and ready to go. I felt a great sense of relief that he had completed the bikes. I had become emotionally invested in Don’s fortunes. It was at that point that I realised that the bikes and their prep were only the first hurdle for Don. After that would come the logistics of getting the bikes, and all of the equipment to Spa too. I marvelled at the ambition of the man. Despite the fact that he had bitten off, what looked like more than he could possibly chew, he never faltered.
Race day – minus 5 days
On my last night in Switzerland I was packing up my panniers in my hotel getting ready to set off for Spa the next day and I got a message from Don asking me if I was still coming to Spa. I cheerfully replied that I had my press pass and I was due in Spa a couple days before race weekend. Don then then dropped the bombshell. “I need you to do me a favour” he asked. “sure” I causally replied, still packing my stuff. ” need you to manage one of the 2 teams.” Don said. ” I wouldn’t trust just anyone, but I would trust you if you were up for it” Don followed. What could I say? I had promised Don my help and here he was asking me for some. I didn’t hesitate and I said yes. Don explained that he had planned to manage one of the teams himself and his friend Keith would manage the other but he had realised that he really needed to focus on the bikes and if I managed the other team it would take a lot of pressure off.
I had the next couple of days to think that over. I reassured myself that although I was a novice racer, I had 25 years of management experience and that had to count for something. At the back of my mind was the nagging fact that I knew next to nothing about endurance racing and the rules that governed it. It was going to be a steep learning curve. I contemplated how hard Don had worked to get to Spa and I felt the weight of responsibility for supporting Don and the team.
Race day minus 2 days
I arrived in Spa and got set up at my chalet. I was staying with two friends Scott and Kat in a chalet we had rented together. Little did I know that I would spend virtually no time with my friends or at the chalet. My work with the team began on the Thursday with the setup of the garage. Either side of us were much larger and clearly better funded and equipped teams. They all had team uniforms and custom built team transport. In contrast we had a rented Luton van and the clothes we came in.
Rooster racing had entered 2 bikes into the 4 hour endurance event at Spa, Bike 81 was a GSXR 1100 powered Harris and Bike 82 was a GSXR1100 slabside. Both engines were box fresh builds and they were about to be mercilessly thrashed for four hours.
Don was keen to be left to concentrate on the bikes and I had to quickly figure out what the key deliverables were for team manager. Fortunately, Don was there to keep me right and I would soon be joined by Keith who would be managing team 82 and had managed the Rooster team at Donington previously.
I found out when I arrived that I would be responsible for team 81 on the Harris. The 3 riders were:
Angus ( Goose) Green of IG classic Superbike series fame. Howard Selby 80s and 90s TT competitor, Scottish Champion and 90s European 600 Supersport European Champion and Gordon Grigor, 80s TT racer and UK endurance champion
Team 82 managed by Keith my counterpart, were riding the GSXR Slabby 1100 and the riders were:
Adrian (Mole) McCarthy, Scottish PCS champion, Gordon Murray Scottish PCS Champion and Timo Monot TT and Classic TT competitor with recent top 10 finishes under his belt.
So, it’s safe to say the teams riding experience and skills were something I shouldn’t have to worry about. It quickly became apparent that the organisers at Spa were not going to make team sign on and rider registration easy and this is where I would start to earn my share of the team catering. Team sign on was open and I and after an hour wait in the 30 degree sun and a 200 man rugby scrum through a single door, I successfully signed both teams on.
This is when I experienced my first managerial perk; The company bike. The sign on location was inexplicably 2 miles away from the garage and a lack of any clear information on the event would necessitate multiple visits to the sign on point for clarification sessions.
Race day – minus 1 day
It was now Friday and the rest of the team members were all present and accounted for. Keith my team 82 counterpart and I read the rules through together and made sure we knew where everyone needed to be and when.
Control and distribution of the correct passes and wristbands for each team member was my first task. We quickly learned it was better to have no pass on your vehicle than to have the wrong pass. I won’t bore you with the details, but the rider’s passes were labelled “Guest”. It took us a while to figure that one out and the catering vehicle pass was for a different car park some distance away.
I had to make sure the members of the team who would be in the box and on the pit wall had the correct combination of passes too.
In charge of the pit wall was Keith’s younger brother Kev and Don’s daughter Georgie. They were the real brains of the operation and while Keith and I held the titles of team managers Kev and Georgie were more often than not giving the whole team valuable direction.
The mechanics were led by team principle Don and consisted of Mel, Billy and Twig, our stand man.
The wonderful Julie Harrison was responsible for feeding us all and we were very well looked after with regular buffets and hot meals. We were all so busy that most of the time we just ate on the hoof.
I also had a very willing assistant in the form of Lewis, Howard’s 13 year old son. He definitely had his eye on the company vehicle from the off which he enjoyed using on the regular missing rider missions that I sent him on.
Missing rider retrieval missions were a large part of the job on registration day and throughout the event. I would round up the 5 riders and one would be missing. We would find him and turn around and a different rider would be missing. This happened every 5 minutes for the course of the day but we finally we successfully registered the riders, got our rider 1, 2 and 3 arm bands, completed scrutineering, for bikes, riders and rider’s equipment. We then attended the compulsory team briefing. Failure to attend would result in penalties. We were now cleared to race.
The whole time Keith and I and the 6 riders were doing this Don and the other mechanics were working non stop on the bikes in preparation for practice and qualifying.
Keith and I put up some white boards and marked out the key times for Practice and Qualifying with the rider order. Kevin and Georgie had defined the pit board signals and we would test these out during practice.
The plan for the bikes was to use practice and Q1 to set the bikes up based on feedback from the riders after practice and then make adjustments in time for Q2.
There was a lot at stake in qualifying because there were more teams entered than would be allowed to start the race on the Saturday. At the same time Don’s orders were clear the race was the important part. He didn’t want anyone binning it during qualifying. To endure is to finish. At the same time, we had to make the cut.
The bikes were prepared, and the riders were ready. It was time for practice and Q1. As the riders left the garages, we crossed our fingers. As they returned, they gave their feedback and Don and the Mel made quite a number of adjustments. For most of the riders it was the first time they had ridden these bikes. Every other garage around us was similarly engaged in repair and adjustment in between practice sessions.
During Q1 Bike 81 had developed an intermittent misfire and we had only a short period of time before Q2 to resolve it. Don and Mel set about stripping the bike and quickly discovered a crack in one of the dyna coils. We then discovered the spare coils were back in the UK. As team 81 manager it was my job to find replacements, which we did. Both Gordie and Mole had their own bikes with them for the CSBK race on the Sunday. So we stripped the coils from Gordie’s bike knowing that the we could return them in time for his race. It was close though, too close for comfort. Don was literally tightening the seat unit as the last call for Q2 came over the tannoy.
We made it! Angus came back in from Q2 with a thumbs up. Both teams had qualified adequately in 36th and 40th out of 64 teams. We used qualifying laps to calculate fuel use and ensure that we could allow enough fuel for 14 laps with a 2 lap margin in case a rider missed the board.
During qualifying we practised our pit wall routine by asking riders to acknowledge the board with a leg movement. Our garage and pit wall position were at the far end of the pits and right in the braking zone of the start finish straight. This proved to be the worst place in the world to demand the rider’s attention, let alone ask them to take their foot of the peg.
We experimented with count down boards, black flags and fuel calls but we were just too close to the braking zone to get consistent results. Team 81 and 82 boards also looked too similar and this was causing confusion. In the end, after a rider meeting Georgie and Kevin came up with a simple way of differentiating the boards for 81 and 82 and with the riders feedback we agreed to only use the pit board when it was time to come in. (keep it simple) No other signals would be issued. Riders would look for the board at the beginning of the straight, if it wasn’t out, they would get their head down. If it was out, they knew they had to come in on that lap. If it was moving up and down, they knew they had missed the first signal and they had to come in immediately. We only had a 2 lap buffer so if they missed that, it was over.
That evening there was a mandatory twilight session so that each rider could practice a couple of laps with lights on. We decided we would use the sessions and change of riders to practice our pit stops and rider changes. We made up a large pit lane board so that riders would see our box and we marked the box with the front wheel stop position. We practised signals from the pit wall to team managers so that we knew when riders were coming in. We would have just over 3 minutes from the signal before the bike would arrive.
The routine involved the rider stopping and cutting the engine, the stand going on. The rider would get a tap on the shoulder from the stand man and then dismount. Don was first in flipping the gear change to the rider’s preference (road or race) after Don was clear, the fuel team would move in and refuel, with everyone else clear. Once the refuel team were clear, the next rider would mount the bike, the stand man would drop the stand, tap the rider’s shoulder and the rider would start the bike and off they would go. It’s amazing how easily things can go wrong in the heat of the moment. If a team got it wrong, it could mean a penalty on race day or worse still, injury for a team member or rider. The pit lane was busy with other bikes and other teams. My principle roll in all of this was install the discipline of the routine and make sure everyone knew the routine and was in position at each stage. Each time I got the message from the pit wall I would give the pit team and the rider the call to stand by and then watch for our bikes coming in. It didn’t take us long to get into a rhythm and by the 6th practice we were looking slick.
It was late and I decided not to ride my KTM back to the my chalet as it had developed a blown exhaust coming up through France and would likely wake the dead so I borrowed an air bed and sleeping bag from Rene, who was there for the track day and I slept on the garage floor. The team next door was working on into the night, but I was dog tired and soon passed out. Tomorrow was race day!
I went back to my chalet early and showered and reported back to the garage early. The race was going to start at 6pm that day and Don and the mechanics were hard at work preparing the bikes when I arrived, as was every other team in the pit garages. Even Timo was hard at work cleaning the bike.
I made sure I had all of the riders’ arm bands safe so that I could issue them in the correct order when the race began and made a few cheat sheets up for the front of the garage with key info.
Don, Keith, Georgie, Kevin and I discussed strategy for the first rider change, taking into account that the start would involve a couple of laps for the setup of the grid. We opted to bring both bikes in consecutively after just 11 laps and then at 14 lap intervals thereafter (all going to plan) What this meant was that the as soon as one bike had pitted we would have around 4 minutes before the next bike would pit. In that time the fuelling team would need to have refilled the fuelling tank and be back on point at the front of the garage. It was going to be tight.
The weather had been glorious up until this point but as the race start at 6pm loomed so did some very menacing clouds. As we approached the start some rain had begun to spit. There were a lot of nervous faces around, with the exception of our team which had a total of 4 Scottish riders. Scottish riders are used to rain. Mole looked positively happy and rubbed his hands with glee.
The mechanics and the number 1 riders made their way to the start line with the bikes. At Don’s request, I taped the starting grid positions to the top of the tanks to make sure that the bikes could be placed correctly on the grid. The last thing we wanted was a stop and go penalty over the wrong grid position. The start would be a traditional endurance start with the bikes on one side of the track held by the mechanics and the riders lined up on the opposite side. When the race starts the riders must run the width of the track mount the bike, start it and take off.
I didn’t see the start as I was back at the garage nervously making sure that everything was in place for the first stop. I could hear the klaxon sound and I could hear the roar of the bikes as they took off. The race had begun!
Each manager was assigned a pit marshal who stood opposite the garage and watched every stop to ensure that the regulations were met. Each time a pit was completed, and a rider change was made Keith and I would sign off the change with our respective marshal. Each rider was required to do at least 2 sessions.
News was coming in of parts of the track being quite wet. It’s a long circuit at nearly 4.5 miles and while it was dry at the garage, we heard that there were some very wet spots at the far side of the track. By the end of the first rider session by Adrian for 82 and Angus for 81 we had moved up the standings to 18 and 24. It was a great start, but Angus had to be helped off of the bike. He had pulled both hamstrings when he lost his footing running to the bike at the start.
We swapped riders and refuelled both bikes back to back. the changeovers and pit stops went exactly as rehearsed and Gordie for 82 and Howard for 81 were away.
My attention now turned to Angus, there was a lot of bruising and swelling on the back of his legs and he was in a lot of pain. We organised some ice and I began to worry I would be one rider short. Angus and I decided we would wait until 15 minutes before he was due to ride again before making an assessment. I called upon my Marshal and asked him if he would object if I changed my rider order. I was relieved when he told me I could put the riders out in any order. This gave us the option of leaving Angus until last. Howard and Gordon Grigor agreed that they would be happy to reshuffle.
We were an hour and a half into the race when our second change came in and our positions remained in and around the top 20. Our strategy to do both bikes back to back gave the fuel team virtually no time to refill and be back on point for the next rider but Mel, Billy and Twig never gave us a worry and they did brilliantly. In between changeovers I was in constant contact with the Kevin and Georgie on the wall as they were keeping count of laps and times. Keith my fellow manager was monitoring live lap times on-line and keeping us all informed of progress.
Our 3rd riders Timo for 82 and Gordon Grigor for 81 both got away well with a faultless changeover and pit stop. Gordie Murray reported that the clutch had gone on 82 the slabby. He was forced to clutchlessly change gear. There was no chance to stop we simply had to carry on and hope that it would hold out. Mid way through Timo’s stint we got the shout from the pit wall that 82 was coming in for an unknown reason mid-session. When Timo pulled in, we quickly learned that the quick change gear lever had lost its R clip. No doubt clutchless gear changes may have been a factor. Quick as a flash the pin was replaced, and Timo was off, but we had worked our way up to 11th overall prior to the gear change issue and the stop cost team 82 six places.
I had been timing the rider pit stops with Lewis’s help mainly to get the exact time they went out and came in. I was using this to get an idea how long each rider would take to complete the 14 laps and then make the in lap. This gave me the ability to predict when the next change would be. As Angus’s next ride approached, I asked him if he was going to be able to ride. To my surprise and delight he said yes, he was going to give it a go. So, Angus and Adrian were back out and we had six changes and 4 more changes to do. Both bikes were going well but the slabby clutch was a concern and so was Angus’s injury. Team 81 was sitting in 16th and team 82 in 17th
All around us bikes were coming in smoking or leaking or both and some had already been retired. The pit lane was a constant hive of activity all closely monitored by a line of eagle eyed marshals. Race bikes take a punishing at the best of times. Tuned to the point that makes them highly strung and delicate they are normally thrashed for 10 laps at a time, allowing for checks in between. Endurance racing was a bigger test. These same highly tuned bikes were going to be run flat out for 4hrs and over 350 miles. All around us the thrashings were beginning to take their toll.
Each time the riders came in they looked sweaty, wide eyed and exhausted. Spa is a long track with 20 corners. Doing 14 flat out laps of this track was physically demanding in the extreme.
Remarkably, despite his injury, Angus was doing well, he was putting in decent times and it looked like he would complete his stint. Adrian was putting in great times too and both bikes were well placed. We had to make a decision on how we would split the last two sessions as we had calculated there would not be enough time for a full 14 laps each for the last 2 riders in each team. Both teams took a slightly different approach but team in team 81 we decided to split the last 2 sessions equally so Howard and Gordon Grigor would do 11 laps each.
I was relieved when we got our last riders out, but it was clear from the times we were putting in that we were in with a real chance of a top five finish in our class. I signed my last pit stop record and my Marshal extended his hand and congratulated me on a well-run pit.
As the pit crew relaxed slightly knowing that our last riders were out, all we could do was watch the times and hope the final session would go without incident. It was at this point that Don turned to me and said ” I think we should try a 12 hour race next time” I think he was serious. I just laughed nervously.
When the race finished, it was confirmed that team 81 had a podium finish with 3rd in the open class. Team 82 had managed a fourth place finish in the open class, despite the unscheduled stop for the gear change fix. We worked out that had it not been for that extra stop Rooster Racing would have been celebrating a second and third in the open class.
It had been a long hard 3 days and all of a sudden it all felt very worth it. I took the time to shake each of my fellow team members by the hand and I could see in every set of eyes I met there was the same look of elated happiness that I was feeling. The whole team made its way to the podium together for the presentation.
When we got down to the podium, we noticed that we had lost Howard and my last find the missing rider mission of the weekend began. I delivered Howard to Don and the rest of team 81 just minutes before they stepped out on to the balcony for their podium moment.
Kevin, one half of our pit wall brain trust began chanting “Rooster, Rooster Rooster, Rooster” within a couple of seconds most of the crowd joined in. There it was, the defining icing on the cake, Don, Angus, Gordon and Howard standing up on the balcony holding their trophies while the Spa crowd chanted the team’s name Rooster, Rooster, Rooster.
We moved the bikes back up to the garage and the beers and the whisky began to flow.
We arranged the bikes for a series of photo shoots and Rene, who had now become an honorary member of Rooster racing family, took everyone’s camera and or phone and took a series of group shots with the entire team while he wobbled precariously standing on a chair.
As the beer began to take the edge off of a tense day, I looked around me at my fellow team members, most of whom had been strangers only 2 days earlier. Now we were a team, galvanised in the heat of battle and righteous in victory. We felt like a team that night and we celebrated as a team. Even Don was smiling. If you know Don, you will know this is rare. There had been no egos just a group of people working together to make the race team work.
I looked at the 2 bikes that just four hours ago had looked so pristine. They were filthy covered in oil and rubber. They had survived. They had endured and this was the ultimate testament to Don’s work and the efforts of our six riders. With very little money and a hell of a lot of hard work and talent Don had single handily created the opportunity for this moment to take place. His engineering had been tested and found to be of the very highest order. His choice of riders had also been rewarded.
Some time ago Don had decided he would build 2 bikes to take part in this event. He put the riders and the team together and he hand built the bikes. The choices he had made, the sacrifices he had made, and all of his hard work had been rewarded. I knew Don well enough now to know that he always had a point to prove. The point being that you don’t need a mega budget and celebrity riders to get a result, but you do need a talent for building fast reliable bikes and a nose for the right kind of riders and people. While we all celebrated our shared success that evening and our own part in that success, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that there was one man who was pivotal to that success and that was Don Hill. This had been his vision from the start and our success represented a very personal struggle fulfilled.
I was honoured to have been able to take part and I was grateful to have been allowed to share in the success and I knew everyone else in the team felt the same way.
The evening ended with a country music rendition of ice ice baby by Gordie on the guitar. I’m still trying to forget that bit but I know I will not easily forget how special my time was with this wonderful group of people at this amazing race track.
Go winged hammers! Go Rooster Racing!
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