My first bike was a Honda CB92, an immaculate thing it was and very collectible too, so I hacked the exhausts off and destroyed it in a field. I paid £4 for that bike. I got into racing when I was 19, me and a mate built a Honda 500 four-stroke single in a Tony Foale cantilever chassis which I raced twice and put myself in Canterbury hospital twice. I was BEMSEE Clubman 500 champion in 1983, but that was the end of my racing career. I had a divorce and there was no money left for anything after that.
Suzuki's demo-bike workshop, motocross team and race team were all in the same building then, and the Grand Prix shop was up the road. That's where they built the Heron Grand Prix Project 500 GP bike, the carbon-fibre framed RG500 racebike. I was the first person to ever ride the Project 500, we did a shoot at Goodwood and the bike was good enough for McElnea to qualify on the front row of the grid in 1985. We had all these dodgy sponsors back then - Skoal Bandit, Men Only, Durex, Club - but it's amazing to think the entire Suzuki GP effort was spearheaded from Croydon. It was certainly less professional then than it is now, but we worked hard and always got the job done. There's some funny stories, though.
The RG250 Gamma was brand new when I started, and I did a lot of work on the press bike. I found some huge pistons so we bored it out and got it up to 372cc, stuck some proper pipes on it, and it was mental. The new Yamaha RD350 did 118mph and this thing hit 126mph! But the journalists didn't see the funny side and decided to make a big fuss out of it all, so that was my first proper bollocking. Later that year I was running-in the very first GSX1100EF, and it had pop-on sidepanels on the fairing. If you went above 100mph they flew off, completely gone. I went out on the only 1100EF in the UK and came back minus the entire fairing.
In 1985 the first RG500 was going to MCN, it had been specially freighted in from Japan. At 11pm we had it up on the ramp finishing it off and it was going out at 8am the next morning. One of the mechanics got on the ramp to kick-start it so we could check the jetting. The ramp wheelied, the bike cartwheeled off it, landed on the work-bench and literally destroyed itself. We had no spares and the bike was completely wrecked: the exhausts were off, the tank was smashed, the frame was bent - a complete write off. I just looked at it and said, "suppose that's it for the night, then."
Then Suzuki decided to send us a 12bhp moped to evaluate. It was the most evil thing ever. This lad in the workshop shot off on it, it wheelied straight away and dragged him along behind on his knees down the workshop writing-off everything in its path. Then it leapt up the wall, spun round and landed on him. That was brilliant. Then another lad wheelied his DR350 out of the workshop and flipped it.There was a row of brand new press cars parked outside, and the bike dug in and somersaulted onto the cars. We removed the bike and ran off, nobody knew how the cars were damaged.
On the Hayabusa launch, Performance Bikes' John Robinson decided he wanted to do a flaming burnout. So we poured petrol all over the tyre, set it alight and off he went. What we didn't plan for was the whole back end of the bike catching fire and setting the bike alight, and when we got back to the garage there was a mass panic that this charred rear end must have been down to an electrical problem. They did an all-nighter on that bike.
In 1989 I was getting invited to help with the development of new bikes. The GSX-R750WT was the first bike I was involved with from beginning to end, that was really satisfying. Then came the GSX-R1000. That was a fantastic bike but a hard one for me because a friend of mine was killed during testing. Anybody who didn't know him didn't care, to them it was just a production delay and it was painful to deal with.
Sometimes people died on bikes I prepared. It was always weird getting wrecks back that you knew riders had hurt themselves on, and sometimes those riders were friends of mine. But the world of biking is very small so you have to harden up, I think. It's so upsetting when people are killed, but it's accepted as part of the package. When I go to the TT, I'm friends with many of the racers and they know the risks. If anything happens to them of course you'll be very sad, but everyone knows the risks. It's a very fine line, danger and excitement.
I've always been fastidious about doing things. It's as hard to do a job wrong as it is to do it right, so why not do it right? I was obsessive with the press fleet, because you're not just dealing with bikes, you're also dealing with lives. 'That'll do' was never an expression used in our workshop, and it's a rule I apply to all aspects of my life. Always. After 25 years of working like that it tends to stick with you. It makes me a bit fussy to work for, I run my own business and some of my staff find working for me stressful. But if you can't do a job properly, don't do it.