James Whitham Column - Feb 08

Another busy month in the Whitham mansions. He mourns the passing of his first jump-bike and the best jumper, and recounts an hilarious night in the company of the Fogartys

Sometimes it’s difficult as a child to fully appreciate some of the things you get to witness. I remember like it was yesterday sitting on a packed grassy banking at Glen Helen in the Isle of Man with my old fella and watching the 1978 formula one TT race unfold. That fabled encounter between Phil Read with the might of Honda behind him versus Mike Hailwood, the old warrior, back from retirement, riding an underpowered Ducati. Mike the bike achieved the impossible that sunny June day. It just took me 20 years to work it out.

Even at the time I realised I was watching something quite special, but not from what was happening on track. My realisation of the magnitude of the event came from the reaction of the adults, including my dad, who were sat around me. Blokes with transistor radios pushed to their ears passed on progress reports to groups of nervous faces, and every time this balding, semi-crippled hero and his out-dated bike swept past on the road below the place went mad with waving programmes and sun-hats. As he rode his last lap the biggest Mexican wave in history followed him round as 200,000 fans willed him on from every garden wall.

When Hailwood’s victory was announced, perfect strangers hugged each other and most of the grown men around me spontaneously burst into tears. My dad crying in public was enough to make me realise something unique had happened. But it wasn’t until I grew up and started racing myself that I began to really understand what he had managed to achieve. What a legend.

So Evel Knievel has passed on. Even though he was as famous for smashing himself to bits in his spectacular failures as he was for his many successful jumps, I knew he looked daft in flared leathers and a cape. But he still managed to inspire a generation of kids to head for the local rec on their choppers and fashion ramps out of bricks and planks.

At the time I had a Raleigh Whisp,  a 50cc two-stroke ladies shopping bike that my dad had found in a skip outside his work and brought home in the boot of his Austin Maxi. We leapt that poor bike, front basket and all, over everything, milk crates, mates laid down side by side, even a couple of burning cardboard boxes on one occasion. We even did the dummy run and stopped at the top of the ramp to get the crowd worked up.  Eventually the headstock failed and the Whisp broke in half.

Even before his Wembley jump Evel knew he was going to crash. The bike was under-geared and the take-off  ramp was barely long enough. Now, most people at some time or other do things that require an amount of courage. But mostly it’s the type of calculated courage where they know if things go well they’ll be okay. I always sat on the grid knowing the risks, but also knowing that if I did my job properly I wouldn’t get hurt. But to sit on a 200kg Harley, with only 2 inches of suspension travel, at the top of a ramp, in front of 80,000 people knowing that in a couple of minute time you’ll be on your way to casualty takes a different kind of bravery.

Andrea, myself and the Fogartys got tickets to see the Sex Pistols in Manchester a few weeks ago. Surprisingly they played really well but the best part was watching the crowd. 20,000 forty-odd year old blokes wearing tartan pants, Harrington jackets and DMs, who could manage half an hour of “pogo-ing” before needing a sit down.

The highlight of the night for me was when Carl went up to have a chat with Johnny Rotten in the hotel bar afterwards and was told to “FUCK OFF!” The look on Foggy’s face, I thought he was going to punch him. Haha! To be fair two of the other members of the band, bassist Glen Matlock and drummer Paul Cooke, were good blokes who didn’t seem to mind chatting to us even though we were fairly well oiled and probably not making a lot of sense by then.

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