Rocket Men - The Racing Haslam Family

The story behind the racing Haslam family

Here's a favourite Haslam anecdote. First race of the season in March 1999 at Brands Hatch and in the 125 race are two Haslams, Ron and his son Leon. Towards the end of the race, Leon is lying in third place with Ron just in the points in the top 15.

Suddenly, Leon crashes at Graham Hill Bend. Ron, against racing protocol (but understandably) comes straight off the track to see what has happened to his 15-year-old son. He eventually catches up with him in the pits as he's getting into the ambulance with a broken wrist. His mum, Ann, is being comforted by a Honda PR man, as she's understandably upset at seeing her first born connect with a tyre wall. Ron rushes up as Leon is bundled into the waiting ambulance.

"What worrit son, wot worrit?"

Leon replies: "It just nipped up, dad."

Ron, finally getting to the bottom of the problem, suddenly has a half smile on his face and says: "I knew it were running lean." Before rushing off to the team garage to check the spare bike was okay.

There's a few versions of that one, but true or not, it illustrates the simple fact that a passion for racing and a thirst for what makes racing motorcycles work, battles for space in the Haslam veins alongside red and white corpuscles and haemoglobin. So much so that Ron lied about his details so he could race (illegally) at age 15, in 1972 at Cadwell Park.

In the years since, he became 'Rocket' Ron, famed for his fast starts. He enjoyed a career spanning British Championships, TT glory and 500 Grand Prix podiums. He's experienced the highest highs and the lowest of the lows in racing, suffering many crashes, injuries and the loss of his brothers Terry and Phil to race accidents. Finding out what made bikes tick was what interested Ron as much as the silverware. He had the title of the 'best development rider in the world' after riding the funny front-ended Honda Elf 500 and then the JPS Norton. He's never really retired and every year his race licence and new Frank Thomas leathers still turn up, despite the increasing number of years that Ann has tried to get them off him.

As well as his own son, and nephew Gary, it's also a fact that Ron has helped some other big names over the years. Little known, but 1992/2001 British Superbike champ John Reynolds was helped in his switch from vintage bike racer to modern bike racer by Ron. 2001 Supersport champ Karl Harris was originally spotted and groomed. By Ron. Ex-Virgin Yamaha rider and now Team Foggy Petronas rider-in-waiting James Haydon, was another schooled by Ron under the auspices of the Team Great Britiain scheme, which saw Ron take youngsters with a precocious talent under his wing and under his roof in a bid to build Britain's next world champs. Remember, this was way before the Red Bull Rookies and was funded by Donington Park's Robert Fearnall. And Ron.


Leon was born to race, but even with his name it was tough. Success in schoolboy motocross came painfully along with two badly broken legs and a swift move to the National Scooter series in 1997. He won (amid moans that being 13 he should have carried a weight penalty) before moving to the 125 class in the British series (amid moans that his dad was helping him) and European and World duty, which culminated in last year's showing in the 500cc class on the vee-twin and vee-four Shell Advance Honda NSRs.

Ann has been at Ron's side all the way, and was unsurprisingly present at Leon's birth. So the question that is on my lips as we start to chat, is how does Ann feel after seeing Ron race for so long to now see her son do it?

"I don't think there is an answer," she says. "Deep down I don't want Leon racing and I know first hand what it can do. I was there when Terry never came back. So I know what it was like. You're frightened to death, absolutely frightened to death, but I've been with Ron 26 or 27 years now and my way of being brought up is looking to the future, you prepare for the future and yet Ron's is living for today. It's taken me a long, long time to get used to that. And I try and blank it out, like you do with anything that's hurting you.

I always try and think to myself that racing is something they both love to do. My hardest thing now, is that because I look over Leon's assets and help manage him, I do get to thinking to myself in the back of my mind, 'If I didn't help him get a contract, would he still be racing?' I'm 10 times more frightened with Leon. But then, the same fears I have for Leon out on the racetrack, I have in a different way with my 15-year-old daughter Emma, letting her go out with hardly anything on as they seem to do these days. But then there's also the fact that I do so want Leon to be world champion. I believe he can be world champion and nobody can tell me different. I hope that's 26 years or so of experience of being around racing talking, and not just mother's pride."

So Ron must have pushed Leon into racing, right? Apparently not. "It was a natural thing to go racing for me," says Leon. "My dad was still racing at the time and I asked him if I could have a go. I was always mucking about on dirt bikes and stuff but he never made me do it. Quite the opposite."

Ron adds: "I did everything I could to put him off. The thing you need though in racing is the fact that you have to want to do it for yourself. The enjoyment is for yourself. It's not worth it for anything else. It's not worth it for just making money. Most people don't. You've got to balance out the heartaches and the injuries. I was always panicking that my own son was just trying to follow what I do. I didn't want that. I had to make sure he wanted it. So I did put him off and not just once -  loads of times.

"When he was doing motocross, people thought I gave him lots of time, but I didn't. I was the opposite. He used to have to ask me to go out. I used to tell him that I didn't have the time, just to see if he kept asking, to see if he really wanted it. He'd respect that, leave it a day and then ask, so I'd take him out. That was for my benefit to know that he wanted to do it. The crunch came the second time he broke a leg in motocross.

He'd got the Championship, all he had to do was go round, but that's not his way. He wanted to do it proper and win. He had to be flown back by helicopter from Ireland he was so badly injured.

"I really tried to put him off after that, tried to make out we couldn't afford to do it. I told him to do something else like football. To be honest I'd had enough at that point. I was fed up of seeing him in hospital, I was thinking, 'Christ, I know what you're going through son' and at his age it just weren't worth it. Over the next few days me and Ann took turns to be with him in hospital at night. When I stopped with him I put this to him, that I didn't want to see him getting hurt, that we couldn't afford him to race. Then the following night when Ann came back from seeing him she said to me,

'He's asked me to ask you if you would give him just one more chance and he won't try so hard this time.' I knew then that he must obviously want to do this. From then on I did what everyone thought I was doing anyway, and backed him all the while."

That help meant that Ron had to join the 125 class when Leon started road-racing properly in 1998. Ron says: "It wasn't the organisations, it was the other riders. They didn't like the fact that I may help Leon along too much, so we had to make it all above board. Up to that point they could see all I was trying to do was bring him on. Same as I had done with all the Team Great Britain riders. When it was someone else, people didn't mind it, but then when it was my own son, they didn't like it."


Since then Ron has tried to make Leon work harder and harder on his race craft, while mum Ann has looked after the management side of things. Ann reckons: "We really try and keep Leon's feet on the ground. The motorhome he has is just like our home. The telly is always blaring and we take our youngest, Zoe, with us in Europe when we can. We try and keep our family together."

Now, following a decade's break while Ron raced in the UK, the Haslams are back in the GP paddock and backing Leon. For Leon, he's back into an environment where he was pretty much brought up. He recalls: "My first memories of the paddock were probably the Elf Honda days, I guess I couldn't have been more than about four. I used to get my schooling from Toni Mang's wife in the paddock. I haven't got memories of my dad racing, really, but just general feelings from the paddock. And the atmosphere was different.

Everyone used to have more of a laugh then, I think. I used to hang around in Alex Barros' motorhome a fair bit when I was younger and play computer games with him." GPs are now money-driven, but the Haslam family are still welcome because they were accepted first time around.

"When Ron first went into GPs with HRC I kept in the background but we took Leon everywhere. In those days people didn't take their families into the paddock, but we were accepted and it's nice that we're still accepted in the GP world today even after 15 years or so. The thing is that phrase - Grand Prix. It's such a hard word. It can accept you and then shut you out or chop you into little bits. A lot of bloody good names, solid English lads have been ground down by it. I don't just mean Chris Walker, but Eugene McManus - he was a good racer - and Darren Barton.

All of these were way, way above average riders, but it's such hard work. It's not just the rider, or the travelling, or the racing. It's also about being accepted in this very vicious, but fantastic and thrilling circle. It was friendlier because it was less commercial then, but it has to be this way now.  You could go into the paddock and invite yourself to any number of barbecues in those days. Today it's tickets only and closed hospitality units - because that's the way it has to be now."

Check out any picture of Leon from a GP and the chances are that Ron is next to him or just out of shot. He's there for his boy, helping him get to grips with the cruellest mistress of all - a GP bike. Ron: "What I do for him is listen and help him understand what the bike is doing. First session he always says the bike is rubbish, so I just ignore him. In the second session after six or seven laps, I start to listen to him and help him move towards an ideal set-up for the bike." Leon says: "His questions make me think more about what's happening when I'm out on track. You don't actually have that much time to think, but it's sort of automatic. It's like being your own telemetry. I remember when I'm back in the pits and that helps me move forward with the bike set-up." Ron adds: "So by now the bike feels good, but he's still not on the pace. That's where you need that extra breakthrough on set-up to get that extra half a second or so."

But where does that leave Leon against the likes of Valentino Rossi? "Rossi had to have the talent, otherwise he'd never have got to where he has," reckons Ron. "But he's also had the tackle to do it on. Biggest thing is that for Leon or anyone is that if you haven't got everything like Rossi has, the thing you do is try and match his talent and riding. Even if you match that - his talent, and remember he's one of the best  - then you still won't match his tyres or his bike and then his confidence, which comes from that back-up. So only a few get a chance to match Rossi's talent. The only way to finally catch him is if these other parts are in place. Without all these things, you don't match Rossi, because you can't show your talent to the full."

Leon: "The tyres, for example. Last year when I finally got one decent tyre I went a second a lap faster straight away. A second in GPs can be from 15th place up to 1st. Besides, when I went to first test on a 500 and went out with Rossi I wasn't that far away. You can learn so much from watching these guys. When Rossi went past me, as we entered a corner for the first time I would literally run into him. He was so early on the brakes and slow in the first part of the corner. Then he'd exploit all of his advantages - talent and all - to pull a gap in mid corner to exit. You learn when someone does that to you."

So without the back-up, all the talent in the world won't let you match the likes of Rossi, but it can show to the world that you're more likely to beat him than the rest of the field. Ron and Leon reckon confidence comes from getting the best out of the bike and to do that you need to communicate what you're feeling about the bike to your mechanics. Leon admits that his confidence took a knock with the V4 NSR. Ron can help with that, but it's something Leon has to develop for himself.

"I had an unbelievable relationship with my mechanic last year on the 500 twin," says Leon, "but then when I switched to the V4 we came across a few problems as not only did I have to learn the V4, I also had a different mechanic. We didn't have any established relationship about what the tyres should be doing, what the bike should feel like but I haven't worked with this guy all year, so we have a bit of a problem communicating. That's why a lot of riders and chief mechanics stick together. If somebody understands you and you've got an element of trust, it works. Same as having my dad around. You're on such a fine line on the track anyone's help is beneficial - especially on the 500. I jumped on it and was experiencing things I'd never felt on a bike before. So I'd explain what I was feeling to people like my dad, or Doohan or Loris Capirossi or whoever, and they'd say, 'yeah that's right, and you can get around it by doing this or that or whatever.' Then I knew that what I was feeling on the bike was right. Peace of mind in racing is everything.

If you can come into the pits and say to the mechanic I'm feeling this, and he says I know what to do and he explains it to you, that's great. My biggest problem with the V4 was getting a good base setting for the bike. Despite what was said I think the Shell Advance team were fair with Chris Walker. They changed everything Chris wanted, they did everything Chris wanted, they gave him Capirossi's bike, they gave him Rossi's bike. They gave him the superbike dimensions he wanted."


Ron adds: "I think they were getting to a point with Chris where they let him do what he wanted, but unfortunately nothing was happening for him. So then they just said, here's the bike, you run it like we say. It didn't work for him and it was sad."

Leon says: "Going back to the confidence thing, when Chris went and I had the V4, I got on it. Tried to set it up as best I could, then collided with Aoki. Then it launched me twice at the next race and then twice again at the one after that. So I went back on the twin. Just to get me confidence back. The year before it was the same. On the Italjet I was having a tough time. So then I came back to the UK on a standard Honda and won."

"The thing that Leon's not had that I did get," says Ron, "is that I started in club level. At that level you can win and you can get it in your head that you are among the best. So I had all the Mallory and Cadwells and Snettertons under my belt before going international at Daytona. Look at Leon and soon as he was starting to reach the top in British 125s that was it, he was off. No chance to sit there and think that he's the best, that he's the king, he had another, harder task. I'd still put Leon through it as fast as possible. To learn off the likes of GP riders is twice as fast as learning off the domestic guys. That's why I'm hoping 250s this year will be more satisfying for him. I'm hoping he'll finish half field or above. I say half field but I want to be generous and say more. I'm just hoping it will be a much more pleasurable thing for him. I'm proud of him and what he's done."

But, ask Leon what he wants to be doing in the next few years and coming back to the UK to race isn't top of the list and nor is World Superbikes.

"The difference is that somewhere like Italy or Spain they throw everything at you to give you the best chance to succeed in GPs, the country is behind them, the press are behind them. That just doesn't happen over here. The press in the UK will just tear you down when you're up there and it's just a bit shit really. You need to get out of the UK to get the experience, but if you do it in GPs you don't seem to get coverage. Just look at Jay Vincent. He's one of the best riders we've had over the last few years and he gets no coverage whatsoever. He gets nowhere near the recognition he deserves. I guess I'm a bit biased as he's my team-mate but then someone like Chris Walker is God in England. Personally out of the two I'd still say Jay is the better rider. It may be a bit of the Superbike thing being more popular than GPs. I just want to stay in GPs. It's the pinnacle of the sport. I've been brought up in GPs and it's an option for me perhaps in the future, but only to get back into GPs. The way I look at it is that I want to be Moto GP champ and if you look at the current riders, the average age is 28 and I'm 18, so I've got 10 years to do it."

It's a serious business, racing. But there's still plenty of fun to be had. Leon has, for years, embarrassed punters on his dad's popular track days. In fact, when he did that to me when he was 13 (he'd passed me on a CB500 when I was on a CBR600...) I wished him well for the future. Take, for example, the serious business of trying out the latest FireBlades for the race school.

"To be honest it was a bit of a play day," says Ron, smiling. "We'd try and do some fast laps and then he'd try and impress me by coming past me and laying a big black line down and then I'd come past and try and lay down a bigger one, or a longer one. It's fun. We enjoyed it. If I lost the love for it I would pack everything up tomorrow. The racing, the race school - the lot. That's the biggest thing. You've got to enjoy riding the bike and the rest will surely follow."

Leon: "It were a laugh. He went about 0.2seconds faster than me and we were on lap record pace on standard new Blades. Lots faster than we've been on Blades before."

Doubtless it was all good fun and a learning exercise for all. Of course. So what does Ann think of all this horsing around?

"I couldn't be prouder of either of them," she says. "After 26 years with Ron, he's still everything to me - and not just because of what he's done by riding bikes. He's just a hero to me. Then I look at my son and I'm prouder still. For this lad to do what Ron did, and to be in GPs so young. It's unbelievable. I can still bawl at him and knock his bloody block off. You can't ask for anymore. All of them are good kids and at 18 he's a good lad."

As I leave, Ron is quietly telling me a little story about his daughter, Emma. She's 15 and has already sneaked out on the back of Ron on a FireBlade and has since had a few outings on a CB500 at Donington Park.

"Thing is," says Ron, "she were so used to being on the back and the way I ride, the first time she went into the Esses, she were on the brakes, with the front end of the bike twisting around, partially leant over, doing what I did! I was thinking, 'God, no. Don't... please don't!' But that's the way she knows. She never crashed. You won't tell Ann, will you?"

No Ron. I won't...