Who the Hell is Niall Mackenzie?

Niall went from digging holes for the council to being Freddie Spencer’s team mate in five years. In his GP career he scored seven podiums and 28 top-fives. And after 10 years in Grand Prix he returned to the UK and won three consecutive BSB titles

“My worst Mackenzie memory? That would have to be the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka in 1987,” Rob McElnea muses. “I was fairly well established on the Grand Prix scene at that point and then this Niall Mackenzie bloke comes along for the first race in his first season of GPs and sticks his bike on f*cking pole position. The Japanese treated him as an absolute God for that. He couldn't walk round the paddock without people trying to pull him apart just to get a piece of him.”

Of course, Niall Mackenzie himself wouldn't dream of telling you stories like that – he's far too modest. So if you want to know just how good Visordown's chief road tester was as a motorcycle racer, you've got to ask other people.

The reason for Mackenzie's modesty lies largely in his rural Scottish upbringing. Not much has come out of Fankerton apart from paper from the local mill and even exports dried up many years ago. A village of about 60 houses near Denny in Stirlingshire, it's certainly not where Grand Prix stars are supposed to come from. In such a rural Scottish location, even if you are good at something, you're not supposed to boast about it. That'd be a certain shortcut to a good shoeing. 

His introduction to two wheels was very much in keeping with his humble Scottish background. While other GP stars of the future were bought expensive mini-bikes and taken to dirt track events from the age of three or four, Mackenzie made his riding debut on a disused railway line on a motorised bicycle he and his friends liberated from the local dump. “It only made about 3bhp,” he says. “But I was just blown away with the whole concept and that was the start of it for me – I had to have a motorbike.”

With £40 saved from his milk round, Niall treated himself to a Honda C90 step-thru. Chasing older friends on faster Suzuki AP50s was good early training but he soon upgraded to a Yamaha FS-1E.

In 1980,  the young Scot bought the bike that would change his life – Yamaha's new RD350LC. When the Scottish ACU announced it would be staging a series for LCs in 1981, he couldn’t rip his number plate off quick enough. Making his race debut at Carnaby, Mackenzie caught the racing bug. “I was so pumped up that I didn't care if I crashed or died or anything,” he recalls. He did neither, finishing third in the Production class against some fairly handy racers. He rates the small wooden plaque he got as the best trophy he ever received.

One week later he took his maiden victory at Knockhill and suddenly realised he might just make a living out of this racing lark. “I won £110 in prize money – that was £30 more than I was taking home in a week from my job at the Scottish electricity board.”

By the end of the year he was Cumbrian club champion and had finished second in the Scottish 500cc Production Championship. But it was 1982 that really brought him to the attention of the racing fraternity with his performances in the now legendary Yamaha Pro-Am Challenge. The televised one-make series was a chaotic free-for-all where riders picked bike keys out of a hat and then unleashed all sorts of mayhem. “The Pro-Am series was mental,” Mackenzie admits. “We got up to stuff that you'd never get away with in any other racing class. We used to dab each other’s front brakes on the straights, pull the pillion grab rail of the rider in front to get a tow and even reach down and hold our own front forks with our left hands to make a better aerodynamic shape.”

He won the Knockhill Pro-Am round in ’82 and finished second in the championship in ’83 before switching to pukka racing machinery and clinching the 350cc British championship the following year. He repeated the feat in ’85, adding the 250cc title for good measure, but it was his occasional outings in the 250cc Grand Prix world championship on an Armstrong machine that earned him a ride on the Skoal Bandit Suzuki RG500 at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1986.

In his 500cc debut, Niall finished seventh, then repeated the feat in his second outing in Sweden. It was enough to attract the attentions of the mighty Honda and he’ll never forget what turned out to be the most important ride of his life. Honda invited him to Suzuka (a circuit he’d never seen before) and in front of all the factory’s top brass, he was handed Freddie Spencer’s NSR500 and told to do his stuff. The prize, should he perform well enough, would be a factory Honda Grand Prix ride in 1988. No pressure then. “I knew this was my big chance and I had to do something special so I gave it everything,” he says. “I don't know how many times I nearly crashed – somewhere in the region of six times, I think – but somehow I kept the bike upright and posted one really good lap equalling the lap record. It was enough to convince HRC.”

Mackenzie found himself a factory Honda rider in 1987 as team-mate to triple world champion Freddie Spencer. He wasted no time in repaying Honda’s faith by setting pole position at the Japanese GP in his first outing on the NSR500. Bewildered at having to attend his first ever press conference, Mackenzie handled the situation the only way he knew how. “When the microphone was passed to me in front of all these very serious Japanese people, I hadn’t a clue what to talk about so I just said ‘I’ve got nothing much to say so I’m going to sing and I launched into a few verses of Amazing Grace.’ It didn’t go down well.”

His live Japanese gig over, Mackenzie was holding third place on the last lap of the race when he crashed out, upsetting Honda’s top men. There had been no-one behind him and they felt he should have settled for a safe third place. A fourth place at Jerez made up for things and a debut podium in Austria helped him to fifth place overall at the end of the year, enough to convince Honda to retain his services for 1988.

Another podium and a string of top six finishes saw Mackenzie end that season in 6th place overall but he was bitterly disappointed not to win the American Grand Prix after making the holeshot and leading for a full 18 laps before his tyres went off dropping him to third place. Sixth in the standings wasn’t enough for Honda and Mackenzie signed to ride for Marlboro Yamaha in 1989 under the legendary 15-times world champion Giacomo Agostini who was team boss at the time.

To this day, no British rider – not even Barry Sheene – has won a premier class British Grand Prix. On an unforgettable day in 1989, Niall Mackenzie came so close to breaking the mould as he overtook demi-gods including Eddie Lawson and Wayne Gardner on his charge to the front of the field. As he swept underneath Kevin Schwantz at Redgate corner the crowd went ballistic. Mackenzie’s future team-mate Jamie Whitham was there. “I was among the screaming, baying crowds at Redgate when he took the lead,” he says. “It was quite emotional; there was a big, huge 'Whhhharrrgggh!' from the crowd as he went past, but then his tyres went off and it wasn’t to be. He ended up fourth that day but I think Niall was good enough to win a Grand Prix – he certainly led plenty.”

And he led them in an era of legends. Riders like Lawson, Schwantz and Gardner are acknowledged as some of the best riders in history and they were all racing at the same time against the equally mercurial Mick Doohan and Randy Mamola. Not only were the rivalries super-aggressive, but the two-stroke 500s of the time were the most vicious and unforgiving bikes ever built.

When Agostini lost his Marlboro sponsorship to Kenny Roberts, Niall found himself out of a job but was thrown a lifeline by Lucky Strike Suzuki when Kevin Magee was injured. As team-mate to Kevin Schwantz, Mackenzie enjoyed his best ever season in 500cc Grands Prix finishing in fourth place overall behind Wayne Rainey, Schwantz and Mick Doohan, and ahead of Wayne Gardner and Randy Mamola. Even so, he was replaced by Didier de Radigues at the end of the year as Suzuki claimed Lucky Strike wanted a Belgian rider.

It would be Mackenzie’s last year on a factory 500 but he soldiered on with a succession of privateer teams for the next four years. There would be many other highlights including a third place at Jerez in 1992 on a bike that shouldn’t have been capable of it according to Jamie Whitham. “He shouldn’t have been able to do that on a second-string bike,” he says. “That was impressive. He was our best hope in GPs for a long time. There was no other British rider to touch him.”

And who can forget the last corner beating of Carl Fogarty for third place at the British GP in 1993? Not Fogarty, that’s for sure.

But a 500cc GP win always just eluded Mackenzie and the jury is out as to why. 1987 world champion Wayne Gardner thinks Mackenzie was just too nice a guy. “Niall was a committed rider,” he says. “He was focused and he had everything there but he just lacked that last couple of per cent of killer instinct when you had to fight really hard. Grand Prix were a really tough game back then, it was so competitive. You had to be willing to slit your granny’s throat for a race win. Niall is an extremely nice guy and I think that's what sort of let him down. He wasn't forceful enough.”

Mackenzie by Mick Doohan 5 x 500cc world champion (1994-98)

“Niall was one of the first people I got to know when I started Grand Prix racing with Rothmans Honda in 1989 and since then we’ve always had a friendly relationship. He was one of the few guys who you could race against and then go and have a coffee with at the end of the day without any worries. It was good to have him and his wife Jan around the GP paddock and they were very popular with everyone.

“In those days we used to do some training together and would often go out running which is something I couldn’t do any more after I broke my leg at Assen in 1992.

"In my first season, I sometimes used to ask Niall about the weather in the various countries in Europe. I was straight out of Australia and had never been to most of those places, whereas Niall knew his way around. I remember before my first GP at Spa Francorchamps I mentioned to Niall that the weather in Belgium wasn’t so flash and he replied that he’d never been in a dry Grand Prix at Spa in all the years he’d raced there!

“Niall beat me in the 1989 championship when he was seventh and I was ninth. That season and the next, we were often racing each other closely and he was always a very fair sportsman in the way he rode. Niall started GP racing a year or two before me and around that time there was plenty of strong competition with riders like Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Gardner, Christian Sarron and others. It was a real quality field in those days but Niall had a pole position, seven podiums, and a total of 28 top-five finishes between 1987 and 1993. The results don’t always tell the whole story, but on this occasion they show that Niall was a very competitive motorcycle racer and Britain’s best rider in 500 Grands Prix at that time.

“Since then he has raced in a variety of championships at world level and in Britain, mostly on Superbikes and not surprisingly, he’s always done well relative to the capabilities of his equipment.

“Another of Niall’s strengths is his character. We all have our ups and downs in this sport but Niall was one who enjoyed his success without getting too carried away with it and could also take setbacks in his stride. He's a guy who always seems to be able to bounce back.”

“Niall obviously enjoyed riding and racing motorcycles otherwise he
wouldn't have had the motivation to keep going for as long as he did. Motivation is everything if you're going to have some success in racing; you really have to want to ride the thing, and Niall did that for many seasons.

“I can't think of a better role model for young British riders than Niall. He's got talent, determination, and most importantly he's a good guy.'

Randy Mamola puts it down to circumstances. “There’s a kind of stepping stone that you need to cross over to get to that top step of the podium in GPs and unfortunately for Niall he never got to do that. I can’t really explain why. There’s a lot of guys who come up to GPs and try to win but don’t. I mean, look at Colin Edwards. We all consider him a great asset to motorcycle racing yet he’s never won a Grand Prix. It’s just circumstances. Niall obviously had the talent but the circumstances have to fit too.”

Mamola also admits Mackenzie was up against some of the fiercest competitors ever to race in Grand Prix and that the extraordinary array of talent at the time made it that much harder to win. “It’s all about the time-frame you’re in. Look at how many people would have won World Championships in recent years if Valentino wasn’t there. In the 80s, there were lots of riders winning races, you needed the breaks.”

Niall’s future team boss Rob McElnea agrees with Mamola. “You couldn’t have had a fiercer grid than the one Niall and I faced in the 1980s. He grew up on 250s and retained that style on a 500 so once the tyres started to wear out and lose grip, the other guys who came from dirt-track backgrounds really came into their own. He just wasn’t geared up for that because he hadn’t had that background. There were only about three or four guys who could get the best out of those 500s. The rest of us had our days when things went well and we were as fast as them but the key to riding those things was dealing with them two-thirds of the way through a race. The guys who could slide the 500s had unbelievable feel but us Europeans had learned to go fast on the front tyre, not on a rear that might be losing grip.”

Although it’s futile to compare different eras, Wayne Gardner thinks today’s MotoGP bikes would have suited a European-style rider like Mackenzie better. “Probably the style of bikes, the way they are now, being four-strokes and a little easier to ride, would have suited Niall’s career better. Now that they’ve got so much more development in front tyres it would suit him more. If you look at all the champions around that time, they all came from a dirt-track background and Niall didn’t have that experience of pushing so hard and looking for grip all the time on corner exit. It’s a pity that he picked the wrong time to be in GPs. I’d say on today’s tyres and modern bikes he’d be more competitive.”

But to put Mackenzie’s success in GPs in context, you only need to consider the media attention James Toseland has received these last two years as a British rider in the premier class, despite never even getting a sniff of a podium. Had GPs been televised in his day, it’s safe to say he would have been a superstar.

James Whitham’s favourite Mackenzie moment

“A few years ago we’d ridden some bikes up to Edinburgh on a road test in the freezing cold for a Burns’ night. We were staying at the poshest hotel in Edinburgh; all hardwood floors and coats of arms and suits of armour everywhere. The Queen has even stayed there. The place was full of Japanese and Americans – I think Niall was the only Scotsman in the place apart from the lad wi’ the bagpipes.

"Anyway, we were all wearing kilts and we’d had a few drinks and Niall suddenly said, ‘I can’t be arsed going to the toilet’ and stood up and just let go of his bladder. The piss were running down his kilt and splashing all over the hardwood floor. People were looking at him and saying ‘Hello’ but nobody realised he was pissing on the floor. That were one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life. I couldn’t breathe it were that funny.”

After a diabolical season on an uncompetitive Aprilia in 250cc GPs in 1995, Mackenzie returned home to the UK to contest the newly refurbished British Superbike Championship. And he arrived on these shores with a big target on his back. In 2002, Steve Hislop gave a good indication of how his competitors viewed the returning star. “One thing I really noticed out on the track was that the other riders seemed to be in awe of him. All he had to do was show them a front wheel and they would let him through. It’s as if they were thinking ‘God, here comes this GP legend, I’d best not rough him up.’ I definitely used him as a yardstick to measure myself against. If I could beat a world class rider like Niall, maybe I could finally prove myself as a world class rider to those who still doubted me.”

Mackenzie and his Cadbury's Boost team-mate James Whitham set the BSB championship on fire in 1996 with a down-to-the-wire fight for the title. Yet no matter how well Whitham rode, he couldn’t shake off the ultra-consistent Scotsman.

“Coming into the last round I’d had nine wins and only one crash and one mechanical DNF. That was the best season I had ever put together. But Niall finished every one of the 22 races that season – his consistency was really annoying. Even when I won races I’d come into the garage and ask Rob McElnea (team boss) 'Who came second?’ and he’d say ‘You don’t even need to ask.’”

The battle was so close that Niall even “tried hating” Whitham to give him an edge but it never worked because, as Mackenzie admits, “He was a clown from the word go and kept me laughing all year long.”

But Whitham insists Mackenzie didn’t need to hate anybody to win races. “Niall is the least aggressive person you could meet,” he says. “He relied on the fact that he’s very skilful on a bike, and on his speed and his ability to set it up properly and be inch-perfect on track, so he never needed that hate figure to wind him up like Carl Fogarty did. For my part, I didn’t have anything to hate him for; he hadn’t shoved me onto the grass, hadn’t ridden dangerously and hadn’t asked for any team favours or new parts for the bike that I didn’t have so what was there to hate?”

As boss of the Boost Yamaha team, Rob McElnea got an even better insight into Mackenzie’s armoury than he had when he raced against him. “Niall’s outstanding abilities as a racer were his single-mindedness and total commitment,” he says. “There was never any need for me as a team manager to push him – he always knew what he needed to do. I think Niall would agree he needed everything to be right for him to perform at 100% whereas other riders could compromise a bit more. Niall needed to be very happy and confident before he would give everything he had but when everything was right he was fast as f*ck.”

Mackenzie went on to win three consecutive BSB titles – a record that remains unsurpassed – before deciding to retire from racing in 2000. When you’ve stuck an evil bitch of a 500cc Grand Prix bike on pole position, led the British Grand Prix and won three British Superbike championships, it’s fair to say you know a thing or two about riding motorcycles. So the next time Niall Mackenzie offers you words of wisdom on the latest bike he's tested, he’s worth a listen.

Niall Mackenzie: The career in full

1981: Scottish 500 production championship: 2nd Cumbria club championship: 1st
1982: Scottish 500 production championship: 1st
Knockhill club championship: 1st
1983: National Pro Am challenge: 2nd
Pro Am world cup: 1st
1984: British 350cc championship: 1st
1985: 250cc British championship: 1st
350cc British championship: 1st
Selected 250cc GP outings on Silverstone Armstrong with a best finish of 10th in Sweden.
1986: 250cc British championship: 1st
Selected 250cc outings on Silverstone Armstrong with a best finish of 8th at Spa. Finishes 7th in 500cc GP debut at Silverstone on Skoal Bandit RG500 Suzuki.
1987: Factory HB Honda NSR500, 500cc Grand Prix World Championship: 5th
1988: Factory HB Honda NSR500, 500cc Grand Prix World Championship: 6th
1989: Factory Marlboro Yamaha YZR500, 500cc Grand Prix World Championship: 5th
1990: Factory Lucky Strike Suzuki RG500, 500cc Grand Prix World Championship: 4th
1991: Abandons uncompetitive Silkolene Honda RC30 ride mid-season and secures late ride on Sonauto Yamaha YZR500 in 500cc Grands Prix finishing 17th overall after only contesting four rounds. Best finish 5th at Mugello.
1992: Yamaha France YZR500, 500cc Grand Prix World Championship: 11th
1993: Valvoline Yamaha YZR500, 500cc Grand Prix World Championship: 9th
1994: Slick 50 Yamaha YZR500, 500cc Grand Prix World Championship: 10th
1995: Docshop Aprilia, 250cc Grand Prix World Championship: 18th
1996: Boost Yamaha YZR750, British Superbike Championship: 1st
1997: Boost Yamaha YZR750, British Superbike Championship: 1st
1998: Boost Yamaha YZR750, British Superbike Championship: 1st
1999: Virgin Yamaha R7, British Superbike Championship: 7th
2000: INS Ducati 996, British Superbike Championship: 5th