1966-1969: The Stunt-riding years.
A lifetime of excellent learning packed into a few short years
1966-1969: The Stunt-riding years.
I cannot leave my time with BRMCC without discussing the Stunt Team. I am not sure exactly when the BRMCC Stunt Team began, but it was certainly in full swing before I joined the club in about January 1966. Elsewhere in the 1960s there were a couple of Army troupes which used to put on precision riding and stunt riding displays at, for example, the Edinburgh Tattoo. These were filmed and shown on the Movietone News as well as on television. The films were also borrowed and shown at motorcycle rallies. No doubt someone in the club looked at these and caught the vision to do likewise.
The Stunt bikes... The club had come to own the following bikes which were used for the Stunt Team by the time I joined: Three Harley Davidson 1942 WLA model 750cc Side-valve V-twins, One BSA OHV parallel twin (used for ramp-jumping), One Norton OHV single (also used for ramp work), and a couple of Matchless or AJS bikes used for general stunts. The club also owned a trailer built specifically for carrying the bikes carrying three bikes in channels parallel to the direction of travel (usually three Harleys), one bike in a crosswise channel in front of the three Harleys, and one in a crosswise channel at the rear of the trailer. If other bikes were needed for specific shows, they were either towed to the venue or carried in a ute. I should mention that there were other Harleys used for parts to keep the main three going and that the other bikes were taken out of service for maintenance or put back into the pool again when they had been reconditioned and were running well.
The Stunt Team were hired by the organisers of other events such as the annual Agricultural Shows which were put on by the Agricultuaral Societies of most country towns and many regional cities in those days. We performed as a drawcard event on the centre of the main oval in the showgrounds.
Disclaimer: Don't try this at home: The members of the Ballarat Rovers Motor Cycle Club Stunt Team spent countless hours in preparation and practice. All of the stunts were very well choreographed, planned and thought out so that they would be spectacular and yet safe. The riders wore special safety equipment, often out of sight underneath their outer clothing. The team always had qualified first-aid officers standing by. Every new stunt that was designed had to be passed by the leaders at practice sessions as being absolutely safe before it was permitted to be incorporated into a show.
Some of the stunts we performed were as follows:
The Wall of Fire: A pinewood wall about 6mm thick and 2 metres wide by
2 metres high was set up, splashed with kerosene or diesel and set on fire. Someone
riding a bike would then go crashing through it.
There were probably many other stunts apart from these, but I am writing this more than 35 years after the event. If any of the old Stunt Team actually get to read this page and can remember some of the other stunts, please drop me an e-mail to remind me so that this record will be more accurate and complete. Team members whose names come to mind are: Alwyn Sobey, Ken Wright, (the late) Frank Wright (deceased New Zealand, March 2005), Henry Becker, George Langley, John Palmer, Russell Czynski, Brian Bowes, (the late) Jim Colligan (deceased in road racing sidecar mishap at Bathurst several years ago), John Delima, Clarry Jones, ?? Hudson, ?? Kennedy, Ron Thomas, and a lot of other faces in my mind. Perhaps I might recall the names later. If anyone from BRMCC reads this and you happen to have a list of the old Stunt Team members, I would love to get hold of a copy. Photographs of the stunts would also be most welcome. I am also not entirely sure of the correct names for some of the above stunts, so if anyone can correct me I would be most grateful.
The stunt that never made it: I do recall one stunt that was designed and practised, but as far as I know, never made it to a public performance. If I remember correctly, the leaders of the club thought that it was so scary to watch that a member of the viewing public might have a heart attack and there were questions about whether the club might then be liable. I don't know if we even developed a name for it, but here's how it went:. Two Harleys would start at extreme opposite ends of the showgrounds and accelerate absolutely flat out towards each other. From the grandstand it would appear that a terrible head-on collision was imminent as these bikes reached 60 mph (about 100 km/h) tearing towards each other. What the crowd could not see was that the bikes were aiming to actually pass each other with about 3cm gap between their handlebar tips. The instant the handlebars had passed, each rider would lock the back wheel and drop the bike violently down onto its side and slide to a halt in a tremendous cloud of dust. We even discussed (but never practised with) using pyrotechnics such as smoke bombs to make the apparent collision look even more realistic. The idea was that the riders would then lie there unmoving while the commentator was saying something like, "Do you think it is just possible that one of these riders might have survived?" Then after a suitably long pause they would both jump up, place the bikes on their side-stands, and take a bow. When we tried it out at the Ballarat Airport practice ground it really did look incredibly exciting.
Teamwork and Training: The key thing about the Stunt Team was that it really was a team. Several members mainly worked on setting up all the props for other members to use. Another member was always the commentator - an important role to keep the crowd excited. Although I rode some of the stunts some of the time, I spent more time out on the arena assisting with set up. It was important that if you wanted the role of being a performer that you also went regularly to practises and assisted with the upkeep and maintenance of the team's bikes. I haven't really covered the training anywhere else, but when one aspired to join the Stunt Team one was required to attend quite a few training sessions before one was "in". The first part of the training was probably the most important ... it was called "How to Fall Off," and was probably the most important lesson I ever learned in my whole motorcycling career. Veteran stunt riders showed us stunts called the "Commando's Roll" for one. We watched other riders do it from a run and then from a bike. At first you just ran along in your leathers and helmet and fell on the ground while running. We had to hit the ground rolling and kind of roll over our own shoulders. Then we had to squat on the back luggage rack of a moving Harley and deliberately fall off. Later we were taught how to drop a bike or "lay it down." This meant that while riding the bike, you suddenly hit the back brake to cause a skid and slewed the bike around so that it fell down on its side sliding wheels first in the general direction in which you had just been travelling. This action placed the bike between you and whatever you might have been going to hit and as it placed the wheels first, if you hit anything really solid, the wheels would collapse and absorb some of the shock of the collision. As all bikes had crash bars, these held the bike up off the ground and if you stayed with the bike you were pretty well out of harm's way. If you became separated from the bike you were supposed to do the rolls that I mentioned above. We were taught a lot of other things as well, but these two actions were the real life-savers that meant that injuries among the Stunt Team were exceptionally rare when you stop to consider what we did. They were real life-savers during the following years on race-tracks, roads and trails. I am eternally indebted to the Rovers Stunt Team for training me to know how to stay alive in the face of some pretty horrific things over the decades.
When Serendipity changed the Stunt: At one performance I was to be the last passenger to board the Harley "bus" and the grass on the oval where I was to do so was very wet and slippery and my running shoes had very little tread on them. As the Harley went by I leapt for the back luggage rack, but completely lost my footing and fell on the ground. This was entirely by accident, not by design, but the crowd loved it and the commentator really rose to the occasion as well. So I picked myself up and ran after the Harley and this time I deliberately missed and went rolling along on the ground again. The crowd was yelling for more, so I did it again. I lost count of how many times I fell off that Harley both in that performance and in several performances thereafter. Something completely unplanned, that was an accident on the day, became a regular part of several performances. Actually, this caused some interesting discussion among the stunt team members. The debate was over whether we should appear to be putting on a very professional and highly planned show (in which case the falling would look out of place), or whether we were supposed to be giving the crowd the best possible entertainment (in which case a bit of clowning was okay). Some days I was asked to mount the bike correctly, others I was told to have a few good falls. It basically depended on the commentator, who sometimes even called the shots during the actual stunt, after having sensed what the crowd on the day would like best. To do this, he would say something like, "Now last week at Bendigo, Dinger missed the Harley and fell off .... I just wonder whether he can make it today ..." Such a comment over the loudspeakers was a sign that I ought to take a tumble or two before doing it correctly.
Stunt Team Fellowship: An unforgettable part of being in the stunt team was the fellowship we shared as we camped together - frequently camping under the grandstands of the showgrounds at which we performed. Then there was the ride to the venue and the ride home again afterwards. Oh the stories that were told around campfires those evenings! Sometimes they seemed to get slightly taller with each re-telling. I have no idea whether it was a true story or an apocryphal one, however, I was gullible enough to believe it for a while, but one claim made a few times at different campfires was that Henry Becker had done the stunt riding for Steve McQueen during the filming of the Great Escape. There is no credit given in the actual credits of that film for who stood in as Stunt Man. Henry certainly had been in Europe following the road racing circuit at the time of the filming. [A recent Internet search turns up the story that the stunt was done by Bud Ekins, which seems far more likely. But it was a good story at the time, anyway.]
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