Rennie Scaysbrook | July 17, 2022

Cycle News Archives


Pat Hennen in Australia

In a road racing career that lasted just six short years, the Pat Hennen star shone brightly until that fateful day on the Isle of Man, just minutes after completing the first-ever round in less than 20 minutes.

Hennen had ex-British racer Ron Grant to thank for opening the doors that quickly led to plum racing, but there was also a very strong Down Under influence in his early star racing years.

Through the Coleman family, Suzuki importers in New Zealand, highly competitive Suzukis entered the NZ Marlboro International Series, contested over the Christmas and New Year period, which he won three years in a row. from 1975 to 1977.

Over the second “bump” on Conrod Straight, Pat Hennen leads Australian veteran Ron Toombs. Photos: Independent Observations Archive

His first year in New Zealand was the 1972/73 season, before the advent of the Marlboro Series where he rode what was called the Sayonara Special, a motorcycle based on the Suzuki TR500 built by John Allnatt. But while the Kiwi Series was hard fought, it was mostly on small tracks (the longest being Pukekohe at 2.5 miles), and in the southern hemisphere the big daddy of all tracks was Mount Panorama at Bathurst, three hours west of Sydney.

Mount Panorama was born in 1938 and went on to become the annual Easter destination for the cream of Australasian runners and tens of thousands of spectators. In the early 1970s, Mount Panorama was undergoing a transformation from a traditional battleground for former British bachelors and twins to a place for the very latest in Japanese rocketry. In 1974, that meant Formula 750.

The four-mile lap featured a steep climb up the mountain with an equally steep descent on the quaintly named but ferociously fast Conrod Straight, invented for its ability to thunderously extract the internals of many engines. This straight line contained two bumps that sent the front wheels skyrocketing on the next-gen 750s and required a big heart to keep the right hand from releasing the throttle.

Held just weeks after Daytona, where the Yamaha TZ750s arrived to show off the Suzuki and Kawasaki 750 triples, Easter Bathurst was a very different place than it had been before. No less than 11 of the new Yamahas were entered for the main race, the 20-lap Grand Prix Unlimited, including one for Hennen’s mentor, Ron Grant.

Australia’s top two riders, Gregg Hansford and Warren Willing, had both competed at Daytona on their new Yamahas and started as big favorites. Against the Yamahas were Kawasaki H2Rs for veterans Ron Toombs and Kiwi Ginger Molloy, as well as the New Zealand-built Suzuki TR750, with Hennen in the saddle. The Suzuki had been built by chassis wizard Steve Roberts, with funding from Rod Coleman, and in the incredibly capable hands of Geoff Perry it was a very competitive machine. When 23-year-old Perry lost his life in a plane crash in July 1973, the TR750 was initially mothballed until a decision was made to bring it and Hennen to Bathurst for Easter 1974.

Pat Hennen and Ron Toombs 1976/77
Hennen winning the final race and Pan Pacific Series from Toombs to Adelaide in 1975.

There were actually three races on the schedule for the fancy new 750s, starting with Formula Unlimited, which was held over two rounds of eight laps. Typically, most of the practice sessions had been wet, leaving little valuable time for the dry setup to adapt to the good weekend conditions. In the first race on Saturday morning, Hennen defied the odds to pull through a terrible start to snatch second place behind Hansford and ahead of Willing and nine other TZ750s. Race two on Sunday morning saw Hansford win again, this time from Willing, with Hennen on the grandstand in third place after again missing the start.

There was no free space on the fence around the circuit as the field of the inaugural GP Unlimited lined up on Sunday afternoon. This time, Hennen was finally able to get the Suzuki off the line cleanly, and he was right with the leaders at the end of the first lap.

The peloton quickly split into two groups, with Hansford and Willing on top of each other, and Hennen trading blows with Toombs – the rest of the crowded peloton falling further and further back. For the entire 20 laps, Hansford and Willing swapped places, as did Hennen and Toombs, but the long travel (and 190mph speeds on Conrod Straight) punished the Suzuki’s rear tire.

With a handful of laps to go, Pat glanced at the crash barrier coming out of the final corner on the start/finish straight. There was nothing to do but let Toombs go as he nursed the rotting rubber to the end. Judging this corner to perfection on the final run to the line, Willing beat Hansford by half a length, setting a new all-time lap record of 2:23.35 – nine seconds quicker than the previous mark and just short of the magic 100 mph lap average.

Pat Hennen and Warren Willing
Hennen harasses Warren Willing at Ruapuna in the 1976/77 Marlboro New Zealand series.

This race went down in the books as one of the most exciting in the history of the circuit and it is still talked about today. And although Willing and Hansford grabbed the bulk of the money (the richest purse in Australian racing), Pat Hennen covered himself in glory and embarked on the path to stardom that would see him become the first winner of the American Grand Prix, in Finland, in 1976.

Despite his growing focus on the European stage, Hennen remained a familiar figure in Australia, contesting the Pan Pacific Series in late 1974 on a Kawasaki borrowed from fellow American Hurley Wilvert and winning the series at the very last corner of the race. final in Adelaide after yet another race-long battle with 41-year-old Toombs.NC

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