26 Oct
26 October 2017

From Man to Manfeild

A British-born competitor at this weekend’s historic motorcycle racing event at Manfeild has quite a tale to tell.

Chris Swallow, a Yorkshireman who came to live in New Zealand seven years ago to teach physical education and a motorcycle-automotive course at a Tawa college, is the talk of his sport for setting a speed record at the Isle of Man Classic TT, a classic bike racing mecca event in August.

In nailing a lap average of a fraction over 160kmh on a BSA Gold Star, a bike that came into production in 1938 and was a staple of top-end racing for 20-odd years following, Swallow met a challenge that the machine’s New Zealand owner, Neville Wooderson, had sought to better for some years.

He’d initially involved another Kiwi, Paul Dobbs, who had cut his teeth on NZ tracks including Manfeild and was tragically killed on the Isle of Man course in 2010, but in the annual TT event for modern machines every May. 

‘Dobsy’ had ridden the Gold Star in the 2007 and 2008 Manx Grand Prix, but each time just fell tantalisingly short of achieving the magic ‘ton’.

Fast forward to 2017, with Swallow, who has raced annually on the Manx circuit since 2011, making a call to Wooderson to ask if he fancied another tilt.

Hopes were high; having bagged over the past two years the Modified Championship category of the New Zealand Classic Motorcycle Racing Register (NZCMRR) competition that is again played out at Manfeild this weekend, the bike seemed finally up to bagging the first 100 miles per hour average lap for a Gold Star.

“Paul started the journey and they got around in 98.9 miles per hour (159.1kmh) average, so that set the wheels in motion for the possibilities of what could be done,” said Swallow.

The bike isn’t quite as vintage as it looks, in that it was extensively re-engineered for racing and effectively replicates the original in its prime 1959 DBD34 guise. That didn’t make the feat any less impressive, the fearsome 60km course making no concession for age.

Swallow’s second race lap was on the money at 101.7mph (163.6kmh) and so was his race average of 100mph (160kmh), but it was hardly a fuss-free outing.

“We had a lot of problems actually. The bike was jumping out of third gear and we had a carburation problem. The bike ran well over the mountain where the air was thinner but we were a bit lean at sea level … the result of that was that it was quite hesitant and I couldn’t give it full throttle.

“So, I was absolutely astonished at the speed it went around at given those circumstances. I just kept my head down and attacking every corner (but) I thought it was going to be absolutely pathetic.”

Setting an Isle of Man record is an obvious highlight for a man who began racing classics in 2013, debuting on his dad’s Velocette.

Though the BSA won’t be here this weekend – it’s still coming back from the UK so he’ll ride a 1986 Ducati 600cc and a 350cc Aermacchi - undoubtedly the record-breaker will still be the main subject of conversation.

Swallow says he’s impressed by the level of enthusiasm for classic motorcycle racing here.

“The scene here is really strong, there are some fast bikes and riders. The sharp end would give all the top punters (in the UK) a go.”

The NZCMRR started 40 years ago and runs five race meetings per year, starting in February with a Trophy Festival at Pukekohe and wrapping up with this Spring Trophy Classic on Manfeild Circuit Chris Amon.

Cheryl Mickleson, an organiser for this weekend, says the rich diversity of old and often rare bikes is a fan magnet.

“In a single race you are able to see more than 20 motorcycles ranging in age from the 1930s or earlier through to the 1970s. 

“The meetings held over two days have seven different race classes taking to the track up to six times each.”

All the great brands are represented, including many lost to history – it’s the right place to see a Dunelt Montlhery, Benelli, Montessa and Moto Morini alongside those Harleys, Ducatis, Hondas and Yamahas.

“Last year the club made the Manfeild meeting into a Trophy celebration closing off the year’s events and that was a great success,” Mickleson says.

“This year we’re building onto this celebration with a BikeTranz North versus South Challenge, involving competitors from the CAMS South Island Classic Racing Organisation. It looks as though there will be close to 30 competitors heading north.”

Racing is undertaken on Saturday and Sunday and there is no admission charge and programmes are available.

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Caption: Chris Swallow in action on the Isle of Man record-setting BSA Gold Star.
Photo: Doug Cornes.