Ireland has produced more than its fair share of top motorcycle racers over the years, and Eddie Laycock is one who made it all the way. His story is one of many ups and downs: here’s part 1.
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Words: Mark McCloskey
Photographs: Don Morley, Eddie Laycock
Motorcycles came to Eddie Laycock at an early age, in fact he had just turned 11 when he got his hands on a BSA Bantam.
He enlisted the help of a neighbour, who was a spannerman for racer Denis Clancy, to check it over and get it started. Eddie’s maiden run was outside the house with mum watching: the throttle stuck open and he shot forward, completely out of control and ended up smashing into a tree.
Eddie was soon back in the saddle, scorching a Honda 50 around a local farmer’s field, with his mates in tow –Eddie was by far the fastest.
His first decent machine was a Bridgestone 175. Most of his mates were riding the larger and faster Yamaha 350cc R5s, but Eddie found that despite their advantage he could beat them easily.
As a 16-year-old, the weekend usually involved a bunch of the lads heading off together to Wexford, 100 miles south, where the bikes were used on makeshift dirt tracks, or beaches.
A trip to The Skerries 100 was Eddie’s touchstone moment. It was his first experience of road-racing and he was transfixed by what he saw: “I really have to do this!”
Within a few short months Eddie had bought an RD350, and, being too young to obtain a race licence, forged his dad’s signature on the application, got himself a licence and headed to Mondello Park. This was 1979 and on Eddie’s first outing he was delighted to take home a trophy for a 3rd place finish. The rest of that season saw Eddie taking a series of 3rds but, when his dad appeared at the last race of the year, Eddie went one better and took a runner-up place.
In 1980 Eddie purchased a GS1000 Suzuki, notching up some wins while riding it to each meeting! Eddie’s first road-race application, to the 1981 Skerries 100, was refused thanks to a lack of experience, but his second to Fore in Co. Westmeath, was accepted. From then on Eddie was to be seen at every race north and south, always mixing it at the front. While working as a mechanic in Bob Sheeran’s motorcycle shop in Rathgar, Eddie heard that Mark Carter’s race-ready TZ was coming up for sale. Eddie bought it ‘on tick’ and entered it for the TT.
TT 1982 was disappointing, with retirements in both the Junior and Senior. He didn’t return until two years later, when – while visiting as a spectator – he chatted with Johnny Rea and Joe Millar and culminated offers of machines to race from both. Eddie chose Joe Millar’s TZ500 Yamaha and picked it up on his way to the Killinchy 150 (held on the lengthy and super-fast Ulster Grand Prix circuit) where he impressed by coming home 4th, so much so that Joe Millar told him he could hold onto the TZ for the rest of the year.
Additional sponsorship came in 1985 from Gerry Lawlor who then, in 1986, bought the Ex-Gene McDonnell EMC250 for Eddie to race. This was as well as a smart TZ350 which was provided by Kevin Cotter. It was on the EMC, at the 1986 North West, that Eddie recorded his first international win. The conditions were patchy and by the end of lap one (no chicanes back then) Eddie was lying in 2nd just behind Joey.
Then on lap two, as they exited the roundabout, Eddie took the lead and started to pull a gap. A lap later Joey crashed out and while Eddie also recorded a 2nd place later that day, this win stands out: “I suppose it was a combination of having always looked over at Joey’s immaculate Rothmans Hondas and the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of winning against such an icon of the sport, that found me almost bewildered as I mounted the podium to collect the 1st place trophy.”
Eddie could now be considered for international events, including at Grand Prix level. The North West put Eddie in great form as he headed for the TT. He and Gene McDonnell were firm friends: when Eddie was queueing up to collect his prize money at the North West, Gene nodded at his old bike and said: ‘That’s some EMC, can I buy it back from you?’
A fuel starvation issue forced Eddie’s retirement from the Junior race at the TT and, while sitting out the rest of the race word reached him a landing air-ambulance had startled a horse which leapt a gate onto the circuit, colliding with Gene, killing him instantly.
Eddie met with Gene’s main sponsor Joe Millar and shortly thereafter Joe offered him Gene’s TZ350 to ride in the Formula 2 race at the Ulster GP. This was to be Eddie’s first ever race in the World F2 Championship. On practice day Eddie bumped into well-liked Aussie Graeme McGregor, a seasoned competitor in the F2 Championship and also on a TZ350, who quipped: “I trust you’ll help out during the race?”
In fact Eddie took pole position and then, in a sodden, drizzly race, led from the front to record an emphatic win. Eddie recalled: “My first run was in practice for the F2 race at Ulster. I was totally ‘wow!’ I knew when I went down the flying kilometre on Wednesday that I had the race won.”
It was to be a terrific debut F2 season for Eddie with rounds at Jerez and Estoril and he missed out on the championship by a single point to Brian Reid. Eddie was delighted, as was Joe who invited him to join Team Millar as a full-time rider. Eddie finished off the 1986 season at Killalane with a win in the 350cc class followed by a win in the Grand Final.
Things looked good for 1987, but racing seemed a long way away. Then during the winter, Eddie received a call from Joe Millar: ‘Do you fancy doing Daytona?’ This was a big eye-opener for Eddie. As luck would have it, he arrived at the circuit just as Freddie Spencer was heading out onto the track for a lengthy practice session, so Eddie positioned himself at the ideal spot to study Fast Freddie’s lines, his moves, his braking points and throttle responses. Eddie used this to great effect during practice and even more so in the race when he piloted the EMC250 to a hugely impressive 4th place: “Sure, it was great to leave wet, miserable Ireland for sunny Daytona but the real bonus was returning and having so many race miles done in prep for the season ahead, compared to all the others who wouldn’t have turned a wheel since the previous October!”
North West 200
Then it was back home for the 1987 North West 200 where the previous year Eddie had won the 350cc Race 2, and won it again in 1987 and then finished 5th in the Superbike. This allowed him to feel set-up for the TT a week later. This was Eddie’s first full year riding for Joe Millar and he took a superb win on the EMC in the Junior TT. Eddie recalled: “As I rounded the Creg I spotted Brian Reid’s helmet disappearing around the next bend and, because he’d started 30 seconds before me, knew I had it in the bag!”
This was followed on Tuesday by a 2nd in the 350 Formula 2, just behind Steve Hislop. Then, on the FZR750 he finished 12th in the F1 on Saturday followed by a 10th in the Senior. It may all sound like a relatively smooth TT but Eddie recalls a big moment in practice: “I was fairly barrelling as I came up to The Highlander on the FZR750 when, completely without warning, the motor let go and a con rod smashed through the engine casings dumping all four litres onto the tarmac and my back wheel. It was a case of clutch in, feet down, I reckon I got the brown shorts award that day!”
That event could have ended his F1 and Senior ambitions had Steve Parrish not provided the replacement parts for a complete rebuild.
Back home the season continued apace, with Eddie usually there or thereabouts in the road-racing results at all events, and pretty soon it was Ulster GP time again. Shortly before first practice Eddie was introduced to the newest and latest Dunlop tyre. It was quite different as it had a somewhat more triangular profile than usual. He didn’t give it much thought but on the second lap the new rear tyre had heated and expanded differently than previous ones and began to rub against the swingarm and, just after Ireland’s Corner, caused the bike to throw itself against the bank, leaving Eddie with a broken collar-bone.
He still managed to finish out the remainder of the 1987 season with races at Carrowdore and Killalane as well as the Powerbike International at Brands Hatch in October where he took 2nd place on the EMC250.
It was at this event that he watched Wayne Gardner on the NSR500. It was a spectacular piece of machinery and he commented to Millar: “Wow! Just imagine the damage I could do on that thing!” Not two months later Eddie received a call from Joe, asking him to call round. “When I arrived, there was the Gardner NSR500. It was bought solely for the 1988 roads season, but then I said: ‘Let’s do the Jerez GP!’”
Eddie wasted no time and was well inside the points on the last lap at Jerez, when he pushed it just a bit too hard and crashed. He instantly dashed over to the bike and picked it up, and in doing so popped his collar bone out again. Luckily for Eddie he was flown out to see a specialist and get the injury plated. Two days after the operation, Eddie was at the North West signing on: Billy Nutt insisted that Eddie perform 30 press-ups before he would be allowed to practice. Eddie would take a 5th place finish on the EMC250 and 2nd in the Superbike race on the NSR.
The following week the TT began, where, during practice, one of the screws in his shoulder came adrift and made its way down his chest, stopping two inches beside his left nipple. Thankfully this didn’t prevent him taking the Yamaha 400 to 5th in the Production Class D, followed by 3rd in the Junior on the EMC, and then 8th in the Senior on the NSR. Later that year when the plate was removed, no sign of the screw could be found!
Eddie recorded firm results throughout 1988, with finishes at Spa, Donington, Hockenheim and most European GPs. He skipped Estoril to race the Ulster where he’d qualified on the front row for both 250 races and recalls sitting in the back of the van with Joey, who was feeling pretty down as he’d just missed out on the TT F1 World Championship to Carl Fogarty by a single point. Then the distant sound of machines made the two lads sit bolt upright with the realisation that their race was getting under way without them. Eddie dashed out of the van, grabbing his lid, thanking the stars that the NSR500 was already warmed up on the dummy grid and he managed to catch up with the back of the grid on the siting lap.
In the race Steve Cull took an early lead with Joey and Eddie chasing and then catching him. Eddie had his head down and kept pulling away from the rest of the field, finishing 12 seconds ahead of 2nd place Joey with a new record lap of 121.7mph. “Joey looked up at me on the podium,” recalls Eddie saying ‘Jeez, you robbed me!’ So, I said: ‘Aww God, you have to let me get one win, Joey!’”
Over the winter, thanks to Millar, a new EMC250 arrived alongside the NSR as well as an ex-Roger Burnett Honda RC30. The first outing of 1989 was Daytona in March and despite good qualifying and similarly good race pace the EMC’s motor seized while Eddie was lying in 3rd. Returning to Europe and on the RC30 at Donington, Eddie took the advice of Clive Padgett and popped out the rev-limiter which increased the redline from 11,500 to 13,000 but he happened to miss a gear and caused huge damage to the engine. Ouch!
Eddie then found himself in Mettet, Belgium, competing in King of the Road, (he got 4th and 2nd places) then straight home for the North West. The NSR was flying and was clocked at 183mph on the run to Metropole, and looked certain of a win, but a misfire meant he had to settle for 3rd, but not before setting an all-new lap record at 118.35mph.
Determined to make amends, Eddie was leading the race, when passing Metropole the engine died allowing Steve Hislop and Robert Dunlop to shoot past. The motor fired up again so he tore off after the two leaders, passed them both and started to pull away again when, passing the Metropole the motor suddenly died again. It was later discovered that the fault was as a result of the frequency being used by the radio marshal at Metropole interfering with the electronic ignition. With it wrapped in foil, Eddie went on to take 3rd in race two.
In the grand final, Eddie took off on the NSR and established a lead, but on lap four on the run down to Metropole, lapping at 118mph, the bike seized and the machine screeched to a halt. Hislop would win even if he still thought Eddie had!
At the TT Eddie arrived with the EMC250, the NSR and the RC30 in determined mood. Eddie was far more comfortable on the NSR than on the RC30, so when he had a retirement on the Honda in the F1, it wasn’t devastating. Next race was the Junior and he was lying in 2nd just behind friend Hislop: he pulled alongside and the two jumped Ballaugh Bridge together, nodding at each other as they did so.
Hislop suddenly crashed out spectacularly and was catapulted through the air, right beside Eddie’s EMC, nearly taking him out as well. At the end of that lap Eddie pulled in for fuel and was screaming at his pit crew, tears in his eyes convinced him that Hizzy was dead. “What are you talking about,” they said. “He’s fine! The marshals radioed in, he’s fine!” Sure enough on the next lap, there was Hizzy, sitting on the bank, big grin, thumbs up. Eddie finished 2nd to Johnny Rea by three seconds having lost time tangling with Hizzy.
Mick Grant had asked Eddie if he’d like to take Jamie Whitham’s RGV250 out in the Supersport 400 race. At that time Dave Leach held the lap record at 107mph in the SS400 class and was the man to beat. Eddie sandbagged in practice, slowing for parts the lap to keep the times down. Suffice to say Eddie took a superb win well ahead of 2nd place Graeme McGregor. He went on to take 5th spot in the Senior to round off a personally satisfying 1989 TT.
After the TT it was straight home for Killinchy, on the Ulster circuit, where he won the first Junior race on the EMC, broke down in the second Junior (Rea won that one) and took 4th in the grand final aboard the NSR.
1989 also included GP races at Assen and Le Mans but, as he finished outside the top 15, there were no championship points. He also managed a big crash at Donington which badly damaged his wrist and almost caused him to miss the Ulster GP where he again had the use of Whitham’s RGV250 for the Supersport 400 race. In this race he managed an opening lap of 107mph in the wet, won the race by 21.6 seconds and set the fastest lap at 110. He took 11th spot in the F1 race riding the RC30 and won The Prince of The Roads race on the EMC lapping at 111mph.
Eddie then piloted the NSR500 to 3rd spot in the Superbike race behind Foggy and Hizzy. Eddie rounded off the 1989 Irish season with a pair of wins at Mondello, ahead of Philip McCallen before heading, as a newcomer, to Macau in November.