FROM OUR ARCHIVES: Bob Smith – the peoples’ champion

EVERY now and again there arises a rider who could hop on any bike and blast the hell out of his peers. Mike Hailwood was one, Bill Ivy another. But there’s another example – albeit a much lesser known one – who shared the majestic two-wheeled prowess of both Hailwood and Ivy – Bob Smith.

Words: Rachael Clegg Photographs: Smith Collection and Mortons Archive

Bob Smith was every part the gritty rider. He was a self-employed diesel fitter throughout the week and he raced at the weekend. Unlike the likes of Hailwood, however, Smith’s apprenticeship wasn’t on ex-works machines on race circuits, it was on St Helens A roads, dodging the region’s constabulary on his old BSA Rocket.

His widow, Lynda Smith, said: “Bob was so fast on the roads nobody would dare challenge him. They knew they couldn’t beat him. I remember once we were riding around some zigzag bends when a bike overtook us. That didn’t go down well with Bob. He changed gear, chased after the bike and overtook him. At the next set of lights the lad pulled up at the side of him, lifted his visor and said “f***** hell, if I’d known it was you I wouldn’t have overtaken.”

Bob leads into Scarborough’s Esses on the Suzuki RG 500, ahead of Steve Henshaw, Mark Salle and Paul Lewis.

She said: “I remember one time Bob telling me about the night he was doing his usual speeding through the centre of town, only he had a lad on the back of the bike this time. He had an audience so decided to pop a wheelie, taking the lad off-guard. The poor lad fell-off and went skidding down the road with sparks flying everywhere off his studded leather jacket.” This was, quite literally, road racing. But Bob’s uncontainable desire for speed didn’t go down too well with the police. Yet, it was thanks to the boys in blue that Smith’s potential as a racer was realised.

The more he craved speed, the more police attention he attracted until the only place left for him to satisfy his fast-pace appetite was on the race circuit. But he had fun on the roads, becoming ever more creative and canny throughout his cat-and-mouse pursuits with the local bobbies. Lynda tells the tale of one particular episode: “There was one time when the police visited Bob’s mum’s, knowing that he was living at his sister Judy’s at the time. They wanted Judy’s address. And by sheer coincidence, Judy had popped round to their mum’s for lunch that day. So Judy hid in the bathroom and her mum had to pretend that she didn’t know where Judy lived. She knew that Bob was in trouble again.”

It didn’t take the police long to obtain the information they needed, however. Meanwhile, Judy returned home that evening after work to find a half-eaten sandwich on the kitchen top, a leather jacket on the chair and the backdoor open. “She ran to the phone-box to call her mother to tell her she’d thought the police had taken Bob, said Lynda. Unbeknown to Judy, Bob was hiding in the attic.

While she was out her husband Harry came home. Bob had jumped down from the loft and was explaining why he was up there when the police knocked on the door again. Bob scrambled back up to the loft and Harry went into the bathroom, took his shirt off and covered his face in shaving foam before answering the door and apologising for taking his time. Judy returned from the phone box to find the police searching her house. She was berating them for harassing Bob while Harry was desperately trying to close the conversation in order to get rid of them.

After what must have felt like an eternity for Bob, he jumped down from her attic and said to Judy, “bloody hell, my legs were aching up there. I was trying to balance on a 100-year-old beam while you’re giving them a what-for.” Lynda believes they were chasing Bob for non-payment of fines from accumulated speeding offences. “He was just a speed freak,” she said.

She would know. Lynda was often Bob’s co-pilot, riding pillion as he tore up various Liverpool lanes.

“There was one time when we were heading straight for a double-decker bus, which had stopped across our path and was blocking the road. But being a veteran of road traffic accidents, Lynda kept her calm. “I was strangely relaxed about it but somehow Bob managed to mount the pavement and get between the bus and the wall and continued along as if it was the most normal thing in the world to him”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bob lost his licence.

“It was because he was caught so many times riding too fast on the roads,” says Lynda. “And it was after losing his licence that he thought it was time he tried racing on a track. After all, his mum and dad always said: “Why don’t you just go on a track and get all this out of your system?”

But with no licence, transportation to race circuits was somewhat tricky. “His dad had to drive us to race meetings in his old Bedford van,” says Lynda. “But he gained his licence again eventually and he’d drive to all the race meetings,” she said. “We started out with an old butcher’s van and that was brilliant because it was so well-insulated. We’d have the bike in the back buffered by the mattress so we had something to sleep on when the bike came out,” she said.

“It was all very make-do-and-mend but we had a laugh. We had another van but that didn’t have a heater in it and we were always driving over the M62 so we hit on the idea of using a Calor gas bottle with a pipe attached and a grill at the end to keep warm as we travelled along. You can’t imagine that now, can you? A van, a bike full of fuel and a gas heater blasting away? It was dangerous but so good to be warm.”

Lynda can remember Smith’s first race. “It was Aintree and he was racing with my late brother-in law Malc, who was my sister’s husband and Bob’s best friend. They both broke down within the first lap but Bob loved it all: the buzz in the paddock and being surrounded by like-minded people, all out to tear around the track with no restrictions on speed.” This inaugural blast was a defining moment in Smith’s life. The only roads that mattered from now were race circuits. Gone were the Lancashire A roads. “He was eager to get out on the track again to see how he could compete against other riders of a similar ilk. He knew it was the best place to enjoy his obsession with speed without getting into trouble with the law.”

She said: “He was so excited and absolutely buzzing when he finished racing. He was finally free to go as fast as he wanted. Speed was in his blood but the roads were the wrong environment. On the track he’d found his home.” He clearly settled in well. At club level, Bob won most of the races he entered. Bob’s brother-in-law, Mike Frodsham, said: “Bob was sensational on track and had he not been killed he would have gone on to much bigger things. Rumour had it that he won as many as 50 races at Cadwell Park in the mid-Seventies.” Indeed, the statistics back this up.

It was around this time that Bob, following the suggestion of fan and friend Deane McHale, stuck spotty stickers on his bike to raise his profile. It worked, and soon Bob was known as ‘Spotty Smith’, with huge polka dots on his livery.

Over the next few years ‘Spotty Smith’s’ racing progressed to the point where he attracted sponsorship from local motorcycle dealership Hindley Motorcycles and, with their backing, purchased an ex-Ron Haslam TZ 750. Armed with his new machine, Bob soon started turning heads in the paddock and secured further sponsorship with George McQuillan of Marmac Engineering, with the addition of an RG 500 Suzuki. And then things really took off.

In 1979 Bob came second behind Keith Huewen – now a Moto GP commentator – in the ACU British Solo Championship. It was also during this year that Bob raced the Dunstall Suzuki and travelled to Australia to compete in the Swann International Series. As ever, Lynda was by his side. She was his wife, manager and – most importantly – his catering chief. “I was always doing something. Whether it would be making cups of tea for people, cooking Scouse, taking timings or collecting tyres, I was always getting stuck in.” This tight team, complemented by his trusted mechanic Alan Gregory and sponsor George McQuillan, competed under the Marmac Racing banner. This marked a crucial stage in Smith’s career: it allowed him to raise the bar. And boy, did he raise it, above all odds too, as Lynda says: “He actually broke a bone in his neck in one of the Swann Series races but typically Bob continued to compete in all the remaining races.” His efforts paid off in spades.

In 1980 he was crowned winner of the Stars at Darley Moor. In 1981 he won the British ACU Solo Championship on his TZ 750 Yamaha and was three times Cock o’ the North winner at Oliver’s Mount in Scarborough from 1979 to 1983. Local businesses Majestic Aluminium, PM Roberts DIY and Hughes and Porter helped Smith along the way too. But perhaps one of the most long-standing and fraternal sponsorship arrangements was with Gary Bryan – creator of the RGB Weslake. Bryan became one of Bob’s closest allies, providing him with a Weslake to ride. Bryan travelled across the country – as well as far-flung circuits such as Daytona – with Bob and Lynda. Perhaps inevitably, Bob and Bryan became close friends, as Bryan said: “We had a great time together. Bob was such a good man and always had time for people. He was so relaxed and kind. If people brought their kids to see his bike he’d sit them on it. “They were good times,” he said. “We’d sit and chat with other riders for hours but that’s how it was back then.”

A testament to this is Lynda’s personal photograph collection of Bob, in which Bryan is almost a permanent fixture, along with Lynda, of course. “I went everywhere with Bob, I was part of it,” she said. But if Smith was a loyal husband and friend, he was promiscuous when it came to his machine. In addition to the Weslake he rode a TZ 750, the Dunstall, and RG 500s, as well as 250, 350, Maxton Rotax and Nortons.

“He always loved the Weslake,” said Lynda. “It was a brilliant bike and he just took to it. Bob always said that he loved the way the machine handled. He always had a good time racing the bike and of course, it helped that he and Gary got on so well.” Bryan said: “I always admired the way Bob rode. He was a natural with no sense of fear. He loved racing at Cadwell, Donington and Oliver’s Mount,” he said. “They were among his favourite circuits.”

Bob’s leaning was clearly towards the weaving, road-like circuits with undulations and narrow tracks. “He loved the Ulster too,” said Lynda. “He really appealed to the Irish fans and if we ever went to a pub over there we just couldn’t buy a drink – everyone was buying them for us. They loved him.”

Physically, Bob cut an approachable but striking appearance. He was far from tall and his sharp-featured face was adorned by sideburns and an earring in one ear. His attire was seldom smart, opting for oily overalls or jeans as his standard uniform. He was, in many ways, a prototype Guy Martin only without the television series and the range of bobble hats. In other words, Bob was fearlessly and unapologetically his own man. And it was the same fearlessness that proved to be a vital component of his success as a racer.

An old press cutting from a local paper in 1981 reported how Bob climbed to the top of the British Championships at Donington despite having fractured his wrist only two weeks earlier at Oulton Park. The report, which came with the headline ‘Bob beats pain zone on way to title’ reads as such: “Bob, from Fleet Lane, Parr, defied his injury taking off the plaster the next day, then he took a week to accustom himself to the pain and it certainly paid dividends.” The news story went on to point out that while most of Smith’s competitors were on works bikes, ‘the lad from Parr was on one of his own.’

Success followed success from this point on. Bob’s crowning as 1981 ACU British Solo champion attracted much attention. The following year he was asked to compete in the Transatlantic Trophy as part of the UK team. This, of course, was quite an honour. Many riders aspired to compete in the event, though few had the privilege of doing so. His team-mates were Barry Sheene, John Newbold, Ron Haslam, Roger Marshall, Graham Wood, Steve Henshaw, Chris Guy, Keith Huewen and Gary Lingham. Together, these riders beat the US team with 491 points compared with the States’ 313. 1982 was also the year Smith won the first ever UK Battle of the Twins, riding the Gary Bryan RGB Weslake.

Within seven years Bob had gone from being chased by the police in St Helens to riding against the world’s greatest motorcycle stars such as Freddie Spencer, Marco Lucchinelli, Randy Mamola and Graziano Rossi. Roger Marshall, 12-times British Champion and Bob’s friend and fellow racer, remembers it well: “He qualified for the Transatlantic Trophy in 1982 and that was quite something. It was every rider’s dream in England at the time. He raced as part of the British team against the Americans and there’s a lovely picture of us all sat on a wall together.”

Intertwined with Smith’s lack of fear was his sheer speed. Steve Parrish, 1976 British Solo Championship winner, said: “I can remember Smith in a race at a damp Donington making everyone – including Barry Sheene – look very slow.” Such was Smith’s speed that it set him apart even from the fastest men on two wheels. Indeed, Smith’s results did the talking, not him. Even on a modest budget, with what Roger Marshall described as a ‘compact team’ he was finishing among the top five in most rounds he competed in.

Wayne Gardner, 1987 500cc World Champion, was also one of Bob’s competitors. Gardner raced against Bob at Cadwell in 1981 and at several races at Donington during the early Eighties. He said: “Bob was always fast, it seemed that he was always popping up beside me on the track. I’d be like ‘bugger, he’s there again. He was a quality rider and a real gentleman on the track. You never had to worry about him taking you out or if you ended up leaning on a corner if he was there you weren’t going to end up off the track.”

Smith did actually beat Gardner at Oliver’s Mount in 1981. “He was an unsung hero,” he said. Indeed, the Motor Cycle News report of the event reads: “Aussie Wayne Gardner led the second MCN Superbike leg on his ‘sit up and beg’ Moriwaki Kawasaki till half distance, when inevitably, Sheene clocked another record lap and pulled away. Sheene squirted by on the drop from Memorial. And four laps from the end Smith did likewise to take second and clinch the Geoff Barry Trophy for the best superbike performance by a British non-works rider. Smith was only half a second ahead of Gardner, at the flag. And on-form Steve Parrish was right up Gardner’s pipes.” Bob finished second in that race, Gardner finished third.

But while fast on the track, Smith’s character was stationed in a bygone era of racing. As the paddock atmosphere soared towards the gleaming, branded, televised RV jungle we know it as today, many racers adopted a media-savvy persona, but not Smith. On the contrary, he was the antithesis of the likes of Sheene. He didn’t dance the dance; he didn’t talk the talk. He had a compact, efficient team with modest pockets. Marketing, PR – terms synonymous with racing in post late Seventies era – were as alien to Bob as Bob’s modesty was to the Sheene-splattered spotlight of the day. “Bob was a great rider but it’s hard to say where he would have gone with his racing because he didn’t have that showmanship that was so important at the time. It was like he was a misfit in that era,” said Gardner.

Instead, Smith was either messing with the bike or on the track, as wife Lynda says: “Bob didn’t like the limelight and in a way this held him back a bit. He wasn’t a smooth talking-type person. Bob was only interested in racing the bike and talking to his fans. He was always ‘one of the lads’.”

For Roger Marshall, Smith’s down-to-earth attitude was always worthy of admiration: “Bob was a really interesting character. He kept himself to himself and I always admired the way he went about his business. He always had his sideburns and always had a cap pushed into the top of his leathers. In fact, I can remember seeing BBC or ITV footage of a race at Oulton Park and at that time, if your bike broke down either just before the start line or just before the finish line you could push it to cross the line. I can remember seeing footage of Bob doing this at the start. The film shows Bob leaning his bike against a wall and him taking his helmet off and by the time his helmet was off he’d whipped out a cap that was tucked in his leathers and popped it on his head.” Lynda said: “He always had his cap stuffed in his leathers. There was even a time when he fell off and he’d somehow managed to get his cap on before the marshal got there. He never went without his hat.”

Bob was rarely seen in anything other than his ‘uniform’: jeans or overalls. “I can remember him being invited to present a trophy at a motorcycle club dinner. He said he’d do it as long as he didn’t have to wear a suit or make a speech and they agreed. He lived in jeans and T-shirts and only ever wore a suit twice, the day we were married and at a sportsman’s dinner with his then sponsor George McQuillan. Bob, ever the rebel, was the only one photographed sat at the table minus his tie,” said Lynda.

His motorcycle racing efforts were no different. There is a picture of Bob at the start of his racing career with a can of Newcastle Brown Ale wedged in his machine to help catch oil but evidently, these tricks seemed to work. His racing prowess, particularly at Oliver’s Mount, was such that in 1981 he won the road circuit’s Spring Cup, a race that still holds significance today: the circuit has renamed the event The Spring Cup Bob Smith Trophy Races. It’s a fitting decision and a long overdue one. Oliver’s Mount was the circuit Bob loved most, but it was also the circuit that claimed his life.

Not only did Smith beat Wayne Gardner at Oliver’s Mount, later in the same year he would beat motorcycling pin-up and PR boy Barry Sheene. What’s more, he did it in front of 30,000 fans.

Motor Cycle News’ report from the race reads as such: “Sheene set the record busting ball rolling by setting a new outright circuit record in Saturday’s 1000cc final. But it was Bob Smith who did the winning.”

The report continues: “Having overcome all sorts of handling problems in practice, Smith got his four-year-old Yamaha into pole position after winning the quickest heat.” And as Sheene was boxed in, the St Helens rider built up a four-second lead. As Sheene charged through passing Marshall and Steve Henshaw to close on to Smith’s back wheel, Smith had Sheene’s tactics sussed out. He never gave Sheene a look at an inside line on the hairpins. Said Smith: “He showed his nose on the outside on the final hairpin but couldn’t quite make it.” So Smith won by a tenth of a second.’ Clearly, by the early Eighties, Bob Smith’s motorcycle fame was sealed. It was as if his dreams were coming to be fulfilled, full circle.

Even as a young boy, Bob would mess about with motorcycles. Mal Howarth, a local sponsor who attended the same secondary school as Bob, Whiston Central, said: “Even at school Bob was into bikes. I can remember when he was about 12 or 13 and he’d be mucking about with field bikes.”

And from being a teenager, his hero was Mike Hailwood. So it proved a touching and significant turn of events when Sports Motorcycles – which backed Mike Hailwood’s ‘Comeback TT’ in 1978 – was to back Bob in 1983.

Brother-in-law Mike Frodsham says: “Bob travelled to Japan for the Suzuka eight-hour race along with Lynda, sponsor Steve Wynne and team-mate Tony Rutter to ride the Kenny’s Sports Motorcycles Ducati. There’s a great picture of Bob carrying a Union Jack marching through the paddock. His career just rocketed around 1982 and 1983, securing sponsorship with Dennis Pratt Racing and the addition of brand new RG500 Suzukis,” says Frodsham. “He was really starting to look the part too. In photographs you can see him with the sponsored leathers on. He was becoming accustomed to the press, though it was the results that did the speaking.”

Such was Bob’s growing gravitas that even Barry Sheene’s wife, Steph, was reported to have said it was almost as satisfying to see the happy faces of Team Bob Smith after he beat Barry than it would have been if Barry had won. But Smith’s fame went well beyond the UK. One fan – Roland Herrmann – from the German Democratic Republic wrote to ‘Sir Bob Smith’ expressing his admiration of the Lancastrian rider. As travel restrictions in the Soviet-ruled GDR prohibited Herrmann from ever seeing Smith, he asked Smith for his photo and autograph. Sadly, the letter arrived too late.

On Sunday, September 18, at Oliver’s Mount during the 1983 500cc British Championship round, Smith was killed, aged 32. The location and timing of his death were ironic: it was his beloved circuit, one on which he shone, and just as he was starting his ascension to much bigger things.

“We never knew what happened,” said Lynda. “But there was one time I went to see a spiritualist with a friend and while I am normally a sceptic about these, something very strange happened that day… The spiritualist said there was a ‘Robert’ who wanted to speak to me and kept mentioning the word ‘throttle’. I didn’t think much of it until recently, when a courier came to deliver a parcel. The courier noticed the Bob Smith sticker on my front door and said that he was marshalling at Oliver’s Mount on the day Bob was killed. He didn’t realise I was Bob’s wife and went on to tell me that Bob just went straight on at the hairpin, in a manner that looked as if his throttle had got stuck.”

After his death, Barry Sheene wrote to Lynda and even penned a short piece on Bob after his death for Motorcycle Weekly. In it he wrote: “I was horrified to hear on Monday morning of the tragic death of Bob Smith at Scarborough on Sunday. It’s so sad and ironic that Bob should be killed at the circuit he loved most. His death is a sad loss to his wife Lynda and to the sport in general.”

He continued: “It was at Scarborough a few years ago where I realised just how good Bob was. For many years he was greatly underrated and his ability never got the chance to be seen because he couldn’t afford good tackle.”

Of course, just before his death, Bob had started to attract strong sponsorship, as Sheene pointed out: “For the past couple of years since he got some sponsorship and could afford good bikes, he was a real force to be reckoned with, as his British Championship title proved. He was quiet and unassuming. It was his results that did the talking and I, for one, will miss him.” Indeed most people who came to learn of ‘Spotty Smith’ have missed him, even those who didn’t know him. Smith proved that a man from nowhere, with no budget, could rise to the top. And he continues to inspire people. On a site dedicated to the St Helens speed freak one anonymous local fan posted a poem that read: “Suddenly, out of the darkness of another boring sodium-lit night on the streets of Parr, sparks would ignite as the Douglas Dragonfly grounded its pegs around the sharp, dangerously rutted ‘Oddfellows’ bend. The rider wrestled the ill-handling machine, teasing out more performance than was ever intended. In a split second blur of soundtrack and speed he had battered the corner into submission. He now owned it. And off he sped… to his next task, nailing it round the ‘Horse Shoe’. ‘Aye, that will be Bob then, said the teenager looking on in awe, ‘aye, that was Bob.”

Indeed it was, blasting the hell out of his bike. And it didn’t matter what bike that was. Because that’s what Bob did best.

 

Comments

comments