During the 1970s onwards there were plenty of privateers eager to challenge the factory Suzuki and Kawasaki riders, but there was one undoubted king of the underdogs – Dave Potter. Phil Wain charts his career.
Words: Phil Wain Photographs: Phil Wain and Mortons Archive-Nick Nicholls Collection
Originally from Hovingham in Yorkshire, Potter’s career got underway at Croft late in the 1969 season on a 500cc BSA, with his first wins coming the next year when he raced a 750cc Dunstall Norton. However, he was persuaded to move south, where he started working for Paul Dunstall and he soon struck a partnership with Vincent Davey of Gus Kuhn.
Riding the Kuhn Norton, Potter took the Lord of Lydden title in both 1971 and 1972 and it was in the latter where he really came to the fore on the British scene, winning the ACU British Championship. He also took sixth in that year’s MCN Superbike Championship with his best results being fourth at Mallory and on two occasions at Brands Hatch, whilst his efforts meant Kuhn picked up the dealer award.
Such was his progression, he was soon a member of the annual Anglo-American match races with his debut year, 1973, seeing him not only be the second-highest British scorer, and finish fifth overall, but also secure his first win when he took the chequered flag at Brands.
In 1974, Dave moved camp and had a short association with Willie Ryan, helping develop the 500 Crescent machine, and although it was relatively unsuccessful, he did enjoy good fortunes in the flourishing Production class with a win at Brands and a fourth at Silverstone. Partnering Gary Green on a 750cc Triumph, he also took second in the Thruxton 400-mile race and a good seventh in the Barcelona 24-Hour race held around the twists and turns of Montjuich Park.
However, it was in the following season, 1975, where Dave got his real break and the one that everyone most remembers him for as he stepped into the shoes vacated by Barry Ditchburn to receive sponsorship from one of the best backers in the country – Ted Broad.
It was a partnership that would reap countless rewards and continue right until the very end. Broad, who had his own motorcycle business and was renowned for his brilliant engineering, had already drawn up a shortlist of riders to replace Ditchburn but Dave beat him to the draw, asking if there was any chance of a ride! Ted was reluctant at first due to his long friendship with Ryan but he supported the idea and the deal was done.
Switching to Yamaha machinery for ’75, Potter took a strong fifth place overall in the MCN Superbike with his best finish of second coming at a circuit where he would enjoy some of his finest moments, Oliver’s Mount, Scarborough. Four more top finishes saw him only bettered in the final championship table by the factory Kawasakis of Mick Grant and Ditchburn and the works Suzukis of Barry Sheene and John Newbold.
The move to Broad’s set-up also allowed Potter to venture onto the world stage for the first time and although he didn’t contest the full FIM Formula 750 Championship, when he did, he more than made his mark. The undoubted highlight was a brilliant second at the high-speed Mettet circuit in Belgium but he’d also taken a fine fourth in the Imola 200 earlier in the year, despite encountering something that can only be described as bizarre!
Suffering from a bad head cold, he plugged his nostrils with cotton wool before the race, only to swallow them and he coughed and spluttered his way through the second leg. But with sixth and fourth places in the two legs, he more than deserved his fourth place overall behind the illustrious trio of Johnny Cecotto, Patrick Pons and Steve Baker. Such was the severity of Dave’s illness though he had to spend two weeks in hospital with pneumonia afterwards.
Back to full health, he was also successful in some of the home Internationals with third at Scarborough, fifth at Brands and Mallory and sixth at Snetterton.
Continuing with Green in Endurance racing, albeit now on a 900cc BMW, he took second in the 1000 kms of Le Mans and fifth at the Barcelona 24-Hour.
For 1976, BP Oils increased their level of support to the privateer team and the resplendent green and yellow-liveried TZ750 Yamaha was again a thorn in the side of many throughout the season as Dave turned professional.
On the 750cc World stage, he improved to fifth overall courtesy of second at Nivelles, Belgium, third at Silverstone and sixth at Assen and he also picked up his first World Championship point with 10th in the 500cc Dutch Grand Prix.
He did struggle somewhat in the Transatlantic, finishing 11th overall, but he more than made up for that in the MCN Superbike Championship, where he claimed fourth after 10 hard-fought rounds.
Sheene, Grant and, to a slightly lesser extent Ditchburn, were the dominant forces during the season and only four other riders made it onto the podium – Dave, Geoff Barry, John Williams and Steve Manship.
Dave’s rostrum came at Brands in May but consistent places elsewhere enabled him to get the better of Williams, Barry and Roger Marshall for fourth. The year also saw him win the King of Brands trophy.
Moving into 1977 and Broad and Potter ventured away from riding just Yamaha with a Suzuki added to the stable. With no 500cc production Yamaha yet available, they knew they needed to be riding in all of the classes and so they secured a 500cc RG Suzuki for the flourishing ShellSport 500cc series. Subsequently, Dave gave up the 350cc class where he was still having regularly outings, wins in 1976 coming at Mallory and Brands.
Having already established himself as a solid, consistent performer – and arguably the best privateer in the country – 1977 saw Dave make real strides forward and challenge regularly for race wins, particularly in the MCN Superbike Championship.
Sheene and Grant were the men to beat, along with new Suzuki signing Pat Hennen, but Dave ensured he was part of the equation and ended the year with five podiums from 10 rounds, just 13 points behind second-placed Grant compared to the 110-point gap the year before.
Brands, Scarborough, Cadwell and Mallory were the circuits where Dave got to stand on the rostrum and it was a season of some controversy with Potter, Sheene, Grant, Hennen, Ditchburn and Steve Parrish boycotting the opening round at Brands after a disagreement over tyres. It was the only round held under a national permit and with slicks disallowed the leading contenders felt it wasn’t safe to ride on patterned tyres.
The same venue, in October, saw controversy of a different nature as the closest finish of the season left opinion split as to whether it was Grant or Potter who’d crossed the line first.
The timekeepers went for Grant while the finish judge went for Dave and it was the Kawasaki man who got the verdict. The result also meant that, for the fifth year running, Broad won the private entrant contest.
The unfamiliar RG Suzuki took Dave and the team a little longer to adjust to – indeed, they only used the machine for two seasons – suffering somewhat with the suspension as they concentrated more on the 750, but although he could only manage seventh overall in the ShellSport Championship, he did take two good third place finishes at Brands and Oulton.
Riding the Roads
1977 was also a notable year for Dave, as it saw him record his best finishes on the road circuits of the UK. While all the British riders of the time contested the likes of the TT, North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix, Dave’s appearances were limited.
He only contested the TT once, retiring the 500cc Crescent machine from the 1974 Senior, but 1977 saw him perform strongly at the North West and Ulster. Riding the TZ 750cc Yamaha, he took a solid sixth in the opening Superbike race at the NW200, where he was making his debut, but performed better still at the Ulster, riding brilliantly in the 1000cc race to finish third, only beaten by Dundrod experts John Williams and Tony Rutter.
Now married to Sue, with daughter Sara and based in St Mary Cray, Kent, close to Broad’s Ilford workshops, Dave’s exploits failed to land him the much-yearned-for factory contract, so it was very much a case of ‘as you were’ for 1978 with a near-identical programme. BP again increased their support allowing Broad to run two 750s, as well as the 500, which meant they’d have the same number of machines at their disposal, at any meeting, as the works teams.
The season begun once more with the Transatlantic Trophy Match Races and it marked a major return to form for Dave against the Americans.
Having only finished 11th overall in both the 1976 and 1977 series, 1978 was his best performance to date as he topped the British scorers and scored 74 points for third overall, only beaten by GP winners Pat Hennen and Kenny Roberts. Never outside the top seven Dave took a third at both Mallory and Oulton as the Brits ran out victors, 435 points to the US total of 379.
The priority for the season was again the MCN Brut Superbike Championship and he seemed the only rider with a chance of toppling Barry Sheene and his works Suzuki.
Always a potential winner on the home tracks, Dave’s riding skill and warm personality now saw him as a favourite, not just with the fans but also a large number of his rivals. Indeed, Sheene believed Dave was the man Yamaha should sponsor with 500 and 750 machines.
As it was, Dave and Broad continued to do their own thing and would have to wait another year before Yamaha finally came on board, but they left them little alternative as he enjoyed his best-ever year to confirm his position as the best non-world championship campaigning British rider.
Chasing the Championship.
Whilst things didn’t always go to plan on their forays abroad – his best result in the Formula 750 World Championship was fifth at Assen – on the home front it was the complete opposite as, true to form, he challenged Sheene the most in the MCN Superbike series.
Although Sheene took six wins from the 10 rounds, Dave was never too far behind and with wins at Donington and Mallory, as well as podiums at Brands, Mallory and Snetterton, the title went right down to the wire and the final round at Brands. Such was the performance of Dave and the BP/Broad Yamaha, that year’s Motocourse described it as ‘the biggest single injection of excitement this year’.
Interest in the series had begun to wane a little but Dave’s victory at Donington in July opened up the possibility of a privateer winning the crown for the first time.
By then, he’d already served notice that he was the man to give the works riders, particularly Sheene, Grant and Hennen, the most bother. Sheene had to work extra hard to beat Dave at the Post-TT meeting at Mallory but the spark came at Donington when Dave won and Sheene could only finish seventh, allowing the Yamaha man to ease into a seven-point championship lead. Sheene was back to winning ways at Snetterton, but second for Potter kept the pressure on.
The sixth round at Oulton was another neck and neck affair, but disaster struck Dave at Oliver’s Mount. Whilst Sheene was in imperious, unbeatable form, a misfire struck the 750 Yamaha and Dave could only finish sixth, the same result coming a week later at Cadwell.
A win at the Mallory Park Race of the Year meeting got his championship challenge back on track and Sheene’s lead was just 16 points going into the final, double points round at Brands. However, Dave’s hopes disappeared when he slid off at Clearways and third place allowed Sheene to take his fifth title in six years, although he knew this was the toughest one yet.
Dave also enjoyed a good year on the 500cc Suzuki, taking fifth overall in the ShellSport Championship, aided by a brace of podiums at Mallory, while another foray to Northern Ireland saw him finish a good fifth in the Ulster Grand Prix Superbike race.
For 1979, Yamaha finally started to lend their support to the team and they were officially backed by Mitsui Yamaha, the UK importers, running in the corporate red, white and blue Yamaha colours, as well as long-standing sponsors BP.
Electronics manufacturers Toshiba also came on board with Dave having a brace of TZ750s, although he’d have to wait another year for a 500-4. There were also changes away from the track as Dave relocated to Royston, Hertfordshire.
The Transatlantic didn’t bring the results of the previous year, as Dave bravely rode with three steel pins in a broken shoulder blade sustained in a World of Sport Superbike race at Donington Park two weeks earlier.
It was a disappointing event all round for the Brits as Dave Aldana’s underdog American team hammered them 448 points to 355. 1979 would be the last year the MCN Superbike Championship, now sponsored by Duckhams, was limited to 750cc capacity as the organisers reacted to the extinction of the class at world level, extending it to 1000cc from 1980 onwards, but the grids were still strong as Dave looked to better his second-place finish from the year before.
The dwindling of the 750cc World Championship meant the factories no longer supported it and the British series was an all-privateer affair, save for the odd appearance of Sheene and his works Suzuki, but that shouldn’t detract from what Dave and Ted Broad achieved that year, especially as it looked like Ron Haslam had the title wrapped up midway through the year.
The youngster won seven of the first eight races in devastating fashion to leave Dave some 75 points adrift and only seven ahead of third-placed Marshall. But the second half of the season saw the BP/Mitsui Yamaha and its rider come into their own. First and second at Snetterton was followed by second and third at Scarborough, where Haslam didn’t ride and the gap was down to 22 points with three races to go, including the final double points round.
The penultimate round at Oulton saw Dave score 20 points to Haslam’s seven and it all came down to a single race shoot-out at Brands. Potter had to win the race and take the winner’s five bonus points to be sure of getting the number one plate and it was those bonus points that ultimately did the trick.
Despite suffering from jet lag and cuts to his hand and arm after a crash at Sugo, Japan, Dave took full advantage when Haslam left a small gap at Clearways on the last lap and held him off on the run to the line to take a much deserved first title by just three points.
Speaking at the time Dave said, “I couldn’t believe my luck. My move had to come at Clearways on the last lap but I felt sure Ron was leading me on as he continued to leave a gap on the inside. I lined up to go round the outside but the gap was still there so I dived under him, drifted wide and hung on to the power.”
Victory in the Race of Aces and fifth in the Race of the Year further added to a superb season for Dave and the team and the partnership continued into its sixth year in 1980.
The much awaited 500cc Yamaha finally appeared so Dave returned to the ShellSport 500cc Championship whilst it also allowed him to make selected Grand Prix appearances too. Naturally, retaining the Superbike Championship was right at the top of the agenda.
Consistent top 10 finishes enabled Dave to finish as the seventh highest points scorer (third Brit) in the Transatlantic event although the Americans were again convincing winners and he had to wait until May for his first win of the year with victory coming in the 1000cc race at Oliver’s Mount.
At that point, his Superbike challenge had yet to really take off and after the first two rounds he found himself back in fifth, some 28 points behind the pace-setting Marshall. However, that was soon to change and a double victory at the third round at Donington and first and third at Snetterton in July allowed him to take the lead in the points table for the first time.
From that moment on he was never headed and with a brace of seconds behind Randy Mamola at Oulton, first and second at Scarborough and first and third at Mallory, he wrapped up the title with a round to spare. The racing at Scarborough was particularly close as Sheene and Potter took a first and second apiece with their aggregate times being identical!
Fourth place at the final round at Brands gave Dave an end of year total of 202 points, a whopping 66 points clear of Marshall, and there were celebrations all round, not only for winning the championship for the second year running, but also for Broad claiming the privateer entrants’ award for a remarkable eighth time in the 10-year history of the series.
Just for good measure, Dave became a dad for a second time when his son Oliver was born just five days before the final round of the championship.
Another Grand Prix point was picked up for finishing 10th at Silverstone and although the 500cc machine didn’t yield the same results as it’s bigger 750cc brother, Dave still finished third overall in the ShellSport series, a win at Brands in May being the highlight.
A host of wins and podiums were also taken during the year at the many British International race meetings and he duly claimed the ITV World of Sport Championship. When asked about his success, Dave, whose feet always remained firmly on the ground, was philosophical to say the least. “The ingredients are simple – good bikes, natural talent, dedication, determination and good luck.”
Tragically though, Dave’s luck ran out in 1981. Now recognised as the official Yamaha team, the machines reverted back to their original green, yellow and white design, complete with the big BP logo on the side.
The season started well for Dave as he got the defence of his Superbike title underway in fine style at Cadwell with first and third places, whilst he then took a win at Oulton in the Transatlantic trophy, finishing second overall in the points to team-mate John Newbold.
However, a dispute over start money led Dave and BP Broad Yamaha to miss the second Superbike round at Donington and things went from bad to worse at round three at Snetterton when he crashed and hurt his arm. Sandwiched in between though was a career-best sixth in the 500cc Dutch Grand Prix, plus two seconds behind Graeme Crosby in the ShellSport 500cc series.
Despite being late August, Oulton would host the fourth round of the Superbike Championship and although he was 40 points behind the pace-setting Wayne Gardner, there were still seven races to go and Dave hadn’t given up hope of making it three titles in a row.
That could be seen in the opening race, which he won in fine style from Haslam and Graham Wood, and he was leading the second and looking good to claim back further ground when tragedy struck with just one lap to go.
Dave crashed out at Cascades and although it was a relatively straightforward spill, he slid into an unprotected Armco barrier suffering severe head injuries.
Taken to Chester Royal Infirmary and then transferred to Stoke Mandeville, Dave never regained consciousness and passed away 17 days later. He was 31 years old.
Ironically, the circuit organisers immediately placed some bales in front of the Armco before the remaining races, but it was too late for Dave and his death cast a huge shadow over the sport and the Superbike Championship in particular, as he had become so synonymous with it over the years.
Haslam went on to clinch the title but his feelings were those felt by many: “I’ve been trying for years to win this title so I’m pleased to have won it now. But without Dave Potter about it just doesn’t seem the same.”
Read more News and Features in the November/December 2019 issue of Classic Racer –on sale now!