Ask Gerry Wheeler

I am delighted to have the opportunity to ask ex-NATIONAL SIDECAR CHAMPION Gerry Wheeler a few questions about his illustrious riding career:

1: Gerry, how did you start in Grasstrack racing, and when?                                        

A: I first competed in a motor cycle event in 1947 in a local trial continuing until early 1949 in this pursuit, at which time I joined the Army to be trained as a vehicle mechanic over a five year period, during which time I rode in Army motorcycle trials on a 350 Matchless and became one of a number of riders in a motorcycle display team. On leaving the Army in 1954, I commenced scrambling on a 350cc Triumph; quickly to progressing to a 500cc J.A.P. powered Ariel.

The club I was involved with ran scrambles, trials and Grasstrack meetings and I became hooked on the latter, whilst not really being able to afford it! To get over this problem, my friend Reg Grenville and I bought an ex Freddie French 500 Ariel sidecar outfit, complete with a Grasstrack and scramble sidecar on which we competed until the end of 1964, at which time “Reg” retired from racing and Gerry Stoneman became my passenger for 1965, departing at the end of the year to build and ride his own outfit.

2: You first came to my attention in the mid 60’s. Remind us about those early years.

A: At the beginning of 1966, John Holt became my passenger and we competed regularly in many of the bigger meetings with some success on a B.S.A. powered outfit. During the latter part of the period up to early 1969 Gerry Stoneman and Gordon Gill built the first G.S.R. in which we installed a very potent 650cc Triumph engine, competing in many big events and qualifying for the final sidecar championship at Yeovil. During the final leg of the event the swinging arm broke, subsequently throwing off the rear chain, end of story!

For 1970, we decided to supercharge our existing 750 Norton engine. During 1969 Gerry Stoneman had become our race engineer and duly effected the installation, fuelling the supercharger induction via a Wal Phillips injector, resulting in the outfit almost running away with us and being virtually un-rideable! Not to be beaten. Our brilliant engineer exchanged the injector for a huge S.U. carburettor which could feed vast amounts of fuel necessitating a huge float chamber to be produced utilising the barrel of a beer pump. – he worked in a brewery!)

3: 1970 was YOUR year without a doubt. You & John won the National Championship at Evesham, by 4pts, and at the age of 39 the oldest National Champion. You also had that memorable day Oct 25th, at Lydden riding (for you) the wrong way round! Tell us about that year as you saw it.

A: 1970 was indeed a great year. Eventually the G.S.R. was tamed; many excellent results were achieved culminating in the win at Aston Somerville of the championship. John Holt was a great passenger and the results yearlong could not have been achieved without his tenacity and the brilliant work freely given by Gerry Stoneman.  

The Lydden episode was one of the greatest surprises of my life, for various reasons the top sidecar drivers of the day had decided against competing there,  not to be outdone, Bill Chesson gave out that if the ‘Brits’ wouldn’t compete, he would bring the ‘Continentals’ over, who would show us how it should be done

Out of the blue, I received a call from Frank Ward of Motorcycle News requiring details of my challenge to the  ‘foreigners’, I advised that I certainly hadn’t made any challenge, and in any event, I didn’t even have a wrong way round outfit. Frank was very mystified, but minutes later called again to say that Gerry Stoneman had issued the challenge on my behalf and was assured that we would be there. I then called Gerry  to ask what the heck was going on and how could we race without a ‘foreign style’ outfit and with literally two weeks to prepare only to be told:  ‘Don’t worry boy, I’ll put a sidecar on the other side of the G.S.R., I’ve got the chair half made’! We worked every night until the first test ride on the Wednesday prior to the meeting on Sunday 25th October, only to find that I almost couldn’t ride it.

On the way home, I suddenly realised what the problem was and said so to Gerry. ‘Tell me what it is, we’ll work all night to fix it’ he said. I told him there was nothing wrong with the bike, I was the problem, I wasn’t steering it! This was proved with a successful test run on the Thursday morning much to everyone’s relief, especially mine!

On arrival at the circuit and seeing the banking outfits going around I had doubts as to whether I could keep up. In the event all went well with three wins out of three rides. This was the only meeting that I had ever heard the spectators cheering over the noise of the machine.

4: You normally rode No 8. Was that a lucky number for you, or how did you choose it?

A: In 1954, I rode at my first scramble since leaving the Army and requested riding no. 31, but was given 8 – it’s been a good memorable number ever since.

5: Your 750 Gill-Stoneman Racer (GSR) was Norton powered. Who did what on the outfit between outings?

A: As detailed in Q2, the G.S.R. was initially powered by a 650cc Triumph, but in mid-1969, whilst competing at a local centre meeting, I managed to get in front of Gerry Stoneman, then riding a Stoneman built outfit with a 750 Norton atlas engine. I recall that he said at the time ‘If you can beat me riding that old rubbish, I think I will give up and put my Norton into your G.S.R.’ – this he did, resulting in his becoming our engineer and the brains behind our championship win.

6: How did your sponsorship from Whitbread come about?

A: A total sum of £100.00 sponsorship was achieved from Whitbread for whom Gerry Stoneman worked as an engineer and came about because in 1972, and looking to improve our chances in 1973, we decided to build a front wheel drive outfit which on completion, Frank Ward christened “SWORD” being:- Stoneman Wheeler Original Racing Device. The public relations side of Gerry convinced the manager of the brewery that good publicity may be achieved by this machine and so it became the ‘Whitbread Sword’. The £100 received for this project was the only sponsorship ever received during my career.

7: At the Bridgewater Easter Monday meeting in 1971, the motor went ‘Bang’ in a big way. Tell us where the bits went.

A: At the Bridgwater Easter Monday meeting in 1971, the supercharged Norton was running somewhat erratically and in attempting to locate the problem, our race engineer became over enthusiastic and a succession of violent blips resulted in an almighty bang, fortunately all the bits came out of the bottom of the engine, with a portion of the flywheel being recovered from a position fourteen inches below the surface!

8: In April 1971 you did your first continental meeting at Holzwickede. As usual, as well as the drum of dope in the back of the van, you had a five gal. Container of best ‘Zummerzet Zider’. How does the story continue?

A: Following that Holzwickede meeting, when it soon became evident that our Somerset scrumpy was well liked by the German fraternity, on each subsequent visit, any spare space in the van was taken up by gallon containers of cider.

There are many tales regarding the consequences of the disposal of this liquid, two of which I relate.

The first concerns a rather imperious German solo rider who on seeing the containers lined up, enquired ‘Is diss alcohol?’ to which I replied in my best German speak ‘Ja, ist alcohol’. He duly purchased a gallon and went away returning a few minutes later looking somewhat puzzled and saying ‘dis ist nicht alcohol’, I assured him it was alcohol and took a swig from the container, at which point he exclaimed ‘ dissist nicht gute fot mein machine!

On another occasion, a German fan who had developed a considerable liking for our beverage, purchased a gallon almost as soon as we arrived at the meeting on the Saturday afternoon, returning a couple of hours later for another one. I was somewhat concerned and warned him not to drive and away he went. At about 8pm he purchased yet another gallon, and again went away. He didn’t arrive as usual for the practice sessions, not turning up until mid-afternoon, looking as white as a sheet. ‘ALOIS, ALOIS’ I proclaimed ‘VOS IST LOS’? (What is wrong), to which he replied ‘ACH YERRY YERRY MEIN KOPF IST NICHT GUTE UNT MEIN ASS IST BROKEN’ (Oh Gerry, my head is not good and my ass is broken)!

9: You said at the time that you were not keen on the ‘multi-round championship’ format which the ACU seemed to change every year. In your Championship year, there were rounds at Rochester/Colchester/Blackmore Vale/Point of Ayr/Evesham. What system would you have preferred they had adopted?

A: Whilst not being very keen on the multi-round championship, I wasn’t   entirely against the concept which in theory should produce the best rider or team of rider and passenger at the end of the series; my concerns were that the wide geographical spread of the circuits made it expensive to attend all of them. To fill the programme it was possible that some riders, perhaps with insufficient experience, would be included possibly to their detriment and finally that international licences were, at the time, issued or otherwise, on positions achieved in the British championship.

Sometime after 1970, I became a delegate to the A.C.U. head office meetings and eventually became a member of the Grass Track and Speedway committee. A great deal of time was spent in an effort to sort out a system of qualifying for the competition which resulted in competitors being invited to compete depending on results achieved throughout the year. These were recorded by centre officials and collated by H.Q. Following approval of this system, eventually semi-finals and a one day final was set up. It sounds simple, but it wasn’t quite so. Meetings with various interested and competent bodies were arranged and much deliberation took place.

I believe that the present system is probably as fair as can be achieved and is acceptable to riders, the fans and of course to the hard working organisers.

10: You always rode with a ‘chinstrap’ to hold your helmet on. Did you consider that safer than the conventional helmet straps?

A: I preferred a chinstrap on my helmet, in the probably mistaken belief, that in the event of an accident, I wouldn’t be choked by the strap across my throat – I’m now quite happy with the conventional methods!

11: Were you ‘for’ or ‘against’ chicanes on a circuit?

A: I was always in favour of at least one chicane on a circuit. It was fun for the team, interesting for the spectators and kept the passenger awake!

Unfortunately the design of modern outfits now makes it impractical and unsafe to incorporate such a feature.

12: In 1974 The SWORD was built. How did it handle with its front wheel drive?

A: The “SWORD” was a very original concept and with development, could have been competitive. It required a totally different riding style as was evidenced in the few times that I rode it.

On the launch day at the Whitbread brewery site in Tiverton, it was unveiled to much OOHING and AAHING. We were then asked to demonstrate its abilities, and following a lively push start by two experienced passengers with me running alongside and jumping on side-saddle to get the motor running, I didn’t expect both passengers to leap off, thereby permitting the sidecar wheel to lift two feet into the air with the outfit executing a sharp right turn into the doorway, over which was displayed a sign saying: FIRST AID HERE!. No damage done and I lived to crash another day.

Following some test runs on an aircraft runway, the time came to demonstrate it at a grasstrack meeting. All went well until I gave it a big handful of throttle going downhill, the de-celeration was immense with all the weight being thrown onto the front drive wheel at throttle closure and the back overtook the front, depositing my new passenger Stuart Rattenberry and me in an undignified tangle on the grass with the “SWORD” looking even more undignified. This incident would not have mattered quite so much if we had not been committed to demonstrate the machine to the television people at a meeting in Germany the following weekend.

Having decided that the incident occurred because of the weight transfer on de-celeration, it was decided to fit a freewheel device to operate at throttle closure, thus precluding the likelihood of another crash. All appeared to be well on test, and we arrived in time at the meeting.

Following a demonstration of its ability to turn left and right, the flag was dropped and we went for it. The straight was about a quarter of a mile long and we arrived at the de-celeration point very rapidly. Unfortunately, I had forgotten the free wheel device, so no de-celeration took place! I suddenly remembered FRONT WHEEL DRIVE and turned the wick up hard, missing the safety fence by inches. This was followed by four fairly quick laps, and then an even quicker trip to the loo!!

The spectators loved it but I never rode it again, deciding that I had too many bad habits for this design. The machine still exists and may even re-appear as a curio.

13:  As well as a rider you were a well-respected promoter of ‘The Western Winner’ which always had a cracking entry of international solos and the big 1000cc Chairs. Did you enjoy this as much as riding? What was your highlight from the days at Clyst St Mary/Edington/Clyst St. George where BSSA (SW) ran The Masters for four consecutive years 1980/81/82/83?

A: I thoroughly enjoyed the time I was part of  the B.S.S.A. team and the Winner M. C. team who were instrumental in running many big meetings including the  British Masters events and of course the Western Winner. I suppose one of the highlights of that period was when at Clyst St Mary, the entry included Ivan Mauger, Barry Briggs, Peter Collins, Don Godden, plus no less than six national solo champions in addition every top sidecar team rode truly great and memorable times.

14: Who did you respect most when you were racing?

A: I suppose I respected all my contemporaries, but great names and teams well remembered include: – Bill Evans, Tommy Bounds, Mick Webster, Nigel Meade, Chris Vincent, Cecil Taylor, John Miell, Roger Measor, Ken Norcutt and Mike Lane, such a variety of riding styles, frames and engines. Other riders include: Paddy Lynch, Mick Humberstone, Steve Smith, Ted Scott and Alan Artus.

15: In 1972 you had a great scrap with Dennis Teasdale for ‘The Folkestone Grand Slam’ at Rhodes Minnis. How do you rate what many consider to be the best track in the country?

A: For many reasons I remember the occasion when we won the ‘Grand Slam’ at Folkestone. We had a tremendous battle with Dennis Teasdale, the magnificent trophy didn’t arrive at the track so I didn’t get it and probably the event is well remembered because after one very “hairy” heat, the clerk of the course came to me and said ‘cool it a bit Gerry, you’re not thrilling the spectators, you’re frightening them’!

16: Can we expect to see you and John to do a ‘demo’, with your neckerchiefs blowing in the draught at The Masters this year?

A: I’m very much hoping to do a “demo” run at the masters at Rhodes Minnis, although John won’t be passengering, I’m hoping it will be my 55 year old eldest son Steve, who rode for many years with Ken Jones.

I have always considered Rhodes Minnis to be my very favourite track and I can’t wait to experience once again the hills and valleys of this wonderful venue on my 1970 Lynx outfit.

Thank you Gerry for sparing time from ‘Vintage Wheels’ to remind us of what many consider ‘The Golden Age’ of Grass Tracking.

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